Poul Anderson is perhaps not one of the legendary titans of science fiction, but he has long been a favorite of mine. A writer with a background in physics, he came from the John W. Campbell school of Hard Science Fiction, but he also had a strong interest in the Middle Ages and was one of the founding members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. He is perhaps best-known for his Hoka stories, written with Gordon Dickson, but he wrote a wide range of tales from space opera to time travel to historical fiction to fantasy. He was one of the core contributors to Robert Aspirin’s Thieves’ World anthologies and his essay “On Thud and Blunder” is a must-read for writers of heroic fantasy.
Three Hearts and Three Lions is an earlier work of his which displays both his love of the medieval period and his background in physics, approaching magic from a hard science point of view.
Holger Carlsen must have had some spark of heroism in him, otherwise why would he feel compelled to leave a good engineering job in America to return home to Denmark when the Nazis invaded, and go on to join the Resistance? Holger himself didn't know. It was something he felt he needed to do.
It was on a mission with the Danish Resistance, helping to smuggle an important person out of the country, that his team was surprised by a German ambush on the beach. Struck by a bullet, Holger loses consciousness.
Then things get weird.
He awakens, naked, in a forest, the kind of densely-wooded forest that hasn’t existed in Denmark in centuries. He finds a large war-horse tethered to a tree, along with clothes and armor which fit him perfectly -- all the stranger because Holger is not a small man -- and a shield bearing the device of three hearts alternating with three lions.
At first he wonders if his friends have carried him off to another country; then he wonders if he’s in another time. Finally he comes to the realization that he is in another world.
In this world, the legends of Charlemagne and his knights, like the Song of Roland, are historical. This seems to work both ways; one character Holger meets muses that their legends of Frederick Barbarossa and the Emperor Napoleon’s champions might be similar echoes from our world. This world is locked in a millennia's-old conflict between the forces of Order, represented mostly by Christendom, and of Chaos, represented by the Faerie of the Middle World.
If that theme of Order vs. Chaos sounds familiar, it might be because you've played Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Gygax and Dave Arnesson borrowed a number of elements from Three Hearts and Three Lions, including the Paladin character class, based largely on Holger, the depiction of the Classic D&D Troll, and most importantly, the Alignment System based on Order vs. Chaos.
Holger muses that the situation here is analogous to the one he left in Europe with two diametrically-opposed world-views facing off against each other; (or the one existing at the time Anderson wrote the book, when the Iron Curtain had descended across Europe).
Since the 1960s I think we've gotten used to identifying “Order” with totalitarianism and “Chaos” with freedom, but Anderson has a science background. He associates Chaos with Entropy and the Heat Death of the Universe. The theme of heroes fighting against Chaos and Entropy comes up in more than one of his stories. In addition, Anderson was a Kipling fan, and I suspect was thinking of the line from the poem “Recessional” which speaks of the “lesser breeds without the law” – not primitive, uncivilized tribes, but nations like the Prussians of Kipling's day and the Nazis a generation later, governed by Might rather than by moral codes.
Although in the Carolingian world of Three Hearts, Christendom, as represented by the remnants of Charlemagne’s Empire, stands as the champions of Order, we are told that the Mohammedans are also of Lawful Alignment, and it’s strongly suggested that the wars between Christians and Muslims are greatly to blame for the weakening of Order and a big reason why the Faerie realms of the Middle World have been encroaching in the past millennium.
Holger seems to be an important person in this world, although at first he thinks he’s being mistaken for somebody else. The name Holger seems to be a famous one, and he hears rumors that a Moorish knight has been seen in the area asking after a knight bearing the three hearts and the three lions.
On the questionable advice of a suspiciously-friendly witch, Holger seeks counsel from a Faerie lord, but this proves to be a mistake. The Faeries try first to kill him outright; then to capture him through trickery. The fairy lord summons Morgan le Fay, the powerful sorceress, who seems to have a history with Holger. She tries to seduce him and comes close to succeeding.
Fortunately, Holger is not alone in his quest. He has gained the friendship of Hugi the dwarf; a race allied with neither human nor Faerie, who has an accent even thicker than Peter Jackson’s dwarves; and of Alianora, a human girl raised in the wild by some of the more friendly of the magical creatures, who has the ability to transform herself into a swan. Alianora is an affectionate girl, and Holger finds himself attracted to her, but he doesn't want to take advantage of her, especially since he chiefly wants to get home, and so he keeps her at arm’s length.
Through their various encounters with magical creatures, Holger uses his engineering experience and his scientific background to good advantage. When challenged by a giant to a riddle contest, he manages to stall the brute until dawn when daylight would turn him into stone. Holger is able to identify the smell of ozone in the air and realizes just in time that such a huge mass of carbon transmuted into silicon would result in an unstable isotope, and he quickly leads his friends away before the radiation from the giant’s stone form can harm them.
In another chapter, he comes to a village being troubled by a werewolf. The wolf is trailed to the home of a local lord. Holger uses deduction, process of elimination, and a knowledge of germ theory to identify which member of the knight’s household is the true werewolf, and then arrives at a humane solution to deal with the threat.
Holger is more and more certain that he is someone significant here; and he has nagging echoes of memories about things. Who is the Knight of the Three Hearts and the Three Lions?
NEXT: Advice from a Wizard; the Mysterious Moor; the Quest for Cortana and the Knight’s Identity Revealed!