Three Hearts and Three Lions

I finished reading Three Hearts and Three Lions while recovering from the lurgy this weekend. This 1961 fantasy novel by Poul Anderson, expanded from an earlier 1953 novella, was an influence on later fantasy fiction like Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibon√© and Gary Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons. It’s because of its inclusion in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading and Basic D&D’s list of Inspirational Source Material that I decided to read it.

In a similar vein to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the story follows a World War II soldier transported to a Fantasy Medieval version of Earth. He finds a knightly horse, arms and armour, then encounters a series of mythological characters, monsters, and femme Fatales. Through the story, he must choose to support the principles of Law over his own lustful instincts and personal goal of returning home to 20th Century Earth, which reprsent Chaos. On the journey our hero is accompanied by steadfast companions -- a warhorse, a dwarf, and a Swanmay. His adversaries include a giant, a dragon, a werewolf, and a troll.

I was hoping to enjoy the book more than I did. While I liked elements of the story, I ultimately found the book disappointing. In particular, the episodic nature made me think the author wasn’t quite sure where he wanted it to go. It seemed that his original plan was to write something much longer. That changed near the end of the book, and the story shifted gears quickly to tie things up with an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. 


I knew that the Troll from D&D drew its inspiration from the Three Hearts and Three Lions, but recognized other game elements borrowed from here as well. While not a book I would recommend, D&D hobbyists will find it worth reading once to get more insight into what they intended to emulate with some of the rules. Some of the elements borrowed from the book that clarify things in D&D include:


1) The Swanmay from AD&D’s Monster Manual II is really a description of Alianora the Swan Maiden from this book, including her magical feathered gown, friendship with sylvan folk, and fighting ability as a swan. Before reading Three Hearts and Three Lions, I thought the line in MM2 that said “Although rangers, swanmays are principally attuned to solitude, nature, and the company of their adopted kind. “ meant swans were her adopted kind. In the novel woodland dwarves and such were the ones who adopted Alianora and what I think the game designers really intended. This should probably be a magic item more than a monster entry, and many of the features are specific to one swan maiden rather than all young women with this magical item.


2) The Dwarven ability to find ’slanting passages’ in Dungeons & Dragons was another thing I didn’t really understand until reading this book. Using water or marbles would find a slanting passageway pretty quickly for anyone. In Three Hearts and Three Lions, when they are in the Troll’s cave there is a question of which tunnel to take. The Dwarf says the one that is sloping down will eventually slope up and lead back to the surface. This ability isn’t about detecting the slant of a hallway in a dungeon — it’s about knowing which way leads back to the surface! This isn’t apparent unless you’ve read this book and recognize the reference. This quirky Dwarven ability now makes more sense and seems more useful in a game. 


3) The Nixie from the AD&D Monster Manual is also directly from Three Hearts and Three Lions. The character in the book is one of the femme fatale characters that want to tempt the protagonist away from the path toward LAWful marriage and towards the CHAOS of hedonistic pleasure. The inclusion of the house of living seaweed, the giant pike fish guards, the water breathing spell on human captives, and even the fear of fire and very bright light that will hold them at bay. This is all directly from the book.


4) Elves being associated with Chaotic alignment in AD&D draws its inspiration from this book as well. I don’t think there’s that connection in the other source material, like Tolkien, with Elves. In Three Hearts and Three Lions they live in a twilight world giving them the ability to see well in darkness.


5) LAW and CHAOS as alignments were first created in this book and later expanded on in Michael Moorcock’s Elric series. Law is associated with orderly human society, religious institutions, and marriage. Chaos is associated with hedonism, savagery, cruelty, and magic. Spells and holy words used against Chaos would only work if the people using them were themselves Lawful. By indulging in hedonism, cruelty, or unpious actions caused the wards against Chaos would stop working. I think this is one of the sources of inspiration in AD&D for the admonishment to track PCs alignment. It also may be the source for the description of play in B/X D&D where the Cleric says she will not heal someone who would engage in Unlawful actions.


6) The Troll is the one most people know about from this book, and the Dungeons & Dragons troll is certainly lifted directly from Three Hearts and Three Lions. What I found noteworthy was that despite being so formidable the creature builds a nest in a cave out of branches and sticks. This is turn makes it a lot easier for people to start fires which is the most effective way of killing the monster.


Overall an interesting book, but the ending is really disappointing. I think the characters are not very well developed, but interesting more for its potential and influences on Dungeons & Dragons than for the quality of the fiction itself.