Poul Anderson’s THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS (cover by Powers, all rights with current holder) is a fun romp in the school of “modern man transported to parallel world where different physical rules allow magic,” a la the Harold Shea adventures, Land of Unreason and the much later The Dragon and the George. Like Land of Unreason it’s a short magazine work expanded to novel length (’53 and ’62 respectively) but the seams don’t show.
The narrator explains that when WW II broke out, his Danish-immigrant buddy, engineer Holger Dansk, headed back to the Mother Country. In the middle of a doomed resistance battle, Dansk (what follows is how Danks told it to his friend) wakes up in a medieval landscape, with armor (that fits) and a horse nearby. He soon discovers he has all the knightly skills to ride, swing a sword, shield against an attack, etc. He also discovers that like our world, Chaos is waging an assault on Law and Order—Faerie in the new world, Axis in the old one (the Nazis seem more like lawful evil than chaotic to me, but I’ll let that pass). Holger begins to realize he’s been shifted across parallel-world lines to fight against Chaos there was he was doing in our world.
Accompanied by a dwarf and the swan-may Alianora, Holger sets out in quest of a holy sword that can tip the balance against Chaos, while trying to make sense of his new world and his presence there. It’s fun and well worth reading, but what I want to talk about is that it’s yet another attempt to combine science and sorcery into a single thing.
As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a long tradition of explaining sorcery as science we don’t understand. A. Merritt, as noted at the link, implies all seeming magic is just super-science. Tim Powers invokes quantum mechanics. Randall Garrett presents magic as a completely different science.
Anderson’s approach is different. He starts out by suggesting magic could be some form of psionics, then pretty much drops the idea. Instead, he keeps throwing in little bits of science: lycanthropy is a recessive gene, giants turning to stone in daylight is like an isotope turning overnight to lead (i.e. the change gives off a lot of fatal radiation), ultraviolet in sunlight makes it fatal to fae (so one lord carries a magnesium knife he can burn to get the same result). This fascinated me when I first read the book; now it feels oddly betwixt and between. Anderson doesn’t attempt to imply all magic is science, so why these little things? It didn’t hurt the book, though.
Another detail worth noting is the sexual aspect. This is a world where in the best knightly tradition, you have to stay chaste—when Holger accidentally touches Alianora’s boob while she sleeps, he keeps his hand there for a second; that unchaste moment gives evil a chance to attack. A review at Tor suggests it reflects courtly love traditions, but I can’t help thinking it reflects contemporary attitudes (from when Anderson was writing) too: you were supposed to have sexual feelings for someone you married, but you weren’t supposed to act on them ahead of time.
Surprisingly, as the review notes, Alianora is quite keen to act on those feelings, taking the initiative a couple of times only to get turned down. Pleasantly, she doesn’t get slut-shamed for it. This may reflect Anderson’s times too; as my friend Ross puts it, by the late 1950s even Hollywood was having to admit Good Girls Want It, even as films insisted they shouldn’t get it.
This may be Anderson’s most upbeat fantasy, though the ending is frustrating—more so since a later appearance in A Midsummer Tempest shows Holger still searching desperately to recover his true love. Thumbs up for me.
(But I’ve got to say, I think Powers did better with his SF covers).