Appendix N Heroes: Holger Carlson
Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson is the most influential book you’ve never heard of.
Okay, given my readership that’s probably not true but for the gen-pop audience it certainly is.
This book is vitally integral to the Dungeons and Dragons canon.* It’s not the backbone of it, that is still The Lord of the Rings. But it is, however, the very heart Appendix N.
I’m quite serious about that. The spirit of this book is present in every player who has ever sat down with his friends around a table covered by overpriced books, character sheets, and oddly-shaped dice. Without this book, the game would never have existed. Or rather, whatever form it would have taken without Holger Carlson would have died out by 1975.
Three Hearts and Three Lions was published in 1961, Fifties culture had a few years left, which is why it reads like something from the Eisenhauer era. While Anderson himself was an agnostic, the book has very Christian themes. Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia were pretty fresh memories back then and their influence on this book can be felt to some degree. However, the first and foremost contributor would be Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I don’t know if Twain created the genre of a modern man being cast back into the medieval world, but his book is certainly the most famous. And it was a more recent work in 1961 than the Hobbit is today.
Anderson was the product of a more rigorous education system than can generally be found today. Three Hearts borrowed most heavily from classical works of fantasy. The Carolingian cycle of France and the English Arthurian romances, (which are also French if you really look at them). There is some Germanic mythology. I’ve also heard of the Tempest being credited to this novel as well, and yes, I can it.
But when all is said and done, this is a Poul Anderson’s story. No one else could have written it.
The book opens with an unnamed narrator recounting the tale of his friend Holger Carlson.
“Holger’s tale does not seem altogether impossible to me. Not that I claim it’s true. I have no proof one way or the other. My hope is just that it shall not quite be lost. Assume, for argument’s sake, that what I heard was fact. Then there are implications for our own future, and we’ll have use for the knowledge. Assume, what is of course far more sensible, that I record only a dream, or a very tall story.”
The prologue goes on to give Holger’s biography. He was a native Dane, who went to college in America in the late 1930s. Twenty years before the book’s publication. Enough time for a generational shift to be felt. The Greats were beginning to prod at middle age and the young men are now Silent generation types. It’s a gentle shift in generational paradigm. He mentions that Holger was a gridiron hero in college which tells you that he is bigger and stronger than average. After graduating, he got a job as an engineer, which means he’s smarter than average as well. And interestingly, that he had been a foundling infant. He had no idea where he came from.
While Holger had been planning to become a US citizen, all of that changed when the Germans occupied Denmark. Holger returned home and joined the Danish Underground. During an extraction op that went bad, he and his team get pinned down and are under fire.
“Then all his world blew up in flame and darkness.”
Next, Holger awakens naked in a forest filled with trees more ancient than can be found in Denmark of 1940. And so, his adventure begins.
It’s also a pretty standard start for a role-playing game.
“You have been in a shipwreck and wake up on a deserted beach. You have nothing but the tattered clothes on your back. What do you do?”
Holger did what countless gamers would do in the ensuing years. He took stock of his situation, picked the path of least resistance and started wandering in that direction.
“You hear the neighing of a horse nearby. What do you do?”
Holger investigated the source of the whinnying and finds a magnificent stallion the size of a Percheron, who appears to be immediately beguiled by Carlson’s presence. The horse’s saddlebags contain the solution to his immediate problem of raiment. Although, the clothing was extremely archaic in nature. Medieval in fact. The clothes fit “disturbingly well.” The horse was also carrying a shield upon which is the coat of arms of three hearts and three lions. The heraldry sets off a strong wave of Déjà vu in Carlson, he knows that he’s seen this sigil before.
The owner of the beast is nowhere to be found.
He follows the only worn path available.
Night has fallen. The road runs by a broken-down hovel with smoke trickling out of it. An old crone, wrinkled and warty with a huge nose emerges from it. What do you do?
Holger asks the old woman to put him up for the night. It seems unthinkable now but remember, America was a much higher trust society back in 1940. Asking for a roof over your head, if you were good and deep in the boonies, was something that was still a living memory in 1961. You might get offered the barn or the guest room or nothing, depending on what you looked like.
The crone names herself as Mother Gerd and offers to help him. She is rather badly startled when he identifies himself as Holger Carlson, as both names are of kings and well known. He brushes that away and complements her beer. She responds:
“Ah, good Sir Holger, for sure I am ’tis a knight ye must be, if not of yet higher condition, ye’re a man of wit and perceiving, who must see through the poor old woman’s little tricks on the instant. Yet though most of your order do frown on such cantrips and call ’em devices of the Devil, though in truth ’tis no different in principle from the wonder-working relics of some saint, that do their miracles alike for Christians or paynim, still must ye be aware how many here in this marchland do traffic in such minor magics, as much for their own protection against the Middle World powers as for comfort and gain, and ye can understand in your mercy ’twould scarce be justice to burn a poor old goodwife for witching up a bit of beer to warm her bones of winter nights when there be such many and powerful sorcerers, open traffickers in the black arts, who go unpunished, and—”
You’ve got to love Anderson’s prose.
In short, she strongly indicated that she was a witch, but she wished to be seen as a harmless one. Wicca was not a thing when this book was published, so, no such thing as a harmless witch back then.
She called up a demon and asked a few questions of it. She seems rather disturbed by its answers and then she sends Holger on his way in the company of a rather stout-hearted dwarf named Hugi. He is the second of the three hearts from the title. The direction she sends him is to the realm of Faerie.
At this point in the book, you get to know the key to this setting. The division of this world is not between good versus evil but Law versus Chaos. This is because Anderson’s elves of Faerie were always utterly soulless and so, were fundamentally incapable of either good or evil.
And this is one of the biggest contributions to D&D that this book makes. Adding an additional dimension to the paradigm of good versus evil. Thus, creating player archetypes such as the barbarian who will instinctively rush into battle against the forces of darkness regardless of the consequences or the cold-blooded assassin who will die before he fails to keep his word.
Along the road, Hugi takes a liking to him and admits that he doesn’t like Mother Gerd at all, he was just in her debt. He also pointed out that, “she seeks favors with the Mid-World Lords to increase her power.” The mid world Lords are the previously mentioned elves. very place but Carlson and Hugi are now heading.
The dwarf recommends getting a second opinion. This was to come from Alianora the Swan-maiden. A beautiful young woman of nineteen years of age who has the ability to shapeshift into a Swan cause of a magical dress she was gifted. After introductions are made she informs Holger that a Saracen is seeking him.
Carlson is a little confused about that on the grounds that he’s only just arrived in this world and therefore nobody should be looking for him. She volunteers to come along with Holger into the realms of the Mid-World for, “it could be a richt merry adventure, me-thinks!”
Alianora is the third of the Three Hearts and Three Lions. And so, with this rather undersized adventuring party assembled they headed off to the Lands of Faerie.
Holger discovers that his principal antagonist is Morgan Lefay, who implores him to return with her to Avalon. And Carlson finds he has partial memories of that mystical island.
As his journey progresses, he realizes that he must have had some kind of life in this world that half (but only half) resembles our own.
This story is not a three-act structure. The character development takes place primarily in what we would call side-quests. This is a story about a journey and the relationship between the three adventurers that builds along the way as Holger’s quest takes him from place to place doing good and vanquishing evil, (where possible). Finally, he sets out to recover his sword Cortana.
He is eventually returned to his own world but his love of Alianora compels him to try and find a way back to her.
The nameless narrator takes over the story again at that point to say that Holger Carlson disappeared years ago and that no one on this Earth has ever seen him again.
And that’s all your getting from me. If you want more, read the book yourself.
Poul Anderson did do a follow-up with Holger’s story of sorts in his 1974 book, A Midsummer Tempest. Carlson had found his way to the Inn Between Worlds. He had left our Earth but hadn’t found the one he was looking for.
I utterly and completely reject Harry Turtledove’s drastically inferior pastiche of Anderson’s work. The Man that Came Late is the scribbling of a hateful little goblin of an author who is trying desperately to poison warm childhood memories. The only thing to be said for it is that it’s better than anything Turtledove has ever come up with by himself. Admittedly, a rather pathetically low bar to stumble over.
I hated that story so much that I had to write my own short story as a reply to it.**
Its influence hasn’t just been in roleplaying. Moorcock’s Elric owes something to Holger as does the Witcher. As well as countless other works where men of our Earth find themselves in a world of adventure and dreams.
Three Hearts and Three Lions is a criminally underrated work, whose contributions to fantasy and role-playing games remain critically fundamental today.
The Dark Herald Recommends with Enthusiasm***
*The real canon, not the bizarre SJWized abortion that Wizards of the Coast is trying to inflict on those dumb enough to still be following their rules.
**If you’re curious, it revolves around the adventures who Alianora and Hugi, who did not sit on their asses, giving up in despair and spend thirty years feeling sad after Holger vanished. The characters as established by Anderson did exactly what they would have done, which was go find him.
***Not that it needs my help. I do however, recommend the audio book. Bronson Pinchon did a great job with the accents and dialects.