Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons

Advanced Readings in D&D: Poul Anderson

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When Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax published his now-classic Advanced D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide in 1979, he highlighted “Inspirational and Educational Reading” in a section marked “Appendix N.” Featuring the authors that most inspired Gygax to create the world’s first tabletop role-playing game, Appendix N has remained a useful reading list for sci-fi and fantasy fans of all ages.

In Advanced Readings in D&D, Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more. Welcome to the second post in the series, featuring a look at Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson.

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Mordicai Knode: I think this might be the “least most famous” of the books in Gygax’s Appendix N. That is, I think people know it, like they know Tolkien (the “most most famous”) and Moorcock, but I don’t think it actually gets the readership it deserves. That is a real shame, since Three Hearts and Three Lions really acts like a roadmap to a lot of the concepts that informed the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. The book’s claim to fame, at least in terms of inspiration, are the paladin class and the troll’s regeneration—you know that great moment where you expose a newbie to a troll for the first time and they don’t know to kill it with fire or acid and it just keeps healing no matter what you do? Yeah, there is a great scene with that happening to our protagonist—but it also has a shapeshifting proto-druid with an animal companion and a tangible battle between Law and Chaos. It really gets overlooked—even the vast breadth of Jo Walton’s Among Others doesn’t mention it, though her protagonist does read a lot of Poul Anderson—and I think it deserves a wider audience.

Tim Callahan: I had never even heard of this book before I ordered it for this Gygaxian reread project. I remember reading a couple of short Poul Anderson books back in my college days, but they were purely sci-fi and that’s about all I recall about them. Three Hearts and Three Lions was completely new to me when I first cracked it open a couple of weeks ago.

And yet… after the opening WWII sequence kicked the protagonist into a mythical fantasy world, it seemed completely familiar. The whole book not only informs D&D in terms of the paladin and troll, but the alignment system is part of the understructure of Anderson’s work here. It’s a bit of Moorcock-lite with the Order and Chaos stuff in Three Hearts, but it’s closer to what Gygax would do with Lawful and Chaotic than what Elric navigated in the Moorcockverse. It’s familiar in other ways too, drawing upon Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court pretty heavily (and even making a direct reference to that classic novel), and pulling its hero from The Song of Roland. And if the three lead characters remind me of anything it’s the travelling companions in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. The whole book is a tribute to other beloved fantasy tales.

Honestly, it looks like I didn’t enjoy it as much as you seem to. I liked playing the game of “oh, this part alludes to this other famous story,” but all the tributes and homages and allusions pulled me out of the actual narrative in almost every chapter. Three Hearts and Three Lions never really works as a story on its own. It’s a cut-and-paste job mostly, and Anderson doesn’t have a strong enough authorial voice in this book to give it any clear identity of its own.

It’s also weirdly cold and chaste. But maybe it just feels that way because we read this one right after that hot and sleazy Conan “Red Nails” story. Maybe I’m being too harsh on old Poul. Do you see what I’m saying about its faults, though?

MK: The problem with reading any classic story is that the tropes start becoming pillars of the more modern stories; I think some of what left you cold might be that the heavy recycling is sort of new & clever here, though in a current story it would be rather tired. It certainly isn’t the first to jumble everything together, but I think it is the first to jumble it all together with an engineer. That is, as I was reading it I felt like it was an arrow aimed at the heart of every doubting reader, a sort of tongue in cheek referendum on the suspension of disbelief. The magnesium knife that the faerie lord keeps in order to harm the others of his ilk who burn at the touch of daylight—burning magnesium releases UV radiation and that little touch could come out of any of the recent crop of Blade movies. He talks about lycanthropy using the language of Mendelian genetics and in my personal favorite the “curse” on a giant’s golden hoard is revealed to be radiation caused as a side effect of the creature’s transmutation to stone. The whole “bring a scientific explanation to the fantasy story” thing is rarely done with such elegance, if you ask me; normally I feel like it undermines the rules of the narrative, but here it is just sort of a running stitch reinforcing them.

Left cold, though? No way! The werewolf story, how great is that? I can’t get enough of that scene; it is maybe my favorite vignette in the novel. Followed shortly by the nixie, and here I think I have to half-way agree with you. The story is absolutely chaste, but I think that is really the point? It extols the virtue of courtly love & wistfully hearkens to a sort of old-fashioned—by which I mean, 1940s—idea of romance, while acknowledging the existence of sex and simultaneously condemning those ideas as silly. Sex is the primary tension between the characters! Holger wants Alianora, but thinks of her as being virginal—the unicorn doesn’t hurt that perspective—but Alianora clearly desires Holger. She’s sexually assertive & not slut-shamed, either; eventually the sexual tension is doomed by the romantic tension—they like each other, and since Holger doesn’t plan on staying in this fantasy world, they can’t be together without breaking both of their hearts. Meanwhile sexually available women—the elf Merivan, the nixie, and Morgan Le Fay, who is also a romantic rival to Alianora—dangle. I don’t know that there is a message… unless it is the dwarf’s befuddlement that Holger is making it too confusing by overthinking it!

TC: I can see how the courtly love stuff is part of that tradition, sure, and I really do think that it’s the juxtaposition with Robert E. Howard that makes it seem unusually chaste (I mean, most of these kinds of high-fantasy stories are almost unbearably innocent), but I didn’t feel any connection to the events of the story at all. The werewolf and nixie scenes lacked any kind of power for me. My favorite parts of the book, and the only parts that felt like they were truly alive—even in the fictional sense—were the moments when Holger was questioning what was real and what wasn’t. When he was trying to make sense of this world he found himself in. When he’s grappling with that, and then trying to figure out the subtleties of the shape-shifting female mind, and also play it cool around the mysterious Saracen, the protagonist is worthy of attention. Even the best fight scenes around those identity issues are more about Anderson playing around with fantasy tropes than moving the story forward in any meaningful way.

If we’re making the D&D connection, it’s like a beginning Dungeon Master’s approach to storytelling in this novel: a series of random encounters and an unimpressive mystery at the core. The big mystery? The reason Holger ends up pulled into this fantasy world? Oh, well, he’s actually a mythical hero named Holger and he has to defend this world from Chaos. Except, that’s the ending of the story, and he doesn’t so much as defend the world from Chaos in the rest of the book as he does wander around and stumble across stuff that Anderson wanted to write about (and add some goofy “hard science” explanations for, like radioactive gold can give you cancer).

Boy, I feel like I am tearing into Three Hearts and Three Lions, and I really didn’t hate it. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a curiosity at best.

I’m sure you’ll tell me how wrong I am about my criticisms, as you should, but I also have a topic to ponder that’s inspired by reading this novel: I wonder why the original D&D rules didn’t involve “regular” folks getting pulled into a fantasy world. Based on this novel and some of the others that inspired Gygax and friends, it would seem that the whole notion of a regular Earth man or woman finding themselves catapulted into a strange fantasy land would have been an obvious choice as part of the game, but it never was, not explicitly at least. Not until the 1980s D&D animated series. But I don’t think anyone played D&D with the cartoon as canon.

MK: You are right that the plot pulls him around, but again, I guess I just see that as a feature, not a flaw. I don’t disagree with a lot of what you are saying—it is more chaste and he is steamrolled by the greater plot—but I think those things serve the story. Right, Holger is Ogier the Dane and that is sort of just a bit of narrative railroading, but making it so lets you bookend the story with “generic epic saga”; you get that he’s some legendary hero, but whatever, this is about him as an engineer, this is about the series of weird stories that happen to him in the liminal space between being a hero of the past & a hero of the future. Here was where he got to be a person and straddle both worlds.

As to the pull from the real world to the fantasy—I’m not sure, actually, when that really became a “thing.” I know the early Gygaxian sessions often involved trips from the fantasy world to the real world—Dungeons & Dragons characters showing up in the western Boot Hill setting and coming back again, like Muryland—and I feel like the “play yourself!” campaign naturally occurs to everybody who plays the game at some point or other. “Hey, let’s stat ourselves up!” I don’t know about actual support for that in the game’s history, though; I suspect the witch-hunts based on wild conspiracy theories about Satanic cults and black magic put a stop to that, which is a shame; I’d sure like a crack at being myself in Middle World, or Middle-Earth or Oerth or whatever you call your fantastic setting of choice.


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

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