Ever since he arrived in this strange magical world, Holger Carlsen, a practical-minded Danish engineer with perhaps a spark of adventure in him, has been mistaken for a legendary knight. The Faerie lord who has been trying to capture or kill him certainly believes he is someone significant; and the sorceress Morgan le Fay, allied with Faerie against the human realms, seems to have a history with him as well. And Holger is having strange stirrings of memory. Can it be that he truly has lived two lives? Who really is the Knight who bears the shield of the Three Hearts and the Three Lions?
Holger has gained two allies in the form of Hugi, an opinionated dwarf with an accent thick enough to make Peter Jackson blanch, and Alainora, a sweet young thing raised in the wild by some of the more benevolent creatures of magic and who has an enchanted garment that permits her to change into a swan. Together the three have been putting distance between themselves and the twilight curtain marking the boundary between the human-held lands of the Christian Empire and the surrounding Middle World, ruled by the forces of Chaos.
So far they have been traveling through wilderness, living off the hospitality of what peasant cottages they encounter and occasional gifts of prey offered by Alainora’s Woodland Friends. Now they have finally come to a town, where dwells a wizard whom Alainora hopes may be able to help Holger’s plight.
Martinus Trismegistus is a licensed practitioner, thank you very much, and in addition to practicing magic, serves as the town dentist, apothecary, scribe and horse doctor. After listening to Holger’s story, he hazards a guess as to the identity the Knight of the Hearts and Lions.
“Quite likely he was one of the Chosen, like [Charlemagne] or Arthur or their greatest paladins. I do not mean a saint, but a warrior whom God gave more than common gifts and then put under a more than common burden. The knights of the Round Table and of Carl’s court are long dead, but another champion may have taken their place. So before Chaos could hope to advance, this man had to be gotten out of the way.”He goes on to speculate that the Forces of Chaos, perhaps Morgan herself, had attempted to do this by capturing this knight and exiling him to another world, perhaps taking his memories and changing him into a baby to hinder his return. This does fit with Holger’s remembered history. He was a foundling infant and never knew his true parents
But despite Morgan’s best efforts, this champion did return. Martinus doubts that there was any divine intervention involved; the way he describes it almost sounds like an electron returning to its appropriate energy state. “At the moment of greatest need, the champion had to return.”
Holger doesn’t particularly like the idea that he is being controlled by Destiny. But it’s not really Destiny that is his problem. The easiest thing for him to do would be to find a safe, secluded bolt hole and set up a little love nest with Alainora and let the whole war between Order and Chaos be someone else’s problem. But he couldn't in good conscience do that, any more than he could stay safe in America when the Nazis invaded his native Denmark. As Martinus said, along with the greater gifts of the Paladin, he has also been given a greater burden: a Paladin’s sense of honor and of obligation.
Martinus does have a suggestion. Holger has heard mention of a sword named Cortana, which the wizard recognizes. It is an exceptional sword, made of the same steel as Charlemagne’s sword Joyeuse, or King Arthur’s Excalibur. It bears the blessings of a holy saint and in the hands of its rightful owner would be a mighty bulwark for Christendom. This sword – if he could find it -- would undoubtedly protect Holger from his Faerie foes.
Another problem comes up. Holger has heard that a Saracen knight has been seen in the region seeking the Knight of the Three Hearts and Lions; he now discovers that the mysterious Moor is in this very town. At Holger’s urging, Martinus places a spell of disguise on him, and he adopts the nom de guerre “Sir Rupert of Graustark” after a fictional country from Ruritanian novels.
The Saracen is staying at the local inn and introduces himself as Carahue, once king of Mauretania. He seems to be a friendly, agreeable sort. He assures Holger that he too is a Christian.
“Once, true, I fought for the paynim, but the gentle and virtuous knight who overcame me also won me to the True Faith. Though even were I still a follower of Mahound, I would not be so discourteous as not to drink to your most beautiful lady’s health.”
He goes on to say that he seeks a man he once knew long, long ago. The man had vanished into realms unknown. In his searching for the man, Carahue had been cast ashore on the magical isle of Hy Braseal, where time flows strangely, as it does in Avalon or under Elf Hill. By the time Carahune was able to find a means to escape the isle, (and extract himself from the faerie damsel who had taken a liking to him), many centuries had passed. He heard that the man he sought would soon also be drawn back to the mortal world and so has been searching for him.
As wacky as this story sounds, Holger finds it believable. The Faerie he first encountered tried to trick him into spending a night under Elf Hill, so he’s had a bit of experience with variable time rates. This world follows the medieval romances of King Charlemagne and his knights, and by the standards of those, Carahue’s adventures seem pretty typical. But Holger’s not sure he can trust the affable African. He won’t say why he wants to find his missing knight; and as Holger muses, the fact that Carahue speaks well of the knight means little. Under the fantastic code of chivalry, men could sing each other’s praises while carving out each other’s livers.
But a word first about religion. The Empire in which Holger finds himself, which lies under siege by the Middle World, is a Christian one; but the world is definitely not Narnia.
The author, Poul Anderson, is not an apologist out to proselytize with his stories as C.S. Lewis does – I rather get the impression that, like Holger, Anderson is an agnostic with a Lutheran background – but neither is he particularly hostile to religion, as many of his contemporaries from the John W. Campbell school of science fiction were.
The first Anderson novel I ever read was The High Crusade, in which a group of medieval knights encounter an alien invasion’s advance scout ship and seize it to use in fighting the French. The narrator is a pious monk named Brother Parvus. Another writer might have portrayed a religious figure as either a cynical mountebank or a fool, but Anderson doesn’t do that. Although he frequently makes fun of Parvus’s medieval misconceptions about science, he never mocks the monk’s faith or questions his sincerity.
In Three Hearts and Three Lions, Anderson treats aspects of religion as integral parts of how the Laws of Nature work in this world. The Faerie are repelled by holiness, and certain types of ethically-dubious magic are dispelled by it. But Anderson does not set up a dualism where Christianity is Good and all other religions are Evil; his paradigm here is a conflict between Order and Chaos. Christianity happens to be the predominant faith in this region which lines up on the Lawful end of the struggle, but Islam is one too. And although Carahue is a Christian convert, his former religion is not portrayed as something Evil. (And although he may be a convert, old habits die hard; Anderson has a running gag in which Carahue will occasionally say something like “By the hand of the Prophet!” and then quickly correct himself to add “…the Prophet Jesus.”)
For that matter, Carahue observes that the heathen barbarian tribes to the north, where the sword of Cortana is to be found, were not always unlawful. They have since been corrupted by Chaos and now practice cannibalism and human sacrifice, but in Carahue’s day they were merely uncivilized, not evil.
Anderson’s Operation Chaos plays with this a bit more explicitly. The protagonists, a witch and her werewolf husband, harrow Hell in order to recover their stolen child. Heaven cannot directly aid them, other than to supply a little technical advice; so at the climax, Ginny calls upon those Powers in the world who served neither Heaven nor Hell but who in their own way fought against entropy. Much as he loved the ancient gods of the Greeks and the North, I doubt that C.S. Lewis would have been comfortable doing that.
Back to the story. Carahue offers to join “Sir Rupert’” quest to seek the sword Cortana. It may be, after all, that he will find the one he seeks in this quest. Does he suspect Holger’s true identity? If he does, he says nothing. Holger is unsure whether to let Carahue accompany them; but he really has no good reason to forbid it. And the generous Moor has been good enough to cover the groups food and lodging expenses – something Holger had worried about because he has no cash -- so it would be churlish to spurn his aid. For the time being, though, Holger still harbors suspicions about Carahue and hesitates about revealing his true name
In the character of Carahue, Anderson might be seen as anticipating the cliché of the Black Buddy/Sidekick, similar to the role of Azeem in the movie Robin Hood Prince of Thieves; but really, the medieval romances invented the cliché first. Although the Victorian bowdlerizers tended to whitewash them out of King Arthur’s Round Table, there were heroic black knights in the medieval tales. Years after I first discovered Three Hearts and Three Lions, I read Bullfinch’s Mythology and found Carahue the King of Mauretania mentioned, along with Holger, under the name by which he was known at Charlemagne’s court.
Holger’s relationship with Alainora is becoming more complicated. She’s young, affectionate, and has the distracting habit of going about naked except for her enchanted swan-may garment which more resembles a very skimpy poncho than a gown. But she is so sweet that Holger doesn’t feel comfortable reciprocating her affection; especially since his goal is to leave this world and return home to Denmark. He’s been keeping her at arm’s length, and this has been making her unhappy.
But now Carahue has joined the party and he is far from blind to her charms. He is courteous enough to ask Holger if Alainora is his leman, or lover, before he starts flirting with her; but once he's certain that the way is clear, he sets out to focus his not-inconsiderable charm on her. Yes, Holger has no one to blame but himself for his situation, but he’s still not happy about it.
Stewing in jealousy and self-pity, Holger is vulnerable to another Faerie attack. A nixie grabs him and drags him down to her underwater boudoir. Again, Holger uses scientific knowledge, and a bit of luck to escape.
Intelligence from Marius’s spirit familiars has told them that Cortana is hidden in an old shrine that had been overrun and desecrated by human allies of Chaos. The sword’s sanctity is such that the Faeries cannot touch it, but Morgan used human minions to steal it and hide it in the chapel Approaching the shrine, Alainora reports that a huge army of barbarian fighters have gathered around it. Chaos is massing its armies for a huge push against Christendom.
Holger also again meets Morgan le Fay, who offers to restore his memories if he will abandon his quest and come with her. By this time, Holger has come to realize that he is a man of two worlds, and that this world is his original home. The previous time he encountered Morgan, she very nearly succeeded in seducing him. This time, it’s not even close.
The party finds an underground tunnel which can bring them to the shrine without having to fight their way through the army; but it takes them directly into a troll’s lair. The depiction of the fearsome creature which regenerates after every sword-stroke and which can only be destroyed by fire became the basis for the archetypical Troll from Dungeons & Dragons.
Finally they reach the chapel and find the holy sword. As he grasps it, Holger’s memories return. He turns to Alainora. “Whatever comes… whatever happens to me, know that you will return safe, and that you will always bear my love.”
Carahue recognizes and names him. “I sought you, comrade… I sought you, Ogier.”
Holger Danske whom the old French chronicles know as Ogier le Danois mounted into the saddle. And this was the prince of Denmark who in his cradle was given strength and luck and love by such of Faerie as wish men well. He it was who came to serve Carl the Great and rose to be among the finest of his knights, the defender of Christendie and mankind. He it was who smote Carahue of Mauretania in battle, and became his friend, and wandered far with him. He it was whom Morgan le Fay held dear; and when he grew old, she bore him to Avalon and gave him back his youth. There he dwelt until the paynim again menaced France, a hundred years later, and thence he sallied forth to conquer them anew. Then in the hour of his triumph he was carried away from mortal men.Now in the hour of need he has come again, and wielding the holy sword Cortana, with Carahue at his side, he charges into the armies of Chaos.
And what then?
In an epilogue, the narrator describes meeting Holger some years after the war and how Holger told him the whole story. “And how did you get back?” he asks, when Holger gets to about that point.
“Suddenly I was back,” Holger says. One moment he was riding forth scattering the forces of Chaos before him; the next he was back on the Danish beach in the middle of the firefight between his Resistance group and the Germans. Stark naked and full of adrenaline, he charged the Germans like one of his berserker ancestors, grabbed a machine gun and finished them.
He grimaced at an unpleasant recollection, but said doggedly, “Those two worlds – and many more, for all I know – are in some way the same. The same fight was being waged, here the Nazis and there the Middle World; but in both places, Chaos against Law, something old and wild and blind at war with man and the works of man. In both worlds it was the time of need for Denmark and France. So Ogier came forth in both of them, as he must.”He had accomplished his task in the world of Charlemagne; but he was still needed in our world. Like the inexorable logic of a physics equation, he was brought back.
But now he knows where he belongs. He has come back to haunt old book stores for grimoires and treatises on magic. With luck, he hopes to find a way back