Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was a prolific American science fiction and fantasy writer. His name is Danish (pronounce it “pole”). He wrote hard science fiction adventures and puzzle stories, which is how I came to start reading his work. I’ve come late to his fantasy work, since I don’t generally have much taste for that genre.
From his earliest work, Anderson was a stylist—he cultivated a slightly archaic vocabulary and sentence structure, such that his work can often be recognized from just a few paragraphs. And he was given to lyrical descriptions of the outdoors—the smells, the sounds, the sights, the feeling of being out in a big, wide, complicated world (not necessarily our own world).
I like hard science, I like puzzles, I like words and language, I like the outdoors … I was a reader made for Poul Anderson’s writing.
For big, roomy, high-concept SF, we have Tau Zero and The Avatar; for rollicking adventure, well-constructed puzzles and superior world-building, there are his stories of Nicholas van Rijn and Dominic Flandry; and for carefully crafted time-travel stories combined with compelling evocations of past times, there’s his Time Patrol series. His novella “The Sorrow of Odin the Goth” is, in my opinion, the single best time-travel story ever written.
I was prompted to buy this omnibus edition of two of his fantasy novels by reading an extract of Three Hearts & Three Lions in his retrospective collection, Going For Infinity.
The Fantasy Masterworks series is an ongoing effort by Gollancz to republish some of the finest examples of the genre in paperback. In 2002 they republished The Broken Sword (originally published in 1954), and followed it in 2003 with Three Hearts And Three Lions (originally published in 1961).
This is a 2003 Book Club edition combining the two novels. They’re a mismatched pair, presumably forcibly married under the fantasy umbrella in order to produce a fat book-club hardback.
Three Hearts And Three Lions is generally lighthearted and humorous. A Danish engineer finds himself suddenly transported into another world, inhabiting the body of a mediaeval knight. But he seems to be in a world in which magic works. The humour comes from his slow, shocked adaptation to this new reality, as he pieces together an understanding that he has, somehow, found himself in a world in which the Carolingian myths of La Chanson de Roland are literally true. And then he begins to use engineering principles to problem-solve this new world—an understanding that dragons must be very hot on the inside means that he could arrange an internal steam explosion, if he could just get some water down the dragon’s throat …
And there are sly contemporary references threaded through the narrative, as in this sign outside a magician’s shop:
Spells, Charms, Prophecies, Healing, Love Potions
Blessings, Curses, Ever-Filled Purses
Special rates for parties
There’s also a darker and more significant thread running though the story, as our hero comes to understand that he has a significant role to play in this world—that he has been brought there for a reason, and he will understand the reason only if he can work out who he really is.
The Broken Sword, on the other hand, is dark from beginning to end. It seems to be an effort to write something like a new Prose Edda—a story using Norse and Celtic mythology, and borrowing the styles, structures and rhythms of the old Irish and Norse storytellers. Anderson’s native archaic style lends itself beautifully to this task.
A battle rages between the elves and the trolls, each side manipulated by the Æsir (the old Norse gods) and their enemies the Jötnar (the Frost Giants). The central characters are a changeling (a half-troll left by the elves in place of a human child), and the human child stolen and raised by the elves. They fight on opposite sides. Each has done terrible things, each is doomed, and each is the other’s doom. There are cursed swords, fatal oaths and dark treacheries. The characters are given to breaking into skaldic alliterative verse from time to time:
Home again the howling,
hail-streaked wind has borne me.
Now I stand here, nearing
ness of lovely England.
She dwells on these shores, but
shall I ever see her?
Woe, the fair young woman
will not leave my thinking.
And Anderson’s prose drives the thing along in style. Here, the god Odin pays a visit, one dark and stormy night, to reclaim a debt:
Someone knocked on the door leading into Freda’s chamber from the yard. The bolt crashed up and the door flew open. The storm-wind galed around the little room, blowing the cloak of the one who entered like huge bat wings.
He had to stoop under the roof. He bore a spear in one hand that flashed with cold unearthly light, the same steely blaze that lit his one eye. His long wolf-gray hair and beard streamed down from under the hat that shadowed his face.
His voice was the voice of wind and sea and the vast hollow spaces of the sky: “Freda Ormsdaughter, I have come for the price you swore to pay.”
That’s just not going to end well, is it?
Through it all, there is a thread of melancholy about the advent of Christianity, which is slowly driving the old gods and supernatural creatures out of the world. Although it’s a grim story, there is also a sense of deeper loss, that something bright is going out of the world as the old ways die.
I have the feeling Anderson would agree with Algernon Swinburne:
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath
Hymn to Proserpine (1866)