For many readers, including myself, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword possesses the gravitas—the weight more than spread of epic-ness—that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is, on the whole, lacking (yet his Silmarillion possesses in spades). This is not to say one is better than the other, merely that Anderson did a better job of imbuing his narrative with consistent drama-proper. For this, I have come to think of his later Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) as its partner: the laughing clown.
Succeeding at the comedy game where The High Crusade fell flat, Three Hearts and Three Lions takes itself seriously enough to be read as a storyteller’s story, yet light-heartedly enough that the reader relaxes—escapes, as it were, from the real world into the classic, high fantasy stylings of Anderson’s world.
Three Hearts and Three Lions utilizes a traditional fantasy plot device that writers from Baum’s The Wizard of Oz to Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight have used: a bonk-on-the-head leads to another world. Nursing the “bump” is Holger Carlsen, a Danish dissident who, after taking an injury in the middle of a WWII battle with the Nazis, suddenly finds himself in a strange world—a fairy-ish world. Encountering a witch after regaining his senses, it isn’t long before armor and a horse are found to suit his massive build and he is on a quest to release faery from the hold of the Holy Empire. Carlsen slowly accumulates a small crew of people, including the dwarf Hugi and the swan maiden Alianora, and together the three traverse the land, forever seeking to fulfill their quest but always getting caught in the clutches of malevolent dukes and demons on their way. (I warned you it was classic.)
Three Hearts and Three Lions is a simple, straight-forward read that sets the perceived nobility of Arthurian legend against the lack thereof of Nazi Germany. A rather simplistic dichotomy, the reader is better off not digging deeper into the story, rather relaxing and enjoying it for the way in which it hearkens back to everyone from Chaucer to T.H. White. Anderson an accomplished stylist, the narrator’s voice is appropriate to the story being told, up to and including the accents (always a risky business), heightening the escape.
In the end, Three Hearts and Three Lions is classic portal fantasy in the Arthurian/Nordic tradition and the wide-open seas between. Though starting and ending in the real world, the majority of the action occurs in a faerie land amidst the war between Law and Chaos (wikipedia believes this is the first of the many texts that would use the juxtaposition as a backdrop to their tales). A simple story, it is more beach than classroom read.