Digging through the Appendix N of the original D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide uncovers a lot of lost treasures, books now forgotten save for those in the blogosphere with fringe interests such as reading—reading old science fiction and fantasy novels in specific. Most fantasy fans have probably read The Lords of the Rings and have at least heard of Conan, but I doubt they’ve ever read Appendix N line items like Bellair’s The Face in the Frost or Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows or the works of A. Merritt.
Three Hearts and Three Lions is a bit more popular, in part because its author Poul Anderson is a well-known and respected writer in the field; he’s not one of my top favorites, but his works are always enjoyable and entertaining, and so this has been one of those Appendix N novels I’ve wanted to read. To be honest, I found it highly enjoyable; its protagonist is Danish engineer turned resistance fighter Holger, transported from a pitched beach battle with Nazis to the realm of faerie, a world where the legends depicted in the Matters of England and France are established historical fact—meanwhile, Napoleon is a mythical figure—and where Christiandom is waging a war against the Elves and their pagan magic. So, not exactly the typical Tolkienian depiction of elves and magic.
Three elements in particular appear in the novel and were highly influential on Gygax when he was designing D&D:
Anderson’s world is a pitched war between Chaos and Law, something that writers in the ’70s would revisit—Moorcock with his eternal champion, and Zelazny with his Amberite royalty. Here, it’s a very specific balance. Law is the established, dogmatic order of religion—Holger speculates that Christendom, Judaism, and Islam are fighting against the forces of Chaos. Chaos itself is the lack of ordered rigidity offered by the old-ways of paganism and animism, backed by the royalty of the courts of Faerie.
D&D’s alignment system is kind of a mess to explain, and tends to lead to the most arguments and confusion with new players. Picture an X-Y axis. The Y axis represents a sliding scale between Good and Evil—at their extremes, good is the desire to sacrifice yourself for the good of others, while evil is the instinct to use others for personal gain. The X axis is that of Law and Chaos—extreme Law is a rigid hierarchy of absolute rules, and chaos is unhindered freedom that comes from anarchy. Someone who’s Lawful Good acts with honor and dignity towards all others, while the Lawful Evil character is one who lives for themselves but has a code of honor or works within normal society to achieve their own goals. A Chaotic Good character acts outside of laws and rules but does so for positive ends—say, stealing from the rich to give to the poor—while the Chaotic Evil character is a raving psychopathic murderer. In the end, it forms a box of nine alignments.
Originally the system was just an X axis between Law and Chaos, as interpreted through Poul Anderson’s novel, and Gygax meant it as more of a simple black-and-white choice between good and evil—or, rather, the difference between social democrats and libertarians, between those who put others’ needs before their own and those who live only for themselves. It’s developed a bit since its OD&D introduction, when it was even closer to the book’s “organized churches versus paganism” theme, but the core is still there.
Thanks to moral relativism, we have the conundrum where one side isn’t necessarily a better choice than the other, and the fact that such linear and binary choices don’t account for extremes—our postmodern viewpoint is far less simplistic black-and-white morality, and it can lead to some awkward situations and much discussion. (At least, my mind wanders into that area; most people rely on fantasy gaming as escapism, and so would rather not think about the heavy questions of morality.) What about an authoritarian state who does horrible things in the name of the greater good—thinking of most literary dystopias there. How about the Lawful Good character slaying innocent women and children of a monstrous race who doesn’t share the same ethics or values that we (and our player character races) do; are they evil by association, or is it justified for any future evils they may cause, or are they monsters simply by being the “other,” having more fur and sharper fangs than the races “acceptable” to humanity like elves and dwarves?
Anyways, the core kernel of it all came from Three Hearts and Three Lions, and reading it gives you a slightly better idea of where Gygax was going with it.
Anderson’s protagonist Holger is the archetype of the D&D paladin class, designed around the Crusader knights, holy warriors powered by faith. Several of the paladin class’s abilities came from the novel. At one point, Holger is asked to “lay hands” on various peasantry to heal afflictions and bless them; it doesn’t actually do very much, but the peasants believe it does. He has a powerful horse with higher-than-animal intelligence, hence why paladins always have rules for special mounts—they’re essentially Arthurian knights. He’s a strong, robust fighter who isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with man or monster, wielding sword and shield.
Holger is also very spiritual, on the quest for a holy sword—a relic only he can wield—and has fine ties to purity of faith. At one point he succumbs to his baser instincts, which immediately negates the wards and charms he and his friends have set up to protect themselves from Chaos. That religious iconography becomes meaningless, and therefore fails to protect against a wandering monster set forth by the Faerie kings. I see that as the basis for the paladin’s “fallen” status—essentially, sinning or acting in ways that don’t display the noblest chivalric intent cause the paladin to lose their various powers granted by faith until they atone.
Truth be told, beyond that inspiration it’s a bit of a stretch to see Holger and end up with the paladin. The class itself has always had issues distinguishing itself—if the cleric is a holy warrior and protector of the innocence, why do we need another one? And its implementation has never been a real standout, usually just roleplay restrictions in return for a slew of magical powers, ending up a class without enough staying power or sense of progression to be more than a subpar fighter. But in terms of Appendix N literature, it’s the clear inspiration for what the paladin became.
As far as I’ve seen, traditional mythology puts trolls as rather ornery giants, kind of a racial slur against the Jotun in Norse myth. At one point, Anderson’s characters must make a dash through a labyrinthine troll barrow to cut across enemy-infested mountain wilderland—the same kind of reasoning behind the run through the mines of Moria in LOTR—and bump into the deadly troll in its den. Anderson’s troll is a lanky humanoid with rubbery skin; after a pitched battle, the heroes vanquish the troll, only for its dismembered arm and slain body to regenerate and resume the offensive. The only way to kill it for good turns out to be burning it with fire. Sound familiar?
Holger’s companion and love interest is a Swanmay, or swan maiden, a woman who shapeshifts to and from swan form. You can see that as part of the druid class’s ability, but in the book her power comes from her cloak/dress made of feathers, which seems like it had more of an impact on D&D’s magical items. Of which there are several: Holger is on the quest for the magic sword Cortana, which only a powerful warrior of strong faith can wield—a cross between D&D’s artifacts/relics and its +5 Holy Avenger Longsword only usable by paladins—and early on, Holger makes off with a faerie lord’s magnesium dagger, a nice touch for two reasons. First off, apparently sunlight harm the fey in this world. Second, it reminds me of most of those +1 flaming weapons you find.
The elves and faerie themselves aren’t really the same Tolkien-style elves found in D&D, but the sole dwarf is very much the same stereotype, a short, rotund humanoid with a beard that speaks in a brogue and consumes alcohol. There’s also encounters with a dragon, a werewolf, and a nixie that read straight out of both D&D and the mythology it ripped off, a “hell horse” that’s much like the game’s “nightmare,” and an animated suit of armor which felt pretty D&D-esque.
One other odd note. Several of the Appendix N novels—this one, most of Burroughs’ works, André Norton and her Witch World, to some extent Anderson’s High Crusade—involve modern people transported to another world. Oddly enough, having everyday people catapulted into fantasy realms has never been a notable theme in D&D campaigns themselves, though it was the basis for the ’80s cartoon. I guess part of it is the limiting factor, e.g. you couldn’t play elves or dwarves that way, and you’d lose knowing the established history of the setting. But I find it fascinating that the trope was so loved by Gygax but never really included as an established option.