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BoLS Prime: How One Book Gave Us Paladins, Scottish Dwarves, And Alignment In D&D

4 Minute Read
Dec 10 2021
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When you picture a D&D Paladin or Dwarf, odds are good your imagination is the same as everyone else’s– and it’s all thanks to one book.

Shining Paladins in gleaming armor, axe-crazy Dwarves with thick Scottish brogues, even the fundamental forces of good and evil, law and chaos… They all seem like they’re just a part of the DNA of D&D.

But where do they come from? The answer, surprisingly, is not from some imagined standard of fantasy tropes. They come from one fantasy novel.

Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson.

D&D wouldn’t be D&D without Three Hearts and Three Lions. The Dying Earth contributed magic and archetypes to D&D. And Poul Anderson laid out the philosophical underpinnings that have people arguing “but it’s what my character would do, they’re Chaotic Neutral!” to this day.

If you’ve ever touched anything even close to alignment in D&D, you owe it all to this story.

That’s right, all of those alignment square memes can be traced back to this story by Poul Anderson. Anderson inspired authors like Robert Heinlein with his larger-than-life adventure stories.

His characters are known for succeeding or failing spectacularly, and often both at once. Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions is one of those “other world” stories.

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Holger Carlsen, a Danish Engineer, is fighting against the Nazis in World War II. After he’s shot by said Germans, he finds himself transported to a parallel universe inspired by a mythic medieval period.

There, the forces of Chaos (which inhabit the Fae-like Middle World) fight against the forces of Law (humanity, and specifically the Holy Roman Empire and Saracens). Our hero finds all the equipment of a medieval knight, including a shield emblazoned with three hearts and three lions.

On the journey to return to his homeworld, Carlsen joins forces with a swan maiden, a dwarf, and a wizard. They all go around adventuring in typical D&D fashion.

Law & Chaos in Three Lions and Three Hearts

But the story is defined by its conflict between Law and Chaos. And those on either side.

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This business of Chaos versus Law, for example, turned out to be more than religious dogma. It was a practical fact of existence, here. He was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency of the physical universe toward disorder and level entropy. Perhaps here, that tendency found a more… animistic… expression.

In this universe the wild folk of the Middle World might be trying to break down a corresponding painfully established order; to restore some primeval state where anything could happen. Decent humanity would, on the other hand, always want to strengthen and extend Law, safety, predictability.

Though to be sure, science had its perversions, while magic had its laws. A definite ritual was needed in either case, whether you built an airplane or a flying carpet.

Gygax would expand this to include good and evil, as well as neutrality, which we all know is basically the worst thing you can be. After all, who can tell what makes a man turn neutral?

Interestingly enough, Chaos is not necessarily inherently evil. Nor is Law necessarily inherently good. They both have their heroes and villains– or as the dwarf Huigin puts it:

“You canna tell wha’ the Faerie folk will do next. They canna tell theirselves, nor care. They live in wildness, which is why they be o’ the dark Chaos side in this war.

We’ll ha’ naught to do wi’ the wars in this uneasy land. We’ll bide our aine lives and let Heaven, Hell, Earth, and the Middle World fight it oot as they will. And when yon proud lairds ha’ laid each other oot, stiff and stark, we’ll still be here. A pox on ’em all!”

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How did Dwarves Get Their Accents?

If you managed to read all that, it reveals another secret hidden origin found in D&D. Huigin the Dwarf talks with a Scottish brogue so thick you could toss it, caberlike, into a conversation and send folks tumbling.

Gygax, being a fan of this book, must have picked up on it and defined Dwarves with their hammer-and-axe-loving ways based on Huigin’s misadventures.

And the list keeps growing. Along the way, Carlsen encounters a great deal more that would inspire D&D. Including much of the early monster manual. Notably, he runs into a troll that regenerates quickly and can only be defeated with fire or acid. That’s right, D&D’s Trolls are taken straight from this book.

The Paladin Class

As Carlsen adventures, he gains most of the class features that we associate with the D&D Paladin.

There is laying on of hands, a Holy Sword, and “protection spells”. These spells were the inspirations for Protection from Evil, but they protected the entire party’s camp. And while there’s no specific precedent for the divine smite, it’s wrapped up in the language of Anderson’s stories.

You can check out ‘Three Hearts and Three Lions’ for free with an Amazon Prime or Audible membership.

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Author: J.R. Zambrano
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