Friday, September 2, 2016

The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

Every so often, a book comes along and catches you completely by surprise. I'd heard the name Poul Anderson before, of course, and had a vague idea he was a classic science fiction author. I had no particular reason to look into his books further, though, until I stumbled upon the Goodreads page for his novel The High Crusade. Which came with a high concept so deliciously epic that I knew I had to read it:

Medieval knights versus starfaring aliens.

If that doesn't sound to you like the acme of awesome, I don't know what to do with you. It certainly sounded that way to me, so I tracked down a copy of this 1960 Hugo nominee, and settled down to see if it was as good as I hoped.

It. Was. Perfect.

Our story begins in a small village in 1345 England, as Sir Roger de Tourneville musters his men to join King Edward III in France. It is at this moment that a scouting party of Wersgorix, alien masters of countless planets, descend from the skies in their immense spaceship to put Earth under the Wersgor yoke.

Momentarily taken aback by the aliens' superior firepower, Sir Roger bravely rallies his men, slaughters the aliens, and takes command of the warship. Like any good medieval knight, he instantly determines to use the starship to travel to France and finish the Hundred Years' War in a matter of weeks. After that, they might keep going and liberate the Holy Land from the Saracens.

That's the plan, anyway. In reality, the Wersgor captive they command to fly them to France instead charts a course for his own home planet. Now, stranded hundreds of lightyears away from home, with no idea how to get back, Sir Roger and his men face the full might of a massive empire bent on first crushing their rebellion and then enslaving their home planet.

Something must be done. And fortunately, Sir Roger is just the man to do it...if he can only hold together his small band of knights, priests, and commoners long enough, not all of whom are pleased to be stranded in another arm of the galaxy.
One of the buildings beyond gaped open. A small spaceship — though big as any seagoing vessel on Earth — had been trundled forth. It stood on its tail, engine growling, ready to take off and flame us from above. Sir Roger directed his cavalry thither. The lancers hit it in a single line. Shafts splintered; men were hurled from the saddle. But consider: a charging cavalryman may bear his own weight of armor, and have fifteen hundred pounds of horse beneath him. The whole travels at several miles per hour. The impact is awesome.
The ship was bowled over. It fell on its side and lay crippled.
Obviously, this book was right up my alley to begin with. But as I read it, I became more and more impressed with Anderson's storycrafting and worldbuilding. It was so funny I spent half of it cackling like a lunatic, even in public. Yet its characters stole my heart, so that I spent the other half in nerve-wracking suspense over how it was going to end. It was shamelessly, unabashedly fun, yet its world-building, deft and unobtrusive, provided real speculative-fiction heft to the setting.

As you might expect, Anderson uses this novel to make a point. The High Crusade is all about pitting medievals--people whom generations of modernists have despised as backward and barbaric--against a highly advanced starfaring alien civilisation. Of course, Anderson constructs the rules of his storyworld in such a way as to give the medieval warriors a fighting chance against the aliens, since his interest here (as, apparently, in many of his other stories) has to do with warning readers not to underestimate so-called "primitive" societies. As a result, The High Crusade is an immensely entertaining and rather lighthearted look at how aspects of medieval life and technology might make these people effective against, well, alien bureaucracies.
Huruga: “For the sake of argument, what are your demands?”
Sir Roger: “Your empire must make submission to my most puissant lord of England, Ireland, Wales, and France.”
Huruga: “Let us be serious, now.”
Sir Roger: “I am serious to the point of solemnity. But in order to spare further bloodshed, I’ll meet any champion you name, with any weapons, to settle the issue by single combat. And may God defend the right!”
Huruga: “Are you all escaped from some mental hospital?”
This clash of cultures also, of course, provides a rich vein of humour. Anderson clearly has a preference (he was, after all, apparently involved in founding the Society for Creative Anachronism). His alien bureaucracy is a satire on the modernist egalitarian state which seems far more applicable now than it might have been in 1960 when the book was first written.

But it was his treatment of my babies, the medievals, that really got my respect. Not everything in Anderson's picture of the middle ages is absolutely correct--droit de seigneur was, of course, purely fictional. But he clearly got the medievals. There's one terrific scene where our heroes, stranded on an alien planet with days much longer than 24 hours, worry that they'll go to Hell because they no longer know when to celebrate Lent, Advent, and Sunday. This is exactly the kind of detail that most dilettante writers of speculative fiction, or of medieval historical fiction, would never think to include, but which, if you know anything at all about the history, rings utterly true.

That said, and though I love them to pieces, the medievals were definitely not fluffy kittens. I was further impressed by Anderson's ability to depict both sides of their sometimes contradictory characters. It's hard to express this to modern readers in a sympathetic way, but he did it handily by the use of lashings of rather black humour, like in the hilarious scene with One-Eyed Hubert the executioner.
“Well, sire, now this is another matter, ’tis like the good old days come back, ’tis, yes, yes, yes, Heaven bless my good kind master! Now o’ course I took little equipment with me, only a few thumbscrews and pincers and suchlike, but it won’t take me no time, sire, to knock together a rack. And maybe we can get a nice kettle of oil. I always says, sire, on a cold gray day there ain’t nothing so cozy as a glowing brazier and a nice hot kettle of oil."
So obviously, this book is any medievalist's dream, and was my cup of tea precisely. In addition to a pitch-perfect affectionate spoof of the medieval character, The High Crusade also contains everything else you never knew you wanted in a book: trebuchets, nuclear warheads, trebuchets flinging nuclear warheads... space battles, fish-out-of-water humour, a courtly-love triangle, and the outrageous Sir Roger de Tourneville, who is basically my own Sir Perceval IN SPACE!

These days it's easy to feel that we're also ruled by all-powerful alien bureaucracies. As I read The High Crusade, however, alien bureaucrats began to look a whole lot less scary. Of course this book is a rather self-indulgent medievalist daydream. But it is also a rare and refreshing book, a book that dares to imagine the alien bureaucracy crumbling in the face of determination, physical courage, and low cunning. As such, it was like a whiff of burnt marsh-wiggle: profoundly encouraging. Go and read it!

Find The High Crusade on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Open Library.

11 comments:

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

Trebuchets flinging nuclear warheads! Sounds lovely.
This author seems as if he might be well worth looking into. His themes of comparing modern society with the medievals, (with a strong degree of favor on the part of the later) strikes a heart-warming chord for me.

"Are you all escaped from some mental hospital?" Oh joy! Hahaha! Like all the sons of Sarras!

Joseph J said...

How many good books are still out there waiting to be found? I'm glad you're doing all the work for me. I just read The Mark of Zorro. Loved it! I feel I owe you some kind of finder's fee.

Suzannah said...

Andrew, yes, it was very pro-medieval :).

Joseph, ha! I'd love it if there was some kind of algorithm to winnow out all the rubbish - I feel I discover very few gems to balance out the duds.

I know you mentioned it in fun, but it's occasionally flitted through my mind that perhaps I should put up some kind of tip jar for the charitably inclined. Anyone have thoughts?

Joseph J said...

You are my book algorithm, and I'm grateful enough to leave a tip, although my generosity is momentarily depleted from having just dropped some mullah on your three paperback books (catch me in a couple months). I had been planning to borrow my sister's kindle to read your stuff, but I procrastinated too long and she just moved out, so dried pulp and ink it is.

A tip jar would be an interesting experiment. In fact I would label it "The Gratitude Experiment: Exactly How Grateful Are You, In Australian Dollars?" or for maximum guiltage, "The Generosity Experiment: Is Love Dead?"

FYI you might want to add in your My Books section that the paperback version of Pendragon's Heir is also available at Amazon.

Jamie W said...

I would absolutely contribute to a tip jar! :-) Or a Patreon, etc. I think that's a brilliant idea.

Suzannah said...

Well, thank you all so much for the encouragement :). Maybe I should look into a tip jar, then.

Though I have to say NOTHING makes me happier than selling books. No tips are necessary if you want to support me in that way. I do hope you enjoy them; and if you want to leave further tokens of gratitude after that, reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are definitely worth solid gold to me.

Christina Baehr said...

Just got this one from the library to read with my husband. It will be just perfect fun for us as soon as I finish Framley Parsonage, which is as delightful as you promised. :)

Also, I think Patreon is a great idea. I think you could attract some very faithful and gratified literary patrons.

Suzannah said...

Christina, I'm agog to hear your thoughts! I'm about to start reading THE HIGH CRUSADE aloud with my sisters, so we're all looking forward to that :)

I did think about the Patreon/tip jar idea, and ended up deciding against it. I would if there was no other way for friends and readers to support my work, but there's plenty of opportunity for folks to support me by buying, reading, and Amazon-reviewing my own stories; so I feel it's probably appropriate to point well-wishers in that direction :)

scientificgems said...

The High Crusade is one of the funniest science fiction novels ever. Andersen also wrote fantasy, e.g. Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Suzannah said...

Tony, I'm very saddened by the possibility that I may have already read the acme of sci-fi humour!

THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS was actually the first Poul Anderson book recommended to me - I just took a shortcut to THE HIGH CRUSADE because its premise sounded more awesome. I'll definitely be reading THREE HEARTS next time I dip in to Anderson.

Joffre Swait said...

The SCA is a mad-house, and this book is rollicking good fun! Yes, rollicking.

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