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.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.
The ship was bowled over. It fell on its side and lay crippled.
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?”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.
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?”
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.