Sep 7 2010 3:17pm
Really good fun: Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade

Note: This review originally appeared on Tor.com on April 18th of this year and concludes our Poul Anderson tribute. You can find all of the appreciations gathered here.

Poul Anderson was the first science fiction writer I read once I’d discovered science fiction was a genre. (This was because I was starting in alphabetical order.) I have been fond of his work for decades, and I sometimes think that it’s possible to define all of SF as variations on themes from Poul Anderson. The High Crusade (1960) is a short novel, and it’s funny and clever and it works. It’s a quick read, which is good because it’s the kind of book it’s hard to put down.

I always think of it as being in the same category as Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen or Lest Darkness Fall, though it’s not really like that at all. The premise of The High Crusade is that in 1345, just as Sir Roger de Coverley is getting ready to go to France to fight for the king, an alien spaceship lands in a little Lincolnshire village. The medieval army quickly overruns the spaceship and eventually the alien empire, by a mixture of bluff, combining medieval and futuristic tech, fast talk, and deceit, as you would, really. It may not be plausible, but it’s fun, and anyway it’s more plausible than you might imagine. There’s a scene for instance when they use alien bombs in a wooden trebuchet that naturally doesn’t show up on radar.

One of the things that’s so great about this book is the voice of Brother Parvus, a monk with a gift for languages rather out of his depth. The book is his first person chronicle of the events, and the voice is just right. The way he slowly comes to understand the alien view of the universe and reconcile it with his own worldview is lovely. At one point he decides that the biblical “four corners of the world” actually imply a cubical universe, with lots of stars and planets in it. He teaches the alien Latin, which means it can only communicate with the clergy, but hey, it obviously makes sense. The best thing of all is that they lose Earth. Their first thought on capturing the spaceship is how much destruction they can do with it in France, but they are betrayed by their alien prisoner and end up on an alien planet—with no way of getting back. So it’s a secret history—humanity takes over the alien empire and imposes feudalism on the aliens, and they’re still out there. Indeed the frame story is about people in our future discovering them to their amazement.

The medieval tech is very well done, and I’m absolutely sure Anderson knew exactly how much weight an English cavalry charge could knock down, and how much airplane skin an arrow from a longbow could pierce. The alien tech is weird. It’s 1960s tech plus FTL and force shields. The navigation notes that tell where to find Earth that get destroyed were written on paper. The spaceship had an autopilot, but no computer. This makes it much easier for the knights to figure things out—I kept thinking they’re figuring it out more easily than they could if they had our tech, which shows what a long way we’ve come since 1960. This isn’t a problem with reading the book now, it’s just how it is.

This is a fun fast read, and just what you want as a palate cleanser if you’ve just finished Dhalgren. It’s hard to believe they were written on the same planet, never mind in the same genre. And the old British covers—practically identical. The Baen cover is great—it’s an illustration of the novel, and it tells you what you’re going to get, knights on horseback going after green aliens in spaceships. There’s also treachery, intrigue, courtly love, and all packed into a mere 181 pages. I’m an absolute sucker for this kind of thing, and it doesn’t get any better than this.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Steve Oerkfitz
1. Steve Oerkfitz
I just reread this a few months back and although I enjoyed it I found it on the slight side which in a way was a kind of relief in the age of padding out SF and Fantasy novels to 600+ pages. Not a bad cover for Baen which usually has the worst covers in publishing.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Steve: I can imagine it as a modern 600 page novel. But it wouldn't gain anything from it. Part of its charm is its pacing.
Steve Oerkfitz
3. Doug M.
Harry Turtledove would later grab this idea and invert it in "The Road Not Taken", where technologically advanced but planetbound humans encounter a galaxy full of space-traveling but otherwise medieval aliens. Oddly enough, the humans still win.

Anderson later wrote a short novella set in that same world, a few years after the end of Brother Parvus' Chronicle. It's minor, and can be ignored except by completists.

This was Poul transitioning from "history is really interesting and an excellent sourcebook for writing SF" to "OMG feudalism is awesome!" _No Truce With Kings_, a couple of years later, would show the affliction in full flower.

Doug M.
James Goetsch
4. Jedikalos
Read this when I was about nine years old (way back in 1965!)and remember being enchanted with it. I would sit in class (great way to while away the time in boring gradeschool) just thinking about it, and then when I got home, playacting it with my cardboard box spaceship (the kind where you would draw a control panel on the front of the box and windows on the side with stars and planets) and my plastic sword and shield.
Clifton Royston
5. CliftonR
I am also very fond of this one - I think I also read it very early soon after starting reading science fiction, and was very impressed to learn (when I checked it) that the English longbows really could punch through chain or light plate armor.

Much later, after reading a bit more about the evolution of warfare, I was able to be skeptical about how well medieval knights and bowmen would fare against modern soldiers, let alone aliens with really advanced weapons. By the same token, on the side of the political maneuvering, the medievals were no innocents, but it's not as though bland-faced ruthlessness and treachery have been bred out of us in modern times either.

Perhaps in 1960 it was at least looking as though civilization might be advancing in the direction of greater peacefulness and honesty, or perhaps you could postulate that the aliens are just less naturally devious than humans, but really both assumptions are just driven by what the plot needs to work.

The good thing is that it does work, and while you're reading it you can glide over all the implausibilities as you grant the initial implausibility of the alien landing.
Steve Oerkfitz
6. Foxessa

My brother and I did that too. However, there was also room in our ship for our gallant Arabian steeds, and our six guns. This was our Saturday "play" in winter for at least three years, between the good Saturday morning kids' television programs and the resumption of kids' programing about 4 pm.

Love, C.
Nicholas Alcock
7. NullNix
I first read this last week, after many years of Anderson drought (on account of the whole being dead thing).

One bit you missed: the English win because the enemy are used to conquering planets effortlessly from space, so they've become very stagnant and are crap at strategy and tactics both. The English, well, they've been fighting since they could walk and they were just about to go off to the Crusades. They know warfare. :)

(I further suspect this is the first time anyone, ever, has said the words "The Baen cover is great". If that's the cover illustrating the article, then, hell, yes, that's really good, fairly understated, and there's no way it looks like typical Baen.)
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Nullnix: Yes, that's the Baen cover. It may be the best Baen cover ever.
Steve Oerkfitz
9. CarlosSkullsplitter
This book is unusually lighthearted for Anderson, who by the early 1960s had difficulty keeping his fears about the growing menace of the state from creeping into letters to the editor on entirely unrelated subjects (not hyperbole).

Humor and Anderson didn't often mix, though I have a soft spot for his Hoka stories with Gordon Dickson, about a hapless interstellar development worker trying to deal with a civilization of cosplaying teddy bears. A little like Hank Ketchum's Dennis the Menace -- not the British version! -- with a dash of the office sitcom. Anderson and Dickson never opened up the throttle on the stories as far as the premise deserved, but still, good light fun.
Gabriele Campbell
10. G-Campbell
I've pretty much all historical / mythological fiction and some of the Scifi by Poul Anderson, but missed that one.

*goes off to check Amazon*
Clark Myers
11. ClarkEMyers
#3 I'd agree on the transition from U.N. Man in 1953 to No Truce with Kings in 1964. I doubt a story where "The do-gooders get their comeuppance" would win a Hugo today.

I'd not describe the change as a transition from "history is really interesting and an excellent sourcebook for writing SF" to "OMG feudalism is awesome!" _No Truce With Kings_, a couple of years later, would show the affliction in full flower..

Given the very title of No Truce with Kings I see nothing of the feudal system* neither an annointed King as Lord nor the fief - basic to feudalism - and I do see much of the latifundia - led indeed by Senators who have their system of patronage not feudalism - straight out of history once again.

Granted given an umbrella government - the King and Royal Landgrants as in the southwestern part of what is now the United States a latifundia system with tied labor may develop toward feudalism - Logic of Empire style say.

In the No Truce with Kings story at issue there is enough labor shortage to avoid the conquered as slave issue in favor of social mobility - at least in the proverbial red and black (military commission and esper).

I kept thinking they’re figuring it out more easily than they could if they had our tech, which shows what a long way we’ve come since 1960. I quite agree - that's a John Campbell story (Forgetfullness?) and I'd say that in general as somebody wrote on Wikipedia Anderson considered his present as over civilized - Anderson was a founding Scadian and took great pleasure in driving Jerry's wooden boat through rough weather. The High Crusade may be as much a SCADian dream as Steve Sterling's Dies the Fire series where the alien technology is well beyond homo sap and The High Crusade is much much more fun. Compare Anderson's company with the White Company of Doyle which English speakers (after Churchill) easily forget chronicles some dubious characters imposing themselves abroad - equally also a tie to Sterling's emberverse.

*A lord granted land (a fief) to his vassals. In exchange for the fief, the vassal would provide military service to the lord. The obligations and relations between lord, vassal and fief form the basis of feudalism. Feudalism Wikipedia this date.
Steve Oerkfitz
12. Doug M.
I'm a little surprised that nobody has mentioned Leonard Wibberly's _The Mouse That Roared_ (1955), which Anderson is known to have read and enjoyed. If that's not one source of inspiration for this book, I'll eat my +2 chain shirt.

Anderson as humorist: yeah, fatalistic gloom was more his thing. But, to his credit, he tried all sorts of things, and sometimes pulled them off.

The growing menace of the State: yes, and I've never seen a good explanation of why he made that particular heel-turn. My very tentative guess is that, once he'd achieved a modest level of prosperity, paying taxes became ever more annoying. (Anderson came from Circumstances -- his family was hardscrabble poor for a while, and money was very tight.) But that's pure guess. If anyone knows more, I'd be interested to hear.

In any event, Big Government in various guises would become his favorite recurring villain. Meanwhile the themes of small-is-beautiful, decentralization, and administration by personal loyalty ("Troth!") would appear again, and again, and again.

Doug M.
Steve Oerkfitz
13. Doug M.
Random note: I recently finished Jack Vance's autobiography. One thing that comes through clearly is that Vance had very little use for fans, and not much more for his fellow SFF writers. He wasn't actively hostile to them -- it's not a Piers Anthony style bitchy gossip thing -- he just didn't hang around with them much.

But Poul Anderson was the big exception. They owned a boat together and spent many happy hours working on it. And for a couple of decades, they met regularly to eat, drink, and set the world to rights.

Vance is not an effusive man, at all. But it's clear he liked Poul a lot.

Doug M.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
You're making me want to read No Truce With Kings which I haven't read recently enough to be able to argue details.

But it's not on the bookshelves!

Does anyone remember what the other half of it was, in the Tor Ace Double, in case I shelved it under that? (But why would I?) Or if anybody has borrowed it -- bring it back immediately!

It might be worth noting on feudalism that Poul Anderson quoted on my first novel The King's Peace which is set in a fantasy alternate sixth century Britain and very much takes the position that feudalism is better than slavery. He also not only got an obscure joke nobody else has got (or at least mentioned getting) but he managed to refer to it in his little quote in such a way that I knew he'd got it but it would still make sense to other people. That's writing skill!
Steve Oerkfitz
15. CarlosSkullsplitter
Jo, it was doubled with Fritz Leiber -- the ISFDB says "Ship of Shadows".

"No Truce With Kings" was also collected in a number of anthologies. One of the Asimov-edited anthologies of Hugo winners, one of Baen's Kipling-themed anthologies, and one of Pournelle's war-themed anthologies, as well as various Anderson collections.

Unfortunately, Anderson believed slavery (in various forms) was nearly an inevitable consequence of state power, which from the perspective of 2010 is a deep misreading of historical trends and the power of the individual. I'm not sure it made more sense in 1960, either.
Steve Oerkfitz
16. alSeen
There is also a movie staring John Rhys-Davies. It's played as a comedy and is not very good.
Steve Oerkfitz
17. Brian2
Here's the ISFDB listing for No Truce with Kings: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?5354

If it isn't too much trouble, could you give the quote on The King's Peace, and perhaps a little of the context? Sounds quite interesting.

By the way, there was a really horrible movie of The High Crusade some years ago that really, truly didn't get why it was a good story in the first place, and made it into low comedy.
Steve Oerkfitz
18. Brian2
As CarlosSkullSplitter and alSeen have just demonstrated, just wait a few minutes before posting and you can let someone else do the typing ...
Gabriele Campbell
19. G-Campbell
Doug, that's an interesting tidbit about the friendship between Poul Anderson and Jack Vance. I should get Vance's Lyonesse trilogy (there's a new omnibus edition, if I remember correctly) to see how it compares to Andersons's King of Ys.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Brian2: I feel a bit like I'm showing off, but the quote is "The King's Peace beautifully and thought provokingly tells a story set in a world and a history almost like ours, but different enough to be in itself a kind of elvenland. It's good to know that there will be more." This seems to me to be the platonic ideal of a good cover quote -- it even says the thing that publishers so rarely say on covers "this is part 1". The thing about getting the joke is that my version of Britain is called "Tir Tanagiri" which is one of the more obscure Irish names for the Otherworld, it means the land of hope. So that's one of the things he was saying with "a kind of elvenland".

I literally yelped aloud with joy when I first saw this quote -- I'd been reading Anderson since I was twelve, and I was awed and honoured that he liked my first book. I've had others since that are astonishingly cool -- Le Guin on Farthing -- but nothing can ever eclipse that one.
Fred Himebaugh
21. Fredosphere
@Doug M: "The humans still win." Of course the humans still win. The humans are supposed to still win.

Whose?! Side?! Are?! You?! On????!!!!
Andrew Gray
22. madogvelkor
There's a very silly but fun low budget movie that's very very loosely based on "The High Crusade". If you expect it to be like the book you'll hate it, but on its own merits it is a good time.
Tony Zbaraschuk
23. tonyz
No Truce With Kings showed up in a LOT of anthologies -- "Winners!" was where I got it. It was sort of fun re-reading twenty years after my first reading and remembering that (a) I had read it, (b) I had forgotten it, and (c) how much of its worldview I had nevertheless absorbed.

As far as The High Crusade goes, I totally loved the last line, when the (human) captain of the spaceship asked the new Terran contact if the Holy Land had been taken from the Saracens yet.

"'Yes', said ."

Tony Z
Robert Barrett
24. rwb
I would so love to pair The High Crusade with Eifelheim in a science fiction course, just for giggles.
Ron Griggs
25. RonGriggs
I can't let this pass without bringing up Three Hearts and Three Lions, possibly my favorite Poul Anderson book. In it, he displays (I think) a deft touch with humor without descending into farce.

Also, after all these years, I finally read Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga, a very nice retelling of an Icelandic saga. All in all, I find Anderson's sci-fi to be the weakest part of his oeuvre.
SP Kelly
26. SPKelly
I first came across this wonderful book through a reference in Dragon. Every so often, they would take characters from published works and translate them into D&D. This section led me to read both The High Crusade and Enchanted Library.

These are the two of the very few books I have read multiple times. Thanks for reminding me how good it is.
Clark Myers
27. ClarkEMyers
By all means look up No Truce with Kings - it's an interesting read these days as the story tells the failed efforts of an outside group with super science to build a unified state from the remnants of a devastating war - starting with the largest and most advanced city and advancing into the reluctant rural communities.
Steve Oerkfitz
28. Neil in Chicago
It's nice to see so much love out there for this story.
It was the serial in the very first science fiction magazines I ever read, so my own imprinting is ineradicable.
Steve Oerkfitz
29. Nicholas D. Rosen
Humor and Anderson often did mix. Yes, he could be gloomy, but there are often light touches even amidst the gloom. "Three Hearts and Three Lions" and the Hoka stories have already been mentioned. You can also try reading the collections "Homebrew" and "Fantasy," or "Operation Chaos," or "A Midsummer Tempest." I'm thinking of stories like "The Valor of Cappen Varra," or -- but I won't try to list everything.
Steve Oerkfitz
30. Bill Reich
No one has yet mentioned that THC could be seen as an answer to stories like ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME or the 163whateververse, where the high tech guys slaugher huge numbers of primitives. Usually in the most humane way possible, of course.
Sure it was written long before those particular examples but why would that stop Poul?
Others have mentioned some of my other favorite PA works, namely "No Truce with Kings" and "Three Hearts and Three Lions."
Jo, I would have gotten around to reading your works anyway but that cover blurb got the money out of my pocket without my reading any of the book.

I miss him.

Will in New Haven
Steve Oerkfitz
31. James Davis Nicoll
5: "Perhaps in 1960 it was at least looking as though civilization might be advancing in the direction of greater peacefulness and honesty, ."

According to the hateful poindexters at this site:


we have been languishing under alarmingly declining rates of death by warfare since the end of the Cold War a generation ago.

Oddly, I've never seen a Garbageman Planet book based on the Human Security Report models. It's easy enough to calculate by which year more than 12 months would go by without a human fatality in war but apparently there's no story in a world plagued by horrific levels of peace, despite the potential for mass suicide amongst e.g. young people discovering they may go their whole lives without having a limb blown off by a stray mine or mob violence from alarmist pundits suddenly thrown out of work.
Steve Oerkfitz
32. Michael S. Schiffer
James: I know there's a story (which the massed intellect here will likely be able to identify in minutes) in which the Last Soldier (immortal, I think) is at a loss in a peaceful universe, until he's confronted by a representative of his defeated enemies, who tells him that their defeat was a ruse. The soldier dies in glorious battle, and the reader learns that this was in essence a mercy killing, and the "enemy" was a fake. (Possibly a robot?)

Niven's "Safe at any Speed" implies a long peace, though it's not at the center of the story, and "The Warriors" has the end of intra-human warfare as backstory. (As I understand it, the "Golden Age" was retconned as being more sinister later as the Man-Kzin wars were elaborated, but it was treated as a genuine golden age in Niven's earlier stories.)
Steve Oerkfitz
33. Bill Reich
Michael, the entity who defeated and destroyed the Last Soldier, allowing him to go out the way he wanted, was The Last Physician, no longer needed by the advance life forms that I believe were human-descended.

Of course, I can't remember the title.
Steve Oerkfitz
35. Captain Button
@32-33: The story is "Not Fade Away" by Spider Robinson. An audio version is in one of his podcasts:

john mullen
36. johntheirishmongol
I mentioned in another post that I think Jerry Pournelle would admit origins of Janissairies with this book. Eric Flint certainly did. I cant remember how long its been since I first read it but certainly not too long after it came out. I have read most everything he wrote. All these posts though and no mention of the Polysotechnic Leage or the Flandry books I find hard to believe. There was a lot of humor in many of those, especially the early ones, though the later ones were much more maudlin. Three of the characters are among the best in SF, Nicholas Van Rijn, Domonic Flandry and David Falkayn.

Another couple I would recommend on a little bit of the off side are Operation Chaos and A Midsummer Tempest. And if you haven't read Brain Wave, you are missing a true classic.

One last thing, my copy of THC was published by Manor Books in '75 and has a hideous cover.
Steve Oerkfitz
37. RandolphF
Anderson, I think, was the sort of conservative who, like Tolkien, doubted that there had been any moral or social progress since the medieval period. Odd how many of these ended up as seminal science fiction authors. We try to return to the past, and it turns into the future.

Hi, Michael!
Steve Oerkfitz
38. James Davis Nicoll
Given the model the world they were in was based on, the Flandry stuff alway had an air of doom about them but the Polesotechnic League wasn't always welded to the Terran Empire time-line and was fairly cheerful, especially for Anderson, until his personal DOOMDOOMDOOM field forced him to engloomen it.

I don't recall when he established the League as having preceded the Empire but the gloomening in the League setting can be traced back to a specific story, "Lodestar", which he wrote for Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology. That was 1973 (The same year he wrote "Pugilist", about the coming inevitable subjugation of Free America by the ant-like commisars of the Soviet Union).

I believe once he sucked all the fun out of the League it only survived as a setting he wanted to write about for one more novel, 1977's Mirkheim.

Actually, he killed off the Empire around the same time: A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows is the last story he needed to tell about Flandry, 1979's A Stone in Heaven is the the largely forgettable next and final novel with Flandry as a main protagonist and 1985's The Game of Empire was an experiment in creating Flandry: The Next Generation which wasn't that interesting and didn't spawn any sequels.
Steve Oerkfitz
39. jimminz
I will mention to any completists out there, the Baen edition contains Poul's story "Quest," (set in the same universe as THC), as well as the appreciations by Silverberg, Drake, Flint, Bear, Paxson, with an introduction by Poul's daughter (and Greg Bear's wife) Astrid Anderson Bear.

And thanks for the compliments on the cover--there have been any number of more staid Baen covers in recent years, including JUMP GATE TWIST
and the covers of the Anderson & Sebanc fantasy series

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