Conning a Galaxy: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

If you love science fiction, and also medieval historical adventures, and enjoy a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously, then I have the book for you! Poul Anderson’s classic novel, The High Crusade, perfectly blends all three elements, as hostile aliens invade England during the Middle Ages, finding to their dismay that the primitive humans are a force to be reckoned with. And when the humans commandeer the alien’s spaceship and take the fight to the enemy, they embark on one of the most audacious con games in the history of fiction…

I recently found a copy of this book in my favorite comic and used book store. This particular paperback copy was published by an outfit called Manor Books in 1975. I can’t say they paid much attention to the cover, a generic, muddy and indistinct image in shades of orange, green and blue. That’s a shame, because the story has been paired with many excellent cover paintings over the years, in a variety of editions. I had never previously owned the book, having initially read the story in my dad’s Analog magazines in my youth (where it was serialized from July to September of 1960, just as editor John Campbell was changing the name of the magazine from Astounding to Analog, and using both names superimposed on the cover).

The book is built on a favorite trope of Campbell’s—the idea that despite superior technology, the plucky and inventive human race would inevitably prevail over any alien invaders (other examples of this trope I have reviewed in this column include William Burkett’s Sleeping Planet and Christopher Anvil’s Pandora’s Legions). And in The High Crusade, having bearded the lion in its den, the aliens must then face the humans as they explode into their interstellar empire.

 

About the Author

Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was one of the most prolific and popular science fiction and fantasy authors of the latter half of the 20th century. Throughout his career, he garnered seven Hugos, three Nebulas, a SFWA Grand Master Award, and a host of other honors, as well as serving as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He wrote in a variety of subgenres, publishing works of epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, time travel, serious scientific extrapolation, adventure, and even humorous stories (and he blends elements of a number of these subgenres in The High Crusade). Anderson was a founding member of Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization whose recreations of medieval weapons and combat helped not only him, but many other authors, improve the worldbuilding of their fantasy novels and stories. I have previously looked at other works by Poul Anderson in this column, reviewing some of his tales of intelligence operative Captain Sir Dominic Flandry in 2016, and some tales of master trader Nicholas van Rijn in 2019. Like many authors whose careers began in the early 20th century, you can find some of his earlier works on Project Gutenberg.

 

The High Crusade

The book’s tone, right from the start, suits the story perfectly. Poul Anderson always tended to use language that leans toward the archaic, and here that works very much to his advantage. The book is written in the first person from the viewpoint of a monk, Brother Parvus, a humble man whose Latin name translates to “small,” and who serves as the main character’s scribe. And that main character is the opposite of the narrator in just about every respect: He is Sir Roger de Tourneville, an English baron who is gathering his forces in the year 1345 to aid King Edward III in the war in France. Just as that military force is assembled and equipped for war, a huge scout ship from the alien Wersgor empire lands in the midst of town. As the troops gather around the gangway, one of the aliens make the mistake of trying to intimidate the locals by killing a human. But instead of reacting fearfully, the troops react as soldiers and storm the ship. Swept up in bloodlust, they kill all the invaders, who have relied on long-range weapons for so long that they have forgotten the skills of hand-to-hand combat. One of the baron’s captains, Red John Hameward, has the good sense to capture an alien, Branithar, in order to interrogate him.

Brother Parvus is put in charge of learning the alien’s language, and begins to learn about the Wersgor star empire, although he is hard-pressed to believe what he hears. Being a man of the cloth, he also tries to figure out whether this alien creature has a soul. In the meantime, Sir Roger hatches a wild plan. He will load his army onto the alien spacecraft, have the alien Branithar fly to France to help win the war against the French using alien weapons, and then fly on to liberate the Holy Land. And to keep the men’s morale up, he will take advantage of the massive size of the alien ship and bring their families along—this includes Sir Roger’s own wife, Lady Catherine.

Branithar, however, has other plans, and sets the ship’s autopilot to bring them to a nearby Wersgor colony world. And here Sir Roger hatches an even more audacious plan, and begins his great con. The humans land near a Wersgor fort and capture it. Sir Roger tells the Wersgor the humans are from a star-spanning empire, and demands their surrender. The humans take some explosive devices to attack another fort, only to find that the devices are atomic bombs, and the fort is obliterated. Soon the humans control the entire planet. And now, Sir Roger’s plans become even more grandiose. He contacts other alien races and convinces them to ally with him in the cause of overthrowing the cruel and oppressive Wersgor empire. Not all the humans are happy with this turn of events, especially Lady Catherine, who only wants to return home. When the ambitious and unscrupulous Sir Owain Montbelle, who also longs to return to Earth, begins to flirt with Lady Catherine, the seeds of potential disaster are planted. There are a lot of twists and turns along the way as the book gallops toward its exciting conclusion.

The High Crusade is Poul Anderson at his best. He is clearly having fun with his characters and setting, and that enthusiasm is infectious. The book feels well rooted in the real world, as the same sense of destiny and entitlement that fuels the human romp through the stars in the book drove the English who exploded across the continents of the Earth in our own history. And even though, as an older reader, I have a more jaded view of the advantages and ethics of empire, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story as much as I thought it would. The High Crusade puts imperial aggression in the best possible light, but even though I realize that’s simply not realistic, I was willing to accept it as a fictional contrivance within this particular story. After all, you can dislike crime from an ethical perspective and still enjoy reading fiction about someone running a successful con.

The book is compact, as were most novels of its era, probably coming in at around 50-60,000 words, so it gets right to the point. Only a few characters have any sort of personality at all, but those who do are well drawn. My favorite is the humble Brother Parvus. As a young reader, I took his recollections as fact, but as an older reader, I see where his naivety might have colored the narrative, especially where he sees Lady Catherine as an innocent victim of Sir Owain. I have a feeling the reality of the situation was a bit more complex. Brother Parvus’ humility makes a good contrast with Sir Roger’s hubris, which grows larger with every victory. The story moves rapidly along as the humans barrel their way from one predicament to the next. I remembered the start of the tale from my youth, but had forgotten the ending, so I was drawn into the narrative, and ended up turning the pages eagerly to find out what happened next. I read it while my car was in the shop, and finished it in a single sitting, happy it made the hours fly past!

 

Final Thoughts

I recommend The High Crusade to any readers who enjoy a good adventure tale. Even after 60 years, the story feels fresh, although some references to analog gauges and electronic devices do date the technology. The story lacks ethnic and gender diversity, but is accurate in depicting the attitudes of the times it portrays. It is not hard to end up rooting for the plucky humans, despite their flaws and ferocity. And now I look forward to hearing your thoughts, especially of you’ve read The High Crusade or other works of Poul Anderson. And if can think of other works that mix medieval settings with science fiction, I’d love to hear about them as well…

 

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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