A Review of Poul Anderson’s “The High Crusade”

[ Originally posted Dec. 29, 2003 ]

I had never read a book by Poul Anderson before reading The High Crusade (1960). Though I had known the man was considered a master sci-fi writer, I was beyond impressed by this book.

The High Crusade is the story of what happens when the inhabitants of a fourteenth century English village, Ansby, are attacked by a scout ship for the conquest-driven Wersgorix race. From the moment the Wersgorix scouting party disembarks from their ship, confident in their supposed overwhelming technological superiority over the English “barbarians”, all the usual stereotypes about religion and science are cleverly and dramatically reversed with great rhetorical and storial effect.

The story is told largely through the eyes and quill of “Brother Parvus” (literally “Little Brother”), an unassuming and quite ordinary fourteenth century monk, with all the biases one might expect in a man of that period. For instance, there are frequent references to Holy Scripture and the authority of the Church Fathers and the present (14th century) Pope in spiritual matters, frequent mention of the Mass and its spiritual benefits, and tremendous concern for how warfare against the Wersgorix should be mediated by explicitly biblical concerns. As well the story is made all the more charming and believable by simple conventions that one actually finds in real Medieval literature-such as the interesting (and probably disconcerting for Moderns) reckoning of historical matters according to a scheme of “in the year of grace 1345…”, and so forth.

Most interesting, indeed, is the way the story uses such pious Christianity to completely overturn the entire substructure of contempt for Medieval Christendom that so many Moderns-even Modern Christians!-are so facilely taken with. For instance, contrary to the superficial Modern belief that religious biases (particularly Christian ones) contribute only to ignorance, superstition, and repression of true “progress”, the Medievals of little English Ansby demonstrate the true power of a life lived in devotion to Jehovah, the God of Battles. As well they manage to reveal the true, synthesizing power of the Medieval vision, which, far from being repressive of knowledge and advance, simply operated according to a very different scheme of how human beings know things and was quite able to handle new ways of thinking (within reason, of course).

Now it is true that the Medieval vision was for a long time hindered by its received Platonism from making the sorts of immense advances in purely natural and applied science that began to happen after the seventeenth century. But all Modern misinformation aside, that vision was very much capable of taking new knowledge (such as the possibility of space travel and the existence of alien races) and incorporating it into the existing scheme of submission to God’s revelation. Thus we find the Ansby-ites, under their lord Roger de Tourneville and the careful, sometimes humorous spiritual guidance of Brother Parvus, not only wrestling with (and triumphing over) the implications for their religion of the largely religion-less Wersgor race, but also fairly easily incorporating into their worldview and practice the “scientific” mindset that shallow Moderns believe is entirely incompatible with “religion”. Set this side-by-side with, say, the propagandistic storial device found in many episodes of Star Trek to the effect that anytime “primitives” encounter “advanced” thinking, they will necessarily have their entire way of life completely upended and be forced to abandon or radically transform their religion to the standards set down by the “advanced” knowledge, and one has a rather large possibility of experiencing severe cognitive dissonance. Not that this would be a bad thing for the reader soaked in Modernism (as we all are to some degree or another) to experience.

Much more could be said about The High Crusade, but the story is simply so thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking that I do not wish to spoil it for anyone else. Get Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade. It is well worth your time and reading effort.

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