In the year of our Lord 1345, a big, silvery spaceship lands in a small barony in England. First contact is tough; one blaster blast from them, and a whole lot of clothyard shafts, lance tips, and sword blows from us, and Sir Roger the Baron de Tourneville finds himself in possession of a spaceship sufficient to hold his knights, men-at-arms, archers, wives, villagers, and livestock. Naturally he piles everyone in for a quick conquest of France (this being early in the Hundred Years’ War) and onward to liberate the Holy Land. Naturally things go rather wrong.
Tricked by their captured alien Wersgor, they travel not to the Holy Land but back to one of the Wersgor empire colony planets. The Wersgor, accustomed to easy conquests and battles limited to space, are no match for the English in hand to hand combat and the English quickly learn to turn their own weapons against them. The story is framed as the account of Brother Parvus. He’s present for most of the story as a confidant of his lord and the only available interpreter; what conversations he doesn’t witness, he freely admits he makes up for the sake of his account. Parvus is the narrator, but The High Crusade is the story of Sir Roger. Roger (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 and scoreboard, England) is the heart of the story, as he protects his people with equal bluster and deception (at one point suggesting Ireland as a planet under their dominion), as the strain of it all begins to break him, as his ambition begins to consume him. The story keeps a very narrow focus, which is perhaps why Anderson can keep it to 200 pages instead of a dozen volumes. It’s Roger’s story, with the only other really important characters being Brother Parvus, Roger’s wife Lady Catherine, and Sir Owain, a knight in his service (in keeping with the deeply medieval feel, the tradition of courtly love plays a key role).
The High Crusade has a lot going for it. Knights IN SPACE is a fun, interesting concept. It’s well written. It’s damned funny at times without ever belaboring the point. It’s a standalone and quite short for a novel (the real reason I picked it to read and discuss first). And, best of all, it’s different.
As much speculative fiction as I read these days, stories that do something different are highly prized. And the variety and imagination offered is one of the reasons I love speculative fiction in the first place. (Weirdly and annoyingly, the would-be literati and tastemakers of speculative fiction seem very committed to fitting speculative fiction into as small a box as possible.) The High Crusade isn’t just an example of a very weird and long forgotten subgenre (What else belongs? A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court?). It does three things foreign to modern SF.
First, the language. Anderson’s medieval denizens sound, well, medieval. The language is archaic and beautiful and most importantly perfectly in line with the setting. This is something that Tolkien did extremely well—yet is wrongly and too often criticized for—and that even very good modern writers like George R.R. Martin and Miles Cameron can’t or won’t do. It’s something that modern editors probably wouldn’t let fly even if authors could pull it off, which is a shame, because it adds a certain effect and complements the story.
Second, Christianity is front and center. It’s a factor in every decision the human characters make. They go through constant minor religious crises—for example when they realize the much longer days of the alien world they wind up on prevents them from properly tracking the Earth Sabbath—and they constantly find resolve in their faith. This is, again, perfectly in keeping with the setting. Christianity is inextricable from medieval Europe (this is just Miles Cameron’s argument for including very thinly veiled Christianity in his Traitor Son Cycle—without Christianity medieval Europe is no longer recognizable; you can’t pull Monday through Saturday for your setting without bringing Sunday along for the ride). Ironically, the filing of the Christian serial numbers in medieval Europe-inspired fantasy has a lot to do with the devout Tolkien, whose Middle Earth looks much more pagan than Christian.
Finally, Anderson is entirely unabashed in giving us English badassery. (The English in less are even less self-conscious.) That’s not the sort of thing you’ll see anymore. It is also admittedly more than a little ludicrous. But those guys didn’t build an empire on which the sun never set by accident. (That last joke Anderson sneaks in would be verboten as well.)
Oh, and it has cigarette ads.
4 of 5 Stars.
The High Crusade was nominated for a Hugo and was mentioned by name by Gary Gygax in his D&D Appendix N.
Jeffro on The High Crusade at Castalia House.
Jo Walton on The High Crusade at Tor.com.
James Maliszewski on The High Crusade at Grognardia.
pcbushi on The High Crusade at PCBUSHI.
Rawle Nyanzi on The High Crusade at Rawle Nyanzi.
Suzannah Rowntree on The High Crusade at Vintage Novels.