I stumbled across the story in one of those terrible compilations made for English classes, Themes in Science Fiction, which I had pulled off the classroom shelf — because we certainly were never assigned anything like that — and for some reason it didn’t occur to me to seek out more of Poul Anderson’s work until decades later.
He’s turned the standard alien invasion on its head by having the humans thwart the would-be oppressors on first contact. An alien scout vessel is quickly overrun… by Medieval Englishmen! When they get their hands on high tech weaponry and figure out what they can do with it, their first thought is to gather up the entire village, board the space craft, and take an extended vacation that would include invading France and taking back the Holy Land!
The narrator is tasked with teaching the sole surviving alien Latin so that they can force him to explain how to properly “sail” the ship. Hilarity ensues:
“You brought this on yourself,” I told him. “You should have known better than to make an unprovoked attack on Christians.”
“What are Christians?” he asked.
Dumbfounded, I thought he must be feigning ignorance. As a test, I led him through the Paternoster. He did not go up in smoke, which puzzled me.
“I think I understand,” he said. “You refer to some primitive tribal pantheon.”
“It is no such heathen thing!” I said indignantly. I started to explain the Trinity to him, but had scarcely gotten to transubstantiation when he waved an impatient blue hand. It was much like a human hand otherwise, save for the thick, sharp nails.
“No matter,” he said, “Are all Christians as ferocious as your people?”
“You would have had better luck with the French,” I admitted. “Your misfortune was landing among Englishmen.”
This is some seriously funny stuff, very nearly in the same vein as the best material of Douglas Adams. The fact that it is a straightforward science fiction story with realistic medieval characters only makes it funnier. While one might expect this sort of tongue-in-cheek delivery to get tiresome after a while, the plot moves along quickly enough that it gradually fades into the background. The Englishmen are soon (and inadvertently) deep in the process of taking over the the alien empire what would have otherwise subjugated humanity. And while the reader naturally identifies with the humans as he reads, it gradually becomes clear that there is an additional angle to Poul Anderson’s handiwork:
Actually, the Wersgor domain was like nothing at home. Most wealthy, important persons dwelt on their vast estates with a retinue of blueface hirelings. They communicated on the far-speaker and visited in swift aircraft of spaceships. Then there were other classes I have mentioned elsewhere, such as warriors, merchants, and politicians. But no one was born to his place in life. Under the law, all were equal, all free to strive as best they might for money or position. Indeed, they had even abandoned the idea of families. Each Wersgor lacked a surname, being identified by a number instead in a central registry. Male and female seldom lived together more than a few years. Children were sent at an early age to schools, where they dwelt until mature, for their parents oftener thought them an encumbrance than a blessing.
Yet this realm, in theory a republic of freemen, was in practice a worse tyranny than than mankind has known, even in Nero’s infamous day.
The Wersgorix had no special affection for their birthplace; they acknowledged no immediate ties of kinship or duty. As a result, each individual had no one to stand between him and the all-powerful central government. In England, when King John grew overweening, he clashed both with ancient law and with vested local interests; so the barons curbed him and thereby wrote another word or two of liberty for all Englishmen. The Wersgor were a lickspittle race, unable to protest any arbitrary decree of a superior. “Promotion according to merit” meant only “promotion according to one’s usefulness to the imperial ministers.”
Yes, after being the butt of so many jokes and tongue-in-cheek remarks, our “primitive” narrator has a few observations to make about the culture of the alien people he is so cheerfully invading. The shortcomings of the alien society are in fact almost painfully familiar to the typical reader of the twentieth century. Poul Anderson has deftly turned the tables on the reader: we are the punch line. It is thought-provoking to say the least, but it’s mere prelude to the coming knock-out blow:
“Well?” demanded Sir Roger. “What ails you now?”
“If they have not yet gone to war,” I said weakly, “why should the advent of a few backward savages like us make them do so?”
“Hearken, Brother Parvus,” said Sir Roger. “I’m weary of this whining about our own ignorance and feebleness. We’re not ignorant of the true Faith, are we? Somewhat more to the point, maybe, while the engines of war may change through the centuries, rivalry and intrigue look no subtler out here than at home. Just because we use a different sort of weapons, we aren’t savages.”