Not knowing Englishmen, they had not expected trouble

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

I’ve mentioned Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade before, and it recently came up in a comment thread, so I finally bought a (digital) copy and read it. The premise is that advanced aliens land on Earth, prepared to awe the locals, but the locals are a medieval English army, preparing to go to war. They rush the ship and slaughter the crew — save one blue-skinned prisoner:

Soldiers were trained to react when such things happened, not to think. The bow of Red John sang. The foremost demon lurched off the ramp with a cloth-yard arrow through him. I saw him cough blood and die. As if the one shot had touched off a hundred, the air was suddenly gray with whistling shafts. The three other demons toppled, so thickly studded with arrows they might have been popinjays at a contest. “They can be slain!” bawled Sir Roger. “Haro! St. George for merry England!” And he spurred his horse straight up the gangway.

[...]

The crew of the ship numbered about a hundred, but few carried weapons. We later found all manner of devices stored in the holds, but the invaders had relied on creating a panic. Not knowing Englishmen, they had not expected trouble. The ship’s artillery was ready to use, but of no value once we were inside.

Later, when the English army takes the captured ship to an alien-controlled planet, they see the same tactical flaws:

The trouble of the Wersgorix was that they had gone too far. They had made combat on the ground obsolete, and were ill trained, ill equipped, when it happened. True, they possessed fire-beams, as well as force shields to stop those same fire-beams. But they had never thought to lay down caltrops.

[...]

Yet it was scarcely fair. They had no body armor. Their only weapon for such close-in fighting was a knife attached to the muzzle of the handgun, to make a most awkward spear… or the gun itself, clubbed.

Further, the aliens don’t realize how primitive their opponents really are:

Now all the Wersgorix know about us is that we have suddenly come from nowhere and — if Branithar’s boasts be true — done what no other host has ever achieved: taken one of their strongholds! Would you not move warily, were you their constable?

In fact, the aliens struggle to accept just how brash their English foes are:

They could be a punitive expedition, I suppose. For reasons of military secrecy, they could have used one of our own ships and kept their most potent weapons in reserve. It doesn’t make sense. But neither does it make sense that barbarians would blandly tell the most powerful realm in the known universe to surrender its autonomy. Unless it’s mere bluster.

My 50th-anniversary edition opens with multiple introductions. In the first introduction, by Poul’s daughter, Astrid Anderson Bear, she mentions that the story was published as a novel in 1961 and lost the Hugo award to A Canticle for Leibowitz. I have to agree with her assessment: no shame there. (Incidentally, Canticle is not available for Kindle. My mass-market paperback is already yellowing. It seems like the kind of book that needs an acid-free paper edition — maybe the library-bound one?) Astrid goes on to describe her father’s interest in the Middle Ages:

A few years later, in May of 1966, Diana Paxson hosted friends and acquaintances at a small medieval-style tourney in her backyard, about a mile from the Grove Street house. That small gathering became known as the First Tourney, from which sprang the Society for Creative Anachronism, now a world-wide organization with tourneys and events happening most weeks, year-round. [...] And my father was an early and enthusiastic member, earning a knighthood for his fighting and additional awards for his poetry, and spent many happy hours in what is called the Current Middle Ages.

In another introduction, David Drake notes that the thoughtful core of the book is that technology is not intelligence — before he shares some fun “Easter eggs” in Anderson’s work:

It was rare for a magazine to run two stories under the same author’s name in an issue: the novelette was credited to Winston P. Sanders, a pseudonym that Poul used a number of times. The name is a joke. If you’ve read Winnie-the-Pooh, you may recall that Winnie is living “under the name of Sanders.” [...] Notice the name of the monk telling the story: Brother Parvus, a church name which he tells us he took from his nickname as a layman. So: his nickname was Little. He also tells us that he was a younger son of Wat Brown. Very coyly Poul has told us that the novel is by Little Brown, a very upmarket Boston publisher who most certainly did not publish The High Crusade or anything else by Poul Anderson until quite late in his life.

Another key point of the story is that primitive institutions, like feudalism, serve a purpose and have their strengths:

Yet this realm, in theory a republic of freemen, was in practice a worse tyranny 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.”

[...]

The Wersgorix had similar weapons, of course, but less determination to use them.

[...]

But the Wersgorix were not a knightly folk. They were more prudent and forethoughtful than we. It cost them dearly.

[...]

Indeed, this race had been supreme among the stars so long that only their soldiers now had occasion to develop a manly contempt for death.

[...]

[W]hile the engines of war may change through the centuries, rivalry and intrigue look no subtler out here than at home.

[...]

Where it comes to intrigue, I’m no master of it myself, no Italian. But the star-folk are like children.

[...]

Well, on Earth there’ve been many nations and lords for many centuries, all at odds with each other, under a feudal system nigh too complicated to remember.

[...]

On our Earth, we’ve perforce learned all the knavery there is to know.

[...]

“They know so little about the detection and use of traitors out here,” he remarked to me, “that I can buy this fellow for less than an Italian city. Our allies never attempted this, for they imagined that the Wersgor nation must be as solid as their own. Yet isn’t it logic, that so vast a sprawl of estates, separated by days and weeks of travel, must in many ways resemble a European country? Though even more corruptible—”

[...]

I was thinking that the Wersgor type of government commands no fealty.

[...]

As I said before, the collapse of Wersgorixan was not unlike the collapse of Rome, and similar problems found a similar answer. His advantage lay in having that answer ready to hand, the experience of many Terrestrial centuries.

[...]

Their central government had always been a distant thing to them, a mere collector of taxes and enforcer of arbitrary laws.

[...]

Many a blueskin found his imagination captured by our rich ceremonial and by a government of individual nobles whom he could meet face to face.

[...]

Having little military tradition of their own, the Jairs, Ashenkoghli, and Pr?*tans did not realize how those cruel years welded bonds of loyalty between native peasants and English aristocrats.

This might make good reading for any high-tech force sent off to a primitive land.

Comments

  1. Dan Kurt says:

    re: “… Incidentally, Canticle [for Leibowitz] is not available for Kindle.

    Funny, I have on my iMac a readable PDF of Canticle for Leibowitz. Heaven knows where I obtained it. Never read it in the 60s or 70s but I read it on the iMac’s screen about a year ago. Great read for sure.

    Send me your e-mail and I will send you the PDF.

  2. I’ve been meaning to read The High Crusade for some time. This just makes me want to even more. I’ve got quite a bit of airplane time coming soon, I may just have to purchase a copy.

  3. Chedolf says:

    I have A Canticle for Leibowitz in MOBI form, if you want it.

  4. Isegoria says:

    If a digital copy of Canticle appeared at my rarely checked backup email address, I would not object: isegoria dot parrhesia at gmail dot com.

  5. Space Nookie says:

    Space Viking is available from the Gutenberg Project:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20728

  6. Isegoria says:

    I found Space Viking oddly compelling — but I should note that it’s not in the same vein as The High Crusade; it’s not literally about Vikings getting a space ship.

  7. Kirk says:

    King David’s Spaceship isn’t half-bad, either…

    Precisely none of H. Beam Piper’s oeuvre is a bad read; even his hackish stuff is well-wrought and satisfying.

    It’s too bad that his financial situation was such that he felt he had to end it all at such an early age. I’d have liked to have seen what he would have written later in life.

  8. Bruce says:

    I just reread Piper’s Murder in the Gunroom. As a pure mystery I think Jacque Barzun found it tolerable. The gun nut stuff is flawless, the Korzybsky stuff was chewy and quirky, and Piper snuck in a reference to a female disagreement as ‘bush warfare’ that would not have got past Campbell.

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