The highest of crusades: some thoughts

Perhaps the highest of the crusades that I know. Jihad is another story. Now that I’ve finished my first Poul Anderson book, The High Crusade, I can share a few thoughts. *Some medium-mild spoilers to follow.*

First, allow me to point out that there are some other great reviews parsing different aspects of this story.

I was initially going to write a long post a little more focused on the serious societal points raised by this one, but I don’t think there’s much for me to say beyond what Jeffro highlights about “savagery” and “primitive civilizations.” If you’re coming at this from the perspective of someone who does some gaming, he also lays out a nice bit of musing about the “cleric” class and how stories like this make the case for the fighting man and the cleric as really being the most fundamental archetypes.

Jo Walton’s review at does a great job praising the story’s narrator, who really is a wonderful element of Anderson’s writing here. Walton also makes a few astute remarks about the technology of the High Crusade.

So far as recent reviews go, H.P. over at Every Day Should Be Tuesday beat me to the punch by a few days (fancy that we should both have chosen this as among our first Appendix N subjects). H.P. does a great job describing Anderson’s skillful use of language and the centrality of Christianity to the story.

On that note, I always appreciate being taught new words. Among the gems I was able to extract from this book was “virago,” which can mean either a woman of virtuous strength and courage, or else one who is a shrew. Also “amanuensis,” which basically seems to be a scribe or personal secretary.

After having a little time to digest, the High Crusade makes me think of another literary universe and also a video game that I’ve talked about before. There are similarities to be found in the worlds of Anderson’s High Crusade and Herbert’s Dune. In both stories, we see highly advanced civilizations with futuristic technology – laserguns, force shields, interstellar travel. And yet we see no computers, as Walton points out at Tor. In Dune, this is explained by the mention of something called the Butlerian Jihad, which saw the outlaw of AI and “thinking machines.” In Anderson’s world, the closest we see is the autopilot present on the alien starships. This is probably in large part due to the time at which these stories were written. In some ways it feels weird, but it also made me think that were we to encounter alien civilizations, who knows what kinds of technologies they would have developed and what they would have skirted, for religious, societal (taboo) or whatever other reasons.


The tone of the story also reminded me of Star Control 2 – comical yet bleak, with a style of humor that may induce chuckles without rendering the subject matter absolutely silly or breaking the tension of the plot (which is what turned me off to the Hitcher’s Guide books).The idea of human strangers thrust into a an alien world where they must quickly adapt to new technology and learn how to woo allies to defeat a common foe aligns very closely with the story setup of the beloved PC game.

Both Dune and SC2 feature large “worlds” made up on many different planets and civilizations. Herbert’s imperium has already organized into the Landsraad, a representative council of sorts, to serve as a check to the power of the emperor. Despite this representative body, the imperium operates under a feudal system (which turns out to be the formula for relative peace and balance in Anderson’s story).  I am loathe to say much about SC2, for its story is a masterpiece and the joy of it comes through discovery, but we find many different alien worlds with complex relationships and diverse species.

Given that Herbert was a contemporary of Anderson and that the Star Control 1 manual includes Anderson in its list of inspirational authors, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Dune and SC 2 had drawn upon the ideas of the High Crusade.

As I mentioned briefly, and has been pointed out by better critics than I, the High Crusade is a humorous book. This isn’t because Andesron bandies about funny jokes or absurd characters, but because of the story’s implausible and ludicrous progression of events. Yet at the same time, there is a weight to these events.

Perhaps the best example comes in the form of the Englishmen’s showdown with the alien ground forces of the colony they land upon. As part of his plan, the protagonist Sir Roger orders an artillery assault and raid upon a remote fort known to be storing arms and supplies. As the main battle ensues, many are temporarily blinded by a gigantic explosion in the distance and the rise of a billowing mushroom cloud. The narrator feels that something terrible and contrary to nature had been triggered.

Yes, the English knights used a trebuchet to lob a nuke and level an enemy alien fortress. When you say it like that, it’s funny. But the devastation subsequently described by Brother Parvus brings us back down.

With that, I once again offer praise of Anderson’s skillful rendering of Brother Parvus as narrator. He is an interesting character in and of himself; insightful, kind, and quick to learn. His compassion is evident in how he speaks of the other characters – even the villain who betrays Sir Roger.

I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that although you may be able to tell where things are going, there are some twists, and I was very satisfied with the conclusion despite expecting it to be a bitter one.

So that’s it. I’ll be reading more Anderson in future days, but for now I can wholeheartedly give this one a strong recommendation.

TL;DR – Good stuff, knights and aliens, 10/10






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