Warning: This review contains SPOILERS. You have been warned.
“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.” – Poul Anderson, The High Crusade
Living in a modern scientific age, navigating through the waters of faith can be more than a little tricky. This became a little more concrete to me recently while discussing a Gospel passage with a group of friends in a cell group setting. One friend in particular had objections which were pretty much surface-level criticism of the Gospel through modern lenses, and built on the dubious premise that our ancestors, prior to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, were a bunch of drooling imbeciles. I confess my response on that day could have been a bit more measured and charitable, but it does strike me as an important issue to address: do we, as Christians, believe in something unwieldy and impractical, a relic of a bygone age? I thought it would be interesting to view this question in the light of Poul Anderson’s science fiction novel, The High Crusade.
It may seem frivolous to turn to a work of speculative fiction, a pulp fantasy novel, for answers. However, one of the major themes of this novel is whether scientific advancement is more reliable than having a true feel of the people or objects we wish to learn about – learning versus experience. As the main character, Brother Parvus notes, imagining in his memoirs a conversation between two other characters that he was not present to is perfectly acceptable – after all, he knew them personally. He knew their loves and their struggles, and even if the scene didn’t pan out exactly as he described, the monk was confident that he at least captured the spirit of the event. So that is what I would like to do as well, to see how well this novel captures the essence of humanity, and how we relate to our Creator.
The High Crusade kicks off with the Wersgor aliens, who belong to a massive galaxy-conquering empire, landing scout ships in a medieval English village. Despite their overwhelming technological advantage, the aliens find themselves overwhelmed by said medieval villagers – an electromagnetic pulse is useless against swords and bows, after all. The local English baron brings the entire village to commandeer the aliens’ ship, intending to use it against France in the Hundred Year’s War. Shenanigans ensue, however, and they soon find themselves stranded in space, unable to find the way back to Earth. With nothing but faith, courage and cunning, these Free Englishmen must find a way to carve a new life for themselves out amongst the stars!
One common theme that stood out to me as I read the novel was Humility. By this, I mean that it is the faith of the medieval human characters that grounds them in reality, preventing them from overestimating their own strength. On first entering outer space, Brother Parvus comments:
“…when Scripture mentions the four corners of the world, it did not mean our planet Terra at all, but referred to a cubical universe.” – ibid.
This rather humorous comment is plain wrong scientifically, but it is quite telling of the monk’s character. Rather than presuming upon his own intellect, he defers to the wonders of God’s creation and how he cannot fully comprehend it all. In fact, he mentions that upon becoming a monk he chose the Latin name ‘Parvus’ (small). Brother Parvus’ humility grants him a degree of open-mindedness and a willingness to consider new ideas and concepts, freeing him from the sin of intellectual pride.
In fact, the story repeatedly shows how religious humility saves us from the dangers of hubris. In another scene, a knight reveals how he managed to see through an assassination plot that the aliens engineered, a trap that hinged on appealing to his ego and his spiritual pride. Explaining his reasoning to his companions, the knight confesses his sinful thoughts to them, asking:
‘“…Would God have made a person as gross as me the bearer of His Grail?”
Sir Erec winced. “I wanted to believe,” he finished. “How I longed to believe! But I decided we should put matters to the test. If I were mistaken, on my soul be the wrath. God knows I am weak and sinful, but he also knows I swore an oath of fealty to King and Church.”’ – ibid.
Again and again, the novel shows that a good dose of Christian humility, mixed with courage, luck and a truly stunning amount of cunning, might be just what one needs to escape from peril time and time again.
But it’s not just humility that their belief in God instills in the heroes, but also, somewhat paradoxically, a healthy sense of their own importance. The story is told through the eyes of Brother Parvus, but the true protagonist is his liege lord Sir Roger, the Baron de Tourneville. It is Sir Roger who continually encourages his subjects not to despair, reminding them of their dignity as sons and daughters of God.
“But I’m fain to stay here, bargain shrewdly, fight where needful, and put my trust in God. Surely He, who stopped the sun for Joshua, can swat a million [aliens] if it pleases Him, for his mercy endureth forever.” – ibid.
Granted, much of Sir Roger’s dialogue is duplicitous in nature. He is a consummate politician, cunning and ambitious, using words and actions to manipulate events to ensure victory for himself and his people. And yet, he is also portrayed as a genuinely good person, who loves his wife and children and is greatly appreciative of his friends.
Even when telling half-truths, Sir Roger’s words have the underlying assumption that we are all important to God. When seeking allies among the various alien races, Roger remarks:
“Sir, I am no petty noble,” the baron answered with great stiffness. “My descent is as lofty as any in your realm. An ancestor of mine, by the name of Noah, was once admiral of all the fleets of my planet.” – ibid.
If this claim is true of Sir Roger, it is also true of every human being. We are all loved by God, and descended from people who are loved by God. In the novel, God never acts directly, but the faith that the main characters have in him is palpable, and never wavers throughout. It is this faith that reminds them of their dignity, preventing them from despairing in the face of overwhelming odds.
The High Crusade is a gripping read, and at the heart of it lies the paradox that though we are sinners, we are nonetheless loved by God, His Chosen People. I highly recommend giving it a read. It is at times epic, at times hilarious, and most importantly, it reminds us of who we are.
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng