With a slight word of warning from Joachim on the juvenility of Vault of the Ages, I forged ahead on my sixteenth Poul Anderson book knowing the above objective truth with my own subjective truth: Poul Anderson has his hits (Tau Zero  and Three Worlds to Conquer ) more often than he has his misses (Day of Their Return  and Orbit Unlimited ). Sadly, the familiar theme of The High Crusade, minus the aliens, comes across as shallow entertainment with a flowery epimyth or a conclusion. It’s not a dud, but doesn’t hearken to Poul’s own science fiction traditions of wonderment and/or zany originality.
Rear cover synopsis:
“20th Century, Mystery Century!
Once upon a time (which hasn’t happened yet) the fierce Lann army thundered down from the North to conquer the peace-loving Dalesmen. The ‘Doom’ had destroyed nearly all concepts of civilization 500 years earlier. Defying charges of witchcraft, Carl of Dalesmen entered the forbidden city and the vault which held secrets of the long-ago twentieth century.”
With the winters being colder and longer than in recent memory, the northern clan of Lann has dispatched an army to the south in order to find new land to settle and cultivate, but not before killing and pillaging. Their reputation as a ruthless clan has reached further inland has become known as the fiercest, largest army. Lann’s King Raymon’s own son Lenard is the captain of the thousand-man platoon; both the leaders and the led are driven by the need to make a settlement further to south to ensure their clan’s survival. In their way is peaceful town of Dalesmen.
Democratically governed by Chief Ralph, the village has survived through the decades with the assistance of the town’s “Doctor,” Donn. As with every village, the Doctor bears holy symbols, beats drums, and chants spells against witchcraft (130). One law of the Dalesmen tribe, and many tribes like them, is to not enter the City, where the scaffold remains of an ancient city still stand amid the rubble of concrete, steel, and glass. Though inhabited by a industrious yet cowardly band of so-called witches, the town is off-limits, especially so for the Time Vault within the city proper.
Chief Ralph’s son Carl treks through the forest and happens upon a country home where two boys, Tom and Owl, decide to tag along to enter the city, their mission to find reinforcement against the Lann horde. Their horses packed, they travel towards the City only to be chased by the Lann band, but they find solace in the City where they are greeted by the City’s own Chief Ronwy. Permission is eventually granted for them to enter the Time Vault, where books and machines abound. To prove to his own clan that the City holds power enough for them to defeat the Lann clan, Carl takes a hand-crank flashlight to impress everyone.
Denounced by Doctor Donn, the trio are ever eager to prove themselves potent in the eyes of the village and, most importantly, in the prying eyes of the Lann. Though the magic white light emanating from the contraption may have scared the army once, further technology must be attained so that they may conquer the horde of heathens at their threshold. Captured by the Lann eventually, the trio of Carl, Tom, and Owl defuse their situation craftily and return once again to their village where another challenge is thrown at them: the death penalty for trespassing on the ground of the City and overstepping the boundary of the Time Vault and the demons which lurk within.
Yet another timely escape brandished by the young whippersnappers of Dalesmen sees them charge back into the City once and for all to gain control of the technology within the Time Vault, whether the City inhabitants or the Lann can stop them.
Joachim is right when he states the juvenility of this novel. The gallivanting between their village, through the enemy’s encampment, to the derelict perches of the City’s skyscrapers is repetitive. The Vault holds such wonder to the trio of boys, but it also holds wonder in the reader. However, don’t expect to be immersed in the ancient wonders of the Vault’s bounty because only a handful of pages pertain to the Vault’s treasures.
You should familiarize yourself with some of the science lingo before dipping your toes into this science fiction novel:
Smiting sabers, lancing pikes, gleaming shields, fringed buckskin breeches, sledging hammers, silver-studded boots… stop me when this begins to sound more like science fiction than fantasy or historical fiction… thudding hooves, drawn bows, quivers of arrows, moccasined feet, fur-lined tunics, saddle blankets, catapults… I could go on… hamstringing swords, creaking wagons, fur-trimmed boots, etc.
It’s not really that bad but it does drag on.
I wasn’t sympathetic with anyone in this novel, be they a person or a tribe: the morally high-grounded post-apocalyptic tribe (before post-apocalyptic was “cool”) of Dalesmen pitted against the advancing threat of an impoverished clan from the Lann. Perhaps the Lann came at the encroachment the wrong way, with force, rather than diplomatically, but I didn’t feel sorry for the villages left in their wake or those who had yet to feel the brunt of the great Lann warrior clan.
The greedy territorial advance of the Lann army is synonymous to the technological lust of the Dalesmen youth. Where the Lann simply wanted land to live and thrive on, the Dalesmen youth look to the non-solution of technology to solve their problem of invasion. In the Time Vault itself, there were more than mere inventions of gunpowder and electricity, but there must have also been the inventions of the mind, something which they felt they could easily bypass. This reliance on knowing of technology rather than the knowledge of technology casts a dim view on the young bandits, be it for the greater cause or less. Even when they discuss to share the treasures within, they mention the material good rather than the good of knowledge.
Even Doctor Donn says, “There is no evil in the vault. There is only evil in the hearts of men. Knowledge, all knowledge, is good” (187). If this were true in the context of the story, then why would the Dalesmen tribe offer to share the Vault’s technology with competing clans when the exchange of ethics, morality, or religion could better change the “hearts of men” than a schooner could? Presuming the Vault is full of not only the world’s most important technologies, but also full of the virtues of the world’s most gifted thinkers, I would think the first thing to share would be the goodness of words, not the goodness of the material wealth.
This will be one of the few Anderson novels that will be taken back to the second-hand bookstore. It’s a pity that even the cover isn’t noteworthy. I’ll remind myself in the future to steer clear of Poul Anderson’s historically themed novels if they don’t include absurdity like The High Crusade. Now I’m only left with Psycho-technic League (1981) on my shelves… an ominous sign that I either need for Anderson, or none at all. Considering his wealth of material, there must be tastier morsels out there.