Being a straightforward “juvenile” paperback with very small typesetting, Vault of the Ages (1952) sat in my collection for years before I had any desire to pick it up and read it. After encountering some positive words about it, I decided to give VotA a try in my next Poul Anderson binge. That is, the next time I decided to plow into my to-read list in an alphabetical fashion.
That is an evocative cover by Barlowe, by far the best artwork done for this title. Despite the typesetting, VotA was a quick read and fairly enjoyable. It definitely is intended for younger readers, as all of the primary heroes are teenagers and action sequences are purposely dispersed over the length of the story.
The editors of Fantasy & Science Fiction (in the January 1953 issue) explained that publishing SF novels specifically for teenagers was a practice that started with Heinlein and joined by other authors in 1952. VotA was mentioned as a quality example, along with Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky and Chad Oliver’s Mists of Dawn; Anderson’s title therefore has its minor place in the history of the genre. I’m not sure if VotA was the first to feature a post-apocalypse setting, which of course fills the shelves these days, especially for the “young adult” audience.
long after the bombs
It’s centuries after a nuclear war, and over many generations people have survived on a roughly Dark Ages-level of existence. The most sophisticated tribe in the area (which is somewhere in the contemporary northeastern United States) is the Dalesmen, made up of farming families and a prosperous trading town. They face an invasion from the north, composed of barbaric nomads called the Lann. There is also a ruined city, known as The City, that is inhabited by its own hardscrabble tribe of scavengers (the “witches”).
The three tribes are distinguished by different appearances, with the Linn being stockier and the Witches described as “gnomish,” as well as quality of living. The Dalesmen have subsisted well on their successful farming and trading:
It was a handsome and comfortable house, thought Carl, letting his eyes travel around it. The soft light of home-dipped tallow candles fell on skin rugs, on a loom with a rich, half-woven tapestry stretched across it, on pots and bowls of baked clay and hammered copper.
In contrast, the Lann have suffered greatly under increasingly harsher winters (Anderson hints at the arrival of a new Ice Age) and the Witches seem to be in a state of collapse. However, they all share a language, and they all divide power in the same manner: the chief is the popular leader, but the doctor is authority on all matters of religion and knowledge.
The state of the Witches is made to be pathetic, since the City also houses the Time Vault, a concrete tomb containing a trove of knowledge and equipment from pre-holocaust civilization. The Witches forbid entry to this place, believing ancient stories about demons and curses residing inside. These spirits are referred to as the “demons of Atmik,” suggesting that the longtime fear of knowledge contains some truth, but these people are corrupted by it and will only survive as long as there is metal in the City left to pillage. Anderson wrote a prologue for the Berkeley edition of VotA, stating that the novel was inspired by the two time capsules buried in New York and Atlanta in 1938.
the barbarian invasions
Carl, the son of the Dalesmen chief, is touring the farmland to recruit the men he meets into his father’s army. Many of the farmers have been refusing him, preferring to take their chances at being missed by the Lann, or not quite believing the prospects of a great invasion. Later, after the Dalesmen army–whose ranks are pointedly short of men–is defeated in battle by the Lann, Carl sees many of these families belatedly fleeing the horde with overloaded wagons.
The wagons were piled high with family goods, and Carl frowned even as his hand was being shaken. What was the use of dragging all that through heartbreaking miles of forest when it slowed travel and invited behaviors?
The visual of ordinary people unable to discard their possessions, even to save themselves, reminded me of one of my favorite films:
Carl’s frustration with his tribe grows when he discovers the notorious Time Vault inside the City. He and two companions, also teenagers, had to take refuge there after being chased through the forest by Lann horsemen. There, he met the chief of the Witches, an old man named Ronwy. Ronwy is the most enlightened adult figure in the novel, because he has studied the contents of the vault and understands that it is not, as his people are convinced, cursed with evil magic.
Knowing that the Lann are too numerous and too united for the Dalesmen to defeat, Carl recognizes the contents of the Vault–the accursed knowledge–as his father’s only true hope for victory. Ronwy, in turn, sees Carl as the best hope for his own people, as an enlightened Dalesmen leadership could pull the Witches ot of their own ignorance. Ronwy is the novel’s “wise old man” serving as the mouthpiece of the author’s philosophy, but Anderson uses this character with admirable discipline (especially when compared to some of Heinlein’s later novels).
Carl leaves the City with an item from the Vault, a hand-cranked flashlight. This helps him escape the Lann raiders who had been waiting for him, and he brings it home to his father and the Dalesmen doctor, a bearded elder named Donn. The subsequent demonstration of the machine leads to the most amusing scene in the book:
“Taboo! Taboo!” The old pagan word rustled and murmured in dark corners, hooted mockingly up the chimney to hunt the wind. “It is forbidden.”
“But it is good!” cried Carl, with a wrench in his soul. “It is the power which can save us from the Lann, and–“
“It is one of the powers which brought the Doom.” The High Doctor touched the flashlight with his wand and muttered some spell. “Would you unchain that wrath and fire again?” …
Donn turns out to be the most formidable obstacle in Carl’s quest to bring knowledge to the Dalesmen, even bringing him to trial at some point. Fortunately the trial scene doesn’t ruin the book (which is what happened to Heinlein’s Have Space Suit–Will Travel), but it does proceed with the Lann literally outside the town walls. He forces Carl to split with his tribe in order to save it, a signature moment in the classic Hero’s Journey.
And it is the Hero’s Journey that Carl is to follow. He travels between the Dalesmen, the battlefields, the City and the forests between them multiple times–to the point of repetition. To drive home the point, he even has an encounter with (you guessed it) a wild tiger, an animal sacrifice to his growing bravery. A crucial early event in the narrative is when Carl enters the Vault, descending beneath the surface of the Earth, to attain the dangerous knowledge.
They went down the steps. At the bottom, Rowney lifted his candle high and Carl saw that the vault was a great underground chamber lined with concrete, reaching farther in shadowy distance than he could see.
It’s plausible that Anderson learned about time capsules of 1938 and decided to write a tried-and-true Hero’s Journey around it for his first novel. This pragmatic approach would certainly fit this author, long respected in the genre as a model of consistency.
the darker half
Carl’s journey from loyal son to classic hero is highlighted by frequent encounters with the chieftain’s son of the Lann, a fierce teenager named Lenard. Lenard and Carl share many traits:
- the willingness to defy authority for the great good of their people,
- a brewing frustration with their tribes’ doctors, and their antiquated beliefs
- and a steadfast resistance to giving up.
Lenard, who we first see as a captured prisoner inside the Dalesmen chief’s house, is clearly the Lann version of Carl, driven to battle out of the desperate state of his tribe. His observations are seasoned with wisdom gained from a short lifetime of experience, and he has the edge in verbal confrontations with Carl:
“But there is room here,” protested Carl. “There are forest tracts which need only be logged off and plowed–“
“So we should come as beggars?” Lenard tossed his head like an angered stallion. “None of that for a warrior people. Nor do I think there is enough room for such large tribes here, even when you count the forests. No, there is space for only one tribe, and we mean to be that tribe.”
Later, Lenard captures Carl after a battle, and spares his life as well. He is the first to see that the two of them would make greater allies than enemies. Not only is he a key part of the Hero’s Journey narrative, but Lenard ensures that the reader does not see the Lann as simply a swarm of nameless savages. Anderson usually chooses a side of a great conflict in his stories, but he also promotes the understanding of the other side of said conflict.
As it must, the larger war between Dalesmen and Lann, is eventually distilled into a final duel between Carl and Lenard. The melee is a sweaty, brutal affair, pitting Lenard’s slightly greater skill against Carl’s marginally greater desperation. This confrontation dwarves the ostensibly larger battle that follows it, since the Carl/Lenard story has grown to dominate VotA by that point. The denouement of enlightenment is a bit clumsy, but possibly satirical, given Donn’s garbled pronouncements about the value of knowledge.
VotA is actually pretty solid as a juvenile adventure tale, told with plenty of action and a generally optimistic tone. As with his short fiction, Anderson makes the case for individual action in the face of collective ignorance and corruption. There’s a lot of loose threads and infeasible events, but if you don’t mind that sort of thing–or you’re just interested in the early works of a SF grandmaster–you could do worse than give this title a try. 6/10.