This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story is one called “The Man Who Came Early” by Poul Anderson that was first published in the June 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Anderson, who died in 2001, is well known in the genre as one of its more prolific and talented members. He, in fact, won multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards for his work during his long career.
When you get down to it, there are basically just two types of time travel: planned and prepared for time travel trips and time travel that happens to the traveler accidentally without warning. Oftentimes, too, the time traveler of the second sort does manage to figure out what triggered his accidental trip (most often into the past), and becomes a time-traveler of the first type – one who explores the time continuum by choice rather than by chance.
“The Man Who Came Early” is a story about one of those accidental time-travelers; this time it is a U.S. Army soldier who, during a freak thunderstorm in which he is struck by lightning, is somehow thrust almost one thousand years backward in time. Sergeant Gerald Robbins is in Iceland as part of the contingent stationed at the United States army base in Reykjavik. After being struck by lightning, he remembers suddenly becoming aware that he was standing on the beach before panic set in and he began his frantic search for other people.
The author uses an old man, who in his youth fought off Viking invaders and himself traveled the known world, as the story’s narrator. In conversation with a Christian priest who has come to the island in search of converts, the old man tells a tale of the stranger he and his family encountered five years earlier – a young man, he is now convinced was able accurately to forecast the future. That man’s name was Sardjant Gerald Robinson. Thus begins a tale during which the stranger and the old man’s only daughter fall in love to the dismay of another young man who planned to claim her for his own. As you can imagine, jealousy rears its ugly head and it is inevitable that the two men will come to blows – or worse. But it is only when the young woman explains to Gerald that he will have to kill the other suitor in hand-to-hand combat involving axe and sword – or die trying – that he finally realizes what he has gotten himself into. Now what?
“The Man Who Came Early” is a time travel story with a definite moral: All the sophistication and knowledge of the modern world will not be enough to earn a man respect in a world in which men are judged strictly by their physical prowess, skill with weapons, and ability to earn an honest living for their family with their hands. When he figured out where he was, Gerald was at first supremely confident that his skills and book-knowledge would make it easy for him to dominate the people he suddenly found himself among. But one humiliation after another finally convinced him that he was in so far over his head that he had best run for his life.
As the old man told Gerald, “You haven’t the tools to make the tools” needed to bring any of his modern ideas to fruition, a lesson learned just a tad too late to do Gerald much good, I’m afraid.