Published October 8, 2014
What if a modern person travelled back to Viking times? In 1956, the American science fiction author Poul Anderson pondered exactly that in his short story “The Man Who Came Early,” published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Poul Anderson, who had Danish roots, was one of the better-known writers during the golden age of science fiction. One of his recurring themes was the deeply paradoxical questions surrounding time travel. For instance, if time travel is possible, how would a modern man fare in the past?
This was, obviously, not a new concept. Writers like Mark Twain (‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’) and L. Sprague de Camp (‘Lest Darkness Fall’) had both written stories about modern time travellers in “primitive societies.” But while these stories tell tales of success for the modern person in the past—Mark Twain’s Yankee tricks and fools the court of King Arthur—Poul Anderson’s story is in fact their antithesis: his Yankee finds himself utterly helpless in the Viking society of Iceland.
The story follows an engineering student known as Gerald “Samsson,” who was drafted to serve in Iceland during the Cold War. During a violent thunderstorm in Reykjavík in the 1950s, the American GI travels one thousand years back in time. He wakes up to find himself lying on a cold beach in a strange place, seemingly far from the city, the last place he remembers being. He walks for a while until he sees a group of men, armed with swords and spears, collecting driftwood.
The story is presented in the first person, told by a Viking Age Icelander named Ospak Ulfsson. He is one of the men Gerald meets at the beach.
The newcomer shook his head, as if it had been struck. He got shakily to his feet.
“What happened?” he said. “What happened to the city?”
“What city?” I asked reasonably,
“Reykjavik!” he groaned. “Where is it?”
“Five miles south, the way you came—unless you mean the bay itself,” I said.
“No! There was only a beach, and a few wretched huts, and—”
“Best not let Hjalmar Broadnose hear you call his thorp that,” I counselled.
“Did the Soviets nuke Iceland?”
Ospak and his men are stunned by the visitor, who they think must be a marooned sailor from a shipwreck. But the time traveller, who is wearing a green uniform from the 20th century and a metal helmet engraved with the Roman alphabet letters “MP,” thinks World War III must have started. “Did the Soviets nuke Iceland?” he asks.
Eventually the Viking chieftain Ospak invites Gerald to stay in his house. The soldier had learned Icelandic as part of his training at the army base and is therefore able to exchange words with the ancient Icelanders. Ospak wants to be kind to this strange guest but is unsure where he is from. Gerald tells him about the United States, the land of free.
There is a great panic among the Vikings when Gerald shows them his gun and shoots a horse.
He drew his gun, put the end behind the horse’s ear, and squeezed. There was a crack, and the beast quivered and dropped with a hole blown through its skull, wasting the brains—a clumsy weapon. I caught a whiff of smell, sharp and bitter like that around a volcano. We all jumped, one of the women screamed, and Gerald looked proud. I gathered my wits and finished the rest of the sacrifice as usual.
Apart from this impressive weapon, the US soldier is almost worthless in Viking Iceland. He mentions that his family owns no land and lives in a city. This plunges his social status, as in any rural society a landless man is a poor man.
Gerald thinks he can use his engineering education to modernise the Viking society. But as soon as he starts trying he gives up. He doesn’t know how to use the tools and the materials. Simple tasks like shaving and bathing turn out to be very complicated.
Man from out of time
Gerald and Þórgunnur, the daughter of Ospak, fall in love. This has disastrous consequences as Ketill, a young Viking from the next farm who is in love with the girl, challenges the American to “hólmganga,” a traditional Viking duel. When Gerald finds himself trapped in the duel and about to be cut down, he uses his gun and kills his opponent.
This makes the American into an outlaw. He flees to the highlands equipped only with his gun and a few bullets. The chieftain Ospak feels for his American friend and is deeply saddened by his demise.
Most men think Gerald Samsson was crazy, but I myself believe he did come from out of time, and that his doom was that no man may ripen a field before harvest season. Yet I look into the future, a thousand years hence, when they fly through the air and ride in horseless wagons and smash whole cities with one blow. I think of this Iceland then, and of the young United States men there to help defend us in a year when the end of the world hovers close. Perhaps some of them, walking about on the heaths, will see that barrow and wonder what ancient warrior lies buried there, and they may even wish they had lived long ago in his time when men were free.
Lemúrinn is an Icelandic web magazine (Icelandic for the native primate of Madagascar). A winner of the 2012 Web Awards, Lemúrinn covers all things strange and interesting. Go check it out at their website.