Saturday, 22 February 2014

How A Time Patrolman Survives

Poul Anderson, The Guardians Of Time (New York,1981).

Eight horsemen with remounts chase Everard and shoot his single horse but he runs into a forest where they must follow on foot. Concealed by the trees, he wades up a high-banked, tree-walled brook, forcing them to split their forces. Four run upstream, four down, then come back, one on each bank, two in the brook. Thus, Everard confronts four opponents, including their leader, Harpagus, on one bank. Digging his shield into the slippery mud of the bank, he climbs towards Harpagus. Thus, he has some chance of dispatching his main opponent.

Harpagus attacks but then retreats, playing for time. The other three arrive and attack but are disorderly - Persians, not Europeans. The first man, recklessly clashing his sword on Everard's Greek shield, is mortally wounded by a thrust from Everard and withdraws from the fight. The other two, unable to use lassos because of overhanging branches, attack from each side. Everard's shield protects only one side but his assailants have been ordered to take him alive.

By taunting the Persians for following a cowardly, traitorous Mede, Everard obliges Harpagus to save face by attacking with a sabre that bounces off Greek helmet and shield while Everard delivers a second mortal thrust. The two Persians would have finished him but the dying Harpagus calls them off.

There are many fight scenes in Poul Anderson's fiction but this one in particular is brilliantly choreographed. Everard obliges his pursuers first to leave their horses, then to split their forces, then to let the fight be between him and Harpagus, and he is better equipped for single combat. He had luck that Harpagus was one of the four that went upstream.

Then the conflict becomes moral or theological. Harpagus explains that he wanted to force Everard's "engine" (timecycle) from him but for the good of the realm, not for his own gain. Does that make it right? Torture is OK if it is done for the state? Not in my opinion, Harpagus. You ought to visit the twentieth century.

Harpagus asks whether, by finding another Cyrus, he has atoned for killing the original. He has no conception that killing that newborn child was wrong in and of itself, not just because it "'...brought the land close to ruin...'" (p. 114).

"'You have,' said Everard, and wondered how much absolution it lay in his power to give." (pp. 114-115)

When I first read this story, I had been indoctrinated in beliefs about a priesthood with the power to pronounce absolution - but would also have said that God deals with each soul individually.

1 comment:

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

I had not thought of it before, but I do see now that Harpagus' moral reasoning has flaws. But, he was, after all, a soldier and politician, not a priest or philosopher. So, I would not expect his reasoning to be on the same level as Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. Nonetheless, Harpagus DID know the murder of the infant Cyrus was wrong and it troubled him. Also, as time passed and King Astyages grew old, I can see how he came to believe Media and Persia needed a "Cyrus" who could or would have been accepted by both as a natural and legitimate leader.