Too Few For Guns, by R.F. Delderfield
2001 McBooks Press (Originally published 1964)
Some years ago I spent several years working in book stores - the enormous “super-stores” that have become so popular. The phrase “So Many Books, So Little Time” adorned a number of items for sale such as mugs and T-shirts. For someone who considers himself very well read, the sight of so many unknown authors and titles can be truly humbling. However, the imposing inventory of the printed word means that there is added the enjoyment of the treasure hunt, the unexpected jewel, and the unlooked for friend. While idly sipping coffee in one such store I stumbled across R.F. Delderfield’s Too Few For Guns. Having a very strong interest in the Peninsular War, and having finished off Cornwell, Forster and O’Brian, I devoured this novel in two short evenings.
The story opens with Keith Graham, a newly arrived ensign, being stranded on the wrong side of a bridge during Moore’s retreat. With him are eight other soldiers and Gwyneth, a beautiful but hardened camp follower, and lately widowed. Graham, at nineteen, inexperienced and naive, is determined to lead his men back to the British lines at Lisbon. Drawing on the more experienced sergeant and the near-God like intuition of Gwyneth, Graham leads his band to the shores of the Tagus. Along the way there are a number of interesting episodes.
This is a coming of age story, end Graham is a likable enough hero. We are privy to his thoughts and Delderfield paints a portrait of nineteen very well. Self-conscious, brash, and desperate to prove himself, Graham is well written. The soldiers under his command receive less attention, but they are not the one-dimensional stereotypes so often seen in this kind of adventure writing. To be sure, they all have their epithet to help the reader keep them straight, but they are all clearly more than just greedy, or drunken, or simple.
In my mind it if Gwyneth, the camp-follower, that undercuts the success of the novel. She is a professional soldier’s wife, having served all over the world. As such, she has a great deal of experience which Graham draws on, and which saves the group a number of times. In addition, she leads Graham from virginity to full manhood. In fact her sexual energy and martial prowess elevate her to near-mythic status. She seems to know a great deal about partisans, for example. Given that the events take place during the first year in the Peninsula, where exactly would she have all this detailed knowledge about Spanish partisans?
The relationship between Gwyneth and Graham reminds me of Homer: the gods are always protecting their favorites, giving them magical arms and armor or lending them strength. As a class mate once observed, how brave do you need to be to fight if you know the gods have decreed you shall not die this day? Likewise, Gwyneth’s power seems to rob Graham of any role in his growth:
- “Ah, so it is just as I said, she told him lightly, “you are thinking a man’s thoughts and you will never be a boy again. In the morning when it is light you will know what is best for us all and the men will know that you have changed!” (p. 114)
If this were just idle boasting on her part it might pass. But the reader is left with the definite impression that she is right. Graham is the mere channel for Gwyneth’s sexual power. This is confirmed later in the novel when Graham is considering a more permanent relationship with her. Understanding this can never be, he reflects:
- Yet a current of warmth and comradeship for her gushed through him, flushing away the cloying sweetness of yearning he had felt for her a moment since. He understood, too, that her rejection of him was temporary, that if, in the months ahead, he had need of her, she would make herself available, perhaps on the eve of some desperate venture, and because of his access to her ripe, vigorous body he would go into battle like a lion. (p. 252)
I would be the last man to underestimate the power this kind of attraction can have in motivating men, especially very young men. But in the end I was left feeling as if the novel were about Gwyneth’s shaping of Graham, and not of Graham’s earning his entry into manhood. Too much of the novel attempts to write Graham’s story, while Gwyneth’s power undercuts that narrative.
This novel will never be mistaken for great literature. But it is a little more interesting from a psychological point of view than many similar adventure novels. If you do not expect too much, I believe you will enjoy the book.
Review Posted January, 2004