A cannon that breaks its moorings suddenly becomes some strange, supernatural beast. It is a machine transformed into a monster. That short mass on wheels moves like a billiard-ball, rolls with the rolling of the ship, plunges with the pitching goes, comes, stops, seems to meditate, starts on its course again, shoots like an arrow from one end of the vessel to the other, whirls around, slips away, dodges, rears, bangs, crashes, kills, exterminates. It is a battering ram capriciously assaulting a wall. Add to this the fact that the ram is of metal, the wall of wood.
—-Victor Hugo, A Fight With a Cannon
All my life I have heard the phrase “A loose cannon” used to describe a person that, in some way or another, is dangerously out of control. Have heard it, as have you, thousands of times. I have never really thought about what it means.
Today’s short story A Fight With a Cannon by Victor Hugo explains what a loose cannon is and what it means in intricate, desperate, and horrific detail. Imagine a huge cylinder of metal, heavy and hard, on a carriage of wheels set loose unrestrained on a deck of a sailing ship on the high seas. It is a battering ram – full of random destructive motion. This is what a loose cannon is.
But what to do about it? And what to do after that? And after that? The story has the surprising solutions(s). Some people are not what they seem. There is truly more than one kind of loose cannon.
Some helpful definitions:
Carronade – an obsolete naval gun of short barrel and large bore
Assignat – one of the notes issued as paper currency from 1789 to 1796 by the revolutionary government on the security of confiscated lands.
Chevalier – French History. the lowest title of rank in the old nobility.
Cascabel – a knoblike projection at the rear of the breech of a muzzleloading cannon.
Cross of Saint-Louis – The Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis was founded in 1693. The king would award the Cross of Saint-Louis to reward outstanding service to France. The recipient then became a “knight of Saint Louis”.
Ambuscade – an ambush.
Hammock-shroud – A poetical expression which derives its force from the fact that the bodies of sailors or other persons dying at sea are sewed up in hammocks and committed to the deep.