Monday, July 16, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Tritonian Ring

The name of L. Sprague de Camp isn't held in particularly high regard these days among admirers of Robert E. Howard and understandably so. While there's no denying that De Camp did play a role -- and an important one at that -- in the popularization of Howard's work, especially his Conan tales, it's equally true that he played an even bigger role in the popular misunderstanding not only of the Cimmerian but also of his creator. Unlike a few of REH's more rabid defenders, I attribute neither malice nor jealousy to De Camp's treatment of him. Rather, I think it's simply that De Camp was so different, intellectually and emotionally, from Howard that, even as he recognized the Texan author's brilliance, he could never come to appreciate him on on his own terms. Instead, he continued to view him through the lens of his own worldview -- and often found him lacking.

Solid evidence in support of this thesis can be found in one of De Camp's own swords-and-sorcery offerings, The Tritonian Ring, which first appeared in the Winter 1951 volume of Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, paired with H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. Though that pairing might seem odd -- and it is on several levels -- it also makes some sense, too, once you recognize that De Camp intended The Tritonian Ring to be a work of historical rather than pure fantasy. The "Pusadian Age" in which the story is set is intended to be a prehistoric time of our Earth, before both magic and the gods had lost their potency. In this respect, it's very similar to Howard's "Hyborian Age," except that De Camp based his fictional past on what he considered a surer footing, including a study of the pre-Ice Age geography and ancient accounts of the distant past, such as Plato's depiction of Atlantis. The Pusadian Age is thus a "realistic" attempt to present a forgotten time of magic and adventure -- in short, one better suited to a mind like De Camp's.

The Tritonian Ring takes places on the conjoined landmass of Europe, Asia, and Africa he calls Poseidonis and identifies with the mythical Atlantis. Despite its mythical origins, De Camp nevertheless tries to ground this far-off realm in plausibility, so he presents readers with a society and culture that, while magical, has not mastered technology beyond the ability to work bronze. In fact, the appearance of iron and iron-working is the pivot on which the entire story turns, as iron, the reader learns, is "the thing the Gods most fear." As is the case in many legends, iron is opposed to magic, blocking it and weakening it. De Camp expands on this idea and explains that even the gods are powerless before this strange new metal, which is being sought by the king of the northern kingdom of Lorsk in order to advance the position of his own realm. Seeing this as a threat, the gods urge the monstrous gorgons to attack Lorsk, hoping to dissuade its king from his wild path. Instead of backing down, the king sends his own son, Vakar, on a quest to find the iron that will save Lorsk and foil the gods' plans.

Vakar's quest forms the bulk of The Tritonian Ring and it's a remarkably fun read. De Camp is an engaging, witty writer and that comes through in even his worst novels. The Tritonian Ring, though, is one of his better efforts, in part, I think, because his Pusadian Age is interesting and well-drawn, with a logical culture and cosmology. The conflict that De Camp postulates between the rise in the use of iron and the end of the "old ways" is engaging and a good source of drama. It also, I think, reflects where De Camp's own sympathies lay. Unlike Howard, who viewed barbarism as both natural and inevitable, De Camp instead sees Progress­™ as mankind's true destiny. Prince Vakar, for example, does not hear the voices of the gods in his head, in contrast to most of his contemporaries and he looks with disdain on tradition and long-held customs, seeing them as impediments rather than aids to humanity's growth. He comes across as a 20th century rationalist of the sort De Camp himself admired. That's not a criticism: I think much of the book works well precisely because Vakar is a "man ahead of his time." Vakar is just as much of an exemplar of De Camp's own worldview as Conan is of Howard's -- and therein lies the gulf between these two men.

17 comments:

  1. De Camp carved out his own niche in the world of fantasy, but it is a shame that he and Lin Carter seemed to despise so many of the early greats of the pulp era. That they are also both responsible for butchering many of Howard's works pushes them both down several notches in the views of many. It is a good thing that neither had much to do with Lovecraft's work. While De Camp may not have felt envy and professional jealousy of Howard, Carter wrote his views of Lovecraft out in book form where any praise always came with a ready knife hidden within ready to take cuts at HPL's back. To hear that Carter would feel the same about Howard would not surprise me and his partnership with De Camp in re-writing Howard's Conan tales really tarnishes De Camp with the same putrescent shade of envious green that Carter possessed. De Camp at least wrote several memoriable stories while Lin Carter seemed to be pretty much a hack now quickly fading into obscurity.

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  2. Lovecraft had August Derleth to mangle some of the portage.

    However, I think De Camp, Carter and Derleth are misunderstood in their own right. None of them are on par with the objects of their affection in terms of literary merit, but I think there is a sort of myth that surrounds them - I certainly don't believe they "despised" the authors they dedicated so much of their work to.

    James is right - the men who carried forward the legends of Howard and Lovecraft are accused of hating the authors they attempted to model themselves after, albeit with their peculiar viewpoints and objectives.

    It is a huge overstatement to relegate Lin Carter to "obscurity." The dude's been dead a quarter century and has every title still in print.

    To me, this says more about the provocation that Howard and Lovecraft (and CAS) and other pulp "Lost Generation" folks brewed in their hearts: it inspired multiple

    I can guarantee you that if carrying the dropped torch of Howard or Lovecraft fell to me, that very few fans would think I "got it." But it wouldn't mean I hated them, only that I loved them so much that I cast them in my own image.

    Which, in some ways, is Umberto Eco's definition of the ideal reader. Unfortunately, sometimes an author's ideal reader is not his ideal editor or conservator. On the other hand, without the less than ideal handling of Derleth, de Camp, and to a lesser degree, Lin Carter, we might not have material for S.T. Joshi and others to set the world right.

    And I think it is worth noting that Joshi has his own biases in "restoring," for example, Lovecraft.

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  3. edit: "inspired multiple interpretations."

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  4. I enjoyed this book very much when I bought it last spring. Vakar is a quite refreshing and fun hero and I love the world De Camp uses. It's interesting to see how things he mentioned in Lost Continents (a brilliant book by the way) appear here.

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  5. Lin Carter was an awful writer, but his record as an editor is sound. As for de Camp, I haven't read him in decades, but I loved Lest Darkness Fall and should read it again. You're very right that De Camp believed in Progress (TM).

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  6. I think your analysis of de Camp vis a vis Howard is on the money. The Tritonian Ring is fun, and his world-building is solid. Narratively he just doesn't have the verve or poetry of topnotch Howard stuff.

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  7. De Camp is the guy who wrote The Compleat Enchanter.

    I remember really liking those when I was a teenager. I wonder if they'd hold up.

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  8. My understanding is that de Camp and his associates gained a controlling stake in the Howard estate, and that they found they could make a greater share of profit from the pastiches than from Howard's stories. Apparently this is the reason why Howard himself was so little published for decades, while all manner of de Camp/Carter/other writer's works on Conan filled the shelves.

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  9. "...except that De Camp based his fictional past on what he considered a surer footing, including a study of the pre-Ice Age geography and ancient accounts of the distant past, such as Plato's depiction of Atlantis."
    Considering that Atlantis was a literary creation by Plato - and therefore akin to Oz, Wonderland, or Lilliput in terms of "reality" - I find this hysterical.

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  10. When I first discovered Conan, back in high school in the 70s, I enjoyed the Carter/deCamp stories. Now, after having read the complete set of Howard's original tales, I ought to re-read the Carter/deCamp works to see what I think. FWIW, I love de Camp's original work: Lest Darkness Fall is a wonderful story.

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  11. James said surer footing, which doesn't means realistic. De Camp took prehistoric geography and put mythic people and places on it. He knew it very well that Atlantis was created by Plato. His Lost Continents is a brilliant book about why Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu and their kins are bullshit.

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  12. Fletcher VredenburghJuly 16, 2012 at 12:33 PM

    I'm glad to see some love for de Camp in the review and comments. His Pusadian and Novarian fantasy series are great fun.

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  13. I've actually only ever read De Camp's non-fiction... maybe I should give some of his fiction a try.

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  14. Christian LindkeJuly 16, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    Without Lin Carter, there would have been no Ballantine Adult Series of books. A series that is stellar in its contents. To believe that Carter despised Howard, is to completely misread his intentions. Carter was an excellent editor, but a less than skilled scribe.

    As for De Camp, I think James hit it on the head here. It is clear from reading some of De Camp's other writings (the Shea stories or The Solomon Stone for example) that De Camp is a fine writer. He is -- on the other hand -- very prone to strange criticisms of older pulp writers he admired. His analysis of Howard presented the man in a less than flattering, and less than accurate it seems, light. That doesn't mean he didn't enjoy the man's writing, just that his psychoanalysis was crap. It was also tied up in his era's obsessions with "Freudian" (in italics to imply a reductive understanding of Freud) analysis and Oedipal/Elektran relationships.

    Rebuke De Camp where he deserves it, same with Carter, but praise them where they deserve it too.

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  15. I think about Derleth and DeCamp like fanboys whom realiced the major fanboy's fantasy-- continued the works and characters they admired! But they were not Lovecraft nor Howard, though they were good craftmen themselves. Bur nowadays we have many and very good reeditions and if you want a good lovecraftian o howardian tale, you read Lovecraft or Howard.

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  16. Nicholas BergquistJuly 17, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    I've never read this particular de Camp tale (or don't recall if I did...I read a lot of his stuff in my youth and teen years). I definitely feel de Camp (and Carter) are undeservedly reviled for what they did, which despite their particular editorial revisions on Howard's work still made a narrative and twelve book series out of it that was something I in my youth could enjoy (and con my parents into buying). I wonder who would have taken up the torch for Howard in the 50's, 60's and 70's if de Camp and Carter hadn't done so. Also, I have to say that people who look back on de Camp and Carter today and speak of how they despised Howard (sorry Jason) maybe need to dig a bit more deeply. I have a lot of old Howard/Conan paraphernalia (been collecting this stuff since I was 10 years old in 1981) and the concept of de Camp/Carter being disparaging to Howard (outside of tryinng to construct a narrative prose that was consistent and removing the undertones of a bygone era's racism) wasn't regarded with such hostility back then near as I can tell. And say what you will about de Camps' interetation of Howard as a man, but the truth is Howard had issues. The sort of issues that both made him a fine author but also a man who was capable of suicide after his mother died. Also, de Camp and Carter were doing this in the 60's and early 70's--seriously--what else could we have asked of them at a time when civil rights was at the forefront of the American change? Context is extremely important in this situation, and I think a lotof Howard purists forget that. I think we should all be happy we can read unedited Howard now in a bewlidering array of fine collections. I only wish that de Camp and Carter's own pastiches could get some re-releases as well, if only because I respect all of these authors and all three were collectively an important part of the foundation of my youth as a fantasy literature fan.

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  17. I don't think either "hated" Howard, they just didn't understand him. Carter's somewhat unabashed earnestness in his fanboyism was always somewhat endearing to me, although I'm mostly read his pastiches of Burroughs. de Camp, on the other hand, always struck me as elitist, dry, somewhat lecturing, and tainted with faint hints of self-congratulation. In general, I think Carter's work is more fun to read than de Camp's today.
    Whomever said that Lin Carter's works are all in print: that's completely false, by the way. SOME of his stuff has been collected and re-issued by indie press, but much of his work can only be bought on the used market.

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