Monday, July 16, 2012
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.