Monday, January 11, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Eye of Tandyla

My feelings about L. Sprague de Camp are complex, to put it mildly. A cultured and erudite man, as well as a talented writer, De Camp played a key role in promoting Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian during the 1950s and '60s. At the same time, I think it's fair to say that De Camp never really understood Conan or (especially) Howard and, in the process of promoting both, he canonized some of his misunderstandings to such an extent that they're still commonly accepted to this day (e.g. REH killed himself because he was a grief-stricken momma's boy). As an admirer of Howard's body of work and a student of his life and thought, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that De Camp's distortions didn't color my opinion of him. Yet, as I noted above, De Camp was a genuinely accomplished writer whose own works reveal considerable skill and imagination, not mention exercising influence over Gary Gygax's vision of Dungeons & Dragons.

A good example of De Camp's solo fantasy writings (as opposed to his collaborations with Fletcher Pratt) are the stories of the Pusadian cycle. Beginning with The Tritonian Ring in 1951, De Camp chronicles a prehistoric civilization akin to Howard's own Hyborian Age, except that it is – in De Camp's mind, at least – better informed by real world history, anthropology, and geology. The civilizations of the Pusadian Age derive, in part, from Plato's description of Atlantis in his dialogs, Timaeus and Critias, but De Camp was well read enough to borrow extensively from other sources as well, creating a plausible and coherent sword-and-sorcery setting that is both clever and fun. 

I meant it when I said that De Camp was talented and his flair comes through very clearly in "The Eye of Tandyla," the second story in this series, first published in the May 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures. The story concerns Derezong Taash, court sorcerer to King Vuar the Capricious. The sorcerer, we are told "was at peace with himself and the world, for nobody had tried to murder him for ten whole days, by means natural or otherwise." That passage is a good example of De Camp's style in this story, which reminds me of a less morbid and more whimsical version of Clark Ashton Smith, Indeed, "The Eye of Tandyla" as a whole strikes me as broadly "Smithian," no doubt explaining my liking for it. 

Derezong is soon summoned into the presence of his royal master, who has a task for him.
King Vuar said: "Good my lord, my concubine Ilepro, whom I think you know, has  a desire that you alone can satisfy."

"Yes, Sire?" Jumping to a wrong conclusion, Derezong Taash goggled like a bullfrog in spring. For one thing, King Vuar was not at all noted for generosity in sharing his women, and for another thing, of the royal harem, Derezong had the least desire to share Ilepro.

The king said: "She wishes that jewel that forms the third eye of the goddess Tandyla. You know that temple in Lotor?"

"Yes, Sire." Although he retained his blandest smile, Derezong's heart sank to the vicinity of his knees. This was going to prove even less entertaining than intimacy with Ilepro.

King Vuar adds that he wishes Derezong to retrieve the jewel by stealth, since he has no desire for a war with the kingdom of Lotor. Reluctantly, the sorcerer sets off for Lotor, taking his over-eager apprentice Zhamel Seh with him – "Action! Excitement!" Zhamel exclaims, after being told of Derezong's mission, swishing the air with his sword. 

Once in Lotor, Derezong makes preparations to enter the temple of Tandyla surreptitiously and steal the jewel, along the way learning some details of the setting, such as the fact that, according to Derezong anyway, the goddess Tandyla "was a mere blind to cover dark rites concerning the demon Tr'lang, who in elder days had been a god in his own right." It's clear that De Camp took a stronger interest in the minutiae of the Pusadian Age than Howard ever did of his Hyborian Age, which, as a RPG referee, I find endearing.

Together, Derezong Taash and Zhamel Seh follow through with their plan, making their way to the temple unseen and, by means both magical and mundane, succeed in obtaining the jewel. They even fend off a pair of warriors tasked with guarding the statue of the goddess, much to the relief of Derezong, a short, pudgy old man who had worried about just such an occurrence. It's at this point that a new worry enters the mind of the sorcerer: the theft was too easy. The more he thinks about it, the more certain he is that something is badly amiss and that his entire mission to Lotor, including the stealing of the Eye of Tandyla, was a ruse of some sort, though he did not yet know to what end or who had orchestrated it.

"The Eye of Tandyla" is a delightful sword-and-sorcery romp, peopled by interesting and amusing characters and filled with equal parts derring-do and humor. Reading the story, I had no doubts as to why Gygax thought so highly of De Camp and numbered his works among those listed in Appendix N. Likewise, I think I gained better insight into just what De Camp had hoped Howard's tales of Conan could have been, however misguided that hope was. As I mentioned earlier, "The Eye of Tandyla" recalled something Clark Ashton Smith might have written in one of his lighter moods. It's a fast-paced, fun story with some interesting bits of world building and I enjoyed reading it greatly.

7 comments:

  1. I really need to read more De Camp, if only to get a better informed opinion of his work. I'm most familiar with his 'Rivers of Time' series of time travel/dinosaur hunting stories, which he wrote as a response to Bradbury's 'A Sound of Thunder', which, he claimed, got the facts about dinosaurs all wrong. 'Correcting' another writer's mistakes seems to be a reoccurring motivation for De Camp.

    I've been sitting on a copy of 'The Tritonian Ring' for a while now. I've heard it's good, even if De Camp saying that it was an attempt to 'do the Hyborian Age correctly' rankles. While I do believe he enjoyed the Conan stories, I honestly believe he had very little respect for Howard as either a person or a writer, thinking him little more than a hack who got lucking catching lightning in a bottle with Conan.

    Looking back at what I've written, I wonder if I'm being fair to De Camp. This may be his curse - forever being tangled up with Howard, judged by the merits of his stewardship of a subsection of Howard's work, for better or for worse.

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    1. I don't think you're being unfair, or at least not especially so. My own gut feeling is that De Camp simultaneously recognized Howard's talents as a writer while also being repulsed by his character – REH was not the "right" kind of person to have produced work of such enduring power, according to De Camp's worldview. I don't think he could have truly disliked, let alone hated, Conan and Howard, given how much of his life was spent associated with both, but, as I said in the post, I don't think he ever understood either of them.

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  2. I haven’t read de Camp’s fiction, but I enjoy his nonfiction. The Ancient Engineers gives me something to think about while creating fallen fantasy civilizations. I have his Lovecraft biography on the shelf in Paris, but I haven’t read it yet. My favorite, though, is Lost Continents: the Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature, wherein he shows how a fictional continent, invented by Plato, became mythological. He covers the topic to such great extent, you could develop a campaign setting from it.

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  3. I've read The Tritonian Ring and Lost Continents and enjoyed them both.

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  4. For those interested, the story can be read here - https://archive.org/details/Fantastic_Adventures_v13n05_1951-05_LPM/page/n103/mode/2up. A lot of the old pulp magazines are archived there.

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  5. Thank you for this post. I'd not read this story before, but I sought it out, and I'm glad I did. King Vuar is a tremendous character, and every line he speaks is brilliantly written. Derezong Taash is a perfect rogue -- decadent and lazy, but cunning and capable also. A great read!

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  6. I confess, I need to go back and reread the Tritonian Ring. DeCamp's nonfiction has always been excellent (when it wasn't about analyzing Howard, whom I agree, he didn't understand in the slightest -- Carter might have been the lesser writer, but had a far better appreciation of the man and his work), but I am "meh" on his fiction. I finally read The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate, and on one hand it is delightful, on the other...de Camp is always a little *too* clever -- at a certain level he found swashbuckling and sword & sorcery silly, in a way he didn't SciFi and so there is always a tongue-in-cheekiness to his authorial voice that grates in longer stories. Maybe not in short stories, however. I'll dust my Tritonian Ring off.

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