Mon
Aug 5 2013 3:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: L. Sprague de Camp

L Sprague de Camp Lest Darkness FallIn “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.

Welcome to the ninth post in the series, featuring a look at Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp.

Mordicai Knode: Stirrups. I always said that if I was somehow suddenly time-displaced back to like, ancient Sumer that my invention would be stirrups. You could introduce them and seem “clever” rather than “a witch,” and it would ingratiate you with the military powers, which can’t hurt. That, and it would give your local power base a leg up on the competition. Lest Darkness Fall asks a similar question: what if you went back to the Roman Empire? Well, that is a pickle. I think my answer might be...curing scurvy? I know that sauerkraut doesn’t have a lot of Vitamin C but does have the most “shelf stable” supply, and it is enough to keep scurvy at bay, so pairing it with opportunistically eating citrus is a good regimen. That isn’t what our protagonist goes for, but man, it sure gets me thinking.

Tim Callahan: Lest Darkness Fall got me thinking too. It got me thinking about high school Latin class and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and some stuff I probably should have remembered from Western Civ I but didn’t. I enjoyed the heck out of this book—a book in which a clever modern man jets back through time because of unexplained magical energies or something, and changes the course of human history mostly by being a better capitalist than anyone else in the Roman Empire—well, I enjoyed this book until I didn’t, I should say.

I grew tired of it about halfway through and expected it to add some sort of twist, but it just kept barreling down this relentless path showing the relatively plodding events that can lead to massive wars and political maneuverings and making the reader not at all care what happens next.

And what exactly does this book have to do with inspiring Dungeons & Dragons in any way? Is it the fact that sometimes the characters have swords?

MK: Well, old school Gygax-era Dungeons & Dragons had a lot of weird twists that would seem out of place or cliché in a more modern campaign. You know, the sort of “you wake up and all last session was a dream!” or “I just finished A Princess of Mars so a strange glowing portal materializes and sucks your characters into a red desert with two moons!” sort of thing. In particular, one of the original Greyhawk players, Don Kaye, loved Westerns, to the point that his character, Murlynd, was transported from Oerth to the Wild West, and came back in a Stetson with a pair of...um, strange magical wands that only had six charges until reloaded. The game Boot Hill sort of came out of those adventures, if I understand my chronology correctly.

Honestly, the thing that tired me out the most about this book was...well, the same problem I keep having with these pulps, which is the attitude towards women. I want to travel back through time to 1939 and take Mister de Camp aside and talk to him about it. His protagonist’s treatment of his housekeeper Julia in particular has me shaking my head; they have sex and then suddenly she’s dirty, soiled? And then he’s emotionally distant and manipulative towards her, and fires her? Yeah, man, if I knew Julia in the modern day I’d tell her to sue that guy for wrongful termination. It doesn’t help that the other two characters in the book are the femme fatale Mathaswentha and the virginal Dorothea. I’d give him credit for making Mathaswentha at least a three-dimensional femme fatale, but the resolution with Dorothea at the end left such a bitter taste in my mouth that they cancel out.

TC: Oh, I know what you mean. These relationships are cartoonish in the worst possible way—and they show a prudishness and a self-righteousness and a dismissive cruelty on the part of the narrator that can’t help but reflect back on the author:

“Dorothea was a nice girl, yes, pretty, and reasonably bright. But she was not extraordinary in these respects; there were plenty of others equally attractive. To be frank, Dorothea was a pretty average young woman. And being Italian, she’d probably be fat at thirty-five.”

And that’s the resolution of the relationship between the time-tossed “hero” Martin Padway and Dorothea?

If I had to pick an unbearably sexist pulp writer, I’d chose Robert E. Howard over L. Sprague de Camp every time, because at least Howard didn’t wag his finger at women, and he allowed some of them to be on the same stage as the men, even if they were always the target for leering. It’s not a pretty sight, either way.

I suppose we should note that Lest Darkness Fall sprang from a 1939 story that was expanded into a novel for release in 1941, and that L. Sprague de Camp was a military man and a researcher and a prolific writer and based on what little I know about him, he totally would have been the rules lawyer at the table if he played Dungeons & Dragons with you, and he would have been the one to spend twenty minutes explaining why an Owlbear could not, in fact, have been found on the edges of the swamp you might be exploring because it was contrary to their nesting impulses and hibernation cycle.

So, yes, while I liked the book in the beginning for its “let’s explore ancient Rome with a smarty pants guy as our lead,” I definitely grew tired of de Camp’s schoolmarm-ish lectures on culture, gender, the development of technology, and military formations in combat.

Did you end up liking anything about the book at all? Because I warn you, when we get to The Carnellian Cube, also by de Camp (with co-writer) Fletcher Pratt, you’re in for more of this kind of stuff, only with more linguistic hijinks which make the book read like the most tedious Mel Blanc off-Broadway one-man show.

MK: Oh, groan. I enjoyed reading this, sure: when de Camp is doing his whole “don’t worry, dear reader, if you were transported to Ye Olde Times you would totally be able to take it over!” it is a fun ride. He is a pretty huge Mary Sue, though, and when he starts getting preachy, he’s unbearable. I’m not surprised at what you say about his background; the details are the gems in this book, so de Camp as a big research nerd is easy to believe. I really like wonks like that, but if I want that itch scratched, I’d rather read a Neal Stephenson book. I just started to feel worn down by the relentless cultural imperialism. I guess I wouldn’t recommend Lest Darkness Fall to anyone, but I wasn’t miserable reading it. Which...wow, talk about damning with faint praise.


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

39 comments
Sean Newton
2. SJN
I can think of some De Camp that might have had a more direct apparent (if not actual) effect on D&D. The Reluctant King comes to mind, as well as the Compleat Enchanter.
The Reluctant King is almost a ready made campaign, though perhaps more in the AD&D mode rather than the original. The first story has the main character is under a geas to go steal a set of magical books. That seems like something straight out of a RP campaign.
And the Enchanter books are also more fun than Lest Darkness Fall, I think, while having some of the same general ideas of a modern protaganist traveling to a different time/universe.
Not much to do about De Camp's sexism, I'm afraid, that's something you pretty much have to hold your nose and wade through. Though it is ironic that The Reluctant King's main character was written precisely because De Camp though fantasy heroes were too perfect.
Colin Bell
3. SchuylerH
@Tim and Mordicai: Have either of you read Poul Anderson's "The Man Who Came Early"?
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
The "Harold Shea" stories seem a little closer to haing something to do with D&D and I don't recall quite so much sexism as this book although it has been quite a while since I read them.
Also, there are his continuing Conan stories.
Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
2. SJN

While a lot of Mister Gygax's suggestions were just an author, in this case Lest Darkness Fall was recommended by name! Though the fact that his sexism stinks up that other book makes it pretty likely that I won't be adding it to my long pile...

3. SchuylerH

Three Hearts & Three Lions is the only Anderson I've read, though I had read it (for the first time) before this project.

4. stevenhalter

Like I said to SJN, this one (along with The Falliable Fiend & the Carnellian Cube, the latter of which we'll get into) was actually cited by name, interestingly enough.
Steven Halter
6. stevenhalter
Mordicai:That's interesting. I wonder why GG was particularly enthralled by this one. I haven't felt a need to reread anything of his for ages and I do vaguely recall some of his other works being wince worthy.
Colin Bell
7. SchuylerH
@5: "The Man Who Came Early" is another story about a contemporary man thrust back in time by unknown forces who tries to use his modern technology and wits to survive. I think you will find Anderson's resolution rather more plausible than de Camp's...
Colin Bell
8. SchuylerH
@5: There's also Frederik Pohl's "The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass", a direct reply to de Camp's novel which was included in the Phoenix Pick edition of Lest Darkness Fall, though that's more of a "modern medicine will kill us all!" story.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
8. SchuylerH

I find zero doubt in the thesis "Poul Anderson did this idea better" category, but then, after this & Carnellian Cube I think I can comfortably say L. Sprague de Camp is...not my cup of tea.

My "two-for-one" edition of Lest Darkness Fall also includes David Drake's To Bring The Light. I didn't read it though-- has anybody else?
Colin Bell
10. SchuylerH
@9: As far as I'm aware (my memories of Drake being sketchy at the best of times) "To Bring the Light" has a woman from the late Roman Empire transported back to its founding. It's a decent addition but nothing special.
Mordicai Knode
11. mordicai
10. SchuylerH

Seems like a missed opportunity to do one of those "Arthurian legends are about the retreat of the Romans from Britannia" stories.
David Levinson
12. DemetriosX
Admittedly, it's been a while since I've read any deCamp, but I can't say I've ever thought of him as being egregiously more sexist than any of his contemporaries. Perhaps his wife Catherine had a profound influence on him in later years. He'd probably written the original version of this before they actually married. It's a bit ironic that you compare him unfavorably to Howard, when Howard had little experience with women and de Camp was married for close to 60 years (and the de Camps together wrote one of the very best biographies of Howard, too).

As others have mentioned, there are probably more relevant de Camp books for D&D. The Harold Shea stories, for their humor and use of mythology, certainly. But probably the most useful for a modern DM would be his very hard to find historical books such as An Elephant for Aristotle or The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate. He does an incredible job of placing the reader in an ancient world.
Tim Callahan
14. TimCallahan
The more of these rereads we do, the more attractive Poul Anderson becomes.
Alan Brown
15. AlanBrown
DeCamp was an engineer, and it often showed in his work, as he loved to explain things. Sometimes, in my humble opinion, to the detriment of the story. Although, in the end, his wit and cleverness usually ended up carrying the day.
My own favorite work of this type was H. Beam Piper's Gunpowder God series, a modern man who travelled sideways in time to a less developed timeline.
I think Gygax was drawn to DeCamp's work precisely because of the details. I took a detail oriented mind for Gygax to develop a pioneering gaming system, unlike anything that came before it--so the
'rivets' would appeal to him.
I suspect that Catherine purged Sprague of any sexist impulses during her marriage--the one time I met them, I was impressed by his wit (I could have sworn his eyes actually twinkled when he told a joke), and by her drive and intensity. She did not strike me as someone who would allow anyone to treat her as a second fiddle.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
16. hoopmanjh
Actually, Elephant for Aristotle and Bronze God of Rhodes are available for Kindle now, so I wouldn't be surprised if Ishtar Gate were also to pop up.

And it's not actually fiction, but I really enjoyed Great Cities of the Ancient World and think that anyone playing D&D would find it very fertile ground for mining.
j p
17. sps49
Well, Poul Anderson has written a lot of very good stuff.

I didn't really like the Conan than de Camp wrote, to the point that I have skipped the ones in the later Ace books. SO this is certainly a book I've not read, or looked for, or anything. But...

Yes, women have been portrayed badly. And it's too late to correct these works. So could y'all please write about what may have influenced D&D more instead? Even if you write that you think D&D inherits sexist attitudes from these books and authors.
Hedgehog Dan
18. Hedgehog Dan
So far, I have read at least one book from every author who appeared in Advanced Readings, sans Lanier.

From de Camp, I have only read half book, The Goblin Tower. Somehow I just could not finish, despite I hardly ever put a book down.
Mordicai Knode
19. mordicai
17. sps49

I can make no promises; for me, part of reviewing "problematic" texts means critical review, warts & all. & well...okay, you could definitely argue that L. Spague de Camp's treatment of women-- as disposable props that he feels smug & superior too & constantly derides-- influences some of the "tavern slattern" attitudes of DnD, sure, in that all these pulps influence context. But really, I'm just talking about the books here, not just in the context of them as inspirations for the game, or a setting, but as books, too.

15. AlanBrown

I also think the "engineer's attitude" could help a DM in figuring out "what next." As in, "oh, so my players decided to derail the campaign...what's next? I'm going to have their actions result in consequences, & then keep telling the story from there!"
David Levinson
21. DemetriosX
@16 hoopmanjh
Ooooh, I did not know that. Elephant and Dragon were the only of his historicals I was ever able to track down. Still haven't bought myself anything for my birthday, must remember this.

And, yes, Great Cities of the Ancient World is a terrific resource for a DM. So is Ancient Engineers. And really quite a few of his other non-fiction works. Heck, that REH biography does a really good job of evoking rural central Texas in the early 20th century.
Mordicai Knode
22. mordicai
16. hoopmanjh
&
21. DemetriosX

I would be a zillion times more likely to give his non-fiction a read before I read his fiction again; most of my problems with the book where in tone, attitude &...well, character. His use of detail & understanding of the whole-- of well, complexity theory-- drove the parts of Lest Darkness Fall that I liked, right? So a bit about just that could be alright.
Paul Weimer
23. PrinceJvstin
I think a lot of De Camp's Non fiction is likely to be more useful to a D&D DM than many of his works. Although, the Krishna stories do provide a fun "sword and planet" sort of milieu.
Hedgehog Dan
24. JReynolds
I read and liked this book when I was a teenager, but trying to read it later, the racist / sexist bits did get in the way. Also, book's characterization (such as it was) pretty much stopped when the political / military action started.

"The Man Who Came Early" is a good response to this book. Charles Stross's recent Merchant Princes books are an excellent response as well (although Stross's characters are trying to change a paratime, rather than a past, world).

To boil Stross's six MP books into two sentences: Importing a new technology is easy. Changing a society is difficult. De Camp just didn't get this.
Mordicai Knode
25. mordicai
24. JReynolds

Well this goes back the old saw that the Romans had the stuff they needed to make steam engines-- including Heron's aeolipile-- but they didn't because...they had slaves, which were more efficient. Whether or not it is true, for a modern parallel you can look at the war against letting you watch television on your computer. All the neccisary technical parts are there, it is the cultural parts that cause friction.
Hedgehog Dan
27. lach7
I'm glad the two posters point out moral or social shortcomings in these older works.

But I also get tired of how much ink (pixels?) are spent on this subject. It's similar to when critics spend so much time pointing out H. P. Lovecraft's racism that they spend so little time on his ability to scare and chill.

It's also too easy to spend time on older authors' outdated views. Lengthy and indepth criticisms of this kind can end up appearing anachronistic.
Sean Newton
28. SJN
My recollection of Lest Darkness Fall is that it was pretty boring and entirely forgetable (as I seem to have forgotten most of it). I don't think this is anywhere near De Camp's best work.
It is worth noting that De Camp was a good author, despite his sexism. And he did improve, if you squint a bit, in the later part of his career. The Reluctant King (which The Goblin Tower is the first part of) was one of my favorite books at one point. The characters and their traits (Jorian's talkativeness, Karadur as the cowardly academe) are integral to the story and are both what causes many of the problems and conflicts as well as doing a lot to solve them.
But yeah, of the two real main female characters, one is what we would today probably call hypersexual, and the other ends up doing a topless dance.
Raising this as an issue isn't really 'anachronistic' as a review is meant at least partly to let a reader know what to expect. Discussing the strong male gaze in De Camp's work is something that should be noted.
Hedgehog Dan
29. j harper
De Camp's Dark Valley Destiny is not the best biography on Robert E. Howard - not even close to being the best. It's unsympathetic to Howard as a person, ignores or is dismissive of any of his writing that's not Conan (which was also self-serving on De Camp's part, since Conan was the Howard property that he had control of and made a great deal of money off of) and filled with the psychological pablum that De Camp loved to spout about people in general and Howard in particular. No one in Howardian studies takes DVD even remotely seriously. If you want a good biography on Howard either pick up Mark Finn's Blood and Thunder or Novalyn Price Eliss's He Who Walked Alone. Finn is sympathetic to Howard without putting the man on a pedestal, and takes into account all phases of his writing career. Ellis covers only the last few years of Howard's life, but writes from the unique position of being both his friend and girlfriend.
Mordicai Knode
30. mordicai
27. lach7

One thing is that...well, it impacts the story. It is jarring hearing the things in the stories; in some cases, it is jarring in a way that is easier to dismiss, like the ridiculous pin-up stylings of Conan ladies, but other times...well, it makes the characters unlikable & it makes the book unlikable. It isn't something that you can just handwave away, it is ingrained into the fabric of the text. Trust me, I'd like to be able to take a break from it too! Just as soon as we read some stuff that doesn't need to have the issue discussed.

We can't stop talking about it just because it is an endemic problem; the fact that it is an endemic problem is precisely why I have to keep bringing it up.

28. SJN

I'm just getting to a point where I'd rather read a book that I didn't have to squint for, you know?

29. j harper

So noted! I'm not a big biography reader, though I was when I was younger. When I was a little Mordicai I used to read a bunch of Tolkien biographies & collections of letters.
Hedgehog Dan
31. Eugene R.
One thing I remember being notable about Lest Darkness Fall is the overall sympathetic attitude toward the Gothic kingdom in Italy, with the Justinian "reconquista" looked upon as a disaster-in-the-making, which was not the general viewpoint of late Roman history when I read de Camp in the early '70s. Now, interestingly, more historians are coming around to this opinion. See, for example, James O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire.
Mordicai Knode
32. mordicai
31. Eugene R.

This is a solid point! Mostly when I was a littler Mordicai (why does that keep coming up?) I think historians just wanted...well, they wanted Rome to magically get better. (Hence all the people who want to call their kings cesars or czars or tsars or kaisers & their kingdom the umpteenth Holy Roman Empire...)
Hedgehog Dan
33. lach7
30. mordecai

Of course immoral social views should be addressed. My problem is that too much time is given to it concerning *older works*. You state:

"We can't stop talking about it just because it is an endemic problem; the fact that it is an endemic problem is precisely why I have to keep bringing it up."

If this statement was made in reference to some newer work, I completely understand it. But making such a comment in reference to some older work seems rather askew, in some way, to me. For it seems to me that we could spend all of our time looking at older works and decrying that there is an "endemic problem." What does this accomplish other than overshadow the other fine qualities of these older works?
Mordicai Knode
34. mordicai
33. lach7

Your logic is confusing me-- if it is immaterial to talk about the flaws of older works, wouldn't that same logic make it immaterial to talk about the "other fine qualities" of the work?
Hedgehog Dan
35. lach7
Logic infers deductively or probabilistically from what has been said. And I did not say that it was immaterial to about about, or that we should not talk about, the flaws of older works. (I made this clear in the first sentence of both of my posts 27 and 33.)

What I said was that so much time shouldn't be focused upon the flaws of older works. To do so strikes me as being overly egocentric and close to being, what C. S. Lewis called, chronological snobbery. Isn't it a bit unfair to beat up older generations for not having our enlightened points of view? Point them out, yes. Beat a dead horse, no.

This is one of the many reasons I rarely post comments on blogs. Without the usual visual and auditory cues of usual face-to-face communication, things can be so easily misconstrued.
Alan Brown
36. AlanBrown
I can't imagine what those ideas will be, but I am sure some of our current cultural attitudes and mores will surprise, if not shock, folks from the generations that follow us...
Mordicai Knode
37. mordicai
36. AlanBrown

Pollution, I'd guess. A real radical might say "eating meat." Marriage, as a legal construct? Monogamy? I'm just spitballing at areas of social change. & sadly, I'm not sure that the old saws of racism, sexism & homophobia are really going to be retired; as trite & gross as they are, they've stayed evergreen for a long time...
Mouldy Squid
38. Mouldy_Squid
29. j harper

If you think that Dark Valley Destiny was bad, you should stay the hell away from de Camp's absolutely aweful H.P. Lovecraft biography. Until Joshi's H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, it was the only major biography of the Old Gent. de Camp did significant damage to HPL's legacy.
Mordicai Knode
39. mordicai
38. Mouldy_Squid

Off-topic, I noticed you went with "lowercase-d at the start of the sentence, which I actually rewrote a sentence in this review to avoid...writing capital-D De Camp just felt wrong & writing lowercase-d just looked wrong so I scrubbed the whole thing.
Mouldy Squid
40. Mouldy_Squid
39. mordicai

All my style guides recommend using the capitalization of the last name regardless of where in the sentence it falls. So if de Camp is correctly capitalized 'de Camp' is should remain so at the beginning of the sentence. I know it's jarring for many people since it is so rare to see it and when asked they would capitalize the 'de'. I've even had English Lit. TAs dock me for it. I always complained to the prof, of course.

I don't use the Chicago so I may be in error.
Colin Bell
41. SchuylerH
@39 & 40: I would be inclined to leave the "de" lower case but the SFE and a couple of other places capitalise the "de" at the start of a sentence. Perhaps the best resolution to this issue is to restructure the sentence and hope that the problem goes away or clarification is issued.
Mordicai Knode
42. mordicai
40. Mouldy_Squid
41. SchuylerH

I went with the coward's way of re-writing the sentence since I didn't know what the "correct" method was, but I'm also a big believer in the plasticity of language; conventions, sure, but rules, no. It might be germane here to point out that I wasn't an English major...

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