In “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.