Saturday, February 11, 2012

Falling under the spell of the sword: de Camp’s Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers

I just received a book in the mail that I’ve had my eyes on for quite a while, and am now very pleased to own: L. Sprague de Camp’s Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy (1976).

If there was a book made for me, this is it. It’s an out of print hardcover from Sauk City Wisconsin-based Arkham House Publishers, Inc, whose very name awakes fond thoughts of Cthulhu and other tentacled horrors. The book is a handsome little volume with great black and white cover art by Tim Kirk that would be right at home as interior art of a Moldvay/Cook Dungeons and Dragons manual.

The back of the dust-jacket features a list of books available from Arkham House, complete with prices and ordering information. Does anyone else love to read these old lists and wonder if you could still write to the specified address and receive a “catalog available on request” straight from the 1970s, folded up and shipped off by a geeky clerk with a tweed jacket and horn-rimmed spectacles? The interior features some great full-page black and white photographs of all the authors covered. There’s also a nice picture of Sprague himself on the inside back dust-jacket, complete with dated sports coat, ready to pontificate on some SFF subject.


I’m loving the contents so far, too, which includes an introductory essay “The Swords of Faerie” and subsequent pieces on William Morris, Lord Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft, E.R. Eddison, Robert E. Howard, Fletcher Pratt, Clark Ashton Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.H. White, before concluding with “Conan’s Compeers,” an overview of REH sword and sorcery contemporaries like Fritz Leiber, C.L. Moore, and Henry Kuttner. I’m about halfway through and the only thing I’ve found a bit galling so far is the introduction by Lin Carter. I love Carter as an editor and am eternally grateful for his Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, his Flashing Swords anthologies, and his unmatched passion for the swords and sorcery genre, but his intro is a bit of a tug job on his friend de Camp, whom he compares favorably with all the greats. Writes Carter:

Among fantasy writers, he stands out virtually alone as being devoid of annoying eccentricities of taste or invention. It is possible to enthuse over Morris, Eddison, Lovecraft, Howard, Merritt, or Smith, while admitting serious flaws in their command of the narrative art. I do not think it is possible to do that with de Camp. He wrote purely to entertain, not to convert or crusade or complain. Behind his choice of the literary craft lies no neurotic compulsion, lurks no guilty fears as to his lack of masculine machismo, whimpers no inferiority complex’s hunger for attention.
If you can get past its hero-worshipping veneer, I think Carter’s analysis unwittingly hints at de Camp’s biggest flaw: His stuff is little more than lightweight escape fiction, at least in my limited exposure to it. I quite like The Tritonian Ring for example but it’s written with an ironic, half tongue-in-cheek style, and is certainly no "Red Nails." DeCamp’s writing style is journalism-solid but lacks the distinctive poetry and force of the authors mentioned above, which is why I believe his fiction hasn’t held up as well as the authors detailed herein.

I actually prefer de Camp the essayist and reviewer. His essays in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers are more than mere thumbnail sketches, combining a fair degree of biographical detail while placing their works into a larger historical heroic fantasy context. They are in no way definitive, but serve as a nice summation and primer for looking further into their works. De Camp also provides us with end notes with references to biographies and letters that an interested reader can use for further exploration.

Some of the authors themselves come across as near-fantastic, swashbuckling figures almost equal to their heroic fantasy creations. Lord Dunsany was royalty who lived in a castle and fought in the Boer war. William Morris was an architect, decorator, designer, novelist, painter, poet, and printer who sought to revive his own peculiar romantic notion of the medieval workforce in the 19th century. De Camp comes across as candid, earnest, highly opinionated and at times playfully humorous in these essays, though he does layer in tough criticism, some warranted, some rather unfair and at times even harsh. But that comes with the territory.

I just finished up “Superman in a Bowler: E.R. Eddison” and am anticipating with half-dread “The Miscast Barbarian: Robert E. Howard,” which de Camp later expanded into his full-length biographical treatment Dark Valley Destiny. But having already read DVD and rather enjoying it despite its warts, nothing de Camp says about Howard is going to come as a shock. I’m looking forward rather more to his legendary garage chat with J.R.R. Tolkien over pipes and beer. More to come on this book later.

14 comments:

Eric D. Lehman said...

This looks right up my alley. I'll try to pick up a copy on ebay.

Keith said...

I have a copy of this, and like you, I enjoy reading the lists of other titles in the old Arkham House books. Having been involved in Howard fandom for a while, I've gotten to the point where I take a lot of what de Camp says in his biographies, both essays and books, with a grain of salt, especially when he starts trying to psychoanalyze his subjects.

In spite of that, I rather like the man. I did have the good fortune to meet him on several occasions, and found him to be quite friendly. It's been a number of years since I read much of his work. I prefer his short fiction to his novels these days, although I need to go back and reread some of the stuff I read as a teenager. A few decades can change your perspective.

Enjoy the rest of the book. I look forward to your next post about it.

Narmer said...

It is nice to read balanced commentary on any of De Camp's work. Often he is completely excoriated by fans of Howard/Conan. Despite whatever flaws he may have had, I've enjoyed his work.

Pericles said...

Haven't read this in years, but I do remember enjoying it as a kid. Like you, I enjoy those old lists, and Arkham House put out some handsome-looking books.

And like Keith, I'm a bit skeptical of De Camp's literary opinions. But I do enjoy some of his non-fiction work, like ANCIENT ENGINEERS. I also really like his short story collection THE PURPLE PTERODACTYL, in which both Howard and Lovecraft have run-ins with the narrator, a thinly-disguised De Camp.

I wrote De Camp once. He replied with a nice post card.

Mary said...

One thing I remember from it was his completely Victorian belief in Progress. He objected to any societies of immortals being unable to bring about a perfect society on this grounds.

But that was the only thing I found silly in it.

Atom Kid said...

I used to check out this book from the library, it's a good read. Except the usual bunch of lies about R.E.H. of course.

Good find though!

Brian Murphy said...

Wow, Keith, you have met de Camp before? There's a story there I'd like to hear more about. Same with your postcard, Pericles.

In general I enjoy de Camp's stuff and that includes Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers. But my eyes bulged out when I read this quote from "The Miscast Barbarian":

"We must bear in mind, however, that posthumous psychoanalysis is at best a jejune form of speculation. The results are doubtful enough when a trained psychiatrist tries to uncover the conflicts seething in the conscious of a living person. So diagnoses of this sort, in the case of persons long dead, should not be taken too seriously."

This of course is exactly what mars Dark Valley Destiny.

Taranaich said...

It is possible to enthuse over Morris, Eddison, Lovecraft, Howard, Merritt, or Smith, while admitting serious flaws in their command of the narrative art. I do not think it is possible to do that with de Camp.

So what he's saying is that it's impossible to enthuse over de Camp unless you ignore the serious flaws in his command of the narrative art? 'Cause that's what I got from that passage.

It's a shame de Camp was so unkind and disparaging towards Carter considering the O.B.N. he so desperately deserved here.

But my eyes bulged out when I read this quote from "The Miscast Barbarian":

"We must bear in mind, however, that posthumous psychoanalysis is at best a jejune form of speculation. The results are doubtful enough when a trained psychiatrist tries to uncover the conflicts seething in the conscious of a living person. So diagnoses of this sort, in the case of persons long dead, should not be taken too seriously."

This of course is exactly what mars Dark Valley Destiny.


Which is something I've noticed about de Camp: he tended to display absolutely no sense of self-awareness. At least, that's my jejune speculation.

Pericles said...

Brian--

Not much of a story with De Camp's plain white postcard, which I've long since lost. Apparently he would buy a lot of them, type things like thank you for your appreciation and I hope you enjoy my future projects. Then he'd sign his name by hand in ink. Almost a form letter, when you think about it.

To say his judgments on Howard's work and character were merely dubious is to be more than charitable. Nevertheless, I remain delighted to have gotten a response from De Camp. He was quite an old gentleman, probably with all the indignities that advanced age brings, and I'm sure he had better things to do with the limited time left to him than to respond to some semi-literate drivel from a young kid such as myself.

Whatever his faults, I appreciate that he was kind enough to send me a reply. Not all authors do so.

Brian Murphy said...

Al: O.B.N.? I'm not sure what the acronym is...

At least, that's my jejune speculation.

Touche, love it.

Whatever his faults, I appreciate that he was kind enough to send me a reply. Not all authors do so.

Thanks for sharing, Pericles. I agree, it does speak well about him as an individual. Did you ever read Tolkien's letters? He must have spent hundreds of hours replying to fans, often in great detail. The selfish part of me wishes he spent more time finishing up The Silmarillion instead, but it does speak volumes about JRRT the man.

Taranaich said...

O.B.N. - Order of the Brown Nose, a Private Eye "award" given to outstanding displays of sycophantry.

Praising De Camp when credit is due to him is a noble endeavour and richly deserved when you're talking about his good work. Saying that it his work is effectively impossible to criticise, on the other hand...

T. Everett said...

For what it's worth, I've always enjoyed his Lost Continents, a book on Atlantis from a literary perspective. It is a bit dated, though, having been last published before the Silmarillion (and thus Numenor) was published.

Keith said...

Brian,

L. Sprague de Camp moved to the Dallas area in the late 80s or early 90s, I think primarily because one of his sons lived in the area. I met him and Catherine, Jack Williamson, Fred Pohl, and several other writers who were much younger in the spring of '91 when they attended a conference at UNT in Denton. I believe it was the Science Fiction Research Association or something like that. I don't know if the de Camps had moved then or not; I want to say it was shortly before they did. I may be wrong, because I remember on one occasion Catherine talking about the move and Sprague complaining about nails in his tires from the housing construction in his neighborhood. I can't think of any other event where that would have happened.

I saw the de Camps at several conventions in the area over the next few years. They were always outgoing and friendly to the fans. At one convention, I ended up on the elevator with Catherine. She was on her way to a panel where Sprague was waiting to meet her. By that time, she was rather frail. I offered her my arm, and she accepted. When we entered the room, which was rather large, the panel was in progress. I could see Sprague on the front row, raising his hand to make a comment. I walked Catherine to the front, where I got a "Thank you" from her and a nod of appreciation from him.

The last time I saw them was when Louis Alvarez gave a talk at UT Dallas, where I was working on my doctorate. The de Camps attended the public lecture and presented Alvarez with a copy of the current issue of Asimov's, which had a Reginald Rivers story by Sprague about the Chicxulub impact. I passed them on the road while driving home after the lecture. It was the last time I saw either of them.

After de Camp died, Half Price Books, which is based out of Dallas, got a portion of his library. Among other things, I picked up a copy of Far Lands, Other Days by E. Hoffman Price that Sprague had owned. It was only after I got it home that I discovered the person who priced it didn't realize what they had. It was inscribed by Price to the de Camps. All the other signed books in the collection were well out of my price range. The book is still in my possession and remains one of my most treasured prizes.

Brian Murphy said...

Great story Keith, thanks for sharing. And nice find at Half Price Books.