Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A few closing thoughts on Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers

I promised a few closing thoughts on Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, which I’ve since finished, so here goes.

 De Camp has an annoying habit of throwing around unsupported opinions in almost everything he writes and I think that’s why he has such a poor reputation as a biographer in some quarters. Prime example: He calls T.H. White—author of The Once and Future King—a “second-rate intellect” in Chapter 10, “Architect of Camelot.” Which is rather humorous (except that it’s not … ). To whit: White writes a book that absolutely dwarfs anything de Camp has ever done—in influence, art, and profundity—name the category—and somehow said work sprang from the mind of a “second-rate intellect.” Maddening. He also describes White’s homosexuality as “an abnormality” and “a deviation.” Yeah, he doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory in this chapter. That said, I did not know until I read Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers that White made some significant revisions to the four individual books that comprise The Once and Future King when it was released as a standalone novel in 1958, some of which lessened their original force. That much was interesting, at least.

Given the recent brouhaha over on Ferretbrain, I thought de Camp’s observations on the matter of REH and race were worth sharing:

Many of Howard’s views would today be called “racist.” In presenting such views, Howard merely followed most popular fiction writers of the time, to whom ethnic stereotypes were stock in trade. If a racist, Howard was, by the standards of his time, a comparatively mild one. He agreed with Lovecraft’s rhapsodies on the “Aryan race” and his rantings against non-Nordic immigrants. But then he noted the superior qualities of the intelligent, industrious, orderly Bohemian settlers in Texas. He admitted that every ethos has its share of saints and scoundrels. 

De Camp’s opinions here largely jibe with my own. I acknowledge that REH’s writings contain elements of racism that are highly problematic today. I just don’t think Howard’s views on race exhibit nearly the kind of taint over all his stories that the author of the Ferretbrain piece does. Almost no one, save for perhaps a fanatic fringe of fandom, claims that REH was not racist to some degree. The much harder case to make—and one that Arthur B fails to even attempt—is whether REH was a racist by the standards of 1920s Texas. As biographers and scholars of Howard have pointed out, again and again using historical evidence, he was not. This doesn’t make one an “apologist” for Howard’s racism, it’s called having a developed sense of history, and a notion of the concept of contextualizing an author based on the time and place in which he or she wrote. Most readers also understand that the good in Howard—his wonderful plotting, pacing, style, vivid imagination, ability to convey action, his fine poetry and effortless prose—overwhelms the bad, which is why he continues to be read today while most of his pulp fiction contemporaries have been forgotten. And that’s why I continue to recommend him as a cornerstone of fantasy.

I enjoyed reading de Camp’s account of his meeting with Tolkien in the latter’s garage over pipes and beer, but found his evaluation of The Lord of the Rings a bit lacking. For example, he criticizes Tolkien for assuming that good and evil are absolute values, not subjective or relative. I think Tolkien did feel that way, but more interesting is that characters in his universe operate with free will and can exhibit good and evil behaviors (see Denethor, Boromir, Gollum, Saruman, etc.). He also criticizes Tolkien for having an all-powerful God that “will save the characters” if the situation is grim enough. De Camp did not have the luxury of reading The Silmarillion in which it becomes apparent that the world of Middle-earth does not operate by benevolent divine intervention alone: See Turin, and Feanor, for counter-examples. Long periods of blackness and despair, there. Also Tolkien’s universe was a combination of Christianity and paganism; the Valar are taken from Old Norse and Greek mythology and they too influence the affairs of Middle-earth. Relying on Eru to come in and save the day is likely to get you killed.

A chapter on Fletcher Pratt was scant but has inspired me to begin The Well of the Unicorn. 

So overall, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers is a fun read, featuring an opinionated de Camp at his best and his worst, and worth picking up if you can find a copy.


Brer said...

Thanks, Brian, for drawing attention to this book, which I had read back in college but had somehow misplaced in my memory. Since your first review I have got my own copy and am re-reading it again.

I know what you mean by what can only be termed de Camp's hubris, his general air of "Here's what these great writers did wrong." I particularly noted it in his biography of Lovecraft. He also tends to go off on a tangent to give his personal views of history, theology, or philosophy. But to be fair, he is quoting T. H. White's biographer (Sylvia Townsend Warner) as to his supposed "second-rate intellect," albeit perhaps with a little too much relish.

LSAS is a fun read, and, as Lin Carter pointed out in the introduction, one of the few early works to completely devote itself to the genre; as such it is interesting as a snapshot of the fandom and scholarship of the time. This descendant of those Texas Bohemians thanks you again for restoring it to him.

Keith said...

Let us know what you think of The Well of the Unicorn. It's been on my I Really Need to Read This list for years.

And I agree with you completely about Howard.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Brer, and I'm glad I inspired you to seek out the book again! I wish there were more like it. Fantasy seems to lack much in the way of critical analysis.

I'll have to track down the Warner bio; again I'm not sure why she would characterize White that way.

Will do Keith.