The de Camp Controversy: Part 13

A reader picking up a copy of the Lancer or Ace edition of the paperback, Conan might have noticed L. Sprague de Camp’s description ofÂheroic fantasy: “William Morris pioneered the heroic fantasy in Great Britain in the 1880s. In the early years of this century, Lord Dunsany and Eric R. Eddison developed the genre further. In the 1930s, the appearance of the magazines Weird Tales and later, Unknown Worlds furnished outlets for stories of this type, and many memorable sword-and-sorcery narratives were written. These include Howard’s stories of Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane; Clark Ashton Smith’s macabre tales of Hyperborea; Henry Kuttner’s Atlantean stories; C. L. Mooress narratives of Jirel of Joiry; and Fritz Leiberss Gray Mouser stories. (I might also mention Fletcher Pratt’s and my tales of Harold Shea.)”

De Camp repeated this in an afterword to The Compleat Enchanter (Ballantine, 1975): “I will say that they were certainly heroic fantasy, or swordplay-and-sorcery fiction, long before these terms were invented;neither Pratt nor I, when we started the Shea stories, had even read a Conan story or ever heard enough about Howard to recognize his name.

Catherine Crook de Camp parroted her husband’s party line in the introduction to The Enchanter Compleated (Sphere Books, 1980): “L. Sprague de Camp (1907- ) and Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956) working in collaboration, became outstanding early creators of heroic fantasy in America.

L. Sprague de Camp’s fiction career started in the September, 1937 issue of Astounding Stories with the story “The Isolinguals.His next story wasn’t until April 1938 with “Hyperpilosity.” He had some good science fiction stories such as “Living Fossil” and “Employment” in Astounding in 1939. De Campss debut in Unknown was “Divide and Rule” (April-May, 1939) was science fiction. “Lest Darkness Fall” (Dec. 1939) was alternate history. There is nothing suggestive of blood & thunder fantasy lurking in the background.

The catalyst was Fletcher Pratt who did a little writing for science fiction magazines and translations of European stories. He also wrote quite a bit of non-fiction, usually history and military science. Pratt was more familiar with fantasy than de Camp at the time in the form of the Norse Eddas and E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ourobouros.

The Harold Shea stories were co-written by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp. According to de Camp, Pratt would come up with the idea and then de Camp would write the first draft. Then Pratt would go over the draft and make changes. De Camp would later have Lin Carter write the first draft of Congor stories and then make revisions. De Camp mentions that Pratt conceived the idea of a hero who projects himself into a series of mythical worlds. The hero that de Camp and Pratt created was Harold Shea, a psychologist. Imagine that– L. Sprague de Camp using a psychologist as main character.

The first story, “The Roaring Trumpet,” (Unknown, May 1940) appeared just as the Battle of France got underway and Hitler overwhelmed the Low Countries and broke into France. Harold Shea is too timid to travel to many worlds of myth and decides to go to Ireland of Cuchulain. In typical de Camp fashion, his character bumbles instead to Norse myth. You have that immortal de Camp dialogue such as “This here’s my daughter Aud. She’s a shield girl; can lick her weight in polar bears.” Or ” ‘What-a-at? No kiddin’ roared the giant.I heard of guys that eat bugs and drink cow’s mild, but I ain’t never heard of nobody what eats turnips.'”  I have to throw this one in to flog a dead horse: “Aw right, aw right, butcha don’t have to get snotty about it. I was just thinking there’s some relations of Hrungnir and Geirrod that was laying for Thor. They’d just love to have a chance to get even witcha for bumping off those giants.” And it goes on and one like this. Did I forget to mention there is almost no action in this story? There is a small fencing scene with a giant. And this is probably the best one because it is the shortest. Harold Shea is a passive bystander observing and getting shoved around and embarrassed.

“The Mathematics of Magic” (Unknown, Aug. 1940) came out when the Lufwaffe was beginning the Battle of Britain. You again have dialogue such as: “Fine toots. Or I will be when I surround some grub.” L. Sprague de Camp did not talk this way. It comes off as fake and not authentic. You are supposed to have a psychologist who talks like a faux blue-collar depression era worker. I don’t know who is to blame for this, de Camp or Pratt. I have read Pratt’s fantasy novels and there is no trace of this so guilt likely falls upon de Camp. Anyway, “The Mathematics of Magic” takes Shea to the world of Spenser’s Faerie Queen. Once in Spenser’s world, the dialogue changes to something that is mock medieval. My guess is Pratt took over and added to this portion. There is a little rough and tussle and a little fencing but very little blood- letting.

Hitler was on the move conquering Yugoslavia and Greece while Rommel shredded the British 8th Army in April 1941 when “he Castle of Iron” came out in Unknown. This story is actually a short novel and a repeat of the previous two stories with a little action and no real blood & thunder. Here is some politically incorrect prose: “Behind the file of Negroes another procession of butter-faced men emerged from the shadows of the colonnades.”

There were two later Harold Shea stories–“The Wall of Serpents” in Fantasy Fiction in 1953 and “The Green Magician” (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, 1954). Again there is that priceless dialogue: “These Hoosiers sure play it for the works. Look at them sconces!” from “The Wall of Serpents.” Or, “‘Jeepers!’ he said, in a tone which carried its own message. ‘Imagine holding heavy with a zinger like you!'” from “The Green Magician.” These are random snatches I found just opening to a random page in The Enchanter Compleated.

Harold Shea is a lame character that is part of a weak series that makes for painful reading. I do not recommend anyone for any reason venturing forth to read these stories. They are execrable. This was the first non–Conan L. Sprague de Camp fiction I ever read and it almost made me swear de Camp off permanently. What is more amazing are the reprints. I can see the point of the Pyramid reprint in 1964 when all sorts of “golden age” science fiction and fantasy were being reprinted in paperback. Publishers were finding out what sold. The Incomplete Enchanter got caught up in the sword and sorcery burst of the late 1960s with a nice Jeff Jones cover that had nothing to do with the book. Del Rey Books reprinted three of the stories as The Compleat Enchanter in 1976 with three printings. I guess Lester del Rey wanted to reprint fiction from his old Astounding Science Fiction/Unknown Worlds buddies. Baen Books later reprinted some Harold Shea in the 90s. Baen had published some L. Sprague de Camp during this time and trotting out these horrible stories was probably part of the package.

De Camp’s claim that these stories put him in the ranks of sword and sorcery pioneers doesn’t hold up under examination. They are not sword and sorcery fiction and don’t even fit within the broader vaguer term of heroic fantasy. Unknown did run some out and out sword and sorcery. The two Prester John novels by Norvell Page are modeled on Conan. Fritz Leiber had the first published stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser at this time. These early Leiber stories are notably darker and more violent than later ones. Jack Williamson’s “The Reign of Wizardry,” especially in its original, shorter magazine version is very blood and thunder. The de Camp & Pratt collaborations are very similar in tone to some short fantasy novels by L. Ron Hubbard such as “The Ultimate Adventure” and “The Slaves of Sleep.” Interesting that de Camp didn’t include Hubbard in the list of early sword and sorcery writers to the introduction of Conan. L. Sprague de Camp was too busy writing light fare that became synonymous with the magazine. Making a claim that the Harold Shea stories are part of the first wave of heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery is stretching it not a bit but by a lot.

The first real sword and sorcery fiction by L. Sprague de Camp is “The Eye of Tandyla,” (Fantastic Adventures, May 1951) and “The Tritonian Ring,” a novel that was in Two Complete Science-Adventure Books (Winter, 1951). He had read the Gnome Press edition of Conan the Conqueror and got the itch to try this sort of fiction for himself. He was probably familiar with E. R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany already before he discovered Howard. From there, he went on to check out C. L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith. De Camp’s discovery of sword and sorcery and subsequent writing in the field puts him in with a later wave of writers. Poul Anderson had written some sword and sorcery type stories for Planet Stories in the early 1950s and his classic The Broken Sword. E. E. “Doc” Smith had two stories about Tedric at this time. Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth dates from this time. De Camp gave up on Pusad within a short time. Mark Olson at NESFA Press has hypothesized that de Camp consistently lost interest in his series. My own theory is L. Sprague de Camp always found writing non-fiction to be easier than writing fiction.

The myth of de Camp as early writer of sword and sorcery had been implanted as early as May, 1956 when Poul Anderson started out the story, “The Barbarian”:

Since the Howard-de Camp system for deciphering preglacial inscriptions first appeared, much progress has been made in tracing the history, ethnology, and even daily life of the great cultures which flourished till the Pleistocene ice age wiped them out and forced man to start over.

De Camp probably included himself among the others he mentions in the introduction to Conan as a way getting street cred. He was not a pioneer of sword and sorcery though he was part of the second wave that included Vance and Anderson.The idea of legitimacy of controlling/editing and inserting new pastiches into the Conan cycle is increased by making the case of being at the beginning of the genre.