The de Camp Controversy: Part 14

L. Sprague de Camp’s career included almost as much non-fiction as fiction. If he was weak on writing sword and sorcery fiction including Conan, he made up for in commentary on Robert E. Howard and fantasy fiction in general. He was an enthusiastic contributor to George Schithers’ Amra (Vol II) over the lifetime of the small press magazine becoming the most prolific contributor. De Camp would later cut and past shorter works from Amra into larger increasingly unwieldy essays that threatened to spin out of control all the while maintaining a haughty tone.

Many of these non-fiction pieces are de Camp showing how wrong this writer or that writer was in a work of fiction. The problem is de Camp himself was often wrong in his statements. De Camp wrote a book about Atlantis, Mu, and Lemuria in Lost Continents in 1954 that is a shot at Donnelly, Spence, Elliott etc. One chapter entitled “The Creeping Continents” where de Camp gives Wegener’s continental drift theory a hard time. Turns out that tectonic plate science is proving Wegener right. De Camp came down on the wrong side. His Day of the Dinosaur (1968) is on the hoary side of paleontology even for the time with his slow, ponderous dinosaurs including the 1920s view of sauropods living in lakes and swamps to support their weight. It may seem harsh to criticize de Camp using science of the day for his non-fiction. That didn’t stop him from writing critical essays on H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard doing the very same thing.

There is a little hardback book from Borgo Press by de Camp called Blond Barbarians and Noble Savages that consists of three cut and paste jobs by de Camp. The purpose of “Lovecraft and the Aryans” appears to be to tell the reader how wrong H. P. Lovecraft was and how erudite L. Sprague de Camp is. The article itself meanders all over the place with little central focus as de Camp discusses the progenitors of Aryanism- Chamberlain and Goubineau. He takes time out for shots at Lovecraft’s attitudes toward gainful work. De Camp lectures on language and physical divisions of Europeans. There is a paragraph wherein de Camp lambasts Lovecraft for pontificating on “subjects of which he had the merest smattering.” Talk about a case of the kettle painting the pot black. The last paragraph has de Camp wrapping things up with a mention that Lovecraft “kept on learning better all his life.” This article was cut and paste into his Lovecraft biography.

A wide reading of de Camp will show he is uneasy discussing barbarians and in this case the Celts in “Howard and the Celts.” De Camp quickly sidetracks to discussion of Neanderthals and the Beaker “Folk.” It is actually the Beaker culture and de Camp got it wrong claiming there was an invasion of “Beaker Folk” into the British Isles. The ceramic beakers were locally made and did not originate from Spain as de Camp wrote. De Camp can’t keep on track as he goes off on a tangent discussing the evolution of ship building technology in Scandinavia. De Camp’s ironically anti-barbarian stand is for all to see in “The Heroic Barbarian.” You know de Camp’s attitude when he uses the phrase “Romantic Illusion” and then makes a dig at commune movements and 1960s counterculture that de Camp thoroughly hated.  De Camp goes on and on about Rousseau’s “noble savage” boring the hell out of the reader. A good portion is then taken up by de Camp describing “barbarians” he has known like the lumberjack in upstate New York. Give me a break!

The articles on writers of heroic fantasy were collected as the book Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers (Arkham House 1976). De Camp makes fun of William Morris’ barbarian novels- The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. “The German barbarians (in history a singularly dirty, treacherous, and bloody lot) are cleaned up, prettified, and imbued with noble motives almost to the point of burlesque.” Those two Morris novels remind me a lot of the appendices found in Tolkien’s The Return of the King, which would make sense as those two novels were influences on Tolkien. De Camp makes it known for his distaste for the Norse sagas. “After the umpteenth episode in which an Icelandic woman nags a make kinsman or a servant into going out to ambush a member of a rival clan, in revenge for a previous killing, the reader may decide that enough is enough.” I recently read Egil’s Saga and found it to be a good deal better than most sword and sorcery novels I have read. I have to part ways with Mr. de Camp’s opinions on the sagas. In “The Miscast Barbarian: Robert E. Howard,” de Camp inserts “anti-Roman” in front of Bran Mak Morn’s name, something he doesn’t do describing any other Howard character. Looking through the chapter on J. R. R. Tolkien is funny because de Camp takes Tolkien to task on the different names for the same character such as Aragorn who is also “Elessar, also Dunadan…All of which seems a bit much.”

De Camp did not like fantasy laid in historical times. He didn’t like Leslie Barringer setting the Neustrian books in a quasi-historical Middle Ages. I find it astounding that he accuses Norvell Page of “There is a certain pretentiousness about them, which makes their faults stand out. They drag for long stretches. There is much windy bombast; one tires of John’s inexhaustible braggodocio.” I like the two Prester John novels by Norvell Page. I thought the novels moved along at a frantic pace and didn’t think they dragged at all. De Camp gives Page a hard time for picking a place that in actual history was in the middle of a powerful Hunnish Empire. Wrong! If you read Empire of the Steppes; there were a number of independent city-states along the Silk Road in the Tarim Basin of Chinese Turkestan. De Camp quibbled with the military organization of the fictional “Tugars” in R. F. Tapsell’s The Year of the Horsetails saying the organization, discipline, and armament would not have occurred until Genghis Khan’s Mongols. This is ignoring the Avars almost took Constantinople in the mid 7th Century, the Khazars were fielding complex armies and holding off Muslim armies in the 8th Century, and that the Magyars were striking deep into Western Europe in the 10th Century. De Camp got himself into deep water consistently when he lectured about barbarians.

One time some readers responded to de Camp in Amra. He mentioned about there being no stirrups at the time of “Kings of the Night.” There were responses to de Camp on that issue that made a good case there could have been some stirrup wearing cavalry. Those responses were not collected into The Blade of Conan and The Spell of Conan. L. Sprague de Camp was actually a pretty fair book reviewer when he stuck to how well the author told the story. Going through his reviews in the pages of Amra, I found myself agreeing with his assessments more often than not. He really did enjoy heroic fantasy fiction even if he viewed it as guilty pleasure. On the other hand, his articles are pedantic and increasingly irritating if you are reading them one after another. There is a tone of superiority that here is the science fiction writer who also writes popular science books and articles and he is going to tell these fantasy fans how it really is. There is a glee in bursting bubbles such as his mini-article on “pirettes” and how most female pirate careers probably ended in pregnancy. In Dark Valley Destiny, de Camp’s infers that Howard got the idea of a python using its head as a battering ram, probably taken from Kipling. The giant snake in “The Scarlet Citadel” is a venomous snake with great fangs that drip poison. The snake “smote” the guard taunting Conan in the dungeon striking him with its fangs. What is de Camp trying to prove here? He deliberately distorts a scene in a Howard Conan story that anyone can fact check.

L. Sprague de Camp wrote a lot of short articles on science topics mostly for science fiction magazines. These were collected together in the book, The Fringe of the Unknown (Prometheus Books, 1983). The superior attitude is less noticeable though the didacticisms are still present. The articles themselves are pretty light-weight. Someone would be advised to go elsewhere if they wanted to research Roman aqueducts for example. Using de Camp’s “Appius Claudius Crassus” would not be advisable for a school paper.

Going through de Camp’s non-fiction recently has been illuminating. His anti-barbarian bias was not so apparent to me until I went through his articles and longer essays back to back. Isn’t it ironic that the man who tried to control the most famous fictional barbarian sided with the Romans?