Thursday, September 6, 2018
The Tritonian Ring
L. Sprague de Camp's "Pusadian series" was his response to the growing popularity of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, which de Camp felt were unrealistic in terms of culture, technological levels and geography. It is ironic that de Camp, who played a large role in re-introducing Howard to the reading public and wrote a number of Conan stories himself, never really appreciated Howard's skill as a storyteller.
But, all the same, turning out tales set in a magic-drenched, pre-historical Bronze Age that is more centered on realistic cultures and geography than Howard's Hyborian Age is by itself a fine idea. The resultant stories, as with all of de Camp's best fiction, is full of dry humor, a fun sense of adventure, and a sharp understanding of human nature.
The Pusadian tales include one novel--The Tritonian Ring, first published in 1951 in a pulp magazine with the cumbersome name of Two Complete Science-Adventure Books. It's been reprinted as a paperback a few times since then. Seven short stories (featuring a different protagonist than we meet in the novel) are also part of that universe.
It's the novel, though, that I just finished reading. The main character is Vakar, the prince of Lorsk, which is located on the continent of Poseidonis (what we would call Atlantis). Vakar is heir to the throne of Lorsk, but he would much rather spend his life learning and debating obtuse philosophical concepts.
Vakar also represents some sort of vaguely-defined danger to the gods of the various nations. So those gods, responding to unclear prophetic messages, arrange for Lorsk to be invaded in order to destroy Vakar. The nation doing the invading is the Gorgon Isles, an insular piratical nation that uses captive creatures called medusae to paralyze their foes in battle.
So Vakar ends up being tasked with the job of identifying and then finding an artifact that is supposed to provide protection from gods and magic. Vakar's quest, which lasts for months and takes him across the known world, takes up the bulk of the story.
The dangers he encounters are many and varied, with each situation providing action, adventure and a chance for Vakar to cleverly improvise himself out of problems. He faces foes that range from bandits to a giant inter-dimensional crab to a huge ape-man to a giant stone snake that turns out to be a real giant snake to an army of magically-reanimated headless corpses.
(By the way, the magically-reanimated headless corpses apparently make very easy-to-work-with co-workers. I need to re-think my staff in my workplace.)
The world de Camp creates is detailed and very realistic. The existence of animals such as mammoths remind us that this is an ancient setting, as do little details such as Vakar eating bread made from a new grain called "wheat" for the first time. Vakar's cultural mores and personal attitudes match the age he lives in as well. For instance, he has no problem with slavery or with occasionally beating his somewhat cowardly personal slave. And his attitude toward the sanctity of human life is... well, let's say it's fluid.
But we still like the guy. Why? There are several reasons. First, Vakar has personal courage and the ability to think and improvise under pressure. He's intelligent, literate in a world where many people (including rulers) were not. He appreciates philosophy and likes to learn. These are all qualities to be admired.
And he is capable of some degree of character growth. For instance, when he spends some time as a prisoner and ends up getting flogged, the flogging helps him empathize with his slave. Heck, he even promises not to beat the poor guy anymore. Well, not unless it's really necessary.
de Camp strikes a nice balance here. He gives us a protagonist whose moral sensibilities are shaped by a brutal Bronze Age culture. And, though we can quite properly think of Vakar as morally flawed, we understand that by Vakar's own lights, he is a moral person. We can still root for him.
The novel ends with a battle that progresses in an unusual fashion and an ironic twist involving Vakar's decision on what to do with his life after his quest is complete.
Without taking anything away from de Camp's role in preventing Robert E. Howard's fiction from fading into obscurity, I don't think he ever really "got" Howard or Conan. Many of his original Conan stories (including those he co-wrote with Lin Carter) simply aren't that good. But with this novel and the other Pusidean tales, he follows in Howard's footsteps by creating his own "before the dawn of recorded history" civilization. Then, with his own unique strengths as a writer and his vast knowledge of ancient history, he came up with a sort-of "anti-Conan" universe that even all us Conan fans can enjoy visiting.