Booked! Frederik Pohl on L. Sprague de Camp’s “Lest Darkness Fall”

 

all the lives he ledLest Darkness Fall

Welcome to Booked!, a feature where we ask author to share their favorite books with our readers. Contributing today is the legendary science fiction author Frederik Pohl, the author of scores of novels, short stories and even poems, including his most recent, All the Lives He Led. Here, Pohl writes about L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall.

The first time I read Lest Darkness Fall I was still a teen-ager and the story impressed me greatly.

That is not as ringing an endorsement as it might sound. I had been a notably bookish young person since about the age of ten. and there were quite a few stories about which, on first reading, I could have made the same statement. But I had made the mistake of going back to read again, at a later date, some of those books that had knocked me dead.. That, in many cases, I should not have done. Apart from a handful of works—Huckleberry Finn, of course, bits of Wells and Kipling, too, and even a few unexpected works that had somehow made my youthful reading list, like Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way—the great majority of them, on more adult reading, revealed themselves as gaudy but trivial inspirations.

That was not the way it was with Lest Darkness Fall.

The story was first published in a pulp magazine called Unknown, not exactly science fiction, but not exactly not, either, and the novel made a huge hit. Especially among people who had never chanced to read Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Indeed, the plots were quite similar. Twain, if he had been alive at the time, might well have considered billing de Camp for royalties. (Twain’s version: an American somehow gets transported through time into medieval Britain and tries to modernize it. De Camp’s: an American somehow gets transported through time into medieval Italy and tries to modernize it. Hmm. Quite a resemblance there, wouldn’t you say?)

I think the single word that best sums up the difference between the two novels is “scholarship.” What we moderns have available to read of King Arthur’s court is not trustworthy, in fact is nothing but legend, exaggeration and fiction, largely fact-free. So in writing his novel Mark Twain did not have to spend a lot of time reading musty old histories, since there weren’t any. It was very nearly enough for him to do as research just to check the spelling of the knights’ names, and indeed even the spellings varied from one account to another…

But Sprague de Camp set himself a harder job than that. His novel’s characters include a rabble of money-changers and household servants and tradesmen, and all of those are made-up persons. Had to be, because what historian would have troubled to record the existence of such low-ranked organisms? But de Camp has set himself the task of showing how the Dark Ages, that long period of abstinence from thought, justice and freedom of expression when the human race marked time for all those hundreds of years, might have been prevented. The period is one in which people of power were little restricted by laws or custom—or, least of all, by common sense—so history was made by the often capricious will of the powerful ones. Of those “important” people the historians recorded every act and deed. So the task de Camp set himself was to measure everything that was done by the Princesses Mathaswentha and the Counts Belisarius and the assorted kings of the relevant nations and tribes, and show how a determined Martin Padway might tweak what did happen into the shape of what would have had to happen to avoid the coming of the Dark Ages. He does it wonderfully, and entertainingly, well.

And I have a personal debt to pay to this book.

You see, for reasons mostly related to poor judgment on my part, I entirely missed the standard history courses in school, having chosen an engineering school that had no room on their schedules for the humanities. Lest Darkness Fall was historical. It got me interested in Rome, which led me to read other writers’ novels on the subject, which led me still farther astray to Tacitus, Suetonius and all those other ancient gossip columnists. Ultimately this led me to writing essays and even books on historical matters, which finally caused me to become, for example, the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s authority on one of the Roman Emperors.

So I urge you to seek out this novel, now just out in a new paperback edition from Phoenix Pick. It’s the least I can do for Sprague’s memory—and, besides, you’ll have a rattling good reading time if you do.