Sunday, November 6, 2011

Age of Conan: An Informal Defense of L. Sprague de Camp and Co.

So I have a couple of Conan-related blogs I want to get off my chest, about which I've been thinking for awhile. This first one may cause a bit of a controversy; we'll see.

I'd like to defend L. Sprague de Camp for a moment.  I'm sure others have done so before, and probably in a more eloquent and educated fashion than I am about to do, but this has been on my mind and I wanted to lay out at least the beginnings of a case to re-examine his association with Howard's writing, as well as--to a lesser degree and mostly by association--that of his associates Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyberg.

Many articles and postings have been put forth claiming that de Camp, Carter, and Nyberg should never have written their pastiches because they didn't "get" Conan. I would argue that this is a matter of debate. I've seen some very convincing arguments insofar as this is concerned, but most of them come down to the personal opinion of the author writing the article in question. There is an article I read recently--I can't remember who wrote it or for the life of me where I read it--wherein the author paints the tendency of pastiche authors to turn Conan into a black-and-white hero as one of the primary errors of pastichists. On this I agree, though some of his points fall flat in my mind. For example, he claims that Conan didn't have a code of honor; that this was invented by later authors. He then proceeds to present elements in the stories that supposedly prove this. Of particular interest was the idea that Conan didn't kill women. Unfortunately, the various incidents from Howard's stories that he presents are rife with Conan saying things like, "I generally don't kill women," and of Conan dumping women who have wronged him in the mud where if the perpetrator was a man, he likely would've felt Conan's sword in his gut. The instances where Conan does seem willing to kill a woman are those instances where the woman is somehow supernatural in nature, such as Akhivasha the vampire.

In any case, the point I'm making (and I do so wish I could remember the name, author and location of the article referenced above) is that many of these points against pastiche writers are entirely formed based on the personal opinion and interpretation of the article's author. I'm not saying such interpretations aren't valid--merely that the personal interpretations of those who would be apologists for certain pastichists are also equally valid. I personally think that de Camp, Nyberg, and Carter were the ones who did "get it."

In the 70's and 80's, Mirage Press and Ace books put out a series of scholarly works (mostly edited by de Camp) revolving around the works of Howard. These were largely extractions from fanzines previously published and written by "The Hyborian Legion," the first Howard fan club as well as a sort of informal scholarly Howard Studies society of the time.  I have been fortunate enough to add two of these volumes to my collection: The Conan Grimoire and The Blade of Conan. In reading Blade, there is an article by de Camp entitled "Editing Conan." In this article, de Camp essentially defends the choices he made in editing the Howard stories for their Ace publications and in undertaking the rewrites he did of non-Conan stories.

I found the article intriguing and as I read, I found myself comparing some of the edits de Camp did in the Ace paperback series with those originals published in the recent 3-volume Ballantine series. In truth, I found de Camp's defenses to hold up overall. Certainly he did make a few changes that were unnecessary--the creation of an archenemy for Conan out of Thoth-Amon by inserting the sorcerer into stories where he did not appear comes foremost to mind. However, the vast majority of changes I noted in de Camp's edits of extant Howard prose are not, to my mind, egregious.

Consider that in the era when Howard was publishing, editors didn't undertake the same role that they later did. Farnsworth Wright was more likely to cut chunks of text for space than he was to correct grammatical errors, make text flow more smoothly, or other such duties editors fulfill nowadays.

I love Robert E. Howard's writing.  He is in my top five favorite writers, alongside Mark Twain and Jack London. However, it's tough to argue the fact that in some places those original texts are a bit rough. The edits de Camp undertook, for the most part, are no worse than that any modern editor would take. They don't, to my mind, change the nature of the stories, or in any way lessen their quality. Even the certain omissions de Camp made, such as softening the supposed racist undertones (a subject for another blog) are forgivable, as they were done in effort to make the stories more accessible, and are also the sorts of alterations a modern editor would suggest. And in the end, does changing "ape-like speech" to "guttural speech" really make that massive a difference in the text?  Not to my mind.

Now, let's get to his completions and rewrites. In the 60's, when the Ace paperback series was being published, there was a hunger for swords and sorcery. As a luminary figure in the genre, Conan naturally generated a great deal of this hunger. de Camp and Carter fulfilled this hunger by completing several unfinished works of Howard's, and by rewriting some of Howard's non-Conan tales to be Conan tales.

I do not consider these rewrites sinful.

Why?  Look at the things Howard himself did--"The Phoenix on the Sword" is itself a rewritten Kull story--"By This Axe I Rule!"  When the Kull adventure failed to publish, Howard revised it to be a Conan story: the first Conan story, in fact. Is it not possible--I'm not saying likely, mind you--just possible--that eventually "Hawks Over Egypt," which was not published during Howard's lifetime, could've eventually also been rewritten?  I disagree with de Camp's choice to make it "Hawks over Shem," as "Hawks over Stygia" seems more accurate to the original text, but that's really a nitpick. Likewise could be said regarding "The Bloodstained God," rewritten from "The Crimson God," also not published during Howard's life.  Likewise, "The Three-Bladed Doom," rewritten to "The Flame Knife," and "The Road of the Eagles," which wasn't published in its original form until 2005, according to Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures. 

These tales translate well into Conan stories under de Camp's hand, and I think it quite possible that Howard himself may have rewritten them eventually, as he knew Conan was his bread and butter. There's no guarantee, of course, but it's a reasonable "what if" to present. Of course, he may not have as well: Kirby O'Donnel, the hero of "The Road of the Eagles," was created in '34, and it's possible that by that time Howard was looking to move away from Conan (indeed, I seem to recall having read a letter from him indicating that was exactly what he wanted to do).  Still, a cash cow for a writer is not an easy thing to leave behind, and as I said, Conan was Howard's bread and butter.

As for the pure pastiches, there are some issues in them that are hard to swallow, no doubt--the SCUBA gear in Conan of the Isles was a bit tough to buy, and seems more out of Carter's Thongor series than Conan, and nobody can forget the out-of-the-blue inclusion of Satyrs in Conan the Liberator. But overall, the "earlier" pastiches included in the Ace series are, in my opinion, pretty fine inclusions into the Conan mythos. They are well-written and enjoyable to read, and Conan feels like Conan to me in the stories. I actually am a big fan of The Return of Conan, also known as Conan the Avenger, and think it's a work of which Howard himself may have been proud, had he survived to give his blessing to it.

de Camp's later efforts to take control and ownership of Conan and the Hyborian Age via Conan Properties, I think, are another issue entirely and are reflective of someone who has forgotten his place in the overall scheme of things. I won't deny these were shady acts at best that have damaged the property as time has gone on--see the fact that while many of the stories are in the public domain, the various elements of those stories have been trademarked by Paradox Entertainment; a clever loophole to retain ownership, which I think needs to be closed.  But copyright law is another topic entirely.

de Camp's uneducated attitudes about Howard himself are also not an issue at debate--he was wrong in most of his understandings about Howard's life and psyche.

However, what he did do is resurrect Conan and keep him in print for many years, and I don't think he deserves the derision he gets for his efforts to pastiche, complete unfinished manuscripts, and edit extant ones for publication. His efforts were certainly no more egregious than any other editing job I've seen, nor of any other posthumous collaboration.  As a member of the Lovecraft Circle, I'm not even 100% certain that Howard would've disapproved of new stories being written set in the Hyborian Age. Sharing story elements, after all, was part and parcel of that group.  It may be going a bit to far to say he'd be so liberal with the character of Conan, but I certainly think that de Camp, Carter, and Nyberg did the things they did (at least, insofar as early pastiches, completions and revisions go) in the proper spirit of things, and I to this day enjoy reading the Conan stories as told in the old twelve-volume Ace paperback series, which sits on my shelf right next to the eleven Robert E. Howard Ballantine collections, from Kull to Conan to Crimson Shadows and Grim Lands to Sword Woman to Solomon Kane to El Borak and Horror Stories, and my collected letters of Robert E. Howard.

There have been those who dismiss the idea that de Camp resurrected Conan in publication, using the rationale that someone would've done so anyway, because the environment was right for it. This may be true, just as it may be true that had Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson not created D&D, someone else would've likely done so (or something similar) anyway, because the time was right. 

The counter argument is this: it doesn't matter if someone else would have. de Camp is the one who did it. Certainly the actions the man took in the 70's and 80's with Conan and CPI were despicable in many ways--I'm not arguing that.  What I am saying is that many of the assaults on de Camp for his Howard editing, pastiche work, and posthumous collaborations are, in my opinion, colored by the man's arrogance and his treatment of the property in other areas.

Stay tuned: Next up, I'm going to reconcile different presentations of Hyperboria in the various Conan pastiches and RPGs.

3 comments:

  1. re 'Hawks Over Egypt':

    Maybe he felt that Shem is more like the historical Middle East, while Stygia is more 'weird'.

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  2. Great post Jason! I agree that the original 12 volume Ace series is still a great read. I had just recently started re-reading them for my Age of Conan game when I came across a treasure trove of six of the hardcover Ballantine books (including the three Conan ones) at Half Price book store. I already had the unedited Conan stories from the UK published Fantasy Masterworks series, but the Ballantine books were just too pretty not to read immediately! Anyway, I plan on going back and reading the stories that were modified or finished by De Camp.

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  3. @anarchist: doubt it as he talks about the need to add a weird element to the story to make it more Conan. Likely just a questionable decision on his part.

    @arcadyn: I have those hard cover ballantine editions. They're book club editions from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club. I love them!

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