In the October 1939 issue of Unknown, editor John W. Campbell published a story called “The Elder Gods” by Don A. Stuart. Though not an especially well-remembered tale, (he co-wrote the piece with an uncredited Arthur J. Burks) it served one purpose splendidly. It set the rules for Campbell’s version of Heroic Fantasy. In the story a man named Daron is charged with challenging the gods themselves. The final effect of his quest is humanity breaks with unearthly beings and become rationalists. This was Campbell’s ideology and he passed it along to the other Sword & Sorcery writers in Unknown. With the exception of Fritz Leiber, who did his own wonderful thing, it was the manifesto of the magazine. Write Fantasy as it were Science Fiction.
Not everyone agreed with Campbell, as Poul Anderson proved in 1951 when he published The Broken Sword, a novel set in a Scandinavian world with elves and trolls. (Later in 1953, he did followed Campbell’s ideas in Three Hearts & Three Lions, but oh well…) Another of Campbell’s acolytes was L. Sprague de Camp who would win Fantasy fame as the editor and pasticher of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. But while Sprague was working to bring more Conan to the masses he also penned the novel The Tritonian Ring and with it he tried to shape the future of Sword & Sorcery.
Now if Robert E. Howard is the Homer of Sword & Sorcery then L. Sprague de Camp is the Ovid. De Camp’s first forays into humorous Fantasy were the Harold Shea stories with Fletcher Pratt. These parodies of ancient mythologies are a counter point to Sword & Sorcery, just as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was to Arthuriana. To do this, de Camp fell back on the ideas of John W. Campbell’s dictum that Magic is just Science misunderstood. The novel first appeared in Two Complete Science Adventure Books (Winter 1951) then in hard cover in 1953. This sprawling, episodic novel stars Vakar of Lorsk, the second son of King Zhabutir and future heir to the throne. Vakar is sent on a quest to find the one thing the gods fear most for the Deities plan the destruction of Lorsk. (Sound familiar?) Chapter by chapter Vakar visits all the different countries of the Pusadian map, encountering weird characters and monsters, a satyr woman with lusty tastes, evil sorcerers, and finally about halfway through the book discovers the secret, then goes in search of the Tritonian Ring, made from the metal of a meteorite. Vakar fails to get the ring so he seeks out the original stone from which the metal was taken and has a sword made from it. And with the only iron sword in the world he returns home to single-handedly stop the invading army with their Medusas, lizard creatures able to freeze people solid. In the end, he wins out but loses the throne to his brother, Kuros, but doesn’t care for he has always preferred to live with Queen Porfia and study philosophy in Ogugia anyway.
The tone of The Tritonian Ring is odd, especially in 1951. It is sexist but it isn’t. It is violent and cruel but it’s funny. It is satirical but isn’t a parody. What de Camp penned was a quest worthy of Odysseus, filled with a consistent universe, one that sees the end of Magic and the beginning of Science. His writing about sword fighting, ships, horsemanship and battle formations is faultless, having a wide knowledge of all these things from his historical non-fiction, but the whole thing feels more like Science Fiction than good Sword & Sorcery. It is almost an un-Fantasy. And that may have been the point. Life is cruel but also funny, people are weak but strong and Fantasy should sometimes be more realistic and less Howardian.
Which makes the idea that some critics hold, that the novel is based on Robert E. Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon, the only full Conan novel, hard to imagine. Personally, I don’t see it. If anything, The Tritonian Ring is a reaction to The Hour of the Dragon, after de Camp read it when the editors sent a copy to Fletcher Pratt. De Camp liked Sword & Sorcery but wanted to change its direction, a feat I think he failed in if the legacy of writers like John Jakes, Roger Zelazny and Lin Carter are any proof.
You can read more about The Tritonian Ring and the other stories in the series in the entire article by G. W. Thomas for free by downloading the debut issue of DARK WORLDS.