It has happened to all of us, I’m sure. You’re wandering around Rome, trying to get a better look at the Pantheon when, unexpectedly, you find that you have inexplicably travelled back in time by 1,400 years, and have arrived in a city for which your modern guidebook, concerned as it is with hotels with WiFi and where to find the best gelatto, is wholly inadequate. Congratulations. You’re in much the same boat as the protagonist of this novel.
Archeologist Martin Padway has accidentally – and for reasons never adequately explained – travelled through time while on a trip to Rome. In L. Sprague de Camp’s 1949 novel Lest Darkness Fall, de Camp takes readers to a place that isn’t often visited, even in history classes. Martin Padway has arrived in 1288 A.U.C. (ab urbe conditia, as I learned it, “from the founding of Rome”), or about 515 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, and some thirty-five years after the final fall of Rome to the Goths (in 480 CE, for those keeping score). As an ordinary sort of academic from Illinois, divorced, and bearing the uninspiring nickname of “Mouse,” but with a handy knowledge of Latin, Greek, and a little Gothic, he must now make his way as best he can in a world both familiar and incredibly dangerous.
It isn’t simply a question of good fortune that Padway can identify the local dialect as Vulgar Latin, or “about half-way between the Latin of Cicero and the Italian of Dante,” and that he can, with a little work, make himself understood to the locals. Fortunately, he also has an uncanny knowledge of the future – and the more or less immediate present – not possessed by the locals. As he becomes the Mysterious Martinus, with his curious new ideas, technologies, and weapons, Padway becomes determined to change history, and avert the coming “darkness” of the Dark Ages. The odds, of course, are against him. What’s a classicist to do?
Naturally, he is to dive head-first into local politics and business. In doing so, he will not only cross paths with numerous Goths, who represent both danger and salvation to Rome, but with the Emperor Justinian and his best-known General, Belissarius himself. But can any one man, even a man equipped with detailed knowledge of the future, avert the course of established history?
In all, I’m giving this effort four stars, largely for the richness of historical detail, at which de Camp excelled. Lest Darkness Fall brings the early Gothic period to life with surprising richness, however misses out on a five star rating with its disappointingly weak ending.
Originally reviewed 2 January 2013.
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