The novel “Lest Darkness Fall” by L. Sprague de Camp was published for the first time in 1941.
Martin Padway is an American archeologist visiting Rome. One day in 1938 he’s visiting the Pantheon when a strong storm starts and is almost hit by a lightning strike. Stunned, he slowly becomes aware that the people around him are strangely dressed and speak in an almost incomprehensible manner in a language other than Italian.
Recovered from dizziness, Martin Padway tries to figure out what happened and, asking for the date in the Latin spoken by the people he meets, finds out he’s in Rome in 535 A.D. during the reign of King Thiudahad. He has no way of returning to his time so he has to try to survive by exploiting his modern knowledge with the awareness that Italy is about to be invaded by Emperor Justinian’s army.
The first version of “Lest Darkness Fall” was published in 1939 in the magazine “Unknown”. Subsequently, L. Sprague de Camp extended it up to turn it into a novel that was published as a book in 1941. It was often compared to “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, one of the first novels on the theme of time travel.
In “Lest Darkness Fall”, the protagonist Martin Padway is transported from 1938 to 535 A.D. after being almost struck by lightning. The Rome in which he ends up is in decline after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, so much so that at that time Ravenna was the capital of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths under King Thiudahad.
The novel tells the adventure in the past of this modern man who has modern scientific and technological knowledge and thanks to his job he knows the story of that era so he knows that Italy is going to be invaded by Emperor Justinian. Initially he tries to apply his knowledge to do business but slowly starts getting involved in politics.
The story works because there are strong historical foundations on which it’s developed. L. Sprague de Camp includes precise details about the Italian situation of that period that are important in the plot. When Martin Padway tries to understand exactly in what historical time he ended up, one of the first questions concerns the murder of Queen Amalaswentha, an important historical event.
Martin Padway opens a business by selling the “secret” of Arabic numerals but is constantly aware that the situation will change soon. In particular, he knows that the Byzantine army led by Belisario, a truly brilliant general, will bring war and devastation to Italy. His support to King Thiudahad is not due to sympathy but to the fact that a strong Ostrogoth reign would mean stability for the nation that has become his home.
Martin Padway’s adventure is developed at a time when wars and violence were normal and yet it0s told in light-hearted tones, including when it concerns the daily life of the time. Sprague de Camp could have written a dramatic story, instead he wrote a comedy. This setting is particularly noticeable in the relationships among the characters and their dialogues, sometimes really over the top.
Because of his knowledge, Martin Padway is often looked upon with curiosity, even suspected of being a wizard, and has to handle himself among the various Christian churches of the time to avoid trouble. His relationship with Thiudahad is often over the lines because the king is essentially described as a fool and that with Princess Mathaswentha becomes complicated also because of a romantic factor.
For these reasons, “Lest Darkness Fall” has become a classic, especially in the time travel subgenre. In my opinion, it’s a must-read novel and not just for science fiction fans regardless of genre labels.