In 1953, perhaps, the plot, characters, and high fantasy paraphernalia of The Tritonian Ring were fresher. Much of the novel now seems clichéd: the quest pattern, the noble prince who learns about the world, the griping but faithful servant, and the use of a pre-Iron Age magical world as a setting. That is no fault of de Camp, however. Although it lacks the epic vision of Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (1977-1983) or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1968), de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring does suggest a greater level of craftsmanship than usual in this often hackneyed genre.
Unlike many turgid quest novels, de Camp’s work is touched with ironic humor. For example, the female satyr who rescues Vakar demands that he satisfy her sexual appetites (she is, after all, a satyr). Wounded in the shoulder, he demurs and nonchalantly orders his servant to make love to the beautiful creature, much as he would order Fual to clean his boots. Vakar’s combination of arrogance, dry wit, and intellectual thirst make him an intriguing hero. His growth throughout the work is subtle, and he never becomes the insipid hero a more timid modern author might create.
On a more serious level, the book is an allegory of the arms race of the 1950’s. De Camp, after all, lived in the postwar world, not the Hyperborean age, and his works are relevant to the day. During the 1950’s, as the United States and the Soviet Union were embroiled in the coldest period of the Cold War, the arms race often was politicized as a matter of national survival. It would be arrogant to assume that “escapist” literature is incapable of providing a substantial critique of the pervasive fear. Vakar’s search for a weapon to defeat the powerful forces arrayed against his country parallels the scientific search for ever more powerful atomic and nuclear weapons.
De Camp’s view of the arms race in his book is fundamentally humane. Having defeated the Gorgonian force and at the head of a victorious army, Vakar is able to destroy his country and his rebellious brother. That he refuses to do so and refuses to use the powerful weapon that has come to hand is not a defeatist gesture but itself a victory for intelligence and true human evolution.