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Lest Darkness Fall  
Lest darkness fall holt.jpg
first edition cover of Lest Darkness Fall
Author L. Sprague de Camp
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Alternate history
Publisher Henry Holt and Company
Publication date 1941
Media type Print (Hardback)
Pages 379 pp

Lest Darkness Fall is an alternate history science fiction novel written in 1939 by author L. Sprague de Camp. It was first published as a short story in Unknown #10, December 1939. It was published as a complete novel by Henry Holt and Company in 1941 and reprinted by both Galaxy Publishing and Prime Press in 1949.

The book is often considered one of the best examples of the alternative history genre; it is certainly one of the most influential. Alternative history author Harry Turtledove has said it sparked his interest in the genre as well as his desire to study Byzantine history.[1]


Plot summary

Lest Darkness Fall is written along lines similar to those of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. American archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting the Pantheon in Rome in 1938. A thunderstorm arrives, lightning cracks, and he finds himself transported to 6th century Rome (AD 535).

The period Padway arrives in is a rather obscure one: Italy was ruled by the Ostrogoths, who had recently overthrown the Western Roman Empire, but were (in de Camp's opinion anyway) ruling relatively benevolently, e.g. allowing freedom of religion. In real history, shortly after this the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire temporarily expanded westwards, and overthrew the Ostrogoths in Italy and the Vandals in north Africa, but they never consolidated their rule over Italy, and it collapsed into various small states with further invasions by the Lombards.

Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, Galaxy Publishing Co., Inc., 1949

Padway begins his adventures confused, wondering if he is dreaming or delusional. Quickly he accepts his fate and sets out to survive. At first Padway hits upon the idea of making a copper still and selling brandy for a living. He convinces a banker, Thomasus the Syrian, to lend him money to start his endeavor.

Padway moves on to develop a printing press, issue newspapers, and build a sketchy semaphore telegraph system. His efforts to produce a mechanical clock, gunpowder, and a cannon are failures. Despite his technological and academic bent he becomes more involved in the politics of the state, as Italy is invaded by the Imperials and also threatened from the south and east.

Padway rescues the recently deposed Thiudahad and becomes his quaestor. He uses the king's support to gather forces to defeat the Imperial general Belisarius and then, deceiving the Dalmatian army, re-enthrones the largely senile Thiudahad and imprisons King Wittigis as a hostage. In 537, when Wittigis is killed and Thiudahad reduced to madness, Padway has a protegé of his married to Mathaswentha and then created king of the Ostrogoths. He also tricks Justinian I into releasing Belisarius from his oath of allegiance and quickly enlists the military genius to command an army against the Franks.

The landing of an Imperial army at Vibo and a rebellion led by the son of Thiudahad threaten the Ostrogothic kingdom and the Ostrogoth army is destroyed at Crathis Valley. Padway assembles a new force, distributes an "emancipation proclamation" to the Italian serfs, and recalls Belisarius. The armies clash near Calatia and then Benevento. Despite the lethal indiscipline of his Gothic forces, some simple tactical tricks and the nick-of-time arrival of Belisarius secure Padway's victory.

At the end of the novel Padway has stabilised the Italo-Gothic kingdom, introduced a constitution, arranged the end of serfdom, liberated the Burgunds, is having boats built for an Atlantic expedition (Padway wants tobacco) and he has entered negotiations with the Visigothic kingdom in the Iberian peninsula.

Europe will not experience the Dark Ages due to Padway's actions; darkness will not fall.

Main characters

  • Martin Padway (also referred to as Martinus Paduei) - Protagonist. Transported from 1938 Rome to its 535 equivalent.
  • Thomasus the Syrian - Banker and confidant of Padway. Often invokes his "friend" God.
  • Fritharik - Deposed Vandal noble, who becomes Padway's bodyguard and right-hand man. Often laments the loss of his beautiful Carthage estate and remarks that they will eventually all end up in unmarked graves.
  • Thiudahad - King of the Ostrogoths and Italians. He is deposed and replaced by Wittigis, but is brought back under Padway's influence.
  • Urias - Nephew of Wittigis and an ally of Padway's. Becomes king (with Padway's help) after Thiudahad is no longer fit to rule.
  • Thiudegiskel - Son of Thiudahad.
  • Mathaswentha - Daughter of Amalswentha, and love interest for Padway. Their brief romance is cut short when she decides, to Padway's horror, to have any competition killed. Padway sets her up with Urias, whom she marries.
  • Belisarius - General of the Eastern Roman Empire. Eventually persuaded by Padway to join the Gothic army.

Related works

A response to this story is "The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass" by Frederick Pohl, in which a man travels back to 1 BCE and teaches modern medicine, causing a population explosion. It ends with the fantastically overpopulated alternate timeline sending someone back to assassinate the title character, allowing darkness to fall for thankful billions.

A short story sequel to Lest Darkness Fall, "The Apotheosis of Martin Padway", authored by S. M. Stirling, appeared in Harry Turtledove's 2005 tribute anthology honoring L. Sprague de Camp, The Enchanter Completed. It provides interesting glimpses of what might have become of the reality Padway altered, both during his old age and a few hundred years later.

Another story inspired by Lest Darkness Fall is "To Bring The Light", by David Drake, published together with the original in one book by Baen in 1996. This story features Flavia Herosilla, a well educated woman living in Rome in the year 751 BCE. Like Padway, she is sent back in time by a lightning strike, in her case to the era of Rome's beginnings. Unlike Padway, who tries to change history, Flavia tries to recreate the founding of Rome based on the legends that she knows.


  • Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. p. 95. 
  • Laughlin, Charlotte; Daniel J. H. Levack (1983). De Camp: An L. Sprague de Camp Bibliography. San Francisco: Underwood/Miller. pp. 72–75. 
  1. ^ Auden, Sandy (2005). "A Moment in Time - An Interview with Harry Turtledove". SF Site. Retrieved 17 March 2010. 

External links



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