Friday, July 11, 2014

Burroughs, Barsoom and the birth and rebirth of the superhero

Deep into Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1914 novel “Tarzan of the Apes,” Jane Porter, accompanying her father on an African jungle excursion, understands that she has just met the most important figure in her life, whom she discusses with the captain of the ship. In reply, he calls the Lord of the Apes an interesting name.

 “I admit that he would be worth waiting for, this super-man of yours,” he says.

Tarzan, and Burroughs’ other creation John Carter, are prototypes not only of the Man of Steel, but countless other heroes of fantasy and science fiction. Reading the first Tarzan novel, and “A Princess of Mars,” one is reminded of how much ground science has travelled in the past century, but also how close speculative fiction has stayed to these two works.
Aaron Parrett wrote of Burroughs’ work that what makes it eternally compelling “is the way he stretches the bounds of verisimilitude by narrating purely fantastic events with such nonchalant matter-of-factness that what he describes becomes believably present.” It had been at least 30 years since I read both books, and I was pleasantly surprised how much came back to me once I picked them up again.

Burroughs begins the novels in much the same manner. “A Princess of Mars” opens with the conceit of an autobiography, written by a supposedly dead man, relayed by the man’s favorite nephew, Burroughs. “Tarzan of the Apes,” as Gore Vidal stated, has an opening worthy of Joseph Conrad: Just like with John Carter, there is the conceit that this is an actual story, gleaned from a diary and pieced together from records and a few witnesses.

In the beginning of “Mars,” John Carter several times presents himself as a man beyond time and space, and brings up the subject of resurrection, even though Burroughs has told us in an introduction that Carter was probably not “in the strict sense of the term a religious man.” 

“I am a very old man; how old I do not know…So far as I can recollect I have always been a man,” Carter begins, giving us a taste of someone who has been stretched beyond the bounds of his – and our – common humanity. He says few will believe his story, but that science will one day vindicate him. And so begins a dance between faith and experience that runs through the novel. 

John Carter’s tale, though otherworldly, has a tinge of the Victorian about it, as does Tarzan, which means Christian iconography lurks in the background. One of the aspects of the Gospels that ensures they stand out from literature of the same period – and an indicator to their credibility – is that the authors never attempt to explain the miracles of Jesus. We are not told how the multitudes are fed, how water is transformed into wine, nor are we given an eyewitness account of the moment Jesus strides from the tomb. We are instead given the voices of witnesses who saw and believed in Him. 

Burroughs, for the purposes of his fantastic tales, occasionally adopts the same strategy. He gives us a date of John Carter’s departure from the earth – March 3, 1866 – but does not tell us how Carter, fleeing from Indians into a mine, awakens naked on the planet Mars. Carter has a brief out-of-body experience, thinks he has died, but is transported to the very real red planet and not “forever into that other life!”

On Mars, Carter is transformed, after several feats of daring-do, into a savior of the various races of Barsoom, what the natives call Mars. The Martians are warlike and never far from a weapon, so the impulsive, fearless, confident Confederate veteran fits in well among the landscape. Many times, Burroughs –and Carter – sacrifices common sense for the sake of a chase, a duel, or an escape, and so we discover the warring Tharks, Jeddaks, the Zodanga and the ruling families of Helium. 

A modern reader is amazed at how breezily Burroughs goes about the business of world building to flesh out his story. We know that he borrowed from Lowell's 19th century theories regarding Martian canals, which gives us the ancient Martian ruins Carter explores – a theme of abandoned antiquity that Burroughs would revisit again and again. It is also one other authors were keen to take up, such as Ray Bradbury in “The Martian Chronicles.” 

But when Carter calls Mars a “planet of paradoxes,” he is commenting on the mix of high and low culture, technology and savagery. Burroughs gives us a planet of scare resources and barren life with warring tribes engaged in an unpopular war, but tells us that in one aspect the Martians are happy in that “they have no lawyers.”  (This is a rare touch of humor- much of “Princess” is breezily brutal.) He introduces themes of telepathy and mind control in only a few sentences, mostly so that Carter doesn’t have a hard time learning the Martian tongue. He will return to these at the story’s conclusion. 

Descriptions are foreshortened for time’s sake. Only Carter gets the honor of long fight scenes. His friend Tars Tarkas’ act of revenge against the evil Tal Hajus is carried out in two sentences. And he introduces concepts that other writers would dwell on, just to prick our interest. A paragraph primer in Martian theology, which speaks of a 1,000 year pilgrimage down the mysterious river Iss, makes us long for another adventure.   

As does the climax, when the citizens of Helium sense their purified atmosphere is running out and they will all suffocate, until John Carter solves the problem in his last act (in this story) on Mars. Burroughs plants a seed with the reader by introducing the image of John Carter and Dejah Thoris standing over the egg that bears their child, giving us the fear that all will be lost, and then leaves us with the Princess awaiting her warlord’s return after he departs.  Carter, like King Arthur, like Christ, cannot leave on such a note. 

John Carter saves Barsoom, but, as inexplicably as he came to Mars, he returns to Earth. His death on one world means his resurrection on another.

As he did with the Martian canals, Burroughs played with Darwinian evolution, genetics and contemporary theories of race when he wrote “Tarzan” three years later. He told interviewers he created Tarzan as a “contest between heredity and environment.” Nature vs. nurture, in other words.  Just like Carter, Tarzan spends much of the tale naked, and even though he was born in the jungle, there is the sense that he, like Carter, is a stranger there. 

The story begins with John Clayton, the Earl of Greystoke, and his wife Alice headed to Africa to an overseas post. Their journey goes awry when the Fulwalda, their ship, undergoes a mutiny, and the crew deposits the couple on the coast. Clayton constructs a treehouse for his wife where Alice gives birth to the Greystoke heir before sinking into death. The baby Tarzan is spirited away from the crib – like Jesus, like Moses - by the ape mother Kala, who trades the living human child for her dead ape one.  

Tarzan shows some progress in Burroughs’ style – there is humor in Tarzan even at his most sinister, as when he taunts his jungle enemies. About the age of 10 Tarzan realizes he is different from the apes he has grown up among, and seeing his image reflected in water is only the first step. He eventually finds his way to the jungle cabin where the skeletons of his parents rest among a library of books, and he patiently teaches himself to read English. He takes his father’s knife and begins using it to turn himself into the King of the Apes. And then, as he reaches manhood, he meets a party of jungle explorers, which includes Jane.

The most meaningful relationship is, of course, the one with her, but Tarzan owes a debt of gratitude to the Frenchman D’Arnot, who teaches him to speak English and French while the apeman nurses him back to health. When Hollywood last made an attempt at a more faithful rendition of the novel, it made the D’Arnot friendship the pivotal one, as it is the one that ensures Tarzan will leave the jungle. D’Arnot was played wonderfully by Ian Holm in “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” as it is D’Arnot who also helps Tarzan solve the mystery of his origin. 

This is despite the fact that D’Arnot is introduced in the last fourth of the novel, as Tarzan travels, at whirlwind pace, from Africa to Paris to America, from loin cloth to becoming a cultured traveler in scarcely 40 pages. 

With both books, the overarching theme is civilization. In “Princess,” when it appears Helium will dissolve with its atmosphere, listen to the typically grandiose words of Tardos Mors: 

 “Let us bid each other farewell. The days of the greatness of Barsoom are over. Tomorrow’s sun will look down upon a dead world which through all eternity must go swinging through the heavens peopled not even by memories. It is the end.”

There is a sense in “Tarzan” that he represents the best of both worlds – the son of a noble raised among the wild. “In his veins…flowed the blood of the best of a race of mighty fighters, and back of this was the training of his short life among the fierce brutes of the jungle.” The "cream" inevitably rises to the top, in whatever setting. This is roughly the same for Carter, the rebel who survived the Civil War. It seems logical that singlehandedly conquering Mars wouldn’t be too much trouble for a man of such experience. It is civilization that instills such virtues into its men and women, Burroughs seems to be telling us, and those things are worth preserving because they embody the timeless, no matter what planet one may be on. 

Again, there are things in this book Burroughs will not explain. For example, Tarzan is friends with Tantor the elephant. “How?” he writes. “Ask me not.” While Tarzan is the name the apes give him, Burroughs makes no attempt to explain how this was translated, since the ape language obviously doesn’t make any sounds close to English. (In “Greystoke,” Christopher Lambert’s Tarzan is never called by that name.) Occasionally, Burroughs shows flashes of what Tarzan’s life trajectory could have been – contrasting his eating raw flesh with that of the present Lord Greystoke, his uncle, at that moment sending his chops back in a London restaurant for being underdone. 

Though Burroughs’ style shows progress between the two novels, there are obviously pulpy passages  indicating the haste of his writing process. Among the two novels, Burroughs endlessly repeats the word “anthropoid.” Jane’s maid Esmeralda is obviously the comic relief minstrel mammy character, complete with cringe-inducing dialect.  I nearly threw the book across the room after Professor Porter repeated the phrase “Tut-tut” for what felt like the thousandth time. 

But Burroughs seasons both tales with enough familiar pulp devices to keep the pages turning. In “Tarzan,” we have mutinous sailors, pirate treasure, ancient civilizations (again), jungle combat, cannibals, a North American forest fire and action on three continents. Burroughs isn't creating a religious faith - he merely wants faith in his hero to survive long enough to keep you reading. There is a kind of weird logic in it all, because ultimately this is the reader's adventure, and the reader must believe if the story is to survive.

And he saves the most interesting development for the end – a finish that makes the Tarzan story on the page much more potent than it has ever been rendered on the screen. Tarzan has rescued Jane and made it unnecessary for her to enter into a loveless marriage for financial convenience. He has saved her life, but he has also rescued the present Lord Greystoke, the man whom he learns from D’Arnot holds the title that should be his. He has forsaken the jungle to make his way in the civilized world, all in hopes of gaining Jane, who plans on marrying Greystoke. Like John Carter, he has been prepared for a destiny that he is now denied. 

How does he describe himself to the man who, we are led to believe, will rob him of his happiness? “My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it,” Tarzan tells Lord Greystoke. “I never knew who my father was.” It is an act of self-sacrifice that adds to the mystery and allure of the man.

Like John Carter, dreaming of his wife and unborn child millions of miles away, we are denied the happily ever after – at least until the next episode, which we, at the creator’s bidding, desperately wish to begin immediately.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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