I’m at the very, very end with John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood. I’ve been holding out for one last interview with someone very significant who has been signaling they are willing, but has not yet come through. In the meantime, although I think the book makes considerable progress on the issue of trying to define what it was about Edgar Rice Burroughs that causes him to stand out from all other fiction of this type, and to establish a very emotional and in many cases lifelong connection with the reader — I don’t think I’m all the way there yet. I know I’ve tossed this out here before but I’m doing it again: What, exactly, is so unique about Edgar Rice Burroughs?
One of the things I’ve learned in my journey is that it’s perfectly acceptable to footnote comments from a “weblog”, and I know that we have some on here who can contribute in a major way, and I’m hoping for some nuggets of comment gold that I can cite …..
One of the best attempts at capturing Burroughs’ essence comes from Gore Vidal in 1967 article for Esquire Magazine. Here are some of the key excerpts:
“Most of the stories I wrote were the stories I told myself just before I went to sleep,” said Edgar Rice Burroughs, describing his own work. . . . With a sense of recapturing childhood, I have just reread several Tarzan books. ….All through these stories one gets the sense that one is daydreaming, too. Episode follows episode with no particular urgency. Tarzan is always knocked on the head and taken captive; he always escapes; there is always a beautiful princess or high priestess who loves him and assists him; there is always a loyal friend who fights beside him, very much in the Queequeg tradition which Leslie Fielder assures us is the urning in the fuel supply of the American psyche. But no matter how difficult the adventure, Tarzan, clad only in a loincloth with no weapon save a knife (the style is contagious), wins against all odds and returns to his shadowy wife.
For instance, how many adults have an adventure serial running in their heads? How many consciously daydream, turning on a story in which the dreamer ceases to be an employee of I.B.M and becomes a handsome demigod moving through splendid palaces, saving maidens from monsters (or monsters from maidens: this is a jaded time). Most children tell themselves stories in which they figure as powerful figures, enjoying the pleasures not only of the adult world as they conceive it but of a world of wonders unlike dull reality. Although this sort of Mittyesque daydreaming is supposed to cease in maturity, I suggest that more adults than we suspect are bemusedly wandering about with a full Technicolor extravaganza going on in their heads. Clad in tights, rapier in hand, the daydreamers drive their Jaguars at fantastic speeds through a glittering world of adoring love objects, mingling anachronistic historic worlds with science fiction. “Captain, the time-warp’s been closed! We are now trapped in a parallel world, inhabited entirely by women with three breasts.” Though from what we can gather about these imaginary worlds, they tend to be more Adlerian than Freudian: The motor drive is the desire not for sex (other briefer fantasies take care of that) but for power, for the ability to dominate one’s environment through physical strength. I sate all this with perfect authority because I have just finished rereading several books by the master of American daydreamers, Edgar Rice Burroughs . . . . .
Vidal winds up with:
There is something basic in the appeal of the 1914 Tarzan which makes me think that he can still hold his own as a daydream figure, despite the sophisticated challenge of his two contemporary competitors, Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane. For most adults, Tarzan (and John Carter of Mars) can hardly compete wit the conspicuous consumer consumption of James Bond or the sickly violence of Mike Hammer, but for children and adolescents, the old appeal continues. All of us need the idea of a world alternative to this one. From Plato’s Republic to Opar to Bond-land, at every level, the human imagination has tried to imagine something better for itself than the existing society. Man left Eden when we got up off all fours, endowing most of his descendants with nostalgia as well as chronic backache. In its naive way, the Tarzan legend returns us to that Eden where, free of clothes and the inhibitions of an oppressive society, a man can achieve his continuing need, which is, as William Faulkner put it in his high Confederate style, to prevail as well as endure. The current fascination with L.S.D. and non-addictive drugs — not to mention alcoholism — is all part of a general sense of frustration and boredom. The individual’s desire to dominate his environment is not a desirable trait in a society which every day grows more and more confining. Since there are few legitimate releases for the average man, he must take to daydreaming. James Bond, Mike Hammer and Tarzan are all dream-selves, and the aim of each is to establish personal primacy in a world which in reality diminishes the individual. Among adults, increasing popularity of these lively inferior fictions strikes me as a most significant (and unbearably sad) phenomenon.
My sense of it is that Vidal is close, but still not quite hitting the bullseye. I do think that he is correct when makes the connections between dreaming, daydreaming, and Burroughs. It’s as if, when reading an ERB novel, that you are in the midst of the most fantastic dream ever and you are carried along as effortlessly as when you are dreaming. I’ll give him that.
But I think there was more.
If I were to get one of those dial-o-meters like they use with focus groups on political debate nights and have it hooked up to me to measure the joy of the moment and degree of immersion when reading, here is what it would show. The scale is 1 – 100, right?
- Burroughs’s contemporaries and semi-contemporaries, Haggard, Verne, Wells — 60
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — 70
- The best modern “serious fiction” I’ve ever read — Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, James Joyce, Hemingway — 75
- “Exception to the rule” great fiction — stories that for some difficult to define reason just seem to speak to my spirit — The Old Man and the Sea, The Pearl, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Slaughterhouse 5 — 80
- Burroughs at his worst — the later books, the potboilers — 80
- The best classic sci-fi — Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, — 82
- Burroughs at his best — Tarzan, Return of Tarzan, A Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars, Warlord of Mars, — 92
How is it that the books of ERB would cause me to dial up the meter that high?
A word that I find myself using is “imaginative transport” — that indefinable ability to take you from wherever it is that life has you (usually stuck in some sort of mud or traffic somewhere) and transport you to a world that is engaging, and that seems to possess certain things that have a deeply felt innate appeal. With Tarzan it is the jungle and a sense of, perhaps, Eden. With Tarzan it was also — particularly in my youth — something about Tarzan’s ability to move effortlessly through the upper canopy of the rainforest. Wasn’t that almost like flying? Dream flying, I mean?
To this day I persistently have a dream of flying — a dream in which I’m able, simply by exerting my arms like wings, gain enough traction to get hundreds of feet up into the air. And then I can (and it all seems reasonable) swoop and fly, and the favorite path that I tend to take on these occasional dream flights is through a steeply inclined forest — a “mountains of the mist rain forest”……in a way, it’s like Tarzan. (It’s also like the curious moment at the beginning of Avatar, the very first image, when we hear Jake Sully talk about dreams of flight over an image of a rain forest….hmm….I always wondered what Cameron was up to with that non-sequitur of a start.)
As a fifteen year old living in Germany and reading the Tarzan books, I recall riding the bus to school on a route that took us through a fairly dense forest. In the spring, as the leaves came out, filled with chlorophyll, I would lean against the window and look up into the trees and dream of a Tarzan-like journey.
But it was Barsoom that, more than any other creation, caught my imagination. There was a grandeur to it, and a history — but again, flying was part of it too. The very first passage of Burroughs that I ever read was the opening to Llana of Gathol (I picked up the book on the shelves of a library mostly because I was curious about the strange double “L”)….
No matter how instinctively gregarious one may be there are times when one longs for solitude. I like people. I like to be with my family, my friends, my fighting men; and probably just because I am so keen for companionship, I am at times equally keen to be alone. It is at such times that I can best resolve the knotty problems of government in times of war or peace. It is then that I can meditate upon all the various aspects of a full life such as I lead; and, being human, I have plenty of mistakes upon which to meditate that I may fortify myself against their recommission. When I feel that strange urge for solitude coming over me, it is my usual custom to take a one man flier and range the dead sea bottoms and the other uninhabited wildernesses of this dying planet; for there indeed is solitude. There are vast areas on Mars where no human foot has ever trod, and other vast areas that for thousands of years have known only the giant green men, the wandering nomads of the ocher deserts. Sometimes I am away for weeks on these glorious adventures in solitude. Because of them, I probably know more of the geography and topography of Mars than any other living man; for they and my other adventurous excursions upon the planet have carried me from the Lost Sea of Korus, in the Valley Dor at the frozen South to Okar, land of the black bearded yellow men of the frozen North, and from Kaol to Bantoom; and yet there are many parts of Barsoom that I have not visited, which will not seem so strange when there is taken into consideration the fact that although the area of Mars is like more than one fourth that of Earth its land area is almost eight million square miles greater. That is because Barsoom has no large bodies of surface water, its largest known ocean being entirely subterranean. Also, I think you will admit, fifty-six million square miles is a lot of territory to know thoroughly. Upon the occasion of which I am about to tell you I flew northwest from Helium, which lies 30 degrees south of the equator which I crossed about sixteen hundred miles east of Exum, the Barsoomian Greenwich. North and west of me lay a vast, almost unexplored region; and there I thought to find the absolute solitude for which I craved.
I was hooked, and throughout the Barsoom series, that image of John Carter setting off in his one man flyer on this or that mission, hurtling across the planet — it was heaven for me.
But there’s another aspect that had an even deeper appeal, and in this, I think my experience of the books may be different than many. This is why, for example, my eyes glaze over with the arguments about whether Andrew Stanton’s changing of the Therns was warranted, etc etc.
For me, it was the chivalric romance of it all that was — other than the imaginative transport — the pull of the stories. I would later go on and do college and graduate level studies on “the matter of Britain” — the Arthurian mythology and history in all of its manifestations, and I think that more than anything else, Barsoom propelled me there. John Carter was assuredly a knight errant in every meaningful way, and he finds meaning in his love of Dejah Thoris and through her, his love of Barsoom. But his larger journey to becoming a unifying figure on Barsoom is always seen through his love for Dejah Thoris.
Truly, once his love for Dejah is a settled matter, my rating of the books on the dial-o-meter would go down. Burroughs seemed to sense this — which is why, after completing the trilogy, he branched out and wrote of Carthoris and Thuvia, Ulysses Paxton and Valla Dia, Hadron of Hastor and the wonderful Tavia…..
I was unabashedly drawn in by the romance, and the sense of destiny between the two parties. It never occurred to me that this was “shallow stuff” in its guilelessness……it was rich, engaging, I could believe in the characters and their desires and motivations and I was thrilled by the world they inhabited.
No one was quite like Burroughs.
But none of that quite gets at the true essence. I’m hoping someone can formulate it better.
Think of it like this. Suppose you were called to a stage, in front of assembled sci-fi and non-sci-fi fans and scholars and authors and had to make a statement to them about what, exactly, made Burroughs unique among all of the other authors you’ve experienced in your life. What sort of answer would you give?