A Saturday Evening Post article by Jeff Nilsson under the title How Tarzan’s Author Did it All Wrong and Got it All Right makes a major good point and one that I wish would get made more often — that being, that in creating Tarzan (and John Carter), Edgar Rice Burroughs created what amounted to a sea change in popular fiction in which he shifted the entire concept of a hero and created what we now think of and understand as the superhero.
Here’s the part I like the best from the article:
We’ve come a long way since Tarzan was the most popular hero of the day. Other characters have arisen to crowd him off the center stage of popular culture. This year, as he turns 113 years old, he probably wouldn’t seem impressive if you stood him in a lineup with today’s superheroes. But don’t let his lack of cape and skin-tight costume fool you. Modern superheroes, and their creators, owe their livelihood to Tarzan. He was a major turning point in popular fiction, and he made a new generation of do-gooders possible.
Before his time, the heroes in adventure novels were drawn from an established cast of chivalrous characters. They might be noble cowboys or soldiers, but just as often they were roguish characters who lived on the edge of society: outlaws, pirates, or detectives. But all heroes, if they existed on planet Earth, had to fight the usual villains with conventional weapons. Adventure stories had to stay within the fictional boundaries that readers knew.
Tarzan changed the rules for heroes just as Burroughs changed the rules for writing bestsellers. His jungle hero wasn’t limited to traditional strength. Raised by apes, Tarzan had developed incredible power. He could fight all manner of dangerous animals, including fantastic creatures and dinosaurs.
I believe there is an actual moment in Tarzan of the Apes where the “superhero” is born. It may have been born a few months earlier in John Carter, but I don’t remember a specific moment for it there. But I do remember this moment from Tarzan:
As Tarzan grew he made more rapid strides, so that by the time he was ten years old he was an excellent climber, and on the ground could do many wonderful things which were beyond the powers of his little brothers and sisters.
In many ways did he differ from them, and they often marveled at his superior cunning, but in strength and size he was deficient; for at ten the great anthropoids were fully grown, some of them towering over six feet in height, while little Tarzan was still but a half-grown boy.
Yet such a boy!
From early childhood he had used his hands to swing from branch to branch after the manner of his giant mother, and as he grew older he spent hour upon hour daily speeding through the tree tops with his brothers and sisters.
He could spring twenty feet across space at the dizzy heights of the forest top, and grasp with unerring precision, and without apparent jar, a limb waving wildly in the path of an approaching tornado.
He could drop twenty feet at a stretch from limb to limb in rapid descent to the ground, or he could gain the utmost pinnacle of the loftiest tropical giant with the ease and swiftness of a squirrel.
Though but ten years old he was fully as strong as the average man of thirty, and far more agile than the most practiced athlete ever becomes. And day by day his strength was increasing.
When a boy of ten reads that ….the spirit soars, and the mind explodes. To be such a boy! To live such a wild, unfettered life! — And to be as strong as a man of thirty, able to fly effortlessly through the trees, to hold your own among the apes and other creatures of the jungle. In terms of wish-fulfillment, this was the moment for me when Tarzan of the apes soared. And through many years and many books, every time Tarzan would take to the trees and float effortless above the plodding humans below, stuck on the ground, taking weeks and months to traverse miles that Tarzan could cover in hours, effortlessly.
Nilsson is right — Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes represented a turning point in popular fiction and in the conception of the hero. All of the superheroes we have today are descended from Tarzan.
Or John Carter.
A Princess of Mars has a somewhat different flavor, and while John Carter is given an advantage in relation to Barsoomians due to the “gravitation” factor, there is something about his advent on Mars, and the fact that he relates the story in first person, that affect the mystique. There is a hint of superhero, but it’s different. Here is the passage from APOM that corresponds to the one cited above from Tarzan of the Apes.
Unarmed and naked as I was, the first law of nature manifested itself in the only possible solution of my immediate problem, and that was to get out of the vicinity of the point of the charging spear. Consequently I gave a very earthly and at the same time superhuman leap to reach the top of the Martian incubator, for such I had determined it must be.
My effort was crowned with a success which appalled me no less than it seemed to surprise the Martian warriors, for it carried me fully thirty feet into the air and landed me a hundred feet from my pursuers and on the opposite side of the enclosure.
I alighted upon the soft moss easily and without mishap, and turning saw my enemies lined up along the further wall. Some were surveying me with expressions which I afterward discovered marked extreme astonishment, and the others were evidently satisfying themselves that I had not molested their young.
They were conversing together in low tones, and gesticulating and pointing toward me. Their discovery that I had not harmed the little Martians, and that I was unarmed, must have caused them to look upon me with less ferocity; but, as I was to learn later, the thing which weighed most in my favor was my exhibition of hurdling.
While the Martians are immense, their bones are very large and they are muscled only in proportion to the gravitation which they must overcome. The result is that they are infinitely less agile and less powerful, in proportion to their weight, than an Earth man, and I doubt that were one of them suddenly to be transported to Earth he could lift his own weight from the ground; in fact, I am convinced that he could not do so.
My feat then was as marvelous upon Mars as it would have been upon Earth, and from desiring to annihilate me they suddenly looked upon me as a wonderful discovery to be captured and exhibited among their fellows.
The respite my unexpected agility had given me permitted me to formulate plans for the immediate future and to note more closely the appearance of the warriors, for I could not disassociate these people in my mind from those other warriors who, only the day before, had been pursuing me.
I noted that each was armed with several other weapons in addition to the huge spear which I have described. The weapon which caused me to decide against an attempt at escape by flight was what was evidently a rifle of some description, and which I felt, for some reason, they were peculiarly efficient in handling.
John Carter’s hint of self-deprecation whose success in leaping to the top of the incubator “appalled me” …. and the wry humor of “permitted me to formulate plans for the immediate future” is delightful and charming. I’m not sure it launches the superhero concept in quite the way that the passage from Tarzan does. It is as if ERB was onto something with John Carter, and then took it to the next level with Tarzan of the Apes. And this is said by one who has always slightly (and I mean slightly) favored Barsoom over Tarzan’s Africa.
In any event, I’m delighted to see this article appear out of nowhere and would be thrilled to see it get attention outside of the ERB universe.
That said, I have a few quibbles.
First of all, whole concept that ERB did “everything wrong” and in particular the old trope: “He only started writing magazine fiction because he was desperate to earn a little money.” Or: “He didn’t read widely. He didn’t even want to be an author.”
Yes, of course, a lot of that is what ERB told us, and that’s what gets repeated again and again and again. But why would anyone take ERB at face value when he says that kind of thing. Do you think for a moment that all these stories just happened? That he didn’t care deeply about them? And have passion for what he was writing? How long had these stories been germinating in his brain? And of course it wasn’t as if he had never written anything–his imagination had been on display for family for many years. He had just never turned that imagination to writing for a living.
My sense of has always been, and I will argue this more thoroughly and with citations on some other day, that Burroughs’ self deprecating words about his writing ability are a smokescreen that anyone who is paying any attention at all to subtext ought to be able to see through. Of course he doesn’t really think his talent is so minimal, or that the whole thing was so random. All of the self-deprecation is actually self-inoculation against the critics who didn’t know what to make of him. It gave him the upper hand, or at least equal footing, when dealing with the rejection and dismissive reactions he got from the true “literary” as opposed to “pulp” community.
If you want to know what he really thought, I submit the following quote which is much more from the heart: “Imagination is but another name for super intelligence.” — That is what Burroughs truly thought, but could he admit it openly, particularly in relation to his stories? Absolutely not. But did he secretly think his stories were special, that there was a genius in the way they were conceived and put together? I’m absolutely convinced he did. But he would never admit it. To do so would puncture this mystique and leave him open to a skewering from those who didn’t get it — a skewering that he avoided by speaking dismissively about his work while, I would argue, secretly feeling he was in fact a geniius and secretly craving recognition as such.
My other quibble — the reference to ERB having only read one book on Africa. I’ve been doing some research on that, and there is no doubt that he read quite a bit more than one book, or even one author. His reading on Africa was certainly not comprehensive …. gut once he chose his sources, he read them carefully and absorbed them thoroughly — and for that reason, the idea that he just dashed off Tarzan without doing more than a cursory examination of Africa is just wrong. Who did he read? What were his influences? That’s another post, not this one. But it wasn’t a half-baked romp through a single book. I’m sure of that.
I do want to close, however, on an appreciative not to Mr. Nilsson. Bravo, and thank you!
Oh, and one more by the way. How about this para – the last in the article?
Modern readers who pick up a Tarzan book for the first time might find Burroughs’ style a little dated. But he may also note the similarity between Burroughs’ hero and another orphan who grew up to wage a solitary, unbound-by-rules war on evil. The resemblance isn’t coincidence: Without Tarzan, there could be no Batman.