Ray Bradbury on Burroughs

The Elusive, Impulsive Magic of Edgar Rice Burroughs

A1, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan, Tarzan of the Apes, The Tarzan Files

I have been lately re-reading Irwin Porges massive biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of the pleasures of which is the passionate introduction, written in 1975, by Ray Bradbury.

In that introduction, Bradbury attempts to come to grips with the magic of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the impact of his creations on his own life. He begins by writing about about how as a young boy in the “long, mad summer of 1930” he had been completely swept away by Tarzan, John Carter, and the other creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and how that experience had brought him decades later to a place in which he was willing to invest years of his life in exploring the life of the author that had so captivated him.  He then tries to grapple with the Burroughs magic, and explain it — or if not explain it, at least shed light on it.  Here is what he wrote:


Ray Bradbury2

What was it that Mr. Burroughs did to several dozen million scores of boys all across the world in the last sixty years?

Was he a great thinker?

He would have laughed at that.

Was he a superb sylist?

He would have snorted at that, also.

What if Edgar Rice Burroughs had never been born, and Tarzan with him?  Or what if he had simply written Westerns and stayed out of Nairobi and Timbuctoo?  How would our world have been affected?  Would someone else have become Edgar Rice Burroughs?  But Kipling had his chance, and didn’t change the world, at least not in the same way.

The Jungle Books are known and read and loved around the world, but they didn’t make most boys run amok, pull their bones like taffy, and grow them to romantic flights and farflung jobs around the world. On occasion, eys, but more ofthen than not,no.  Kipling was a better writer than Burroughs, but not a better romantic.

A better writer, too, and also a romantic, was Jules Verne. But he was a Robinson Crusoe humanist/moralist.  He celebrated head/hands/heart, the triple “‘s shaping and changing a world with ideas. All good stuff, all chockful of concepts. Shall we trot around the world in eighty days. We shall. Shall we rocket to the Moon? Indeed….. It is all adventurous and romantice. But it is not very wild. It is not impulsive.

Burroughs stands above all these by reason of his unreason, because of his natural impulses, because of the color of the blood running in Tarzan’s veins, because of the blood on the teeth of the gorilla, the lion, and the blak panther. Because of the sheer romantic impossibility of Burroughs’ Mars and its fairy tale people with green skins and the absolutely unscientific way John Carter traveled there. Being utterly impossible, he was the perfect fast-moving chum for any ten year old boy.

For how can one resist walking out of a summer night to stand in the middle of one’s lawn to look up at the red fire of Mars quivering in the sky and whisper: Take me home.

A lot of boys, and not a few girls, if they will admit it, have indeed gone “home” because of such nights, such whispers, such promises of far places, such planets, and the creator of the inhabitants of those planets.

In conversations over drinks around our country the past ten years I have been astonished to discover how often a leading biochemist or archaeologist or space technician or astronaut when asked: what happened to you when you were ten years old? replied:

“Tarzan.”

“John Carter.”

“Mr. Burroughs, of course.”

One Imminent anthropologist admitted to me: “When I was eleven I read The land that Time Forgot.  Bones, I thought. Dry bones. I will go magic me some bones and resurrect a time. From then on I galloped through life. I became what Mr. Burroughs told me to become.

So there you have it. Or almost have it, anyway. The explanation that we, the intellectualss, dread to think about.  But that we, as creatures of blood and instinct and adventure, welcome with a cry….

All this Burroughs says most directly, simply, and in terms of animal blood and racial memory every time that Tarzan leaps into a tee or Carter soars through space.

We may know and admire and respect and be moved by Mr. Verne, but he was too polite, wasn’t he?  You always felt that in the midst of Moon-stalking, his gents just might sit down to tea, or that Nemo, no matter how deep he sank in the Sargasso, still had time for his organ and his  Bach. Very nice, very lovely. But the blood does not move so much with this, as does the midn.

In sum, we may have liked Verne and Wells, and Kipling, but we loved, we adored, we went quite mad with Mr. Burroughs. We grew up into our intellectuality, of course, but our blood always remembered. Some part of our soul always stayed in the ravine running through the center of Waukegan, Illinois,s, up in a tree, swinging on a vine, combating shadow-apes….

Mr. Burroughs convinced me that I could talk with the animals even if they didn’t answer back, and that late nights when I was asleep my soul slipped from my body, slung itself out the window, and frolicked across town never touching the lawns, always hanging from trees where, even later in those nights, I taught myself alphabets and soon learned French and English and danced with the apes when the moon rose.

But then again, his greatest give was teaching me to look at Mars and ask to be taken home.

I went home to Mars often when I was eleven and twelve and every year since, and the astronauts with me, as far as the moon to start, but Mars by the end of the century for sure, Mars by 1999. We have commuted because of Mr. Burroughs. Because of him we have printed the Moon.  because of him and men like him, one day in the net five centuries, we will commute forever, we will go away…

And never come back.

And so live forever.

On rereading this introduction this time around, I’m struck by the word impulse, or impulsive, and all the references to “blood”.  I think Bradbury is onto something. The dictionary definition of impulse is “a sudden strong desire to do something” but the larger, expanded definition includes this: “a wave of excitation transmitted through tissues and especially nerve fibers and muscles that results in physiological activity or inhibition.”

That’s the  “Burroughs effect”  … something impulsive in that sense — something that connected with me on a deeper, more “impulsive” level that in some fashion circumvented my brain and hardwired itself into my spirit and affected me in a profound, yet hard to articulate way,  from my first encounter with it.

Light of Knowledge

I remember reading the following passage from Tarzan of the Apes for the first time, as a boy of eleven:

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.

His life among these fierce apes had been happy; for his recollection held no other life, nor did he know that there existed within the universe aught else than his little forest and the wild jungle animals with which he was familiar.

The idea of moving effortlessly though the trees, almost free of bonds of gravity and in some way, mortality — it was exhilirating. I was utterly captivated and from that day could not pass through a forest without gazing into the branches of the trees and imagining moving through them like Tarzan.  Even now, at an age when tree climbing is definitely off the menu — I still find myself gazing into forest branches and feeling the pull, the exhiliration.

That was Burroughs.

He had a grasp of something, not intellectual, something deeper and more primal than that and when it worked it’s magic, it overwhelmed you and changed you.

As for going “home to Mars” ….

Oh yes, I felt that pull, and yes I went out into the yard and looked at Mars and asked to be taken home to Barsoom. I really did. I remember the book that really physically sent me out into the yard.  It wasn’t A Princess of Mars, I think because in that book the transport to Mars seemed to me to be something that was available only to John Carter — he who never aged and couldn’t remember his childhood.  I felt that when he was pulled to Mars, it was somehow meant to fulfill his uniquely personal destiny, and was tied to the mystery of his origins — a mystery I didnt share.  But then I came upon Mastermind of Mars, and Ulysses Paxton, an ordinary human like me, who had read A Princess of Mars and knew of Barsoom,  and who found himself in 1917 dying in a trench in France, his legs blasted away. Paxton realizes he has been maimed, and wants to die rather than live as an invalid.

Mastermind Krenkel Ace

As death is near and all hope is lost:

Then my eyes suddenly focussed upon the bright red eye of Mars and there surged through me a sudden wave of hope. I stretched out my arms towards Mars, I did not seem to question or to doubt for an instant as I prayed to the god of my vocation to reach forth and succour me. I knew that he would do it, my faith was complete, and yet so great was the mental effort that I made to throw off the hideous bonds of my mutilated flesh that I felt a momentary qualm of nausea and then a sharp click as of the snapping of a steel wire, and suddenly I stood naked upon two good legs looking down upon the bloody, distorted thing that had been I. Just for an instant did I stand thus before I turned my eyes aloft again to my star of destiny and with outstretched arms stand there in the cold of that French night–waiting.

Then my eyes suddenly focussed upon the bright red eye of Mars and there surged through me a sudden wave of hope. I stretched out my arms towards Mars, I did not seem to question or to doubt for an instant as I prayed to the god of my vocation to reach forth and succour me. I knew that he would do it, my faith was complete, and yet so great was the mental effort that I made to throw off the hideous bonds of my mutilated flesh that I felt a momentary qualm of nausea and then a sharp click as of the snapping of a steel wire, and suddenly I stood naked upon two good legs looking down upon the bloody, distorted thing that had been I. Just for an instant did I stand thus before I turned my eyes aloft again to my star of destiny and with outstretched arms stand there in the cold of that French night–waiting.

It was this, the story of Ulysses Paxton, and how his intense focus and belief made it happen,  that sent me out into the yard, looking to the heavens and feeling the same pull, and wishing it could be so.  I stared at Mars and thought of Barsoom and concentrated with all my earthly might in an intense effort to be taken home.

Is it ridiculous to admit that now, a man of grandfatherly age, I still feel the pull, I still want to go home to Mars.  Will I never outgrow this urge, this yearning that Burroughs instilled in me, this poignant hope to be transported to a land that I dream of, a land of contradictions and mystery, of chivalry and hope, honor and fulfillment that life on this Earth cannot, it seems, provide?

Of course I know intellectually that Barsoom is an impossibility, that it does not exist, cannot exist. Yet I yearn for it. Still.  And that yearning has affected my life for many decades — affected the choices I have made, the adventures I have embarked on.

So I am one with Bradbury in believing that there was something unique in the “impulsiveness” of Burroughs … something that connected with something deep in my primal self that bypassed the intellect, somethign that made my blood pound, my heart race, and my spirit soar.

It is because of this that I regard Burroughs differently from other authors.  There is eveyone else, and then there is Burroughs.   Other authors may be more skilled in the literary sense, but at the level of primal impulse, primal connection,  no one can match him.

In fact, no one comes close.

Sometimes I ask myself — is Edgar Rice Burroughs a worthy focus of attention at this point in my life? Should I have outgrown him? Outgrown the pull of his worlds, his characters, his impulsive, romantic realms?

Or is it a unique blessing to me that I haven’t outgrown it, can’t outgrow it, that I still can muster the sense of wonder and poignancy and pull and yearning that he instilled in me half a century ago?

I’m inclined to believe the latter is the case.

I’m inclined to believe that he enriched my life in myriad ways, opening my mind and my heart to the possibilities of the imagination, and that if I ever should outgrow Edgar Rice Burroughs, it will mean that something inside me has died, something precious, something I want to hold onto as long as I can — a flame that he kindled, and I have nurtured, and which keeps a spark of adventure alive within me even as the physical pursuit of adventure (and misadventure, let’s not fail to acknowledge that) recedes into the past.

Thanks to Burroughs, I’m still an adventurer, and will continue to be one right to the end, as long as I keep that flame burning within me.

So yes, I do think this fascination with Burroughs is a worthy pursuit, a worthy quest, to try and understand what a unique treasure his imagination was — where his ideas came from, what they mean to me and others who inhabit the worlds he created.   It is elusive, that thing which made his work so special and so different, but sometimes I feel like I’m closing in on it, on the verge of fully being able to understand and articulate it.

Then again, not quite.

2 comments

  • Wonderful! It’s all true, for many more folks than just you and Bradbury. ERB was and is a destiny-changer. How telling it is that the wonder and inspiration of his thrilling imagination has found traction in the lives of many beyond the realm of fiction and make-believe. His is an “escape” which equips us with wild dreams and the courage to pursue them all of our days. The wild dreams of chivalrous character, unquenchable ambition and the accomplishment of the impossible.

    I think I’m beginning to get a clearer picture of why I’m so particularly fascinated with getting a full-throttle film adaptation of Barsoom. Cinema is an artistic medium of impulse and primal allure, of “blood” and fire. When it reaches the mind, it invariably must first go through the heart – at least if it wants to last.. ERB’s work moves like a juggernaut in that same deeper-than-the-mind direction, with a strength that may well be incomparable in the history of fiction. To match the “fuel” of ERB with the vehicle of cinema is exactly what could enable both the man and the artistic medium to achieve their respective and complimentary goals more fully than ever before. Now, for the two of them to be properly introduced…

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