ERB and Barsoom

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Chessmen of Mars

Tara of Helium rose from the pile of silks and soft furs upon which she had been reclining, stretched her lithe body languidly, and crossed toward the center of the room, where, above a large table, a bronze disc depended from the low ceiling. Her carriage was that of health and physical perfection—the effortless harmony of faultless coordination. A scarf of silken gossamer crossing over one shoulder was wrapped about her body; her black hair was piled high upon her head. With a wooden stick she tapped upon the bronze disc, lightly, and presently the summons was answered by a slave girl, who entered, smiling, to be greeted similarly by her mistress.

So opens the fifth book in the prolific Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom series, The Chessmen of Mars. I have read that opening – indeed the whole series of his 11 Martian novels – several times. I still have the entire set of Ace paperbacks from the 1960s or 70s on my bookshelves. I periodically read a Burroughs’ tale just to remember the pleasures of reading him.

I recently downloaded several of his novels in audiobook form, to listen to on my visits to my mother, in her nursing home or on my iPhone when walking the dogs in the park. Librivox has many, and some are quire well read.

Last month I manged to hear A Princess of Mars, the first of the series, written in 1912, and the fifth book, Chessmen of Mars (1922).  This month I have books 2,3 and 4 burned to CD and ready to play. Back in 2007, on my old blog, I wrote the following piece about ERB and my lifelong love of ERB and his tales. After hearing these two audiobooks, I thought I should share it again here, albeit somewhat edited and updated.

I don’t know how old I was when I first read Tarzan, perhaps 10 or 11. It was on our family bookshelf, a green hardcover beside a few aging Boy’s Own, Punch annuals, and some other old British books. Tarzan may have been a first hardcover edition, too – the Boy’s Own Annuals were pre-WWI (I still have a couple of them) so it might have been from that same era. But I’ll never know – it disappeared from the family book collection decades ago.

Even for a callow youth in the early 1960s, Tarzan – first published in 1912 – was wildly improbable: a tale so fantastic and outrageous, it stretched all credibility. But it was marvellous fun.

So much fun that the tale stuck with me until I was in high school, when I enjoyed the mid-60s resurgence of interest in Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a renewed printing of his works in inexpensive paperback form. I  bought and read them all, his Mars series, his Venus series, Tarzan, Moon Maid, Pellucidar… I consumed them like candy.

I still have a shelf full of those paperbacks, some dating from back in the early 1960s. I think I can still boast to a complete collection of most of his series (the novels I never really appreciated as much were his two late Poloda books and I can’t even say today why they didn’t appeal to me as much as any of the others, but which may have been one of his most creative exercises – nor did I really care for his western series although they were probably his most realistic, since he wrote from some experience).

Wild, crazy stories, but I couldn’t get enough of them. I read my favourites among them many times over. I had  a shelf full of Tom Swift adventure novels, too, but ERB’s tales were more entertaining and thrilling. Many a night I stayed up late, well past my bedtime, trying to read just one more chapter…

At the same time I discovered ERB, there was a revival of pulp stuff in general, with paperback collections of Fu Manchu, Doc Savage, Conan and others being reprinted. I read most of them too, although I haven’t still got a bookshelf full today, as I do with ERB.

They were all easy reads, fun, full of excitement and adventure, wild escapes, great battles and true romance, although even for a youth the formula was evident in all of them – kidnappings, escape and pursuit, battles of honour, bold rescues, a single hero resolving brink-of-war differences between competing cultures or races. Burroughs trod the same paths in dozens of novels.

But so what? They were like mental popcorn: lightweight and easy to digest, and although satisfying left one with a craving for more. They encouraged me to read more and more, and that’s always a good thing.

Barsoom was a more inviting place to explore than my school textbooks provided, too. Would I rather follow John Carter and Woola across the Red Planet or do my math homework? What kid could resist? In my mind I was sailing in a Helium airship above the ancient seabeds while my teacher chalked her equations on the blackboard.

(The first Barsoomian tale, A Princess of Mars, was actually written beforeERB’s first Tarzan novel)

I steeped myself in the adventures of Tarzan, John Carter and David Innes. The Pellucidar series  was particularly fascinating for me, in part for its hollow-earth depiction, but also because it fed directly into my passionate interests in paleontology and anthropology.

I read the Pellucidar books in parallel with the then-popular Turok comic books, enjoying the tales of close encounters between humans and dinosaurs (a creationist fantasy, of course, but fiction can make happen what the distance of 65 million years of planetary history and evolution have made impossible).

Coincidentally, the original illustrator of Turok was Rex Maxon, who was also known for his work on the Tarzan comic books.

One of the main themes in ERB’s books is how thin the patina of “civilization” is and how, when placed into a hostile wilderness outside our control, the strongest and bravest of us revert back to a Rousseau-style noble savage to take command and conquer adversity. Mark Twain wrote a similar tale in his Connecticut Yankee story, except that his protagonist didn’t end up in the jungle – but all the basic elements ERB used are there.

ERB’s inner man (and woman, although most of his heroines I recall were mostly natives, not interlopers as the heroes usually were) was a capable, intelligent, strong, brimming with morality, justice, fair play, ingenuity, character, and chivalry. Like most of the heroes of popular fiction, of course, and Burrough’s characters were cut from the same cloth as the Musketeers, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, just written in a faster-paced, modern tale.

Like the classics, some of ERB’s stories were allegorical, but sometimes they were just adventures. Ripping good yarns: flashing swords, damsels in distress, chases across alien landscapes, monsters to battle, prizes to win, evil villains to bring down.

Cardboard characters? Perhaps by today’s standards: they sometimes come across less like a whole person than a video game component, but that may just be the distemper of our times. Rather ironically today’s action-oriented Hollywood movies are a lot more suited to ERB’s works than to the classics, although most of the film adaptations – including the recent Disney film, John Carter of Mars – are abysmal (Greystoke was fair, however).

Certainly his characters were more three-dimensional than some of the Doc Savage characters.

ERB’s heroes proved themselves through action rather than a lot of navel-gazing and inner dialogue. Most of ERB’s characters were not plagued by remorseless self-doubt or wrestled internally over political correctness or moral dilemmas. They were men and women of action, not philosophers. They knew Right from Wrong.

True, the main characters in each series didn’t differ a lot from those in another series, at least in general characteristics, be they protagonist or antagonists. they were stereotypes in many ways. It was like Star Wars today: it’s pretty easy to figure out who the good and bad guys are.

And the women? Ah, to drag oneself through puberty dreaming of the likes of Deja Thoris, Jane Porter or Dian the Beautiful… women who were as strong and daring as they were beautiful, intelligent and courageous as their counterpart heroes, sensuous, underdressed, but wholesome and not tarty.

Caricatures, yes at times, but not so much we couldn’t daydream about them and make them real. Burroughs implied sexuality, but never wrote about it. His were tales of romance in which the victor won the woman through action, resourcefulness and skill, with some swordplay or gunfights thrown in. Love: lots of it. Sex: clean as a whistle.

The dialogue – well, Burroughs started writing when movies were silent. Characters emoted, made sweeping, grand gestures, acted with faces and hands. Sure it’s often overboard and even corny today, but consider the times. And when I first started reading ERB, I paid little attention to that sort of thing. I wanted – and got – entertainment, not art.

I’ve read many of ERB’s novels again since those halcyon days. I even managed to read five or six of the John Carter of Mars books in a row not long ago. They’re tougher to digest today – the purple prose wanes somewhat and the repetitiveness wears thin when you read them one after another (worse are the Doc Savage tales, which literally lift whole paragraphs of descriptions from previous stories as part of the current one – but I wasn’t as critical when I was young).

I read everything more critically now, but I can still appreciate the straightforward, simple language of Burroughs. Not quite Hemingway, but both wrote pretty much unadorned prose.

About a decade ago, I picked up a trilogy of one of Burroughs’ lesser-remembered series: Caspak, the lost world set on a South Pacific island in three novellas (The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and Out of Time’s Abyss).

Caspak tales combine Lost World elements that are also found in other ERB stories, as well as Conan Doyle’s eponymous Lost World, Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island and my favourite B-film, King Kong. Dinosaurs, primitive humans and modern technology compete. Originally written in 1918, ERB’s Caspak stories didn’t get published in book form until 1924. While eclipsed by his other works, the Caspak trilogy is today considered one of his most imaginative works and a series that set the stage for a lot of modern scifi. But Barsoom, ah that series is still is tops on my list.

Despite all the news and images broadcast from Mars ever since the first interplanetary spaceships, I have yet to see a single Green Warrior on a thoat, but that hasn’t dampened the sheer pleasure I get from these books, renewed when I listened to the audiobooks recently.

Burroughs the writer continues to amaze me. The man was one of those truly outrageous bootstrap success stories. He puttered around from job to job around the turn of the century, cowpuncher, salesman, gold miner… not a closet writer, and with no evidence of his forte peeking through his previous life, but obviously a man with great talent. At age 35, he submitted his first novel to a pulp magazine in 1911 – A Princess of Mars – and it was published almost immediately. He had little before that to suggest he had writing in him, let alone the seeds of such a wild imagination. Yet from that point on, the floodgates opened wide.

Burroughs managed to capture the public’s attention quickly and held it for many decades after. He was incredibly prolific, producing as many as four novels a year. He had the talent to spin a yarn – and people love a good storyteller. And although he seldom strayed far from his successful themes, he improved and tightened his work into a series of popular novels that are easy, fast reads that flew off the shelf.

They helped transport several generations of readers from the dreariness and horrors of two world wars, of the depression, of the rise of dictatorships and the wildly changing modern world. Escapism was not a bad thing then. Nor was it in the frightening Cold War era of the early 1960s when I first discovered him. Who can fear an atomic bomb when you’re at the earth’s core or on another planet?

And these weren’t children’s books, even though today we have a tendency to assign Tarzan and similar fantastic works to children’s literature (Harry Potter and Jurassic Park suffer from the same inappropriate classification: anything with dinosaurs or wizards must be for kids).

These were adult books, written for a mature – but not yet fossilized – audience. For younger readers like myself, they were a doorway into other literature. From Burroughs I went on to read a lot more scifi, as well as adventure tales and fantasy.

ERB honed my interest in reading fiction in general, but he added an edge: I learned to appreciate great imagination in scifi and fantasy. I remember reading Frank Herbert’s stunning novel, Dune, in 1965, at a time when I was still collecting ERB’s works, and then read many other writers – John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and the Chrysalids, John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider and Stand on Zanzibar Rider, among many others.

Even today when I want a break from a more serious subject I pick up a scifi novel and get lost in it.

Burroughs died in 1950, a few months before I was born. His legacy still lives on in cultural references, in dozens of Tarzan films, in Martian names, in the memory of generations who grew up reading him. But mostly he carries on through the subsequent successful authors who have managed to create their own fantasy worlds for an appreciative audience: Harry Potter, the Dragon Riders of Pern, Tolkein’s Ring trilogy and even James Cameron’s Avatar film benefit from his inspiration.

ERB laid the groundwork for them, created an expectant audience just waiting to be transported to another world and to start out on their adventure. And still today I can make that journey with just the first few words of Barsoom novel.

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