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Few writers can rival the scope and scale of world building and exciting the imagination that Edgar Rice Burroughs achieved. While he is surpassed in depth by some authors, very few had the raw diversity that Burroughs brought to the table while still having levels of depth, creating landscapes, animals, places and races.
Burroughs planted the seeds of imagination across many realms. He dabbled in fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, primitive adventure, horror and romance.
He had his weaknesses of course. He was not gifted for dialogue. Few characters were terribly deep, although most were solid in one way or another. Certain plot devices were recycled to place characters in required situations.
Yet in spite of these drawbacks Burroughs had an uncanny ability to capture the imagination of a reader and tap into the adventurous spirit that lay within the hearts of millions of young readers. I believe that it was this spirit that he recognized that allowed his work to flourish in his career and continue even today.
My first exposure to the writing of Burroughs came in the form of several hand-me-down books from some relatives which happened to include a few old copies of Tarzan stories. I as instantly gripped by the Frazetta covers, first diving into Tarzan: Lord of the Jungle, actually the eleventh book in the series. This little, battered book turned out to be only the first brick on the path of pulp literature that I would end up traveling on for years to come. Even though I read the stories out of order I was transfixed. I began securing whatever Burroughs writing in any way I could, and was most irritated to find that many of his stories in paperback were expensive or hard to get ahold of. Luckily the Ebook systems helped solve that problem, and in short order I was able to get most of the writing in bulk for a mere pittance.
But let us dive into some of the characters, worlds and plots that Burroughs dabbled in!
Ah Tarzan, easily the best well known of his works. Tarzan was his most long running character and series, and has become a cultural icon of the United States. Even those who have never read his books, looked at his comics or watched his movies knows who he is.
A handsome but savage man clad in a loincloth with jet black hair with only a knife, bow or spear to fend off despicable men and monsters.
He was raised in the jungles of Africa by apes in most inhospitable. The steel of his character was tempered by constant conflict and his harsh environment while honing his intellect in the cabin his father had built. Tarzan actually learns how to read, which while extremely improbable, Burroughs somehow makes seem quite plausible.
I'm not here to recite the entire book and the following series, but I still want to analyze Tarzan and the places he operated in.
Tarzan is a fairly simple character in terms of personality and is not terribly deep. He considers himself an animal first and a man second. He has the brutal pragmatism of a wild beast yet the keen intellect of a human and an honor code that sets him apart from most characters. He could be extremely cruel to evil men or savage animals yet never harmed women. His greatest amusements were exploration, adventure and overall getting himself into trouble. Money held no appeal to him although he had lots of it. He was unflinchingly loyal to his friends and most of all his wife, Jane. No matter how many buxom women came onto him, which was often, he never once even contemplated betraying her once they were married. Once his wrath is kindled however he is a power to be reckoned with. When he believed Jane was murdered by the German Army in World War 1 he began a one man campaign against the entire German race, planning to exterminate them all. But even that wouldn't have been enough to quench the fires of revenge. Lucky for them Jane was still alive! Even given his capacity for grim violence, he did have a queer sense of humor.
I recall with fondness in the second story, The Return of Tarzan, he is relaxing in Paris with a friend of his but is bored out of his mind. An enemy he is unaware of lures him into an ambush where twelve men set upon him with the intent of killing him. Tarzan proceeds to maul each and every one of them and has the time of his life. When his friend warns him that he should be more careful and avoid the more violent portions of Paris Tarzan replies that that experience was the greatest fun he'd had in his whole trip and would from that point spend all of his spare time there hoping to provoke another brawl!
Certainly not one for high society. In short, Tarzan is a simple but solid character. He is not extremely deep, but he has a firm history and one can get a good idea of how he will react to a situation and how he will behave. So why is he so popular if he isn't as provoking as other characters?
I believe it's because of his abilities and what he does.
In ERB stories it's the adventure that counts, not really the characters. They are merely there for us to latch on to while we embark on epic quests, inserting ourselves into the action and pretending that we too are men of the wilderness. We want to be like Tarzan. We want to be handsome, big, strong, awesome with weapons of all types, have women fawn over us, have no worries about money, and go adventuring for no other reason than because we want to. Tarzan fits this role perfectly and allows us flights of fancy from our boring day to day lives.
Tarzan is resourceful, able to fashion weapons with only his hands. He's an amazing athlete, having almost inexhaustible strength, endurance, agility, dexterity and balance that lets him do everything from prance about the treetops with amazing speed to swimming for hours without tiring. He has astounding vitality, suffering all manner of grievous wounds but recovering. He's intelligent, figuring out complex problems despite his innocence regarding complicated societies. He can fight with his hands, knives, swords, clubs, firearms, spears and bows with stellar skill. His senses are almost supernatural. Women adore his physique and brave acts. He has great wealth although he scarcely needs it.
He can climb just about anything that a man is capable of climbing, able to race through the upper reaches of trees faster than most people can travel on level ground. His stealth is amazing, frequently sneaking into heavily armed camps with little difficulty. He's a master tracker, identifying people by their tracks as easily as looking at their faces.
Tarzan is what most of us wish we could be and we enjoy pretending that we can do the things he does. I imagine some people think that daydreaming and pretending as an adult is immature and childish, but I could care less. Daydreaming is fun, allowing us to detach from the bloody boring paperwork and phone calls we have to put up with. If I couldn't indulge in the children's ability of imagining things while at work I'd probably have slipped into a coma long ago.
Tarzan excels in exploring ancient lost civilizations, battling with horrible monsters, waging war with primitive fighters, a plot which he somehow managed to keep going for almost twenty bloody stories straight and still be entertaining! Who knew that Africa was so big and so poorly explored back then? That's part of the magic. Burroughs made our world seem larger than it was, lost cities hidden around every corner.
Tarzan was but one of the many series he wrote, and there are others that I believe are better in their own ways.
The runner-up in terms of popularity is ERB's excellent series, Barsoom. Whereas Tarzan took place mostly in Africa, albeit a poor representation of it, the Barsoom series is where Burroughs really showed his chops for world building. Through very mysterious means, our protagonist, John Carter, a Civil War cavalry veteran, is transported to the planet of Mars. How he gets to and from Mars, called Barsoom by the locals, is never explained. Yet it honestly never bothered me despite about six stories in. There seems to be some form of consistency, but it isn't elaborated on. And no, that movie doesn't bloody count. Don't mention that atrocity within my presence, thank you very much.
Where was I? Oh, right, the world building! Actually written very shortly before Tarzan, Barsoom itself carved out its own genre and is very well thought out. There are a multitude of fascinating races, history, technology, environment, wildlife, politics, all of that good stuff. Yet this is all mixed with excellent action and combat that sucks you right in.
Barsoom itself is actually well developed and for the time had some fascinating scientific ideas. Barsoom isn't just an inanimate chunk of rock in these stories; It's a complex environment that is changing, and when John arrives there, a dying planet. It used to be covered with huge oceans which have dried up, leaving massive dried sea bottoms. Resources are scarce and many of the inhabitants have to be careful of their reproduction. There is vegetation and lots of geography that come into play much like a real environment that you could interact with. The atmosphere is fragile and is only kept alive by the technology of the Red Martians.
Speaking of which, lets delve into just a fraction of the different races and species on Barsoom!
The main race on the planet are the Red Martians, a combination of three other races all culminated into one through necessity to cope with the increasingly harsh circumstances. They have developed very cool types of technology, which I'll get into in a bit, and have organized cities.
There are the Green Martians with their wicked radium rifles with absolutely insane range and large magazine capacities, blasting away with extreme precision. They pillage and raid along the dried sea bottoms and decimate anyone weaker than themselves. Most are cruel and have hard hearts, but John Carter helps change some of their tunes. They were quite inventive as a species for the time, being hexapods and very insectile. In fact, they're still more imaginative than most things I see on the Scifi channel on their movies. Ugh...
There are the giant Barsoomian apes, ghastly white, four armed brutes that tower above the Red Martians and are one of the few creatures that are feared by all. They prowl the dead abandoned cities, making them most dangerous to explore.
Then there are the calots, the Barsoomian equivalent of dogs. One of the stumpy, ten legged beasts become an adoring companion to John Carter, and it's genuinely touching how the two interact.
There are the thoats, the mighty steeds that are ridden by both the Green and Red Martians as beasts of burden.
Through the series we meet many more races and animals that are all very interesting. The frightful Kaldanes, the deadly banths, the ghastly Plant Men, the deceptive White Martians, the raiding Black Martians, the secretive Yellow Martians, and plenty of others.
The technology is most creative. On Barsoom there are two new bands of light in the spectrum, one of which is actually harnessed to provide lift to their skiffs and ships! Extremely cool concept. There are the deadly radium rifles. When the shells of the bullets break and are exposed to sunlight they actually ignite, making them potent explosive weapons when daylight shines. It's most surprising that so many people still use swords!
There is an element revolving around mind reading, but it seems to taper off after the second story, and I can't recall it being mentioned again. It's a critical plot point in the first book, but after just seems forgotten sadly.
John Carter himself is not very deep, but is a one man army who travels the globe trying to rescue his extraterrestrial lover, Dejah Thoris, and carves a bloody swath through the population of every species on the planet to save her. Basic? Sure. But darned if it doesn't work. A scientific feature added is that since gravity and pressure is lighter on Barsoom, John is basically super powered, his muscles having adapted to the higher gravity of earth. He can fell bigger opponents with a single punch and leap across vast stretches, making him amazing even to the strong locals.
He's a master swordsman who uses his kindness and love to make friends and court loyalty and the point of a saber to slay those who stand in his way. I honestly believe he has an even bigger body-count than the fabled Tarzan! He works his way through strange cities, underground caves, strange forests, icy mountains and arcane labyrinths. We explore all over the planet seeing everything from alien swashbuckling to battles involving giant floating ships blasting each other's hulls with cannons. John uses his sword to fend off everything from hordes of soldiers to deadly wildlife the size of minivans.
Overall the Barsoom series is one of the pillars of planetary science fiction. It was the push that began an avalanche of science fiction and fascination with space. It fueled the imaginations of children who grew up to become scientists and was a catalyst for the US Space Program. Other legendary writers directly site the Barsoom series as inspiration, such as the pivotal Robert A. Heinlein, the author of Starship Troopers, Arthur C. Clark, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Ray Bradbury, the author of the Martian chronicles and many others.
Even a century later the stories of John Carter are still capturing our imaginations and still entertaining people. I don't care who you are, that's pretty darned impressive!
Then there is perhaps my favorite series of his: Pellucidar!
And in case you're wondering, yes, this one gets the biggest picture because this is my favorite series. And since it's my blog, I can be as unfair as I please. ;)
This world and history is in my opinion his most thought provoking as it not only opens the gates to superb adventure, but warps a few concepts that we take for granted!
David Innes, our main character, is a young man who recently inherited his father's mining business and fortune. His dear friend, a scientist named Abner Perry, develops a darned cool invention known as the Prospector. This is honestly one of the coolest creations I've seen since Jules Verne's submarine, the Nautilus. Check this schematic out!
When giving this awesome construction a test run by burrowing into the Earth they find to their horror that can't stop it or turn it, and begin plowing deep beneath the surface. They expect to either die in the molten core of the planet or having their air supply fade and suffocate. To their intense surprise they in fact emerge in what they least expected to find: That the Earth is hollow! Now, this may seem positively silly to us today unless you're an alien conspiracy theorist, but back in the day the Hollow Earth theory actually held some water. Quite a few darned scientists actually wanted to lead expeditions to find supposed entrances at the poles. Today with our knowledge of plate tectonics we've learned that the Hollow Earth theory just doesn't work sadly, and we must go about our lives in the knowledge that there is nothing but molten rock and metal deep beneath our feet. Boring!
Anyway, here we learn that the Earth is a shell with a massive interior and even has its own sun in the center! Our characters are stunned at this and are quickly confronted with the perils of the world they've found. They encounter dangerous prehistoric life such as mammoths, ground sloths, ancient reptiles and many others. They meet strange mammalian races such as the half human half animal Sagoths and saber-tooth men. There are many tribes of primitive humans living among the mountains, plains and islands such as the people of Sari, Anaroc and Zoram. One tribe has even domesticated sauropods, called lidi, and later on have cannons mounted on their backs!!! There are the feared lizard-men, the Horribs, who ride reptilian steeds and lance prey with bone spears.
But we don't meet all of those right away. Their immediate threat are the dreaded Mahars, intelligent descendants of rhamphorhynchus. Although deaf they can communicate with their own species using something much like telepathy, but must talk with other races using sign language. When we meet them they are the dominant race of Pellucidar, living in huge underground cities and commanding legions of Sagoths which capture humans as slave workers. They are often cruel, sometimes forcing humans to fight in an arena. Other times they will perform dissections on living people. Or worse, they will use terrifying mental powers to overwhelm humans and devour them in a dreaded pool on one of the islands of Anaroc... David Innes and Abner Perry decide to overthrow the Mahars and place humans at the seat of power and intelligence within the inner world!
So... Yeah, it's pretty much one of the most awesome things ever created by man.
Another fascinating angle in this is that the inner sun is always fixed in place, providing constant daylight. Never is there night to tell them when to sleep or how many days have passed. With no way of keeping track of time, our heroes quickly lose track of it and even begin to wonder if time even exists! It throws them off and yet none of the native inhabitants can understand their confusion. They also have no way to determine direction, as there is no North or South, East or West, no compasses to use and no stars to chart their progress. Okay, later on David and Perry in the series get a few toys to help them out, but the locals have a naturally ingrained sense of direction that surface dwellers don't.
The series is intensely imaginative and fun. I prefer it vastly to the earlier Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. Sure, this has far less science, but it has a little bit and boy does it spark one's adventurous spirit! It is honestly one of the few fictional places I genuinely want to visit and explore. It usually takes a back seat to Tarzan and Barsoom, but it is by no means their inferior. It easily holds its own and receives just as much detail as Barsoom.
There are plenty of other series that also spike interest: The Caspak Series, The Moon Men Series, The Venus Series, The Mucker, The Return of the Mucker, The Monster Men, The Lost Continent, and dozens of others.
I would like to take a moment to address one aspect that many seem to throw at ERB's writing: sexism. This I actually find to be quite untrue. In fact, for the time the women in his stories were very strong. Many complain that his women are only personality deprived damsel in distress love interests. At first glance, sure, but when you dig a little deeper his women kicked all kinds of butt.
Were they love interests? Oh yes. I shan't defend the love aspect that much, as it wasn't done very well. Although still better than another popular series today that centers around supposed romance. Quick note: If ERB's romance ideas are more believable than yours you have failed as a writer. Just saying.
Damsels in distress? It's true that they were rescued very often by manly men in loin cloths.
But then again, so were the heroes! I honestly believe that Tarzan is captured far more often than Jane. I don't drink, but if you want to get tanked, here's a fun drinking game: Go on Wikipedia and read through Tarzan novel plot synopses and take a shot every time he gets captured. Have fun with the alcohol poisoning in the first three books. David Innes, John Carter, all these guys got captured more times than I can remember. They were caught at least as often as the ladies were and had to be rescued themselves with regular frequency!
These ladies weren't always exactly Amazonian warriors, but they were NEVER pushovers. Each time someone tried to kidnap one of them, there was a fight. At no point did they cower before crude men and beg for mercy. While they often felt fear, they were always defiant and went down swinging. More importantly though, they always had a sense of self respect and pride that would not be broken, regardless of the circumstances. They held their heads high and showed that they wouldn't stand for disrespect.
Isn't that what counts? ... You want to see them fight and kill people? Ugh, fine, here's a list of awesome things the various gals have done.
Jane collected a decent body count while using a rifle. When her home was attacked and the Waziri were fighting off a band of Arab raiders she was right there at the front door pumping bullets into the bad guys without hesitation. It was only after a few swimming pools worth of blood were spilled that they managed to capture her. She was capable of handling herself in the wilderness as well, Tarzan having taught her survival tactics and proved herself more than once.
Dejah Thoris, while she didn't do any fighting, almost single-handedly used her wisdom and influence to end a conflict with an entire tribe of Green Martians and turn them into allies, showing that she was a skilled political speaker and very important figure.
The cave-women of Pellucidar had a nasty habit of stabbing people with stone knives who didn't keep their hands to themselves. They had pretty strong feelings of self defense.
In The Monster Men the female lead loaded a Maxim machine gun and held off an entire flotilla of Borneo head hunting pirates all by herself!
In The Lost Continent the main character was tied to a post and left as a sacrifice to the hordes of man eating lions that prowled the ruins and was rescued by the love interest, Victory. She stole his weapons and traveled into the darkness basically unarmed, as she didn't know how to use his rifle or pistol. Yet she braved the darkness and predators to successfully save the protagonist. I know most guys who wouldn't go out in the dark with man eating lions while armed with semi-auto rifles!
In The Mucker the female lead, Barbara, makes an amazing change in a man who for all his life was a cutthroat. Hey, it's easy to kill a person. But to change a person? Now that requires strength of character.
In one of the Caspak books a protagonist jokes that he was captured and taken prisoner by his female companion, who had a stronger will than he did.
La of Opar added extra lung holes to some gents that tried to get their hands on her. Eventually they succeeded through strength of numbers, but not before two of them bled out.
From where I stand ERB actually had a pretty good balance. Most of his ladies were rather bland, but they didn't take crap from anyone.
As a brief recommendation, I would like to suggest fans read The Mucker. I was quite tempted to give it and its sequel their own entry here, but this is one of those cases where giving it a synopsis would ruin it. I consider it to be one of ERB's best stories simply for how great the character development is. I want to say more and gush over how it took me for a loop, but then it would spoil the surprise. So for now just look at it here. Do it! http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/331
Another subtle tactic he uses to add a little layer of reality to some of his stories is making them out to be things that he is merely relaying that happened to others. For David Innes it was that he met the man in the desert in the first story and established a telegraph line, and thus pretends that he didn't make the things up, but only relayed the information in the form of books. Likewise, he said that John Carter was his uncle whom travelled back and forth between Earth and Barsoom and thus told ERB of his adventures. The first Caspak story took place in the form of ERB fishing off of Greenland and finding the manuscript inside a metal cask, which helps lead to the next stories as ERB actually helps attempt to rescue those in the story. Pretty slick stuff!
I'll be the first to admit that ERB's writing had many shortcomings. Few of his characters had true depth, although on rare occasions he caught even me by surprise. His plots could often meander and not seem to have any strong direction. Certain plot devices would be reused to place a character in a certain position. I swear Tarzan has been struck by lightening at least three times.
His dialogue was far from good, and was often bare bones basic. His romance elements were quite simplistic, although sadly more believable than some I've seen in today's writing.
But his positives far outweighed his drawbacks. He never failed to entertain and had a magical ability to create fascinating worlds for his readers to immerse themselves in. He had a great skill for conveying thought processes within character's heads, something that few writers can do very well. His style was simple but engaging, making it easy for a wide audience to appreciate. Even today few can challenge his skill at creating worlds, races, customs and wildlife which he did regularly.
Was his work high literature, something with layers of depth and meaning? Nope. But he did deliver the quintessential pulp style that has managed to endure for decades even in the face of constant competition from countless other authors. He lent wings to those who longed to taste grand quests and daring journeys but were confined to their mundane homes and jobs. He was wonderfully imaginative and diverting. He covered a great range of genres and spurned others to write as well. His influence is staggering when you look at how many people directly site his work as their inspiration for their activities.
With all of this in mind I can confidently class Edgar Rice Burroughs as one of the three best and influential writers of the early 1900's.
But we still have two more writers to go, so stay tuned! Up next is Robert E. Howard!
If you are interested in reading the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs, you can do so safely, easily and legally here at Project Gutenberg.