Sunday, July 10, 2016

Burroughs Appreciation

When I was a youngster, my older brother had a couple inexpensive hardcover editions of Tarzan novels, ‘Tarzan and the City of Gold,’ and ‘Tarzan and the Forbidden City.’ I made my way through both when I was about eight and I thought then that ‘City of Gold’ was a decent tale but ‘Forbidden City’ kind of sucked. Years later I learned that the latter novel was ghost-written and not by Edgar Rice Burroughs at all (though he provided some sort of outline or concept). I guess even a little kid could tell the difference.

Jump forward about four years and one has the ‘Burroughs Boom’ of the early Sixties, which saw all of ERB’s novels (even the really bad ones) reissued. I bought each and every one of them — that’s where my allowance money went (okay, there were also some model airplanes). And I enjoyed the Tarzan novels, which were entertaining and well-plotted (I learned much of interweaving plot lines from reading them) but my heart was really with Barsoom. Well, Pellucidar and Caspak too, but especially Barsoom. The novels set on Burrough’s version of Mars were inventive, even poetic at times, and frequently humorous. Alas, many seem unable to see that humor, even today. They also contain a fair amount of social commentary. That commentary often veers in a conservative direction, especially in the early work, but Burroughs was willing to skewer pretty much anyone.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was pretty much my gateway to speculative fiction of all sorts and perhaps to the literature of fiction in general. Would I be writing fantasy — or fiction of any sort — today, had I not been exposed to those books? Maybe, but it would be different, certainly. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from them is that one need not write ‘serious’ books to say serious things. There is nothing wrong with dropping them into an adventure — but make sure it is a good adventure.

ERB’s plots do tend to be rather similar to each other. For example, his two ‘Apache’ novels are practically identical to the first two Tarzan novels in their overall story, except with Indians in place of apes. (It should be noted that he treated both groups rather well — his apes sometimes show more ‘humanity’ than members of our species, and the Apaches frequently come off better than the ‘white men.’) He also had certain pet phrases and words he liked to utilize over and over. There is a great deal of ‘Stygian’ darkness in his novels! It is the imaginative settings, the worlds he created that raise the narratives above their plots, as well as the clever observations on human nature and society with which he sprinkled them.

But, of course, the stalwart fellow always gets the girl in the end. Those girls, incidentally, are rarely of the clinging and helpless sort — another point in ERB’s favor. But the books are, ultimately, romantic adventures, and do not disappoint the reader who wishes only to be entertained. There is nothing wrong with that. I shall note that Burroughs did make a few attempts at more weighty work, but that was not what his readers wanted. (The historical novel published posthumously as ‘I Am a Barbarian’ is an example. It sort of ripped off ‘I, Claudius,’ but is a pretty decent book anyway.)

I would not be inclined to plow through the twenty-some Tarzan novels again at this point in my life, though I admit to having reread all the Barsoom books recently. There are still things to be seen in them that can be of interest to a writer. Yes, they are better read when young and not jaded by ‘great literature.’ Would I have discovered or even appreciated an author such as James Branch Cabell without having first read Burroughs? Would Tolkien have struck me differently? Who can say? I only know that his novels did make a big impression, when I was impressionable!

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