Sunday, August 5, 2012

All You Need is Edgar Rice Burroughs

"The worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs are never-never lands, dream worlds where virtue and courage win honor and beauty, where evil can be identified and confronted, and despite all odds defeated..." - Richard Lupoff

I never needed any self-help books about men being from Mars and women from Venus, or how I learned everything I needed to know in kindergarten. All I ever needed was Edgar Rice Burroughs, whom I encountered when I was 11. I have never been the same since.

Burroughs, who unfortunately isn't really that well-known anymore, is best-known as the creator of Tarzan (who in the books spoke as if he was quoting Shakespeare, a far cry from the "me Tarzan, you Jane" in the movies).

But in his day ERB (as he is commonly known) was as popular as Stephen King is now, and was, and still is, hugely influential. Carl Sagan, for example, credited him with interesting him in space exploration and science.

Writers such as F. Paul Wilson, Philip Jose' Farmer and John Norman have been influenced by Burroughs' novels about Tarzan, Barsoom (Mars), Pellucidar (the inhabited interior of the Earth) and Venus. Probably most writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror have been influenced by him.

Perhaps the first thing I noticed about Burroughs is that, much like Robert Heinlein, none of his women characters are victims. And he was writing in the early 1900's. Were he alive today, I suspect he would hold Stalinist taterheads like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem in contempt.

Such whiny, self-pitying women, who think everything would be just fine if society was destroyed (and men's characters, too) and remade according to the crackpot fantasies infesting their heads, can't even begin to compare with a brave, smart, resourceful woman like Tavia in A Fighting Man of Mars, who hacked off the arms of a couple of 15-feet-tall six-armed Martian apes.

Not only were Burroughs' women not victims, they were handy not only with swords but also with pistols, although they were "radium" pistols, a weapon whose workings still puzzle me. Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars, once skewered a villain several times, then she kicked his worthless carcass over a cliff. Maybe Barsoomian females did give birth by laying eggs, but they were no chickens.

Yet, Burroughs' women were still feminine. There was no competition with men, and each sex got along just fine with the other. The main reason, I'm sure, is that the Barsoomian State didn't interfere in the relationships between the sexes, and so they fell into the natural, proper ones.

At 11 I was immensely impressed by these saber-wielding, pistol-blasting heroines. I suspect a lot of guys were, and are. A woman I know wrote one article about how she was planning on shooting a pistol for the first time, and got 300 emails from guys willing to instruct her. So, girls, if you want to be popular, become proficient with a firearm. Learning to hurl a dagger is not such a bad idea, either. Men will get on their knees and salaam before you the way Wayne and Garth did before Alice Cooper.

Neither were the women always beautiful, the way they invariably are in the movies. Tavia was described as "boyish," and in the long run the hero, Tan Hadron, preferred her to the beautiful but haughty and shallow Sanoma Tora. Although, to be honest, on the covers of most of the books the physiques of both the men and women look as if they've been inflated with an air hose. But then, the publishers were trying to sell copies to boys in their early teens.

The second thing I learned is that I was being conned in school. The Warlord of Mars was the Earthman John Carter, a southerner from Virginia who had fought in the Civil War (don't ask me how he got on Mars). Hey, wait a minute - I had been taught in school the South was an ignoble, maybe even evil society that fought a long, bloody war to defend slavery. Yet Carter was a noble and honorable man, protector of the oppressed, upholder of justice. Carter was always against slavery and oppression. Who was I supposed to believe? What I was taught in the government-run prison/school I despised, or a writer who bought me fascination and awe?

Burroughs, like Hemingway, was originally from the heavily residential Oak Park, a medium-sized suburb stuck right up against Chicago. I've been there several times. Apparently he found a better area to write about than the one he was from.

The third thing I learned is that maybe kings and queens are better than democracy. Barsoom was ruled - and ruled justly - by John Carter and Dejah Thoris. They barely appeared to rule at all. I really don't remember a list of laws in any of Burroughs' novels, other than the simple ones we all know - you don't murder, you don't steal. Otherwise, you could do as you pleased.

But there's not a word in any of his novels about mob rule. Most of them read as if they could have been partly based on Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy: the God that Failed. In fact, Burroughs doesn't have a good word to say about mobs. In The Gods of Mars he does a hatchet-job on the blind fanatical mobs that fall for that combination of the State, corrupt religion, and Big Business.

What else? There are at least two kinds of villains. The least bad are the sniveling, back-stabbing, lying cowards who are just great at running their mouths but have nothing to back it up. I guess junior high existed during Burroughs' school years, too.

The worst villains, however, are those who want to conquer and rule the world. Burroughs portrayed such people as practically insane with the lust for power. They're the ones who wanted to impose a State on all of Barsoom, and con armies into fighting for them. And in Burroughs' worlds, they always failed, just as in do in our world, although often at a horrendous cost in slaughter and destruction and misery.

Burroughs' worlds are not a libertarian paradise. His novels are basically for boys 11 to 14 years old. They're filled with sword fights and big apes with fangs (and big spiders with fangs, too). But there's not a good word in any of his novels for the State, or for politics, or for politicians, or corrupt religion. There is, however, true love between men and women as one of the highest values, and the desire for justice and freedom.

Burroughs wasn't the most stylish writer in the world. His style was workman-like more than anything else. But he could tell a heck of a story, a far better one than current writers who are far more stylish than he was. If I had my way, I'd close down the government schools, salt the ground (and pepper the teachers), then open up private ones and create a better world by teaching my hero, ERB.

1 comment:

Baloo said...

Lovely essay on ERB. I've reprinted it here, with a couple of comments: