Monday, January 14

A much-neglected author

I suspect that many people have heard of the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but that relatively few remain who have actually read them. After all, to say that you are reading A Princess of Mars, or God forbid, Tarzan, tends to bring a laugh in reading circles, and outright derision in regular social circles.

But Burroughs is a wonderful pulp writer. (if you think I mean "pulp" in a derogatory sense, go read this essay by Chesterton, then come back and finish reading this post) Tarzan and John Carter are both gentlemen who would rather walk through fire than harm a woman; Dejah Thoris and Jane Porter (poor Jane; she is not the simpering weakling that she has been made out to be) would rather die than break a promise or draw their men away from a clear duty.

Burroughs writes characters who fight epic battles (approximately every three pages: but again, it's pulp, in the best sense) for honor alone, yet leave their enemies alive more often than you would expect (it is dishonorable to kill an enemy who can no longer harm you, after all).

Here is a sample, from the second Tarzan book. Tarzan has won the love of Jane Porter, but she has already promised herself to his cousin Clayton, Lord Greystoke:

"It was not for William Cecil Clayton, Lord Greystoke, that he had denied his birth. It was for the woman whom both he and Clayton had loved, and whom a strange freak of fate had given to Clayton instead of to him.

"That she loved him made the thing doubly difficult to bear, yet he knew that he could have done nothing less than he did do that night within the little railway station in the far Wisconsin woods. To him her happiness was the first consideration of all, and his brief experience with civilization and civilized men had taught him that without money and position life to most of them was unendurable.

"Jane Porter had been born to both, and had Tarzan taken them away from her future husband it would doubtless have plunged her into a life of misery and torture. That she would have spurned Clayton once he had been stripped of both his title and his estates never for once occurred to Tarzan, for he credited to others the same honest loyalty that was so inherent a quality in himself. Nor, in this instance, had he erred. Could any one thing have further bound Jane Porter to her promise to Clayton it would have been in the nature of some such misfortune as this overtaking him."

Not much contemporary literature would be able to contain words like these seriously, without any hint of sarcasm or irony. Duty. Honor. Loyalty. Keeping one's word, even when rashly given. When was the last time you heard these concepts taken seriously in a story? (well, probably Harry Potter, but then we're back to pulp. )

Now, of course the books do fall into some of the sins of their era: there is some racism, especially in Tarzan (though I hasten to add, white folk do not come off too swell, either; Burroughs seems to prefer to take people as individuals rather than groups). The important thing, though, is that they do NOT fall into the errors of today: heroism is glorified, not mocked; honor is expected; courage is praised; and both men and women are expected to act honorably.

Go read the books.

1 comment:

sapience said...

I love ERB. I read all his Tarzan books (and most of his others) when I was a teenager, maybe younger.