I'm telling you, I could have stood up and cheered.
Or, perhaps more appropriately, beat my chest and given the victory
cry of the mangani, the great ape.
I was sitting there on the sofa watching a documentary on the American
Movie Classics cable television network one night when it happened. Right
there, in front of God and an indeterminable number of TV viewers, one
of the subjects being interviewed actually had the guts to describe Edgar
Rice Burroughs as "America's greatest undiscovered natural resource."
There had been a time when I honestly thought I was the only one who
felt that way. I was so glad to learn I was wrong.
Although his work continues to be dismissed by many "serious" literary
critics, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Ed or "Old Burroughs" to his family and
friends, ERB to his legion of fans) remains one of the most popular and
influential authors in American literature – not to mention one of the
great storytellers of all time. His science fiction tales of Mars, Venus,
the Moon and the fictional world of Poloda are the forebears of "Flash
Gordon," "Star Trek" and "Star Wars"; his legendary "lost world" trilogy,
Land That Time Forgot, makes Jurassic Park (the book, at
any rate) seem pretty bland by comparison. And his two great western novels
- The War Chief
and Apache Devil
- presented the Native American culture in a sympathetic light over half
a century before Kevin Costner gave us "Dances With Wolves."
Then, of course, there is John Clayton. Lord Greystoke. Better known
to several generations as Tarzan. King of the Apes, Lord of the Jungle,
hero of hundreds of Saturdays at the matinee and subject of that aforementioned
The jungle lord has been, from his very first appearance in the October
1912, issue of All-Story magazine, one of the most successful fictional
creations in history. A number of pop culture historians – author Richard
Lupoff, novelist Harlan Ellison, even Yours Truly in a newspaper column
or two over the years – have gone so far to suggest that millions around
the world who may be woefully unfamiliar with many of our real-world heroes
can tell you all about Tarzan.
Unfortunately, many of the "facts" they might recite are often nothing
of the kind. Thanks primarily to the long-running series of motion pictures,
many fans have a false impression of who their hero really is.
At the risk of dispelling fond childhood notions, it must be pointed
out – again! – that Burroughs' hero was a far cry from the illiterate,
chimp-loving vine-swinger portrayed by Johnny Weissmuller or Buster Crabbe.
The "real" Tarzan (Burroughs' Tarzan) spoke a number of languages quite
fluently, thank you very much. Contrary to what Hollywood would have us
believe, he and Jane Porter – an American, not an Englishwoman as is usually
depicted in the films – were indeed married at the end of the second novel
– the ceremony performed by Jane's father, no less!
And their son – Jack Clayton, a.k.a. Korak the Killer, NOT "Boy" - was
their natural offspring, conceived in thoroughly conventional fashion (between
stories, naturally – this was before the sexual revolution, remember, back
in the days when such things took place discreetly offstage without a lot
of leering readers underlining certain passages to share with their buddies
at school) as opposed to being the only survivor of a plane crash. Did
MGM really expect us to believe that Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan
would only exchange the occasional chaste kiss all those years? (And in
all fairness - would YOU have been satisfied with such a relationship if
you were Johnny Weissmuller? Especially after you'd seen her swimming nude
in the second film?)
After all these years I still find myself amused at those librarians
who banned the original ERB novels on the assumption that Tarzan and Jane
were just frolicking together in the jungle out of wedlock, because it's
obvious they've neither read the original books (a pretty sad commentary
on librarians, if you ask me) nor paid much attention to the Weissmuller
films that raised the ruckus in the fuss place. Although there has admittedly
always been an undercurrent of sexuality in much of ERB's work, Burroughs
- a product of the Victorian Age - never addressed the subject in a manner
which would have detracted from the virtuousness that helped make his heroes
and heroines so popular in the first place.
Of course, other storytellers who have made use of his characters have
not felt quite so constrained either by the Victorian era attitudes that
Burroughs brought to his work, or by Hollywood’s Hays Office restrictions
of the Weissmuller era. Philip Jose Farmer has suggested more than once
that Tarzan was not as faithful to his beloved Jane as ERB would have had
us believe. And among the great “lost projects” of Hollywood is a script
for a proposed Tarzan film written in 1971 by Gene Roddenberry, creator
of "Star Trek," whose plot would have revolved around efforts by an Amazon
tribe to capture the jungle hero for use as a sex slave. Roddenberry failed
to sell the proposal, which he once referred to as his “dream project,”
although parts of his storyline bear certain similarities to the poorly-made,
overly sexual Miles O’Keefe-Bo Derek version of "Tarzan The Ape Man" released
about a decade later.
There have been a few screen treatments which have come close to capturing
the spirit of the original novel, in one way or another. The producers
of the very first Tarzan film, the 1917 silent version of "Tarzan
Of The Apes," stuck reasonably close to the original plot but erred
slightly in casting the somewhat beefy Elmo
Lincoln in the title role. At the other end of the spectrum was 1984's
"Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes"; significant changes
were made in the storyline, but Christopher Lambert's portrayal of Tarzan
was probably the closest we've seen to a accurate depiction of the character
as Burroughs actually imagined him.
That is, unless one considers the Saturday morning animated series –
"Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle" – that ran on CBS in the late 1970s. How ironic
that the single most faithful screen version of this classic creation,
in terms of both characterization and content, has been a Saturday morning
cartoon. (Disney’s wonderful 1999 animated feature film "Tarzan," which
fell somewhere in between the Weissmuller films and "Greystoke" as far
in terms of faithfulness to characterization vs. faithfulness to ERB’s
original story, had not yet been released when the original version of
this essay was first published.)
For the record: Burroughs completed a total of 25
Tarzan novels, produced two Tarzan
films of his own, and was instrumental in the creation of the Tarzan
radio series. In fact, Burroughs'
daughter Joan was the first radio actress to play Jane; Joan's husband,
a one-time college football hero named Jim Pierce, portrayed Tarzan – a
role he had first played in the 1927 silent film "Tarzan
And The Golden Lion,"
produced by Joseph P. Kennedy (yes, THAT Joseph P. Kennedy, the one-time
ambassador to England and father of President John F. Kennedy.)
To date there have been 50 or so Tarzan
feature films; several movie serials; a total of six television programs
(including the aforementioned CBS cartoon series and an animated spin-off
of the Disney feature); a stage play or two; a "Disney On Ice" show based
on that studio's animated feature; numerous board games, video games, toys,
model kits and trading cards; countless comic books; and a number of Tarzan
novels written by authors other than ERB. Most of these later novels were
unauthorized by the Burroughs estate; the two most notable exceptions were
Fritz Leiber's Tarzan
And The Valley Of Gold, a novelization of a Tarzan film of the
late 1960s but written to adhere more closely to Burroughs' originals than
the movie on which it was based; and Philip
Jose Farmer's Tarzan:
The Dark Heart Of Time, a 1999 novel whose storyline was conceived
with input from ERB's grandson, Danton
Not bad for a character whose first adventure was written out in longhand
on the backs of old letterheads...
After what might best be described as a brief sabbatical from our collective
pop culture consciousness, the past decade or so has seen Tarzan making
something of a comeback. It began in 1995 with the publication of Tarzan:
The Lost Adventure, the legendary Tarzan novel left unfinished
at the time of Burroughs' death in 1950. Completed by novelist Joe Lansdale
with the blessing of Burroughs’ heirs, this book was serialized in the
style of the old pulp novels over four months by Dark Horse, a publishing
firm which has also produced a new series of Tarzan comics. (Two of my
favorite storylines of that particular comics line was the four-issue mini-series
which pitted Tarzan against the creatures from the Predator films in Pellucidar,
and a later intercompany crossover between Dark Horse and DC Comics which
teamed Tarzan up with Batman for a four-part adventure set back in the
Lansdale, best known for his western and horror titles, did a fairly
admirable job of taking the untitled, uncompleted manuscript – which reportedly
stood at roughly half the length of the standard ERB novel when Burroughs
set it aside – and turning it into a publishable book. Interestingly, however,
Lansdale still left the story somewhat unfinished; the novel concludes
with Tarzan, presumed buried alive following a typically Burroughsian battle
to the death, forsaking both his jungle home and his beloved Jane and setting
out on a return trip to Pellucidar, the land at the earth's core. (For
the uninitiated, Burroughs' Tarzan
At The Earth's Core is both Volume 13 of the Tarzan series and
Volume 4 of his Pellucidar series.)
Did Lansdale or Burroughs' heirs intend to one day produce a sequel?
One can only speculate at this point – although it bears noting that another
western author, J.T. Edson, had a number of years earlier written a novel
entitled Bunduki, about an adopted son of Tarzan's, in which it
was revealed that Tarzan and Jane - along with other members of their family
- eventually made a new home for themselves in Pellucidar. So the potential
for further adventures linking the Lansdale-Burroughs collaboration to
Edson's novel is there, should Burroughs' heirs ever see fit to pursue
it. (And besides, I always thought the idea of having Tarzan retire to
the eternal jungles of Pellucidar made more sense than having him become
the time travelling John Gribardson depicted in another Farmer novel, Time's
In early 1996, Dark Horse released Tarzan: The Lost Adventure
in a limited-release hardcover novel format; Ballantine Books, which has
held the paperback rights to the Tarzan novels since the early 1960s, released
a paperback edition of "The Lost Adventure" the following spring. (And
Edson wrote several sequels to "Bunduki," although only the original novel
in that series was ever published in America; the rest were published in
Great Britain, but unfortunately I've thus far not been able to obtain
The release of The Lost Adventure was followed by the subsequent
publication of several other previously unreleased Burroughs works: Marcia
of the Doorstep, a very good “realistic” novel that was both Burroughs'
longest single work and, by all accounts, his most disappointing failure
when it was rejected by all publishers he submitted it to; You
Lucky Girl, a three-act play written for his daughter Joan when
she was a young aspiring actress; Forgotten
Tales of Love and Murder, a collection of short mysteries and puzzles;
and the bizarrely titled but perfectly lovely Minidoka
937th Earl Of One Mile Series M, which was essentially a bedtime
story concocted for the entertainment of his children and which was committed
to paper some years before his first professional attempts at writing.
Then the toymaking firm of Trendmasters Inc. made something of a splash
with its Tarzan: The
Epic Adventures action figures, which I'm told recorded fairly
impressive initial sales figures despite heated competition. Tarzan:
The Epic Adventures was also the title of a well-made but short-lived
syndicated television series starring Joe Lara which likely (and unfortunately)
owed its existence to the success of such inferior, overrated programs
as "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess." There
was even a novelization of the premiere episode, written by acclaimed fantasy
author R.A. Salvatore (whose other works include one of the better "Star
Wars" novels, Vector Prime).
The plot of that pilot episode (and Salvatore's novelization) was a
curious blending of plotpoints from two of Burroughs' original novels,
Return Of Tarzan and Tarzan At The Earth's Core. Jane is
mentioned briefly but never seen, and Tarzan is said to have renounced
his claim to her hand just as he had at the conclusion of the very first
novel. The primary villains are taken from The Return Of Tarzan,
but the bulk of the plot revolves around a mystical pendant and a voyage
to Pellucidar. No other novelizations ever appeared so far as I am aware
(the series itself lasted only a single season, although a second season
with another actor replacing Lara had been planned), but Salvatore's Tarzan
is every bit as "Burroughsian" as Fritz Leiber's had been 30 years earlier.
In fact, the publication of Salvatore's novel creates an interesting
game for those Tarzan fans who never have encountered ERB's original novels.
Those who wish to get to know the hero as Burroughs created him, but who
may not necessarily wade through the remaining series of 24 novels, can
instead follow up the original Tarzan
Of The Apes with Salvatore’s book instead (assuming you can still
find a copy, that is).
Tarzan became a full-fledged move star all over again in 1999, when
Walt Disney Productions released the aforementioned animated musical version
of the jungle hero's saga; the film wowed audiences and critics alike,
making it a rarity among the more recent Disney releases (it was the first
such Disney animated feature to be so universally praised since "The Lion
King" some five years earlier, and as of this writing none of the studio's
subsequent theatrical release have fared anywhere near as well), and spawned
not only a wealth of merchandising but two direct-to-video sequels and
a television series.
Unfortunately this latest Tarzan renaissance hit a bump in the road
a few years back when the WB network aired a thankfully short-lived "Tarzan"
TV series which tried to put a modern spin the jungle hero - Tarzan is
shown as having been rescued from the jungle by his uncle, an unscrupulous
business tycoon who keeps Tarzan captive in the urban jungle of New York
City. Since then the only new adventure as of this writing has been the
second Disney direct-to-video sequel - actually a “prequel”, since it goes
back to tell a story from Tarzan's childhood, much as Burroughs himself
did in Jungle Tales Of Tarzan.
As I write this, however, there are reports that a film version of ERB’s
Princess Of Mars is in the works. Disney is set to produce a stage
version of its animated "Tarzan" film, similar to the company's earlier
acclaimed stage versions of "The Lion King" and "Beauty And The Beast."
Burroughs' characters are still very much a part of our popular culture
and stand poised to thrill yet another generation of fans as we near the
100th anniversary of his first appearance in print back in 1911.
And Burroughs himself has turned up a time or two in fictional adventures
of his own in recent years. One of these was in an episode of Disney's
animated "Tarzan" TV series, which depicted a visit to Africa by Burroughs
– who has heard some of the legends about Tarzan and wants to write a book
Better still was Max Allen Collins' 2001 novel The Pearl Harbor Murders,
in which Burroughs and his son Hulbert – recently transplanted to Hawaii
from California, just as they had been in real life - investigate the murder
of a lounge singer and eventually learn that it is connected with the Japanese
attack on the island. This book was the third (and the best thus far, though
they are all quite good) in a series of novels by Collins featuring real
authors playing amateur detective and solving fictional crimes revolving
around historical events, sort of a neat twist on the "Murder, She Wrote"
television series; each book features a different writer, with settings
ranging from the sinking of the Titanic to the Hindenberg disaster to Orson
Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast. I think Burroughs, who
enjoyed a good mystery story, would have liked Collins' tale very much.
One may well wonder why your humble columnist is waxing so enthusiastic
over a writer who has been repeatedly dismissed as barely literate by too
many "serious" (i.e. self-important) critics, banned by ignorant librarians,
denounced by teachers as being totally without merit of any sort, and misunderstood
by those whose only exposure to his works has been through the Tarzan movies.
There are many reasons for my enthusiasm. Partly it has to do with nostalgia.
Burroughs literally helped me learn to read - thanks to my dad's collection
of the ERB volumes published in the 1960s by Ace, Ballantine and Canaveral
Press. The Land That Time Forgot was the first "adult" book I ever
read – I was in the third grade at the time, and my classmates were just
starting to struggle through The Bobbsey Twins – and by the time I'd finished
the fourth grade I had completed the entire Tarzan and Pellucidar series
and was midway through the Venus series.
Mostly, however, it has to do with wanting to see an incredibly gifted
storyteller get his due. I'll be the first one to admit that Burroughs
may not have been the kind of wordsmith whose works generally end up becoming
standard fodder for high school and college literature classes. But in
all fairness, he never set out to be that. Although there was the occasional
attempt at more serious fare – particularly the aforementioned Marcia
Of The Doorstep, which Burroughs reportedly had hoped might propel
him into the ranks of the more critically acclaimed "serious" authors,
but which was rejected by every publisher he sent it to and remained unpublished
for 75 years – all Burroughs ever really wanted was to entertain his readers.
And for that he has been reviled by most "serious" literary critics.
Most of whom wouldn't know a good book if it reared up and bit them in
the tuckuss, as far as I'm concerned.
One especially hostile critic, apparently hoping to make a point about
certain authors' ability to crank out story after story, referred to ERB
as "the Stephen King of his day." While he didn't mean it as a compliment,
it was nevertheless a valid point.
Consider: like King, Burroughs was an incredibly prolific writer best
known for his work in a particular genre. Like King, Burroughs usually
had little good to say about Hollywood's efforts to retell his stories.
And like King - perhaps moreso than King - Burroughs defied the critics
to become one of the most popular authors of all time. And rightfully so.
And it bears noting that very few authors have covered quite so wide
a field of genres in their fiction as did Burroughs. Though the Tarzan
series and the various science fiction stories remain his best known and
most popular works, ERB's vivid imagination knew few bounds.
His western novels – the aforementioned The War Chief and Apache
Devil, as well as The
Bandit of Hell's Bend and The
Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County - are in my opinion as colorful
and exciting as any tale that Zane
Grey or Max Brand ever set down on paper.
His historical novels are also among the best of their kind. I have
long maintained that The
Outlaw Of Torn is worthy of placement alongside such works as Ivanhoe
or The Three Musketeers, and persuading one of my college professors
to read Torn – which led to his agreeing with my assessment of the
book – is something I still consider to have been one of my greatest accomplishments
in life. And the ancient Roman adventure I
Am A Barbarian ranks easily as not only one of ERB's very best
works, but as one of the most thrilling tales of its type ever told. (And
it occurs to me as I write this that the film "Gladiator," released in
2000, appears to owe a great deal to I Am A Barbarian.)
There were also mysteries (The
Oakdale Affair), rough-and-tumble "he-man" pulp adventures (The
Blood), tales of royal intrigue (The
Mad King, The Rider)
- even soap opera-like romances (The
Girl From Hollywood, The
Girl From Farris's, The
Efficiency Expert) which, although generally considered to be lesser
entries in the Burroughs Bibliography, are certainly no worse than the
typical Harlequin Romance or those comtemporary novels of the so-called
"bodice ripper" variety.
Unlike the 1960s and '70s - the years of what Lupoff once termed the
"Burroughs renaissance," when it seemed that a new Burroughs book was turning
up on paperback shelves every time you turned around - it unfortunately
appears that the majority of ERB's works may have once again gone out of
print. Those previously unpublished works which appeared in the mid-to-late
'90s were, with the exception of Tarzan: The Lost Adventure, limited
editions which never got the widespread distribution they deserved. And
a recent visit to several of my favorite bookstores revealed precious few
Burroughs titles being kept in stock; Tarzan and John Carter were still
on the shelves, as always, but even very few of those. And when I asked
the clerks at these stores why they didn't keep more Burroughs in stock,
I was told by one that "nobody reads that stuff anymore" and met with "Who's
he?" by the other. (The only thing that kept me from slapping both obnoxious
know-nothings across the back of their skulls was the very real fear that
I might be taken into custody for child abuse....)
But even as the availability of many Burroughs titles seems to have
waned to almost that of the period just after his death in 1950, there
has been in recent years a certain degree of re-evaluation of ERB's impact
on American literature. Perhaps the best evidence that he is being held
in higher regard than ever came when no less an authority than Writer's
Digest magazine included Burroughs on its list of the 100 most important
writers of the 20th century! Such placement would have been unheard of
back when I was a kid bugging my father if I could reread his Ace paperback
edition of At The Earth's
Core for the umpteenth time.
In my humble opinion, however, such re-evaluation has been long overdue.
Compared to the more polished, more "literary" efforts of the so-called
"giants" of literature, Burroughs may well have been something of a hack;
in fact, he often said so himself, though perhaps not in those exact words.
It doesn't matter. Burroughs' fans revere him not because he was a great
writer (though he was, in his own way), but because he was a great storyteller.
The two are not necessarily one and the same, which to my mind goes a long
way toward explaining why Burroughs, King, Louis L'Amour and other writers
typically embraced by the masses are so often met with upturned nose by
snooty "literati" types.
In the end, Burroughs' technical skills as a writer are of far less
importance than the great gift he gave (and continues to give) readers
through the sheer magic of his storytelling: an opportunity to escape the
confines of their humdrum everyday lives into a world where every man can
be a dashing hero, every woman can be a beautiful princess, and each turn
of the page brings new adventure.
(Some have said this business of every man being a hero and every woman
a princess smacks of sexism. I say it's an unfair charge. For one thing,
Burroughs lived in a different era and his stories reflect the notions
of the time. For another, he made sure his stories had their share of heroic
female characters, too; Tarzan's Jane was doing quite well for herself
long before many had ever heard of the term "women's lib," and Dejah Thoris,
Princess of Mars, is the spiritual ancestor of "Star Wars'" Princess Leia.
And for a third, it's only MAKE-BELIEVE! So lighten up already.)
Hemingway? Overblown. Fitzgerald? Boring. Faulkner? Yeecchh - that guy
gives me the hives. If you want a writer who can give you colorful characters,
memorable dialogue and entertaining tales that never lose your interest,
ERB is the real deal.
Whether you're a science fiction fan, a western buff, an adventure enthusiast,
a devotee of romance or an aficionado of historical fiction, Burroughs
is your man. The adventures of Tarzan, wonderful as they are, are merely
the tip of an incredibly diverse and imaginative literary output.
Burroughs truly is "America's greatest undiscovered natural resource."
Maybe it's time a new generation put away their video games and rediscover
So what are you waiting for?
All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©
2005 by John Allen Small