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ERB AND JRRT
by Abraham Sherman
(an earlier version of this article first appeared in ERB-APA journal #135 in October of 2017)
Several years ago, an online conversation between myself and another fan of imaginative storytelling turned to the comparison of Edgar Rice Burroughs (a.k.a. ERB, author of Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars) and J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion). We explored the question of whether ERB and Tolkien are brothers in the realm of fiction, or is it simply ludicrous to mention them in the same sentence? Is the comparison necessary, or even useful?
What can be gleaned by contrasting the two? What do their works have in common, and at what points do they diverge? Arguably, each man is the greatest imaginative mind yet seen on his respective side of the pond. By circumstance, each began writing in the same year, 1911 – ERB with the manuscript that would become A Princess of Mars, and Tolkien with the poem The Battle of the Eastern Field. Taking a closer look at their careers can help shed light on the overlapping and exclusive value of each man’s works, and bring into focus the cultural impact each has had and may yet have in the future.
A case can be made that each author achieved the pinnacle of imaginative fiction in the history of his respective nation. In many ways, Tolkien’s work embodies the storied history of the United Kingdom, in contrast to the American wild west which shaped ERB’s imagination-scape. Each man’s style is reflective of his culture and its collective desires. Tolkien sought to fill a cultural void by crafting a myth for his own race, the Anglo-Saxons, who were surrounded by several European societies which boasted of rich heritage deeply rooted in mythology. Borrowing judiciously, and founding his effort on the framework of his love of language, he created the world of Arda, in which the race of Man gradually becomes prominent. In contrast, ERB was, first and foremost, a storyteller of the frontier. His stories take place in the adventurous thick of strange lands on Earth, inside the Earth, on the moon, and on numerous planets in the solar system and beyond. His heroes explore well off the beaten path, liberate the oppressed, guard the autonomy of those who are very different from themselves, and settle in new lands.
Within the works of both authors, we find that the virtue of its heroes is the foremost concern, and the enduring question is whether good or evil will rule the land. ERB and Tolkien meet comfortably on the planes of imagination, adventure and heroic virtue. Tolkien’s work, reflective of a European mindset, views the exploration and discovery of new lands as a thing of the past – a phase of the history of Arda fulfilled during the era of The Silmarillion, with little remaining to discover at the time of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s heroes are the more virtuous for knowing the state and history of their world, for remembering the painful lessons of the past, and for holding tenaciously to thin hopes for a bright future. Each man is a steward of the good handed down to him, and must eschew whatever evil was evident in his ancestors.
ERB’s work is often focused on the type of personal integrity which allows new discoveries to be handled responsibly. Will the natives of a newly explored land be treated with humanity and be supported in their autonomy, or will they be exploited? Will advanced technology be used to help or to enslave others? ERB’s heroes and villains embody opposing perspectives toward the treatment of others. Who will assume leadership and shape the ethos of the new world, with its blend of explorers and indigenous peoples? ERB asks us to contemplate what traits make a person worthy of influencing others, invites us to see how we measure up, and encourages us to be better. There is a great deal of crossover between ERB and Tolkien in these themes, and it is here that they are indeed brothers.
In regard to worldbuilding, my online conversation partner stated, “I would not dare to compare ERB's created universe to that of Tolkien, with its deep mythology, crafted poetry and numerous complex characters.”
He is correct that it is in the detail and the fleshing out of their worlds that we see the points of departure between ERB and Tolkien. Tolkien certainly takes the cake in terms of the time and detail he invested in Arda - forty years of spending most of his creative energy on that one world. ERB also spent roughly forty years creating his vision of Mars, known to its inhabitants as Barsoom, gradually developing it over the course of eleven novels. In contrast to Tolkien’s singular focus, ERB wrote more than sixty non-Barsoom novels during that same span of time. If Burroughs had focused his energies exclusively on Barsoom, its level of detail may have become more immediately comparable to Tolkien's world.
While it is true that ERB was focused more on the frontier than on history, it is worth noting that ERB’s frontiers are typically ancient, with rich pasts that are skillfully implied and left to the imagination of the reader. The indigenous peoples who are discovered usually have deep roots in actual history or in their own cultural myths. Typically, when Tarzan finds a lost city, it is eventually revealed to be of Atlantean or Roman origin, and remains populated by a remnant descended from the original settlers, with all of the millennia of tales thereby implied. The civilizations discovered by John Carter in the first three Barsoom novels all originated during the ancient era of Barsoom when the planet still had oceans and was able to sustain its atmosphere free of technological assistance.
Aside from the differing geographic and cultural contexts of the UK and the USA, what personally motivated Tolkien’s near-exclusive, heavy focus on one fictional world during his career, and ERB’s lighter focus on many different worlds? Tolkien, as an Oxford don, was professionally occupied by pursuits separate from fiction-writing, and took on the creation of Arda with the free enthusiasm of a hobbyist. Conversely, ERB sold stories as his sole source of income. He had found immediate and lucrative success in serialized magazine publication of his first stories, and there he stayed for much of his career. It was a fast-paced arena, which encouraged an author to create numerous, fresh episodic stories, rather than heavily detailed continuities. If ERB had instead written for a book publisher, and hadn’t depended on writing as his primary source of income, it is possible his stories would have delved into greater detail. A hint of what might have been can be found in the first 40,000 words of ERB’s first novel, A Princess of Mars. He wrote this initial segment of the manuscript with the pacing and length of a typical novel of 120,000 words in mind, and submitted it for publication intending to finish it should anyone show interest. The story that ERB intended to tell in the additional 80,000 words ended up having to be compressed into 20,000 words, for a total word count of 60,000, upon request of the magazine editor who eventually purchased and published the story. ERB went on to write novels with total word counts of 60,000-90,000 words for the rest of his career. Even if ERB had written novels of much greater length, it is unlikely that he would have ever caught up to the complexity of Tolkien's invented languages.
ERB fans are left speculating about what might have resulted had his career taken a different trajectory, though it can be argued that they stand in no less awe because of what resulted from that initial course of events. ERB’s gentleman-adventurer personality was well suited to the fast-paced magazine publication paradigm, and he became the king of campfire storytelling for the first half of the 20th century until his death in 1950. The 1960’s global resurgence in his popularity only cemented his place in the history of the great fiction writers. His niche in the global fiction market of that era has been echoed in recent decades by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter universe.
While historical detail and language construction were handled with greater mastery by Tolkien, the spark of raw imaginative talent burned incomparably bright within ERB. Tolkien's accomplishment of depth and complexity was extraordinary, while ERB's breadth of imagination and enthusiasm for creating new worlds remains unmatched. ERB repeatedly created entire planets with multiple cultures and unique flora and fauna, all while maintaining a playful and buoyantly inspirational spirit.
With Tolkien, the reader sits down and has a long, rich conversation of a lifetime, caught in a dream of history and legend. The Professor treats his reader to incredible definition and layered thematic substance. The ERB reader, meanwhile, joins the author in pursuit of a wild living thing, a quarry the author himself never fully captured. Together they ride frantically from world to world, taking an around-the-imagination-in-eighty-books tour. Both men were geniuses, each in his own way. It is debatable whether either will ever be matched at his unique strengths.
“Comparing John Carter and The Lord of the Rings would be like comparing, say...
Wuthering Heights and Les Miserables.
In other words, that would be comparing a quick flick,
no matter how well done, to a genius’s life's work.”
While a movie watcher could perceive the loosely adapted Disney John Carter film as a “quick flick,” the same cannot be said for the world presented in the novels. For a more in-depth comparison of the books and the Disney film, take a look at http://www.erbzine.com/mag43/4399.html
For all of its humble roots in serialized magazine publication, Barsoom, when viewed over the entire series of eleven books, is a vast world with a rich history and seemingly limitless opportunities for discovery and adventure. The planet itself is, in many ways, the main character of the series. We get to know it better with each story, and come to sense its heartbeat and its desires. We meet it in decline, clinging to habitability via the technological life support of an engineered atmosphere-creating factory system. It is hotly contested, haunted by the unresolved conflicts of ancient eras, and continually threatened by the ambitions of new tyrants. It has multiple unique civilizations, some crumbling and nearly forgotten, others advanced and vigorous. It teems with creatures and exotic plant life, and features breathtaking locales and impressive technologies. Battles, love stories with beautiful princesses, heroic sacrifice, loyal hounds, and the unification of previously warring races abound. Burroughs’ fast-paced “sub-creation” (to steal a term from Tolkien) is an epic in the tradition of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and hits many of the key notes of the human experience.
The sense of history and heroic possibility is a common thread between ERB and Tolkien. Tolkien achieved a uniquely effective evocation of history in his fiction, after his lifelong study of language and legend, while ERB infuses his stories with an incomparable, raw sense of possibility. Both authors have proven to be extraordinarily gifted at inspiring readers, especially young people, instilling in them virtuous ambition. ERB’s focus on science fiction has led to a century-long legacy of inspiring technological innovation and achievement. His effect on the literary, cinematic and scientific communities is unrivaled among authors, as was reiterated by the great Ray Bradbury, who never missed an opportunity to credit ERB as one of the most influential writers in history.
The influence of ERB’s Barsoom and its devoted champion, John Carter, found its first truly significant and enduring legacy descendant in the character of Kal El of Krypton, a.k.a. Superman. The concept of a man traveling to a smaller planet and finding that he has superhuman abilities due to the lesser gravity was sourced specifically from the stories of John Carter traveling to Barsoom, according to Jerry Siegel, creator of Superman. The origins of Siegel’s character were reversed to involve an alien coming to Earth, rather than an Earthman going to an alien world.
“The Superman character brought more than superhuman strength to the story.
It called on quite some religious and moral symbolism and evolves in our modern world,
allowing for easy identification and/or immersion.”
It should be noted that Superman also drew from John Carter's code of honor and his moral calling as the catalyst and uniting force on Barsoom. The god symbolism is there with John Carter, in the sense that he appears “from above” and has exceptional moral insight and superhuman physical abilities on a world of warriors. John Carter, functioning under his title of the Warlord of Mars, is a military leader who seeks to encourage benevolent indigenous leaders and depose tyrants in order to free the innocent from oppression. His passion is to return autonomy to those who were enslaved – which often starts with his efforts to free Princess Dejah Thoris from the villains who would use her to manipulate him and her nation of Helium. His tools are reason and friendship if possible, and the sword only when necessary. He uses espionage and his status as a national figure and military leader to achieve noble ends. John Carter belongs to a cadre of archetypal protagonists that goes back millennia and which thrives in the superhero genre today.
Regarding the implication that heritage properties should evolve and be modernized to make them accessible to modern audiences, a few comments are worth making. Beneath the compulsion to modernize is the questionable assumption that the “modern audience” is significantly different than any audience which has existed before. How can that assumption be reconciled with the fact that many well-told stories have remained appealing to audiences for thousands of years? When did people change, and cultures diverge so drastically, that we as human beings no longer share the same essential appreciation for great stories? Should we abandon the idea that storytelling can have timeless value and universal appeal? We would do so at our own risk, as long as we want our works to succeed and endure. Chasing the whims of the social construct of the “modern audience” is more likely to result in a trendy and culture-specific accessibility, rather than a superior, timeless, internationally-focused, and enduring accessibility.
The stories which remain popular and influential for generations, including ERB’s Barsoom and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, are told in accordance with ancient traditions. The epics of Homer have remained popular for over three thousand years. These types of stories are about themes which do not evolve, and which run deeper than cultural particulars. They have strong, tightly-woven, purposefully-orchestrated DNA that is not strengthened by modernization. Trying to make them evolve will only corrupt and weaken and narrow their appeal.
Superman first appeared in 1938, twenty-six years after the publication of the first John Carter story, and became the fulcrum of the superhero genre. Siegel’s creation represents one of the most profound reverberations of ERB’s works in the public square. There have been many other such echoes since then, including Star Wars, and more recently, James Cameron’s Avatar. In a cinematic experience that evoked the spirit of ERB more closely than any film before it, with Star Wars being a close second, Avatar hinted at the potential of a well-told Barsoom film adaptation. Cameron stated in many interviews that John Carter and the world of Barsoom were the primary inspiration for Avatar. The influence is plain to see for those who know the Barsoom books. Avatar features an exotic planet, multi-limbed creatures, telepathic communication, "impossible" geologic regions, tribes vs. civilization, and a warrior from another planet who becomes one of the locals and rallies them against oppression. Cameron gave us a beautiful rendering of an ERB-styled world, and it became the most financially successful film of all time.
Certain promising elements in Barsoom give it the potential to surpass Avatar’s success. These elements, among others, include Barsoom’s many layers of romance, the rich historical foundations of the cultures on the planet, the unique place occupied by Mars in the collective imagination, and the archetypal/mythic resonance of many of the characters. Because of these characters, their relationships, and the emotional core which they provide, ERB's epic-scaled world is also personal, intimate, and thematically robust. To bring his grand and moving vision to the big screen would result in an inspiring and memorable experience for filmgoers, one which would be a fitting creative and technical fulfillment of the unmatched century-long legacy of ERB and Barsoom. Capitalizing on all the strengths of ERB’s source material depends on the passion, skill and commitment of the filmmakers and the approach of their adaptation.
“John Carter feels more Harry Potter than Avatar to me.
And Harry Potter has a captive audience, which John Carter has not.”
Harry Potter and Avatar have experienced phenomenal success and have become “bankable” names. They have ready audiences built in. It is worth remembering that the situation has not always been this way. Each had to prove itself and earn its following by providing transportive and entertaining storytelling, which is the same challenge which would face any future Barsoom film. The “secret weapon” for the marketing of a Barsoom reboot is that its most significant captive audience is the same audience that is captivated by The Lord of the Rings, Superman (and the superhero genre as a whole), Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Avatar. That fact is the crux of what the ill-fated Disney marketing failed to communicate about John Carter.
Audiences are drawn to confident marketing supported by evidence. The adaptation and marketing of Disney’s John Carter left two essential pieces by the wayside: (1) confidence in ERB's world, and (2) confidence in ERB's legacy. The evidence which supports these confidences is the water in which the modern imagination swims. A proof of concept for this marketing approach exists, not surprisingly, in how the marketing for the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was handled. It was presented with great enthusiasm and respect for Tolkien and the impact of his work. The marketing for LOTR accurately noted his foundational influence on the fantasy genre. When audiences saw the excellent Fellowship of the Ring and the claims of the marketing were supported by the quality of the film, many people who had never read Tolkien’s books led a blaze of extraordinary word-of-mouth enthusiasm.
A meaningful grasp of the origins of Barsoom, its influence, its shared strengths with known and proven properties, and its unique appealing qualities have yet to be communicated to potential film audiences. The real enlightening of the perception of the Barsoom property will happen when a reboot trusts the source material, takes a more robust and timeless approach to the adaptation, and conveys confidence and excitement in ERB’s world and legacy. Only then will we experience this genre-defining work at its full cinematic strength.
MORE ABRAHAM SHERMAN FEATURES IN ERBzine
Edgar Rice Burroughs and the
LunacyLegacy of Mars
John Carter of the Round Table:
An Exploration of the Differences
Between Edgar Rice Burroughs' Novel and Andrew Stanton’s Film
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