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
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"
The 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 television documentary.
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
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 1930s.)
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 Last Gift.)
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 copies.)
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
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 about him!
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
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
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
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
Burroughs truly is "America's greatest undiscovered natural
resource." Maybe it's time a new generation put away their video games
and rediscover him.
So what are you waiting for?
All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©
2005 by John Allen Small