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Volume 7440

ERB and the Domestic Feline
by Alan Hanson 

ERB and the Domestic Feline
by Alan Hanson
I once had a kitten and a bull calf who were boon companions. When the calf lay down, the kitten would curl up between his forelegs.”
— Edgar Rice Burroughs, “Laugh It Off!” in Hawaii Magazine, January 1946
That’s the only confirmation I’ve ever been able to find that ERB owned a pet cat. His fiction gives the impression that he didn’t particularly like domestic cats. Although his stories are filled with panthers, leopards, lions, and saber-toothed tigers, I couldn’t find a single house cat in any of his earthbound tales. In fact, I remember reading somewhere years ago that Burroughs once shot at a cat on his property. Perhaps he was the “friend” to whom Tom Billings referred in the following passage from The Land That Time Forgot.

Doubtless the battle would have gone to Chal-az even though I had not interfered; but the moment that I saw a clean opening, with no Kro-lu beyond, I raised my rifle and killed the beast (saber-toothed tiger). When Chal-az arose, he glanced at the sky and remarked that it looked like rain. The others already had resumed the march toward the village. The incident was closed. For some unaccountable reason the whole thing reminded me of a friend of mine who once shot a cat in his backyard. For three weeks he talked of nothing else.”

Let’s take a look at how the author used the image of the ordinary domestic house cat in his fiction. Although no actual such cats appear in his stories, Burroughs used their image dozens of times to help readers visualize the movements and emotions of his characters, both human and animal.

Burroughs often used the term “catlike” to create similes comparing actions and thoughts of his characters to those of earthly house cats. For example, in Tarzan of the Apes, ERB noted an instance in which, “Tarzan, happily, was uninjured by the fall, alighting catlike upon all fours far outspread to take up the shock.”

Some might suggest that it’s just as likely that ERB was thinking of a large jungle cat, such as a panther, instead of a house cat when he made that comparison. My sense, though, is that he usually had domestic cats in mind when he used the term “catlike.” Consider the following description of Sheeta the panther in The Beasts of Tarzan.

As if it had been poised upon steel springs, suddenly released, it (Sheeta) rose quickly and silently to the top of the palisade, disappearing, stealthily and catlike, into the dark space between the wall and the back of an adjacent hut.

Clearly Burroughs here was asking the reader to visualize the panther’s movements as being similar to those of the type of cat with which the reader was probably most familiar — a domestic house cat. It’s reasonable to assume that the author was asking the reader to make the same comparison on most all other occasions when he used the term “catlike.

Tarzan was the character whose movements Burroughs most often compared to a cat. Following are some examples.

As on the former occasion he overthrew the cauldron before leaping, sinuous and catlike, into the lower branches of the forest giant.” (Tarzan of the Apes)

The sentry’s back was toward him. Like a cat Tarzan crept upon the dozing man.” (The Return of Tarzan)

He (Taug) made a sudden lunge for Tarzan, but the ape-boy leaped nimbly to one side, eluding him, and with the quickness of a cat wheeled and leaped back again to close quarters.” (Jungle Tales of Tarzan)

With the quickness of a cat Tarzan swung the king ape (Go-lat) over one hip and sent him sprawling to the ground.” (Tarzan the Untamed)

On either hand they fell before his cudgel; so rapid the delivery of his blows, so catlike his recovery that in the first few moments of the battle he seemed invulnerable to their attack.” (Tarzan the Terrible)

Pan-at-lee trembled. This was no Ho-don and though she feared the Ho-don she feared this thing more, with its catlike crouch and its beastly growls.” (Tarzan the Terrible)

Catlike, from his squatting position, the man leaped to one side even as the great tree crashed to earth.” (Tarzan and the Leopard Men)

As Clayton followed the bell boy toward the elevator, the young man watched him, noting the tall figure, the broad shoulders, and the free, yet cat-like stride.” (Tarzan and the Lion Man)

Many other Burroughs characters moved and acted catlike. Not surprisingly, Tarzan’s son was one. In Tarzan the Terrible, Korak “leaped, catlike, hither and thither in the course of his victorious duels.” In The Warlord of Mars, John Carter described his vision and his movement in catlike terms. “As I stood in the dark shadow of the tunnel’s end racking my brain for a feasible plan the while I watched, catlike, the old man’s every move.” And in the same story: “With a mighty catlike bound I sprang upward toward the slender strand — the only avenue which yet remained that could carry me to my vanishing love.” The Warlord’s son was catlike, as well. “Carthoris, still clasping Thuvia lightly to his breast, came to the ground catlike upon his feet, breaking the shock for the girl.”

An assortment of other Burroughs characters, stretching across his wide-ranging fiction, also had catlike characteristics. Billy Byrne was one. “Through a second and third hut he made his precarious way. In the fourth a man stirred as Byrne stood upon the opposite side of the room from the door — with a catlike bound the mucker was beside him.” Another was Bradley in The Land That Time Forgot. “With all the quickness of a cat, Bradley sprang to his feet and with all his great strength, backed by his heavy weight, struck the Weiroo upon the point of the chin.

Even some of ERB’s cave men were as nimble as a cat. Nu in The Eternal Lovercat-like leaped into the lower branches … reveling in the ease with which he could travel from tree to tree.” Thander, the Boston wussy turned cave man in The Cave Girl, ran up a sapling “with the noiseless celerity of a cat,” and later “swung downward, clinging to the rafter with his hands, and dropped, cat-like, upon his naked feet to the floor.” In Savage Pellucidar, another cave man learned how hazardous it could be to grab a cat that doesn’t want to be held. “He seized O-aa and lifted her in his arms. He pressed his lips to hers. She awakened with a start. With the speed and viciousness of a cat, she struck — she struck him once across the mouth with her hand, and then her dagger sprang from its sheath.”

Certainly the large jungle cats shared some characteristics with their diminutive domestic cousins, but Burroughs also endowed other species in Tarzan’s world with catlike traits. Although his favorite term to describe the great apes in motion was “lumbering,” ERB at times gave them the agility of a cat. Remember Taug, Tarzan’s loyal Mangani friend in Jungle Tales of Tarzan? “Like a cat the heavy anthropoid scampered up the bole of his sanctuary, Numa’s talons missing him by little more than inches.” And in Tarzan the Untamed, “With the agility of a cat Zu-tag leaped completely over the protecting wall.

Most surprising, though, is Burroughs’ description of Tantor the elephant as catlike, not just once or twice, but three times in the following passage from The Son of Tarzan.

Tantor wheeled around like a cat, hurled Malbihn to the earth and kneeled upon him with the quickness of cat … The ape-man … signaled the beast to approach and lift him to its head, and Tantor came as he was bid, docile as a kitten, and hoisted The Killer tenderly aloft.

Feline Expressions
Burroughs used a number of common house cat expressions to create imagery in his fiction. For instance, folklore contends that “a cat has nine lives.” ERB made use of this myth several times. First, in Tarzan and the Golden Lion, the conspirator Kraski applied it to Owaza, the unscrupulous safari headman. “He’s as crooked as they make ’em, and if he were to be hanged for all his murders, he’d have to have more lives than a cat.” Then in Tarzan and the Forbidden City, the braggart guide Wolff was referring to Tarzan when he said, “The damn monkey has as many lives as a cat.” And, after shooting the evil Hal Colby dead in The Bandit of Hell’s Bend, Bull declared, “He kin rot here fer all I care. God, I wisht he had nine lives like a cat, so’s I could kill him a few more times.

Everyone knows that “curiosity killed the cat.” ERB also used that image a couple of times in his fiction. In The War Chief, Lieutenant King wondered how the Apache Shoz-dijiji had gotten possession of Wichita Billings’ pony. “What’s consuming me is curiosity,” he told the girl. “That’s what killed the cat,” she responded in an effort to discourage the officer from pursuing the question. Then in Escape on Venus, Carson Napier had reason to recall that same earthly feline expression.

“The gossip of the slave compound and the guardroom had reached the ears of Tyros, and his curiosity had been aroused to see the strange slave with yellow hair who had defied nobles and warriors. It was curiosity that killed the cat, but I feared it might work with reverse English in this instance. However, the summons offered a break in the monotony of my existence and an opportunity to see Tyros the Bloody.”

Burroughs used another cat image in Tarzan of the Apes. The impractical Samuel T. Philander, secretary to Professor Porter, tried to climb onto the roof of Tarzan’s cabin to escape what he thought was an approaching lion. (It was actually Jane.) “For a moment he hung there, clawing with his feet like a cat on a clothesline, but presently a piece of the thatch came away, and Mr. Philander, preceding it, was precipitated upon his back.”

When Tom Billings and Ajor, his traveling companion and later wife in The Land That Time Forgot, met a stranger, ERB used a cat concept to explain how a friendly relationship developed. “At first Ajor and So-al were like a couple of stranger cats on a back fence but soon they began to accept each other under something of an armed truce, and later became fast friends.

The feline image that Burroughs used most often in fiction, however, was “cat and mouse” interaction. I found 16 examples of that metaphor in ERB’s stories. Here are just a few examples, starting with Tarzan’s handling of the cad Canler, Jane’s fiancé at the time.

Another hand shot to his throat and in a moment he was being shaken high above the floor, as a cat might shake a mouse.” — Tarzan of the Apes

Wait,” said Nemone. “I would know more of this man,” and then she turned to Tarzan. “So you came to kill me!” Her voice was smooth, almost caressing. At the moment the woman reminded Tarzan of a cat that is playing with its victim. — Tarzan and the City of Gold

Presently Belthar gave [Jad-bal-ja] an opening; and his great jaws closed upon the throat of the hunting lion of Nemone, jaws that drove mighty fangs through the thick mane of his adversary, through hide and flesh deep into the jugular of Belthar; then he braced his feet and shook Belthar as a cat might shake a mouse, breaking his neck.” — Tarzan and the City of Gold

Kill him, Julian,” said mother. “Kill the murderer of your father.” I did not need her appeal to influence me, for the moment that I had seen Peter (Johansen) there I knew my long awaited time had come to kill him. He commenced to cry then — great tears ran down his cheeks and he bolted for the door and tried to escape. It was my pleasure to play with him as a cat plays with a mouse. — The Moon Maid

Feline Senses
Since survival in Tarzan’s Africa required keen senses, it’s not surprising that Burroughs occasionally used the acute senses of cats to make comparisons. In Tarzan’s Quest, he went into some detail in describing the eyes of cats.

The perception of the eyes of man is normally in a horizontal plane, while those of the cat family, with their vertical pupils, detect things above them far more quickly than would a man. Perhaps this is because for ages the cat family has hunted its prey in trees, and even though the lion no longer does so, he still has the eyes of his smaller progenitors.

ERB even worked cat vision into the dialogue in The Bandit of Hell’s Bend. The widow Mary Donovan berated the sheriff for his failure to apprehend an outlaw. “‘I suppose ye got ’em, Gum Smith,’ said Mrs. Donovan, with sarcasm, ‘or ye wouldn’t be back this soon.’ ‘A ain’t no cat, Mrs. Donovan,’ said the sheriff, on the defensive, ‘to see in the dark.’”

Although cats speak no language, they do use their voices to convey meaning. In Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Burroughs contrasted the sounds made by a lion and its smaller domestic cousin to highlight the difference between life in the wild versus life in the city.

It was with a sigh of relief that he finally reached a point from which he could no longer hear them, and finding a comfortable crotch high among the trees, composed himself for a night of dreamless slumber, while a prowling lion moaned and coughed beneath him, and in far-off England the other Lord Greystoke, with the assistance of a valet, disrobed and crawled between spotless sheets, swearing irritably as a cat meowed beneath his window.

Meanwhile, far across the void from Tarzan’s jungle bed, a vicious Barsoomian lion voiced an earthly cat sound to affirm its submission to Thuvia, Maid of Mars.The beast ceased its growling. With lowered head and catlike purr, it came slinking to the girl’s feet.

For their own purposes, humans can mimic cat sounds to convey meaning, as the kind-hearted crook, the Lizard, suggested while pitching a safe-cracking scheme to Jimmy Torrance in The Efficiency Expert.

 “‘Cracking a box?’ asked Jimmy, grinning. ‘It might be something like that,’ replied the Lizard; ‘but you won’t have nothin’ to do but stand where I put you and make a noise like a cat if you see anybody coming.’”

Before moving on to other types of cat references in ERB’s fiction, let’s look at a few miscellaneous feline similes and metaphors the author also used. While von Horst watched a band of bison men confront a mammoth in Back to the Stone Age, he likened the prehistoric elephant’s strategy to that of an outer crust cat. “He did not let any of them get behind him again. He moved slowly toward them, reminding von Horst of a huge cat stalking a bird.

In Tarzan the Terrible, ERB explained, “With Mo-sar as the cat’s-paw,” Lu-don was confident his plan to kill Ko-tan, king of Pal-ul-don’s Ho-dons, would succeed. (A “cat’s-paw” is a person who is used by another, usually to carry out a dangerous task.)

In the following passage from Savage Pellucidar, Burroughs used the term “hydrophobia,” which has two meanings. It is an archaic name for the disease “rabies,” and it can also mean an irrational fear of water. I’m guessing that Burroughs was thinking of the disease in this simile.

Dragging O-aa was like dragging a cat with hydrophobia; O-aa didn’t drag worth a cent. She pulled back; she bit; she scratched; she kicked, and when she wasn’t biting, she was emitting a stream of vitriolic vituperation.”

Burroughs was probably remembering one of his own horses when he included the following metaphor voiced by Grace Evans in The Girl From Hollywood. “Senator is clumsy enough at jumping, but no matter what happens he always lights on his feet. Mother says he part cat.”

Kinds of Cats
Domestic cats come in all sizes and colors, and while most live their lives as pets, some roam free. ERB made reference to many different kinds of cats, based on their age, color, disposition, and domestic status. All cats, of course, start out as kittens, and Burroughs made a handful of comments about infant cats. In The Eternal Lover, the author used a kitten to help his readers visualize a prehistoric tiger.

For a moment (Nu) was lost to view within the cave, but presently he emerged, in one hand … the severed head of an enormous beast, which more nearly resembled the royal tiger of Asia than it did any other beast, though that resemblance was little closer than is the resemblance of the Royal Bengal to a house kitten.

In The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County, Burroughs twice referred to a horse being “gentle as a kitten.” Then in Llana of Gathol, John Carter admitted that for a time he felt like a mother feline. “The constant strain of feeling that unseen eyes may be upon you, and that unseen ears may be listening to your every word was commencing to tell upon me; and I was becoming as nervous as a cat with seven kittens.

Burroughs made several references to a “tabby,” a domestic cat that has a coat featuring distinctive stripes, dots, lines, or swirling patterns. Of Sheeta, the panther that bonded with the ape-man in The Beasts of Tarzan, ERB noted, “That it felt real affection for him there seemed little doubt, for now that the blacks were disposed of it walked slowly back and forth about the stake rubbing its sides against the ape-man’s legs and purring like a contented tabby.” In Tarzan the Untamed, another panther stood its ground against a lion, “with arched back and snarling face, for all the world like a great, spotted tabby.”

After falling from a tree in Tarzan of the Apes, Professor Porter “rolled over upon his stomach; gingerly he bowed his back until he resembled a huge tom cat in proximity to a yelping dog.”(Obviously, Burroughs here was thinking of a scared domestic male cat and not the slang meaning of a “tom cat” as a sexually aggressive man.)

The Queen of England touched on the perils of a vagrant cat when she told the Outlaw of Torn, “You be a strange knight that thinks so lightly on saving a queen’s life that you ride on without turning your head, as though you had but driven a pack of curs from annoying a stray cat.” John Carter and a fellow captive were made to feel like a couple of homeless cats by their Morgor captors in Skeleton Men of Jupiter.We were held here for quite some time, during which some of the warriors discussed us as one might discuss a couple of stray alley cats.”

Cat Insults
A century ago, calling someone a “cat” must have been a common put-down, as Burroughs used it occasionally in his fiction. In Tarzan and the Lion Man, actress Naomi Madison said to her stand-in, Rhonda Terry, “I don’t see how you can be so decent to me. I used to treat you so rotten. I acted like a dirty little cat.” And in Marcia of the Doorstep (written in 1924), when Patsy Kellar told Jack Chase that Marcia and Banks van Spiddle were engaged because she loved Jack, who was showing interest in Marcia, van Spiddle called Patsy a “nasty little cat.” (Such melodrama!)

A couple of Burroughs characters intensified the insult by adding a modifier. In Tarzan and the City of Gold, the noble Erot spoke behind Queen Nemone’s back, “The hell-cat! May the devil get her in the end.” And Phoros, usurper of the crown in Athne, the City of Ivory, made a premature announcement concerning his wife’s health: “Menfora, the old Hell-cat, is dead.”

In Tarzan and the Lion Man, Burroughs used another exclamatory cat expression. It wasn’t an insult, but rather a sudden fearful utterance.

From somewhere out in the night came the roar of a lion and a moment later a blood-curdling cry that seemed neither that of beast nor man. ‘Sufferin’ cats!’ ejaculated O’Grady. ‘What was that?” 

Cats on Mars
Although Burroughs never introduced an earthly domestic house cat character in his fiction, he did, indirectly, include an extraterrestrial one. When John Carter inquired about why Dejah Thoris was avoiding him in A Princess of Mars, he first learned that red Martians had a kind of pet cat.

“‘She says you have angered her, and that is all she will say, except that she is the daughter of a jed and the granddaughter of a jeddak and she has been humiliated by a creature who could not polish the teeth of her grandmother’s sorak.

I pondered over this report for some time, finally asking. ‘What might a sorak be, Sola?

“‘A little animal about as big as my hand, which the red Martian women keep to play with,’ explained Sola.

Not fit to polish the teeth of her grandmother’s cat! I must rank pretty low in the consideration of Dejah Thoris, I thought; but I could not help laughing at the strange figure of speech, so homely and in this respect so earthly.” 

It wasn’t until decades later in Llana of Gathol that Burroughs gave a more detailed description of a sorak. “A sorak is a little six-legged, cat-like animal, kept as a pet by many Martian women.” The name of the sorak belonging to Dejah Thoris’ grandmother is never given, nor does that sorak, or any other, make a physical appearance in ERB’s Martian stories.

In the same way the term “cat” could be an insult on earth, so could the term “sorak” be on Barsoom. In The Gods of Mars, a Black Pirate used the term to insult another of his race. “Thurid turned toward Xodar, his eyes narrowing to two nasty slits. Ever did I think you carried the heart of a sorak in your putrid breast. Often have you bested me in the secret councils of Issus, but now in the field of war where men are truly gauged your scabby heart hath revealed its sores to all the world.” And in Synthetic Men of Mars, one of Ras Thavas’ creations insulted him. “They call you The Master Mind of Mars! Phooey! You haven’t the brains of a sorak.

Burroughs made a final reference to a Martian cat in Llana of Gathol. In Kamtol two Black Pirates argued over the amount of a wager between them. “I want to make more than enough to feed my wife’s sorak,” one declared.

The Cat-People of Thuria
ERB’s greatest tribute to domestic cats can be found in “The Cat-Man,” chapter 17 of The Swords of Mars. On the Martian moon Thuria, John Carter encountered the Masenas, a chameleon-like cat-people race. His first contact with the Masenas came when he was imprisoned with the cat-man Umka. Carter provided a description of his cellmate, whom he called, “the most amazing of all the amazing creatures that I have ever seen.

The shape of his skull was similar to that of a human being, but his features were most inhuman. In the center of his forehead was a single, large eye about three inches in diameter; the pupil a vertical slit, like the pupils of a cat’s eyes.

When the Masena first tried to communicate with Carter, from his mouth came sounds “like the purring and meowing of a cat.” When Carter shook his head, the creature “ceased its meowing” and spoke to the Warlord in a more human language.

Umka told Carter that his people lived in houses built high in the trees of the forest. They were hunting beasts, and Carter saw an extraordinary demonstration of their predatory instincts and tactics when their captors brought food to the cell for the Masena.  It was a bird in a cage.

For a moment or two he played with the bird in the cage … He seemed to derive a great deal of pleasure from this, as he purred constantly. Finally he opened the door in the cage and liberated the captive … Then my companion commenced to stalk it, for all the world like a cat stalking its prey. When the thing alighted, he would creep stealthily upon it; and when he was close enough, pounce for it.

For some time it succeeded in eluding him; but finally he struck it down heavily to the floor, partially stunning it. After this he played with it, pawing it around. Occasionally he would leave it and move about the room pretending that he did not see it. Presently he would seem to discover it anew, and then he would rush for it and pounce upon it.

At last, with a hideous coughing roar that sounded like the roar of a lion, he leaped ferociously upon it and severed its head with a single bite of his powerful upper mouth … He paid no attention to me during all these proceedings; and now, purring lazily, he walked over to the pile of skins and cloths upon the floor and lying down upon them curled up and went to sleep.”

I like to think that, when Edgar Rice Burroughs fired that shot at a cat on his property, he fired to frighten and not to kill. As a cat owner for the last 35 years, I’ve come to believe that my pet felines have souls as surely as humans do. Several of my pet cats have lived out their lives with my family and have been buried reverently on our property.

In many review articles on various topics in ERB’s fiction, I’ve often chosen to give Burroughs the final word. And so, for this one on domestic cats, here’s a passage from Tarzan and the Forbidden City. In it the author offers an alternate way of paying tribute to furry and loveable pet cats when they pass on.

Wong poured a cupful of the concoction he had brewed and handed it to Lal task. ‘Dlink!’ he said. Lal task took a sip, made a wry face, and spat it out. ‘I can’t drink that nasty stuff,’ he said. ‘What’s in it?—dead cats?’ ‘Only li’l bit dead cat,’ said Wong.

—the end—

From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
The Land That Time Forgot
Tarzan of the Apes
The Beasts of Tarzan
The Return of Tarzan
Jungle Tales of Tarzan
Tarzan the Untamed
Tarzan the Terrible
Tarzan and the Leopard Men
Tarzan and the Lion Man
The Warlord of Mars
The Mucker
The Eternal Lover
The Cave Girl
Savage Pellucidar
Jungle Tales of Tarzan
The Son of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Golden Lion
Tarzan and the Forbidden City
The Bandit of Hell’s Bend
The War Chief
Escape on Venus
Tarzan and the City of Gold
The Moon Maid
Tarzan’s Quest
Thuvia, Maid of Mars
The Efficiency Expert
Back to the Stone Age
Savage Pellucidar
The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County
Llana of Gathol
Outlaw of Torn
Skeleton Men of Jupiter
Marcia of the Doorstep
A Princess of Mars
The Gods of Mars
Synthetic Men of Mars
The Swords of Mars

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