The Dream Vaults of Opar
 
 

Magic and Dreams

[ERB-APA #1, Spring, 1984]

   Hush!
   Let us sound, however briefly, a note of hushed and wondering reverence. We are in the presence of magic and mystery. Magic and mystery surround us and have drawn us here to these pages.
   No two people ever read the same book. The process of reading is far too complex for that. The mute symbols imprinted on blank paper are only a part of the intricate mechanism of written linguistic communication; the inert words can only spring to full-bodied life on the vibrant stage of a receptive mind. Even the best of writers can do no more than outline, suggest; the mind of the reader must translate those symbols into color and action, into drama and comedy and tragedy. Sometimes magic happens. Characters live and love and die, whole worlds leap to breathless life--all within the reader's mind. But since no two minds are the same, each performance must be different. We cannot even read the same book twice. The book is frozen--never changing--almost a ghost of its author. We, however, are mutable creatures of flesh. However short the interim, we have continued our, perhaps unnoticed, mental evolution.
   For seventy-two years now the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs have acted as dream catalysts, spanning the planet with an uncountable number of such mind dramas. Perhaps our Tarzans speak with slightly different accents. Perhaps our Barsooms and Pellucidars and Amtors are subtly different from each other. Still, Burroughs' magic worked for us. We have shared the dreams he invoked. In a very real sense, the spirit of that great Magician of Dreams pervades these pages. His magic took hold of your mind, as it did mine. It has reached across the decades to draw us together here.
   We are fellow wayfarers. We have shared countless safaris. We have cringed together in the dank darkness of the outer corridors of Opar. We have ridden together across the dead sea bottoms of dying Mars, and we have wiped our bloody fingers on our naked thighs beneath the full equatorial moon. We already know each other; after all those shared experiences, it would be surprising if we did not. We are brothers and sisters in magic and dreams.

   Sometimes, of course, the magic fails; and so we have critics who look on in amazement at the phenomenon that is Edgar Rice Burroughs. The dreams have gone unrecognized, perhaps hidden behind failings of language and character and plot--dingy gold, cast aside for brass. The loss is theirs. All man's works are flawed, if one looks closely enough, and there is little to be gained--much to be lost--by judging a work by its failings rather than its successes. Magic is fragile and does not bear close scrutiny.
   Burroughs himself had an interesting way of dealing with his critics. When accused of modeling Tarzan on Mowgli, he replied that his true inspiration had been Romulus and Remus--which is merely a subtle, sardonic way of saying, "What's so original about Mowgli?" Similarly, when someone pointed out inconsistencies in the geography of Barsoom, he claimed that he had never bothered to keep track of the locations of the various cities. Of course this was not true; but after all the years of critical neglect and scorn that he had endured, it's hard to fault him for replying in a way that must have left his overzealous fan gasping in astonishment that anyone could have done so well without even trying to be consistent.
   Still, critics are not to be put off; they (and I suppose I'm a critic myself at times) will always find some new flaw to expound upon--even at the expense of complete accuracy. Witness the "totally unscientific" manner of John Carter's transportation to Mars. "John Carter got there [to Mars] by standing in an open field, spreading his hands and wishing." So Carl Sagan tells us in Cosmos. I only wish I had a Barsoomian teepi for every time I've read some variant of that statement. It's an excellent example of journalistic oversimplification, particularly since it's completely wrong. Ulysses Paxton wished himself to Mars. Later Carter learned to will himself across the void; but in A Princess of Mars Carter is drawn across space to Barsoom, and all his wishing at the end of the volume does not return him to Dejah Thoris. The use of the word wish is understandable, of course; a full and accurate description would be quite cumbersome. It would be interesting to track down the original culprit who coined this particularly useful paraphrase, probably some twenty years ago.
   This sloppy brevity, however, has been used to illustrate Burroughs' disdain of scientific plausibility--after all, by "wishing" Carter to Mars, he has not even made an attempt to deal with reality. This proposition overlooks at least one significant fact. In 1911, when Princess was written, Robert Goddard was still unknown. It was not until the mid-twenties that Goddard's experiments with rocketry made it clear that rockets might be successfully used for space travel. Indeed, had Burroughs selected almost any other method of transporting Carter to Mars, the device he chose would almost certainly seem today as lame, antiquated, and scientifically ridiculous as Verne's gigantic cannon or Wells' still undiscovered anti-gravity metal. The truth of the matter is that Carter's method of transportation is no more outdated today than it was when the novel was written. And that, seventy-three years later, is quite an accomplishment.

   So much has been written about Edgar Rice Burroughs and his creations that it is tempting to think that very little can remain to be said. However, there must be thousands of minor aspects of Burroughs' life and works that still await commentary, and ERB-APA seems to me to be an ideal place for these minutiae. A fair illustration comes readily to mind:
   In Swords of Mars, a story of murder and kidnapping on Barsoom, Burroughs introduces himself as a character in the opening prologue. He is camping near the headwaters of the Little Colorado when, late at night, he hears the door of his cabin open. "I sat up in my bunk and reached under my pillow for the .45 Colt automatic that I keep there." When I first read this I reacted as you may have, slightly annoyed by the blatant melodrama. Our author would have us believe that he keeps a pistol under his pillow when he is camping in the wilderness. Wouldn't it have been just as easy--and safer!--for him to keep his fictional gun near the side of his fictional cot? It was not until Jim Pierce's autobiography was published that I learned that Burroughs always--in the wilderness or at home near Los Angeles--slept with a .45 semiautomatic under his pillow. That little melodramatic detail was not fictional. As it turns out, ERB's international fame had made him fearful of kidnapping and assassination; in other words, he was very much prone to the kinds of thoughts and actions he attributes to his fictional alter ego in the prologue of Swords. (Burroughs once wrote a promotional piece for the Colt company, describing the various handguns he owned.)
   Most of us agree that the later Tarzan novels, as a group, seem less inspired than the early ones. More than once the question has been asked, why did he continue to write them--long after he had run out of stories to tell? Money was a factor, but could not have been the only one. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., had a booming business throughout the 1930s, with films produced almost annually, a nationally syndicated radio show, and one of the most popular comic strip features in the world. Why did ERB continue to force himself to churn out a new Tarzan novel almost every year?
   The overlooked portion of the answer is--Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., Publishers. Burroughs had formed his own publishing company, and in order to prosper (and subsidize the publication of his other books), it had to give its customers what they wanted. Readers and bookstores alike wanted new Tarzan novels, and without a steady flow of them, one each year for as long as Burroughs could keep it up, the company could not remain successful. A few of these later Tarzan novels--two, at least--came to life despite the pressure under which Burroughs was functioning--Tarzan and the City of Gold, one of his better books, and Tarzan and "The Foreign Legion," a refreshing change of pace--but the others must have been an irksome chore for him. Toward the end of the thirties he began turning to old material. The radio show, "Tarzan and the Diamond of Asher" was reworked into Tarzan and the Forbidden City and Tarzan the Magnificent. How he must have looked forward to settling down at the typewriter with John Carter or to returning to Pellucidar!
   Burroughs' tenacity in continuing to attempt to get his stories published, even years after they had been written and soundly rejected, has also often been commented upon. This tenacity, possibly mixed with his sardonic wit, links his very first novel with one of his last. Some years ago The Jasoomian reprinted a very interesting and important series of letters between Burroughs and his All-Story editor, including one in which Burroughs' outlined the still-to-be-written conclusion of Princess. In it he described a section of the novel that was to detail the adventures of Dejah Thoris after her separation from Carter. The editor wrote back that he could not see how Burroughs expected to do this, since the novel was told in the first person by Carter. Apparently Burroughs never again referred to this part of the story; the editor's reply had clearly pointed out how much of an amateur he was at this "writing game," since he didn't even recognize the incongruity of his intention. Still, he must have thought, it should be possible to include a third-person section in a first-person novel.
   He waited thirty years to do it. In Escape on Venus Duare is separated from Carson and the narration abruptly switches from Carson's first-person to Burroughs' third. I like to think that Edgar Rice Burroughs did this on purpose, that three decades later he remembered that editor's objection and decided to show him just how easily and effectively it could be done.
   In addition to such interesting Burroughs trivia, there must be at least as many unanswered questions:
   In Tarzana there is a whole bookcase of volumes that belonged to Burroughs, books that he used for reference in writing and presumably books that he read for his own interest and amusement. What are they? Someday a complete list should be published. (Here's an idea for any of you who have the time and interest: Someone should look up in Porges the books we know Burroughs used to research Tarzan of the Apes. An interesting and important article could be written showing what information he took from which books.)
   What color were Burroughs' eyes? Were they gray, like those of so many of his heroes, or did he merely wish they were gray?
   What of those nightmares from which he suffered? Nightmares so terrifying that his screams awakened the entire floor of the hotel in which he was staying in Hawaii. Just what were they like? How much of them found a way into his fiction?
   And so the discussions and conjectures go on down the years and decades, all the outgrowth of those hastily recorded daydreams of a man now dead thirty-four years. There is magic there, magic and mystery.

   --March 10, 1984
 
The Origin of Tarzan: The Mystery of Tarzan's Creation Solved by Sarkis Atamian, a fascinating examination of the books ERB read to research his early Tarzan novels.

Guide to Tarzan Collectibles by Glenn Erardi, a full-color photographic guide to Tarzan books, comics, films, toys, and more.

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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.