Magic and Dreams
[ERB-APA #1, Spring, 1984]
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
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
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
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
--March 10, 1984