Themes And Variations
The Tarzan Novels Of Edgar Rice Burroughs
#15 Tarzan Triumphant
Over many years I have searched for the point where myth and science join. It was clear to me for a long time that the origins of science had their deep roots in a particular myth, that of invariance. The Greeks as early as the 7th century B.C. spoke of the quest of their first sages as the problem of the One and the Many, sometimes describing the wild fecundity of nature as the way in which the Many could be educed from the One, sometimes seeing the Many as the unsubstantial variations being played on the One. The oracular sayings of Heraclitus the Obscure do nothing but illustrate with shimmering paradoxes the illusory quality of “things” in flux as they were wrung from the central intuition of society.
Before him Anaximander had announced also oracularly, that the cause of things being born and perishing is their injustice to each other in the order of time, “as they meet,” he said, for they are bound to atone forever for their mutual injustices. This was enough to make of Anaximander the acknowledged father of physical science, for the accent is on the “Many.” But it was true science after a fashion.
Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigaing The Origins Of Human
Knowledge And Its Transmission Through Myth, p. viii,
Giorgio de Santillana, 1969
The five Tarzan novels from Invinicible to Lion Man form a unique quintet within the oeuvre. Together they are just shy of twenty-five percent of the twenty-one Tarzan novels published during Burroughs’ lifetime. If one excludes the late and unrelated Foreign Legion they are a fourth of the series. Twenty-five percent within four years. One might well ask what was going on in Burroughs’ life during these momentous four years.
With the possible exception of City Of Gold all the novels deal openly with recognizable current events. Invincible deals with the Soviet Communist menace which is contdinued as one of the themes of Triumphant. The mainspring of Triumphant is Cecil Rhodes’ old dream of a Cape to Cairo route. In this instance realized, as improbable as it might have seemed to Rhodes, as an air route. The hope of the air route was first explored in 1918 and was about to be realized shortly after Burroughs wrote this book.
ERB also throws in a bit about Chicago hoodlumism with a tip of the hat to Al Capone.
Tarzan And The Leopard Men deals with the African Leopard Cult that was in the news at the time. City of Gold is about ERB’s marital problems while Tarzan And The Lion Man concerns the recent and sensational MGM expedition to Africa to film Trader Horn. Both before and after these novels Burroughs wrote pure, well, almost pure fantasy.
The reason for the change isn’t clear; however, the thirties mark another change in novelistic styles so Burroughs may have been adapting to new circumstances. If so it was the third stylistic change he was successfully meeting although it would be his last. He had melded a turn-of-the-century style of the teens when he began writing, then adapting his style to that of the Jazz Age of the twenties. After a good start in the thirties the ground slipped from beneath his feet with his style becoming somewhat dated. By the forties he was finished although Foreign Legion makes a game shot at a stylistic evolution.
Perhaps more importantly, ERB changed because he wanted to be taken as a serious writer. He was simply tired of being known as an ignorant boob writing from the seat of his pants. For all the seeming frivolity of his fantasy themes they are based on very solid scientific and knowledgeable themes. They are imbued with an intense mythological acumen, while presenting a new mythology for the current age. They do deal with classical themes such as the One and the Many. Burroughs tried to organize experience into a new mthological structure which was desperately needed then and no less today.
Consider Giorgio de Santillana again:
Today’s children, that impassive posterity to whom all reverence is due, know where to look for myths, in animal life in the Jungle Books. In the stories of Lassie and Flipper, where innocence is unassailable, in Western adventures arranged by grown ups for the protection of law and order. Much of the rest sedulously built up by mass media is modern prejudice and delusion, like the glamour of royalty, or the perfection of super detergents and cosmetics; super-stitio, leftovers. So one might be tempted to say. Actually however, no particle of myth is left over, and we have to do only with a deliberate lie about the human condition. Tolkien’s efforts at reviving the genre, whatever talent employed, carry as much conviction as the traditional three dollar bill.
Quite right. Burroughs had the handle on true mythology while being able to create the governing myth of the Aquarian Age. Triumphant is laden with myth. In truth Burroughs is not the light-headed, simple-minded writer that even his most devoted fans and admirers want to think him. He doesn’t want to parade his knowledge or get involved in abstruse discussions; he is writing seeming pure action novels, The Master Of Adventure, as his fans like to say, for a pulp magazine audience that primarily wanted to be thrilled. One may criticize Burroughs for it but he is never short on thrills or spectacular effects. One may guffaw at some of his heroes’ exploits as I surely do but your eyes are still popping. There’s a lot more under the seeming simplicity. Much of it would have been recognized at the time giving the ‘knowing’ reader the satisfaction of being in on what ERB was really talking about but as the topicality faded away the succeeding generations of readers could see only the action.
The first sentence of the preceding novel, Invincible, explains ERB’s approach:
I am no historian or chronicler of facts, and furthermore, I hold a very definite conviction that there are certain subjects which fiction writers should leave alone, foremost of which are politics and religion. However, it seems to me not unethical to pirate an idea occasionally from one or the other, provided that the subject be handled in such a way as to impart a definite impression of fictionizing.
In this series of five novels in a bid to be taken seriously, perhaps rather than conceal his knowledge by a ‘definite impression of fictionizing’ he was making a bid for intellectual recognition by ‘exposing’ his serious interests to some extent.
The background of Triumphant is solidly based historically and in current events. ERB was always seriously interested in aviation. Indeed, his life as an adult would span the first lift off at Kitty Hawk to supersonic jet flight over a period of a mere forty years. That might do something to your mind. the concept of speed changed in his lifetime from Barney ‘A mile a minute’ Oldfield to a fifteen mile a minute jet fighter plane.
Commercial flight as we know it today was non-existent in 1930. The DC3 was still five years distant. A flight from Cairo to Capetown involved several layovers and even train trips if air connections were not established between certain points. Yet, such a route was a major advance while being exciting news. Ya gotta remember making a crystal radio set at home was still a substantial achievement marking one as an electrical wizard. At the same time television was on the horizon, nearly a reality. In such a flight Burroughs had a sure fire topic.
He combines elements of an earlier 1918 attempt and the establishment of an air route at the time of writing. In 1918 shortly after the War ended the British got right on realizing the hope of a Cape to Cairo dream. Great Britain had acquired the German African colonies as part of the Versailles Treaty so that they were then in control of a continguous corridor through East Africa. The acquisition of Tanganyika (Tanzania) filled the gap.
Four separate pilots set out from Cairo for the Cape. The attempt was not entirely successful, but by 1932 it was. Burroughs then selects as his imaginary pilot Lady Barbara Collis, an English aviatrix on a solo flight. she seems to be somewhat off her course flying over Ethiopia but then that might be expected.
The way Burroughs’ mind worked he usually has real models for these roles if you can figure them out. In this case I think Lady Barbara incorporates three different women. The only significan aviatrix I can locate is Amelia Earhart. She became in 1928 the first woman to fly the Atlantic. She was part of a three-man crew but gained notoriety. In 1930-31 she was preparing for a solo Atlantic flight a la Charles Lindbergh from Labrador to Paris. She did cross the Atlantic but was forced down in an Irish cow pasture not reaching Paris. That was after the book was written so ERB would be relying on her 1928 flight and preparations for the solo flight.
A second personality conflated with Lady Barbara may have been the famous evangelist and founder of the Four Square Church, Aimee Semple McPherson. I have a framed picture of McPherson in my collection. Evangelism may also have been on Burroughs’ mind from his recent reading of Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. According to ERBzine Burroughs objected to Lewis’ forcing his atheism on the reader. Here one of his purposes may have been to show Lewis how it’s done.
Aimee Semple McPherson hit LA at about the same time as Burroughs.
By 1923 she was so popular she opened her 5000 seat Angelus Temple while beginning to broadcast over KSFG-K Four Square Gospel. And then a the height of her fame on May 18, 1926 she vanished after swimming in the Pacific. This and the following events during which several people died created a sensation no one in the country, and certainly LA, could miss. Not an ERB who was passionately interested in religion anyway. One wonders if he visited the Angelus Temple for Sunday services.
Aimee turned up in Mexico where she said she had been held captive after being abducted. But, apparently the pressures of success had been too much for her and she attempted escape into sex and a love tryst, which is a normal psychological reaction to unbearable stress as ERB himself was discovering. The disappearance and subseqauent events had continued into 1927 and 1928 so that ERB’s capacious mind was filled with the wonder of it all. Thus Lady Barbara disappears during the flight onto the mystery escarpment to reappear months later on the arm of Lafayette Smith. Same story. I think it likely ERB was thinking of both women while a third influence is almost certainly Dorothy Sayers, the mystery writer and creator of Lord Peter Whimsey. Burroughs hits at it by mentioning that the story does not concern Lord Wimsey but does concern his daughter, Barbara Collis. This probably refers to Dorothy Sayers and her creation, Peter Wimsey. When ERB admired a writer he wrote them into the story somehow. He was generous that way.
And then there is Danny ‘Gunner’ Patrick of the Chicago Underworld. His name indicates he is Irish so he may be supposed to be associated with Dion O’ Bannion’s gang rather than Capone and the incipient Outfit. ERB privides an intriguing if overly sympathetic portrait of the gangster. One wonders if he had met models at this time.
In connection with Patrick, which begins an interest in organized crime that extends through Swords Of Mars and the its Guild of Assassins, Murder Inc. was established at this time so that by the date of 1933 it would seem that ERB brought Murder Inc. into the corpus.
Then there is LaFayette Smith himself. Named after General Lafayette of Revolutionary War fame and recently brought to mind by General Patton who said, as he stepped foot on French soil, ‘Lafayette, we are here.’ The young geology professor may be be taken as an alter ego of Burroughs himself as he taught geology at the MMA. Sort of the man Burroughs might have been had he the self-discipline to have gone to college. ERB apparently sincerely regretted he had not gotten a degree as a number of his alter egos are college graduates, such as the Old Timer of Leopard Men who graduated from his brothers’ alma mater, Yale.
As noted Burroughs had taught geology as an instructor at the Michigan Military Academy. He was still following the subject closely as he grouses that geologists had as many opinions each about as accurate as the weather forecasters. Still, knowledge was developing at a break neck pace that would lead to our substantailly complete knowledge of today. It’s too bad that ERB couldn’t have held on to 1965 or so. A man of his intellect would have seen things.
Burroughs not only combines all these threads and strands but in his prologue he reaches for his most daring concept yet. It’s only a page so let’s look at it closely. The opening sentences:
Time is a warp of the tapestry which is life. It is eternal, constant, unchanging. But the woof is gathered from the four corners of the earth and the twenty-eight seas and out of the air and the minds of men by that master artist, Fate, as she weaves the design that is never finished.
A thread here, a thread from there, another from out of the past that has waited years for the companion thread without which the picture must be incomplete.
But Fate is patient. She waits a hundred or a thousand years to bring together two strands of thread whose union is essential to the fabrication of her tapestry, to the composition of the design that was without beginning and is without end.
That attitude informs all of Burroughs’ work; a study of the One and Many, and is the reason I am such an admirer. Given Burroughs Classical background that apparently made such a profound impression on him one is reminded of Penelope at her web as well as the three Greek mythological Fates themselves- the three daughters of Night– Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos.
Clotho the spinner, Lachesis the apportioner, Atropos who cuts the string that ends the web and life.
And then Burroughs begins to indicate how events occurring thousands of years previously would provide the strands of time to bring his story together into a recognizable pattern, the warp of the web, while th woof is the improbable bringing together of such disparate persons as Tarzan, Gunner Patrick, Lafe Smith, Lady Barbara and Jezebel, ERB’s prophetically named first Golden Girl. Florence is into the picture.
The ancient protagonist is a disciple of Paul of Tarsus, Angustus of Israel. At the death of Paul in Rome the paranoid Angustus decides to flee into the Heart of Darkness, Africa. Along the way he picks up a Nordic slave girl who will bring in ERB’s evolutionary theme. Then up the Nile into the Heart of Darkness.
In this story, all roads lead to Midian in the crater of an extinct Ethiopian volcano. In his way ERB who speaks frequently of coincidence denies the concept in favor of Fate the Inexorable. As Freud would say, there is no coincidence– one thing leads to another. Once set in motion the ball may be deflected but it cannot be stopped except by the cessation of Time– the non-existent but all controlling element.
Part two follows.