The Treasure Vaults Of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Unconscious

April 10, 2011

The Treasure Vaults Of  Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Unconscious

by

R.E. Prindle

Originally published in the Spring 2002

issue of the Burroughs Bulletin

Edgar Rice Burroughs

What makes an immortal writer?  One thing and one thing only! Being able to captivate the mind of the reader.  One may say that a magnificent use of grammar, vocabulary, syntax and such literary devices are important but only minimally.  The greatest users of the language will be forgotten before their books have littered the remainder tables.  Great ‘storytellers’ come and go with regularity.  Every generation has its dozens.  They are mere entertainment; amusing for a day and then forgotten.

An immortal writer may have faults, but with all his faults he is simply a writer who grips the reader’s imagination and won’t let go.  Bulldogs.  Such writers are in essence mythmakers.  Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes; D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers of Dumas.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  If Walter Scott, the greatest of all novelists is slipping into oblivion it is because no matter how great a storyteller he may have been he has failed to create great mythological characters.

Tarzan himself would be no more than another Conan the Barbarian except that his adventures are placed in the mythical Africa which was dispelled by the advance of the twentieth century.  Tarzan in Paris, Wisconsin or Baltimore in a suit of clothes is a mere laugh.  In North Africa among the Berbers as a French ‘secret agent’ he begins to assume his true form, still there is something lacking there.  Burroughs’ North Africa looks and feels too much like the real North Africa.  When Tarzan arrives back in the jungle he assumes proportions that exceed one’s dreams.

The Greek myths are not historical reality; the fairy tales derived from the Greek myths take flight as mere fantasy.  The difference between Perseus and Puss In Boots is immense.  Yet Greek myths are a true representation of the human psyche while fairy tales are mere flights of fancy.

Edgar Rice Burroughs reverses the process and derives the creation of his life, Tarzan, from the fairy tales of H. Rider Haggard whose stories he turns into adventures of the greatest of the great mythical figures of the modern age.

The Tarzan series succeeds not from any literary skill of Burroughs, not because he replicates an authentic image of Africa, but because the mighty image of Tarzan exists in his mind as a living being in his imaginary Africa that bears more resemblance to Fenimore Cooper’s New England than any real Africa.

Nor was Burroughs an original author who drew his inspiration from vague sources.  Burroughs very nearly copied out his stories from other men’s books.  Who else would have named a character Lorna Downs after Lorna Doone.  The fabulous world of Tarzan could never have come into existence if H. Rider Haggard had never written his three great African novels:  King Solomon’s Mines, She and Allan Quatermain.

Every incident in Haggard’s novels are replicated in Burroughs’ novels.  He even paraphrases the most memorable of Haggard’s phrases in the Tarzan series:

H. Rider Haggard

…he dreams of the sight

of Zulu impis

breaking on the foe

like surf upon the rocks

and his heart rises in rebellion

against the strict limits

of the civilized life.

     Not only does Burroughs paraphrase the passage  but the content of the quote informs the whole of the Tarzan series.  The passage might be the motto of the Tarzan saga.

Haggard’s great trio of African adventures first appeared from 1885 to 1888 when Burroughs was from eleven to fourteen years old.  Sensational successes in their day, one assumes that they would have come to the young adventurous boy’s attention quickly.  I don’t know when Burroughs read them or how many times but I would think they had become part of his mental furniture sometime between the time he was fourteen or twenty.

There the fabulous exploits of Sir Henry Curtis, John Good and Allan Quatermain would have seethed and simmered away in his unconscious until they erupted from his imagination in 1912 as the incredible Great White Ape, Tarzan.  Tar=White, zan=skin.  Whiteskin.  Tarzana=Whiteskin City.

Burroughs’ Tarzan is clearly derived in part from H. Rider Haggard.

There was a huge difference between the two writers.  Haggard grew up in an England where he came into contact with the Esoteric tradition.  His sojourn in Natal, South Africa intensified this streak of the occult.  As Haggard was putting pen to paper Madame Blavatsky’s great ‘Isis Unveiled’ had already been in print for ten years.  Bulyer Lytton’s esoteric novels were at the peak of their popularity.

Haggard was absorbed in esoterica so his stories partake a great deal of the supernatural.  Burroughs on the other hand was born in the heart of pragmatic Chicago, USA in 1875 coming to young manhood in the Edisonian experimental scientific America that allowed little room for the supernatural.  By 1900 the great Madame B had published both her masterworks but there is no indication that Burroughs read them.

Burroughs was from the Chicago someone styled ‘The Hog Butcher Of The World.’  It was said of the meat packing plants that they used every part of the pig but the squeal.  The meat packers eventually created a product that looked like meat, sort of tasted  like meat and possibly utilized the pig’s squeal for an attempt at zest.  They called it Spam.

At the same time, Henry Ford was experimenting with this marvelous plant called the soy bean.  By scientifically manipulating the oil chemically you can make door knobs or crab meat.  Ford used the stuff to make the little revolving knobs for inside door handles.  Others used the same stuff to create reasonable facsimiles of steak or crab meat.  It’s not real steak or crab but it can be made to look sort of like the real thing and it has a flavor that would only fool anyone who has never had the real thing, but it is an approximation.

Thus by applying such scientific methods to H. Rider Haggard’s novels Burroughs converted Sir Henry Curtis into Tarzan.   Then he took every impossible fantasy of Haggard to convert it into a scientifically plausible incident.  You have only minimal necessity to suspend your sense of disbelief- once you accept his impossible premiss- in Burroughs while Haggard’s imaginative flight never bear up to examination.

In ‘Allan Quatermain’ the protagonists disappear into a cavern exposed only at low water to begin their journey through a huge tunnel that forms the course of an ‘underground river.’

Well, the entrance wouldbe visible at either low or high water.  At high water the location of the entrance would identified by a fierce maelstrom down which the water would be drawn as though down a kitchen sink.

Once within the channel itself the roof was an improbable ten feet ove the trio’s head.

Burroughs would have found this explanation ludicrous and clearly scientifically impossible.

However when Haggard’s river delivers the intrepid adventurers safe and sound into the hidden valley the reader is entranced by the medieval civilization found there.  This locale can also be found in Tarzan, Lord Of The Jungle.

When the adventure ended Good and Quatermain elected to return home while Sir Henry Curtis married the princess, sealed off the ground exit and elected to remain there until civilization should discover him.  Compare that to the ending of Zane Grey’s Riders Of The Purple Sage.

Edward Borein- Six Riders On The Purple Sage

Gosh, what a story!  Burroughs must have said to himself.  I’d like to write something like that some day.  One day he did.  That was about 1926.  In his story everything had to be scientifically plausible.  Thus he has a remnant of Richard Coeur De Lion’s crusaders who had become separated from the main body living in a secluded African valley somewhere in Gallaland.

Haggard couldn’t explain how his White medieval society found his hidden valley among the Mountains of the Moon.  Burroughs could explain his.  Furthermore his crusaders had developed in a scientifically probable way.  The entrance and exit, both similar to Haggard’s, are probable too.  Burroughs has the entrance which is a tunnel, not dissimilar to Haggard’s tunnel, guarded by Black soldiers in medieval garb speaking medieval English which, the example of Chaucer not withstanding, was not too different from our own.  Once in custody, the hero, Jim Blake, paraphrasing Il Duce says:  Take me to your Director’ as he has mistakenly believed he was on a movie set.

Once within the valley the incidents follow Haggard’s story very closely.  A battle takes place between two contending factions.  The way out of this valley is identical to the way out of Haggards’ valley with the exception that rather than being obscure it is well know by the surrounding Gallas but as they are no match for the Valley’s inhabitants they avoid it.

In the end Blake, like Curtis, elects to remain with the Princess in a simpler but not necessarily kinder society.

Thus while Burroughs lifts the whole story from Haggard he manages to take the incredible and make it scientifically plausible.  The place could have existed.  You or I could go there if we only had a map and couple dozen Black porters.

So also the treasure vaults of Opar are a transliteration of the treasure chamber of Ophir in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines.  As John Talliaferro points out in his Tarzan Forever, La is based on Haggard’s She.  Although this had passed over my head I was somewhat mystified by the name La.  But as La is the French feminine article as in le, la, meaning he, she or it, the name La might even be translated as She.   If La is She then the vaults of Opar are a combination of Ophir and the labyrinth of She.

There are also a couple other readily identifiable sources for Opar.  One is H.G. Wells and the other is Sigmund Freud. As I always have the haunting presence of L. Frank Baum while reading Tarzan we may assume his presence too.

Many of the Tarzan books seem to be literary composographs.  Burrughs wrote very fast turning out three or even four books in some years.  This speed of writing doesn’t leave much time for real composition.  It becomes almost necessary to borrow from other writers.  Thus Burroughs offers a sort of literary Spam; If you examine it closely you can identify the parts but you have essentially a new product.

In the same way Burroughs combines his parts in such a way that you have a new original product.

The terrific Baumian feeling of Tarzan, Jane and Korak the Killer swinging down the jungle lanes on their way back from Pal-Ul-Don just really reminds me of Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Scare Crow swinging down the Yellow Brick Road.

Once back home, Tarzan learns that his profligate loans to the British Empire, which the Empire has apparently no intention of paying back, have impoverished him.  He realizes that he will have to make another run on the Bank of Opar.

He returns to Opar.  Opar greatly resembles the land of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine.   There are even Morlocks and Eloy.  The men are all Morlocks and the women are all Eloy.  This effect is achieved by unnatural selection or dysgenics on one hand and eugenics on the other.     Over the ages since the sinking of Atlantis any normal men have been disposed of, only the degraded  and misshapen kept.  On the other hand the ugly women have been discarded while  only beautiful women have been kept.  One wonders at the genetic problems involved but it is so in Opar.  Burroughs chucks in a little science while you’re not watching, showing what the effect will be if inferior specimens of humanity are allowed to live and propagate and the contrary results if eugenics are followed.  A very popular idea is made palatable.

Thus we have this scene replicated from Wells’ Time Machine taking place in a land that time never knew.

So far we have Baum, Wells and Haggard represented.  Now Burroughs throws in a little Freud.  There is no doubt Burroughs read Freud up to at least 1922 as his notion on the theory of dreams in ‘Tales of Tarzan’ shows.  By 1922 Freud was all the rage in America.  One of Freud’s theories that challenged the psyche of the times was that of the Unconscious.

The nature of  or even the existence of the Unconscious was highly controversial at the time with most people rejecting the notion.  Interestingly ERB meets the challenge head on as he did with Freud’s theory of dreams.  He seems to understand and accept the notion.

In King Solomon’s Mines the treasure vault of Ophir is concealed behind a fore chamber adorned with Haggard’s ghoulish trappings.  The treasure room is hidden behind a counter-weighted door of which only the vile Kukuana priest knows the secret.  He traps Good, Curtis and Quatermain in the chamber by lowering the door.

Apparently doomed the trio are delivered when Good notices that the air in the room hasn’t gone stale as it should.  The men set about to discover the source of the fresh air which turns out to be a trap door in the floor.  Descending, the men grope their way in total darkness through a maze of tunnels.  They are forced to turn back when Good nearly falls into one of Haggard’s ever present underground rivers..

Forced to turn back they discover a ray of light they missed the first time.  The light is coming from the end of the tunnel made by a small furry burrowing animal.  The men force their way through the hole tumbling into the pit King Solomon’s men excavated for diamonds centuries before.

In Burroughs the deformed priests of Opar capture Tarzan and put him in a darkened room with no apparent egress other than the barred door.  Tinkering around somewhat like Edison Tarzan discovers that ages ago long forgotten Oparians had sealed up a tunnel.

Cannily Tarzan removes the bricks one by one making an opening just large enough for him to pass through.  He then replaces the bricks from inside the tunnel so the Oparians will by mystified by his disappearance.

The underground structure as we learn from various books is on two levels.  On its upper level a long tunnel leads from the temple to a room containing the forgotten gold vaults of Opar.  Halfway along there a, I don’t know, twenty foot wide gap over a pool of water.  Tarzan is going to have to leap this gap to go on.  It would be impossible to do this in a low tunnel.  Consequently Burroughs has a large dome built over the gap with a small opening at the top which admits some few shards of light.

On the other side the tunnel continues on until one enters the gold vaults.  Now, it would be impossible to return across the gap carrying a sixty pound ingot of gold which is what the ingots weigh.

Another literary source is here introduced.  Burroughs was familiar with the Greek myths.  Surely he had read Bulfinch as well as having studied Greek and Latin at Harvard Latin School in Chicago.  The nether entrance/exit is so peculiar that if one weren’t already absorbed in the impossible African world of Tarzan it would certainly shake one’s sense of belief.

The nether exit leads steeply up a path to emerge from the top of a gigantic rock formation standing alone in a plain.  Strangely neither the degraded Oparian males or the intelligent Oparian females have ever, over a period of at least six ages, investigated it.  They’ve been there since the Flood.

The structure reminds me of the story of Metis and Zeus.  In that story Zeus had swallowed the goddess Metis.  She proved a bit much for the big fella’s digestion so in some kind of psychological manifestation of his indigestion Athene emerged fully formed from the Big Guy’s forehead.   So Tarzan who has entered the body of Zeus from a different analogous part of Zeus’ anatomy emerges fully formed from the aperture in the rock.

Really funny if you think about it.  Entrance through the nether end, leaping over the belly in the middle then emeging from the forehead.  But then that is why one cherishes Burroughs.  There is so much to discover in his Africa.

H.M. Stanley, African Explorer

Take the matter of the weight of the ingots.  Why sixty pounds?  Once can only guess of course but if you read H.M. Stanley’s In Darkest Africa you will learn that the normal weight Stanley’s porters were to carry on their heads was sixty pounds.  The men of Tippu Tib, an adversary of Stanley’s rebelled at the weight, demanding the loads be reduced to forty-five pounds or even twenty pounds.

Tarzan’s faithful Waziri, who would act as porters for no other than the Big Bwana, not only joyfully picked up a single sixty pound ingot but grabbed two, staggering across the lianas and creepers under the incredible burden of one hundred twenty pounds.  ERB really knew how to top the next guy.

While we have In Darkest Africa in view, which Burroughs obviously read as Stanley mentions an upper Congo tribe called the Waziri, we might compare his version of the jungle with Burroughs’.  One didn’t swing blithely barefoot down Stanley’s jungle trails.  They were dangerous places full of both poisoned snakes and stakes.  One might step on a horrid red ant nest, disturb wasps or have black ants drop on you.

In Tarzan’s Africa there are such things as lower, middle and upper terraces, one drops from a lower limb to the ground.  Obviously Burroughs is not replicating the Africa of Stanley or Livingstone where the great trees are sheer for the first fifty or sixty feet in the air.

Burroughs obviously discarded the unpleasant realities of Africa for a replication of Fenimore Cooper’s New England forests of oaks and maples where there are low branches and no snakes, stakes or fire ants.

The diagram of the tunnels is not yet complete.  We learn after an earthquake has the brought the treasure vault down on Tarzan’s head while closing the exit through Zeus’ forehead, Tarzan completely bereft of memory, suffering from amnesia as they used to do on the old radio Soaps, staggers back along the tunnel falling into the gap in the middle.  Here he drops into the water which is level with the floor of the lower tunnel.  This is real close to King Solomon’s Mines.  Swimming to the further edge, once you’ve learned to swim you never forget, Tarzan climbs up to continue on where he comes to the spectacular jewel vaults of Opar.  A near paraphrase of Haggard.  Cases of giant stones fill this huge room.  It may be true that De Beers has destroyed all roads to Opar in order to protect its monopoly.  (That’s a yolk, son.)

From thence Tazan emits into a counsel room.  Perhaps the darkness and obscurity of his exit from the tunnel prevented the incurious Oparians from discovering it.

What Burroughs has created here is a sort of map of Freud’s Unconscious as Burroughs understood it.  I can’t tell exactly what Burroughs understood of Freud’s notion of the Unconscious but I interpret his understanding thusly:  An idea for a great character enters the mind through a back door.  Illuminated by a little candle the idea progresses through the canyons or corridors of the mind seeking resolution.  Perhaps halfway through its genesis it meets an obtacle.  If the idea can’t pass the obstacle it is aborted.  If the obstacle can be passed the idea develops.  But as the light was blown out by the leap perhaps the idea gestates deep in the unconscious no longer directed by the light of consciousness.

In Burroughs’ representation Tarzan, or the idea’s progress, was lit by a little candle until the light was extinguished by Tarzan’s leap across the gap.  From then on Tarzan had to grope his way into the gold vaults which lie beneath the rock or mind of Zeus.

The idea of Tarzan having come to fruition bursts forth fully formed as with Athene and Zeus.  The monetary value of the idea of Tarzan is represented by the gold lurking in the mind which is coverted to cash when the idea is expressed.

Perhaps Burroughs is here telling us how he conceived the idea of Tarzan.  Back in 1890 or so when he read Rider Haggard the notion of Tarzan entered his mind through a chink in his psyche.  Unable to develop the idea at the time the notion of Tarzan continued to gestate until in 1912 it burst from his mind like Athene from the forehead of Zeus.

There’s a joke in there somewhere and it’s a pretty nifty way of telling the cognoscenti how he developed the idea of Tarzan while incorporating the telling in the exposition of a Freudian theory.

Thus Burroughs has cobbled together a story from assorted literary parts.   A little Fenimore Cooper, a little of L. Frank Baum, some H.G. Wells, a Greek myth, a lot of Haggard and a fairly serious discussion of Freud for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

By all rights such a compendium of other men’s stories and ideas ought to have been not only obvious but a failure.  But like Spam, Burroughs was able to make easily seen parts unrecognizable while adding his own genius and brilliant creation into a fabulous myth which there is no need to check against reality.  It is true because it fills a deep inner need.

If Tarzan wasn’t true he should have been.  We love his idea as we love ourselves.

We are true.  Tarzan is true.  That truth exists in my mind and the mind of every reader.  I will never find Tarzan’s Africa no matter where or how far I travel.  No anthropologist will ever unearth the remains of Tarzan’s parents,  Kerchak or Kala, but they still rest in God’s green earth.  Tarzan cannot age.  He can never die.

As I pass through the canyons of my mind I have found a little box canyon.  In that box canyon I have discovered that I exist as Tarzan.  I am Tarzan.  I’m sure the reader has discovered that he too is Tarzan.  Tarzan lives!

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