ERB Heroes: A Theme Repeated from Carter to Tangor
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 2001
Edgar Rice Burroughs gave us many memorable heroes during his prolific writing career (1911-1948). This essay assumes the reader has read the bulk of Ed Burroughs' works and has recognized the self-confidence and general philosophy of each presented hero, their unswerving loyalty to people or cause, and absolute fidelity to their mates.
First there was John Carter, then Tarzan, followed by (in publishing order) Bulan, Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones (Thandar), David Innes, Nu, Barney Custer, Billy Byrne, Norman of Torn, and Jefferson Turck—which brings us to 1915. On the backside of ERB's career we have Carson Napier, Jimber-Jaw, Buck Mason, Britannicus (unpublished until 1967), and Tangor. Most happily, between the beginning and end of this extraordinary writing career a veritable host of other heroes entertained us with their adventures and romances.
Though it is the sense of adventure and wonder of romance we readers remember most in the books, it must be said that each Burroughs hero has followers who go beyond the words. Some fans are almost rabid in their affection for one ERB hero or another, particularly Tarzan and John Carter, endlessly exploring the character and personality of the heroes in idle chat or serious articles. The conversations, speculations, and extrapolations make for great fun and fellowship; however, these camps of fans have always had difficulty in proclaiming one hero better than the others. Why? The heroes created by Edgar Rice Burroughs are actually cut from the same cloth: the personal values and philosophy of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In reality there is little difference between any ERB hero once the window dressing and idiosyncracies are stripped away that would truly elevate one character above another.
The values, morals, and physicality of each heroic figure are nearly identical. More specific of note is ERB's masterful ability to describe the same values and morals for each of his characters in a variety of fascinating "window dressings." of superficial individuality. The consistency of ERB's characters, regardless of situation or presentation, this world or others, is the most comforting aspect for the readers. We knew what to expect, we knew what was right or wrong (in ERB's eyes) and, if we happened to believe the same way as the author, we were always thrilled with each new adventure.
Tarzan, of course, is the most famous ERB hero. He's a tad over six-foot in height, considered a "giant," takes crap from nobody, succors the distressed, is faithful to his wife, is a good parent, and believes in laws logical and those contrived by society. John Carter is physically the same build, shares the same grey eyes, black hair, and immortality, has fought for and won his lady, and defends his Barsoomian "jungle" with the same dedication. Carter, however, came before Tarzan, thus Tarzan is perhaps an echo of the gentleman from Virginia.
Obviously these two characters are different in several superficial ways: Tarzan was raised as an infant among apes, self-educated, and late to learn civilized behaviors. Carter is uncertain of his beginnings because of a gentle amnesia which appears to be an attribute of his immortality, but learned to be a savage in war after an educated upbringing. Yet, both are the same character cloaked by subtle idiosyncrasies and physical traits.
Townsend J. Harper, Jr (Bulan) in The Monster Men, is physically a giant endowed with the same morals as Carter and Tarzan. He comes from education and wealth, then loses all memory, then loses his humanity (for a time). He cleaves only to his woman, who overlooks his plot-defined "faults" to love him only. Bulan's "window dressing" is that of being mistaken as a clinical experiment by the girl's father; yet, even in this state, Bulan (and ERB) obviously knows right from wrong. Bulan becomes a champion and fights strenuously to right all wrongs.
Waldo (The Cave Girl) presents the humorous side of ERB: How to make a Hero from a Milquetoast? Adversity, of course, and an extended body building campaign on a primitive island to win the hand of a lady is a plus, in addition to a strong author desire to present "Tarzan" in reverse. Waldo (Thandar) already has the civilized value system and (Victorian) morals. Thandar's "gimmick" as an ERB Hero is he had to earn it to the amusement of the readers. In the final analysis the character of Waldo/Thandar is fundamentally no different than the more famous Carter, Tarzan, or Bulan characters.
In 1913, twenty-ish years of age, David Innes appeared in At The Earth's Core. Like all the above heroes Innes is a young man—with the exception of the perennial thirty-ish Carter. Innes is physically strong, tall, apparently immortal (as the series unfolds) and his gimmick is to speak tongue in cheek, especially with his side-kick mentor Abner Perry. The serious side of Innes is easy to understand, as well as his dogged determination to protect his lady and elevate the people he has befriended and to eradicate a scourge plaguing those people. The reader has no difficulty in understanding Innes values and behavior—these attributes are yet more echoes of the previously presented ERB heroes.
Accelerating: Nu is a Tarzan knockoff, a subtle hero entwined in a tale of dreams and realities. Barney Custer, American, is the son of a renegade princess of Lutha who happens to be a look-a-like for the current depraved king of Lutha (Bulan in a Gaustarkian Romance?). Billy Byrne is Waldo again, but this time the hero rises from a more soiled cloth rinsed repeatedly by ERB's morals and values to obtain heroic stature. Norman of Torn is a young and inexperienced John Carter in Merry Old England, taught by a mentor with shady designs that must be overcome. Jefferson Turck is the common soldier in uncommon times. The repeated thread which links together these memorable characters is quite obvious.
- ALL are survivors.
- ALL have the same loyalty and morals.
- ALL are faithful and true.
In ERB's later years (1933) we find Carson Napier, different in description because he is blond, yet is also an impressive physical specimen. The character's signature trademark is a flippant viewpoint and desire to avoid trouble; but, when push comes to shove his values, morals, and loyalty are no different than the early heroes.
Jimber-Jaw, a thawed out primitive man in a modern world (that's the gimmick) is one of the odd-ball ERB heroes. His values and morality are similar to his predecessors but Jimber-Jaw is portrayed as the fool for having those values in this story of a hero betrayed. Jimber-Jaw fits into the same mold as Tarzan and Carter, yet he is a hero without an ERB heroine. Jimber-Jaw is one of the few odd-men-out as regards this facet of the heroes of ERB.
Buck Mason, in The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County is yet another young man who, like his predecessors, is in a position of some responsibility and must deal with a dirty deed. The window dressing this time around is the hero is accused of doing murder, enters an alias (like so many of the previously listed), exposes the real villains and ends up with the girl and does this without compromising (what we now know to be) the values and morality Burroughs gave each of his wonderful heroes.
Britannicus of I Am A Barbarian is a large man, physically skillful, moral, and dedicated; his signature quirk is accomplishing ERB heroics while being a slave in ancient Rome, a hero suppressed, involved with an ill-fated love, and forced to continuously deal with a murderous madman. Barbarian is written late in Burroughs' career and thoroughly explores the downside of the tragic hero.
The character of Tangor physically resembles the previous heroes, and does share the same values and morality, but has a very jaded and burned out view of humanity; this because the tale was written in 1940 while war raged in Europe and Asia. Beyond the Farthest Star is both political commentary and a deliberate attempt by the author to put one of his heroes in a "no-win" situation.
The values and morality of ERB's heroes—all of the same mold by virtue of the author's personal values and morality, are what attract readers to the works of Burroughs. Though each heroic character is personalized with a signature quirk that makes them appear unique, there is little to differentiate them. All have the same basic viewpoints on life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. Therefore, ultimately, it is the signature quirks that are of interest: Innes' bumbling "Help me Abner!", Carter's solo direct militaristic style, Julian's incarnations "until we get it right," Tarzan's aloof "don't tread on me—uh, excuse me for treading!", Napier's "What? Who me? Not a chance!", Torn's "Yes, master. Whoops! You cad!", Waldo's "Is that me, the killer warrior?" ...all reveal a hero of one mold, one value belief, one set of morals. Beneath all these quirks and asides reside the seminal ERB hero with the same enduring values that endear them to readers everywhere.