The twentieth century is the age of ART in italics, caps, and whatever else one can think of. No more Victorian "serious" literature for the whole family, no more fun, no suggestion and tittilation. Art, including literature, is now serious business. You don't need to like it--it's good for you. But of course there were still millions of unwashed, unenlightened philistines and other ignorant clods who hadn't read all the manifestos, and still wanted art to be fun, and maybe even sexy. And, now that the full-time intellectuals and the merely pretentious had all been siphoned off, the unenlightened had popular literature all to themselves. One of the things they wanted was to get out from under all the proprieties, moralities, inhibitions, and massive amounts of clothing that the Victorians had heaped on them. Not that they were revolutionaries; the average clod is pretty conservative. They didn't want to overthrow their world, just to sneak away for a while and have a good time in some place where the rules were entirely different.
Lots of writers took readers to lots of interesting places, but not quite far enough, not until Edgar Rice Burroughs came along.
EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS
Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in Chicago, 1875, and died in California, 1950. His first novel, Tarzan of the Apes was published in 1914 and sold over a million copies. In 1917 he published his first Mars book. In 1933 he published Pellucidar, the first in a series of novels set at the center of the earth. Tarzan movies began in the silent era, and have continued until the present. They are no longer the standard Hollywood feature they once were, but many, I'm sure can remember the much maligned Bo Derek version which introduced an Orangutan to Africa. It was followed by the more authentic Greystoke, which is a bit turgid, but otherwise quite well done. Most recently there is the Disney cartoon version. In 1929 a Tarzan newspaper strip began. There was still one during my childhood in the 1950's, but I am not sure whether it is a continuation of the same one. Aside from Tarzan, the Mars series, and Pellucidar, there are books set on Venus, and a wide range of other stories, some fanciful, some more realistic.
Pellucidar is an interesting conception. It's sun is the earth's core, so that everywhere in Pellucidar it is always high noon, and midsummer. It's human societies are hardly more than cave people, and the lush plains and forests are overrun with fearsome prehistoric beasts. It is a savage world, and lives tend to be short. Burroughs is not a master of prose, a great philosopher, a depth psychologist, or a sharp social observer. He is seldom witty, and never sublime. But he does have a very good original imagination, and a great instinct for pushing the right buttons with his readers.
Tarzan was published at about the same time as T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." But compared to Eliot's world of thin-blooded weariness with its inhibition, self-consciousness, and meaningless formalities and pretentions, Burroughs offers us a world of raw sexuality (within the limits of what a writer of his time could get away with), of raw sexuality, violence, and primal emotions. Tarzan is a mythical work. Where does Tarzan's nearly superhuman strength come from?-- partly from exercise, no doubt, but largely from intimate contact with the heart of nature, the source of all vitality. And, Tarzan's apes are creatures that have haunted our imagination probably ever since men lived in caves--the savage, hairy wild man of the forest. Not so many years before the book came out, gorillas were first reported to the West, and were given all the characteristics of the archetype--large, powerful, fanged, ferocious flesh eaters that had a rudimentary language and travelled through th forest by swinging from limbs and vines. Alas--the gorilla is indeed powerful, but he is short, pot bellied, a pacifist, and a vegetarian. The movies had to settle for either chimps or gorillas, both poor substitutes for the nightmarish creatures of the books. The Bo Derek movie--I forget the title--offered an orangutan, but that was no improvement.
The Mars books were another brilliant concept, and were the birth of true modern sword & sorcery fiction. Until the 1950's people still believed in the canals of Mars, and there was still speculation about intelligent life. Burroughs inhabited his Mars with not quite human beings (though apparently enough alike to produce cross-bred children). The dominant group were reddish skinned people. The second most powerful and numerous were the green men from the floors of the dead seas. These were huge, with four arms, and very ferocious. In addition, there were also a few white, black, and yellow people. In some ways the very violent world of Mars seems like the early Middle Ages, though in some ways it is advanced. There are very efficient lighter-than-air ships and ray guns as well as swords. There are marvels of both nature and science on Mars, but little or no real magic. There are evil cults, but religion is mostly a fraud to plunder or enslave the ignorant. Hostility to religion is common in the sword & sorcery tradition, probably because the authors and readers tend to see religion as one of the chief sexually repressive social forces.
Dustjacket for The Mastermind of Mars and a Fighting Man of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Nelson Doubleday, Inc. The illustration by Frank Frazetta is copyrighted, 1973.
The picture above, by Frank Frazetta, not only illustrates the book, but recreates our image of it for the end of the milleneum. This is probably pretty much what Burroughs had in mind, but the artists of the time had to be a little tamer. But that is one of the problems of being a pop writer. If you push the bounds of sexual acceptability, you will be rewarded for it only as long as the bounds themselves don't move. As an overheated expression of thinly disguised sexual hunger, the Mars books now seem pretty tame. Burroughs' other great strength, inventiveness, too, has lost much of its power, since so many others have used his inventions. For instance, the dark tunnels inhabited by unknown menace created in an earlier age, and long forgotten until the hero discovers them in an attempt to escape from some prison or palace, have become standard decor, as have many other of Burroughs' motifs.
ROBERT E. HOWARD
A bloodbar might seem a little tacky in most contexts, but for Robert E. Howard it is just the thing. Howard was born in Texas in 1900 and died by suicide in 1936, apparently in reaction to his mother's coma and impending death, but even in this relatively short time he produced a very considerable body of fiction, published and unpublished, completed and incomplete. It is a tribute to his lasting popularity that practically every scrap of fiction he wrote has since been published, the incomplete works completed by others. He is often credited with being the father of sword & sorcery fiction, as there is little sorcery in Burroughs, whose magicians and prophets depend on magicians tracks rather than the aid of actual gods or demons. Like Burroughs and so many others in the field, he seems to have an aversion to organized religion. His gods may be presented as real, but they are almost inevitably evil.
The characters Howard created include Solomon Kane and King Kull, among others, but most famous is Conan the Barbarian, subject of countless novels, novellas, short stories, comic books, graphic novels, a TV series, and two quality films. In fact, it is Howard who introduced the concept of the barbarian as a literary character. More recently barbarians have fallen upon hard times in anthropological circles; they are the middle stage between savagery and civilization, but since there seems to be no such thing as a society of savages, how can there be a stage between that and civilization? In literature, however, barbarians are doing quite well, and seem to strike some resonant chord in the human soul. Perhaps in reality all societies are made up of the civilized, the savage, and the barbarian. If so, that would be fine with Conan, who is a barbarian, but who spends most of his time in more or less civilized society.
As a character, Conan has held up very well over the last seventy years, far better than many more literary creations. The only link to the writer's own time is Conan's somewhat Victorian protectiveness of women. That is probably for the good, however; considering his general violence, surliness, and sometime occupation as a thief and burglar, without this redeeming trait he might seem too thuggish--sort of like Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist on steroids.
Conan's world is testosterone soaked, filled with violence, treasure hoards, beautiful, scantily clad women, who are generally willing, whether princess or whore, evil sorcerers, abandoned cities, ancient temples inhabited by malevolent creatures, and much more in the same spirit. Power, wealth, and lust are the three human drives that rule this world. The picture below gives a good sense of it.
This cover for this 1979 edition looks rather like Boris' work, but it is actually Ken Kelly, who also did the Terillian picture for Sharon Green's The Warrior Within. It is clear from this picture that Conan is a bigger than life figure. He thoroughly dominates the scene, in spite of four attractive girls as nearly nude as a book cover can get away with. The framing chair and the uncompromising frontal nature of the pose suggests an icon, or perhaps Ingres' icon-like pictures of Napolean and Zeus. Notice, by the way, that this particular book is one of the many Conan books written since Howard's death.
CLARK ASHTON SMITH
Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) is an odd figure, even in terms of the sword & sorcery genera. Largely self-taught, he was recognized as a poetic phenomenon while still in his teens, and was predicted by several well known names to become one of the great American poets of the century. He quickly faded as a poet, but in his mid-thirties took up fantasy writing, contributing to that most famous of fantasy/horror magazines, Weird Tales, and becoming friends with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Smith also had some success as a sculptor and painter, but today is best remembered for the fantasy stories he published mostly in the 1930's. He wrote little in the last twenty-five years of his life. He contributed stories both to Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos, and to Howard's Hyperborea, but created several worlds of his own, most notably, Zothique, the world's last continent. He has a lush, sensuous prose style, and is a master of exotic, sexually laden scenes and situations. He was not particularly interested in character, and produced no memorable hero. His worlds too, though vividly created surfaces are lacking in real depth. In the Zothique stories, which cover a period of centuries, civilization, and even humanity disappear in area after area, leaving wastelands behind. It is disconcerting, though, that the slow extinction of humanity--not an especially attractive theme in itself--is not caused by human agency, such as war, environmental degradation, or even geological determinism, but by arbitrary and gratuitious magic events that are ultimately meaningless. Like Poe and Lovecraft, Smith seemed to believe that mere language could be hyped into significance. Unlike them, however, there is not a truly powerful vision that can transcend the hype. Nonetheless, Clark Ashton Smith still has his admirers, and collections of his stories appear from time to time.
The next page carries the sword & sorcery tradition into the latter 20th century. The other two links go back to the fantasy page and to the index page.
The number of actual hits is much greater than indicated here; this is one of my earliest pages. I have only recently added the counter to help track where people are going, and by what route.