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Reading Edgar Rice Burroughs: Pellucidar (Books 1-3)

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Reading Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Reading Edgar Rice Burroughs: Pellucidar (Books 1-3)

So… this post was originally part of a different post, rounding up fiction books I’ve read in 2018, but for a couple of reasons—length, viability as a post series—I figured I’d instead do one post rounding up general reading, and another specifically tracking my readings of Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

Because the thing is, I’ve been on an Edgar Rice Burroughs kick. It’s not nostalgia at work, note: though I know of Tarzan and Barsoom because I grew up in Western culture in the 1970s and 1980s, and yes, I saw the Disney film John Carter of Mars (and didn’t hate it), I’d never actually read a single book by Burroughs until a month ago. 

I might not have done so, either, except I started researching a creative project—let’s simplify and call it a planetary romance thing. I figured, hey, Burroughs was a big deal in this area, maybe I should check out his stuff, just to get a grounding. That morphed into sort of a diversion, and then a thing-in-itself, and now I’m on a Burroughs kick. Planetary Romance (and the “Hollow Earth” variant of the genre) is bigger than just that one author, of course, and I’ll likely branch out beyond that, but it’s been interesting going back to Burroughs’ work and digging in.

After plowing through a couple of public-domain audiobooks, I took the plunge and bought myself a stack of old Ballantine and Ace paperbacks, including a few of the Pellucidar books (notably the first three), most of the Venus series (except the last volume), both of the two volumes that collect Burroughs’ three-part novel (or series?) The Moon Maid, and the full Mars/Barsoom series, along with a few scattered stand-alone novels. 

Will I get through them all? Time will tell, but I can say that I started with the first three books of the hollow-earth Pellucidar series, and that’s what I’m discussing today. 

At the Earth’s Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs

So, At the Earth’s Core was my first Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. While I could easily get a copy of this novel from Project Gutenberg, there were free audiobooks available of a lot of Burroughs’ work, and since I was doing a lot of driving at the time when I started digging into the author, I ended up going with the first of Loyal Books’ versions of the audiobook. I found the audio and performance perfectly adequate and clear for listening while driving (or accompanying my son to the movies)—at least, when I listened to it using the  Overcast app, with the speed accelerated to 1.4x the original speed, and when I had the Voice Boost function turned on.

I have to say, given the fact that the book is a century old, it’s pretty entertaining, despite the things that are dated (in ways typical for books from 1914: don’t expect moden gender or racial sensitivity from Burroughs). I mean, one of the few (human) female characters is called “Dian the Beautiful,” thus named because, despite her being outstandingly competent, it’s her most notable trait. I mean, the book is dated, and that makes for awkward reading in places. 

The villains—not straightforwardly evil, but definitely antagonistic to the sympathetic protagonists—are the Mahars, a race of all-female (!), highly advanced, anthropophagic reptilian monsters, and the book ends when the hero of the novel runs off with the secret to their parthenogenetic method of artificial reproduction (thereby cutting off their whole reproductive capacity). Burroughs also fills Pellucidar—the world at the earth’s core—with cavemen, “black” men, and “red men,” and by “red men” I do, indeed, mean analogues of Native Americans, complete with very awkward Hollywood Indian speech mannerisms. While he depicts most of these folks relatively positively, and the racism we can see isn’t of the overt, hateful kind so much as a sort of clueless shelteredness. That’s not an excuse, and it’s not necessarily any less unflattering to the real people whom he’s basing them on, but… well, I’ll just say that I encounter clueless-racism and hateful-racism alike in my life abroad, and while neither form is fun or cool, the former—seeing as it’s born of ignorance—is often more sad and awkward and frustrating than it is anger-inducing.  

These archaisms don’t prevent the novel from being rather light and diverting, though, and pretty direct about everything that happens, with relatively little subtlety (which, I suppose, is really just say it’s pulp fiction, isn’t it?)… but it’s easy to see how the cascading series of action scenes and Burroughs’ depiction of the horrors of the world at the center of the Earth could inspire RPGs, adventure novels, and cinema alike. Like a lot of older pulp fiction, you don’t come here for the prose, but for the wild imaginings and lunatic battles and horrible primal beasts that need to be fought off. Well, and in this case, a surprisingly long and tense narrative of the experience of digging down through the crust of the Earth into the hollow core.   

Like any pulp, the book boils down to bing a constant series of episodes of peril, combat, mystery, and risk. I finished it feeling quite curious to see how it would compare to later books by Burroughs—such as Pellucidar, the sequel, came in 1915, but the third book in the series (Tanar of Pellucidar) came in 1929, a full 14 years later. 

Pellucidar by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Another book I chose to consume in audiobook form—I listened to the Loyal Books audiobookPellucidar is the 1915 sequel to At the Earth’s Core. It picks up pretty much where the first book left off, though with a fun bit of metafictional bridge material that I got a kick out of: some business about a transmission device that was found in the Sahara Desert by a skeptic who writes a letter to Burroughs, ranting about how At the Earth’s Core is obviously fiction, but also begging Burroughs to confirm this, so that he can be put at ease regarding a weird device he found buried in the sand.

(Burroughs ends up coming to the desert to investigate, and transcribes the message transmitted by the device, ostensibly sent by the novel’s protagonist, David Innes.)

The novel is, like At the Earth’s Core, clearly a work of another era, and there are bits that are laugh-out-loud old-fashioned, like this one:

Perry is the only male coward I have ever known whom I could respect and love. He was not created for fighting; but I think that if the occasion should ever arise where it became necessary he would give his life cheerfully for me—yes, I KNOW it.

Elsewhere, Perry’s low capacity for violence is described in this laugh-out-loud-funny moment:

He was a great fellow to invent gunpowder and fire-arms and cannon; but when it came to using these things to kill people, he was as tender-hearted as a chicken.

Burroughs is clearly a late 19th-century man, writing in a time when gender roles and social norms were slowly changing, though perhaps a bit more quickly than he could grapple with. That said, there are odd moments where he seems to be blaming society for the perceived “weakness” of women in his own culture:

There was but one hope. That was to get Dian started for the bottom without delay. I took her in my arms just for an instant—I felt, somehow, that it might be for the last time. For the life of me I
couldn’t see how both of us could escape.

I asked her if she could make the descent alone—if she were not afraid. She smiled up at me bravely and shrugged her shoulders. She afraid! So beautiful is she that I am always having difficulty in remembering that she is a primitive, half-savage cave girl of the stone age, and often find myself mentally limiting her capacities to those of the effete and overcivilized beauties of the outer crust.

Dian the Beautiful isn’t just Beautiful: she manages to be a fair bit more competent this time around than he did in the previous book: she mostly holds her own surviving in wild and savage Pellucidar, at least until Burroughs needs her to be a helpless damsel-in-distress for Innes to show up and save, usually from one of her savage suitors. But this is a 1915 pulp novel, and her being competent at all is kind of surprising to me, and felt counter-cultural, though of course SF of this era is kind of a blind spot for me, and maybe competent females were more common than I imagine. (After seeing people go wild praising Heinlein for his “competent female” characters, I’m always a little leery of this trope being as unusual as one assumes.) Even so, she isn’t the stereotypical helpless damsel, and I do have to wonder if that’s down to Burroughs’s personal predilections, changing attitudes in his time that are no longer apparent to us, or just that the stereotype we’ve had handed down to us was always an exaggeration, perhaps made more egregious by later and more mediocre imitators of the earlier pulps.  

There’s similar issues Burroughs’ depiction of the “savages” living in Pellucidar: they’re clearly stand-ins for pulp-novel Africans and Native Americans—Burroughs even describes some of them as being “black” and others as having “red skin.” These designations seem to be meant literally, but at the same time it’s hard not to notice the overt imperialism that runs through the novel, right down to the whole “Surface Man’s Burden” discussions between Abney and Innes about the empire they’re setting out to create in Pellucidar, and which elements of advanced surface civilization they should introduce into Pellucidar (gunpowder, naval vessels, books) as opposed to which they should never introduce (money and modern economic systems). 

Then there’s the weirdness of how not all of the “savages” are fully human: some are more exotic, like Gr-gr-gr (a creature whose bizarre species, the “Brute Men” is described as being like a gorilla with the face of a sheep, capable of language, basic agriculture, advanced social organization, specific enmity, and even slave-holding) and the Ape-Men, and the effectively telepathic1 and the brown apelike Sagoths who work as the  Mahar’s servants, all seem to be examples of alternate routes that higher primate evolution could have taken. 

However you feel about that, reading Pellucidar drove home for me just how much the pulps were an offshoot of colonial adventure fiction, or, rather, a rebranding of it—there’s definitely some H. Rider Haggard and Kipling in the DNA of these stories. Even so, there is perhaps a little room to see something progressive in Burroughs, for his time, and that’s the fact that the humans living inside Pellucidar, regardless of their skin color, are intelligent and, once they encounter books and knowledge from the surface, are eager to embrace it: there’s a whole scene devoted to discussing Perry’s tutelage of a Pellucidarian boy, and his thirst for knowledge, that’s clearly intended to be emblematic of how the locals in general feel: they want to know more, they want to understand the technologies and systems that Innes and Perry have brought from the surface world. Likewise, many of the humanoid beings in Pellucidar seem, eventually, to rally to the project of overthrowing Mahar rule, and prove trustworthy, loyal, and powerful… though of course, they need Innes and Perry backing (and commanding) them to actually pull it off.  

Of course that’s also a way of highlighting the “superiority” of modern, Western technocratic civilization (such as it was in the 1910s), by way of praising (but, in the depiction, limiting) the “noble savages” and “noble subhumans” of the setting. There’s obviously something of Pocahontas here, and perhaps even a little of Heart of Darkness… but even so, compared to some of what I’ve even recently heard people saying about First Nations people back in Canada when I was growing up (and still hear today), presenting the native Pellucidarians as smart, interested in knowledge, industrious, trustworthy, and eager to throw off the shackles of Mahar dominance seems oddly respectful to me. That’s not to dismiss the issues, just… some complicating context of our own criticism of them.  

What’s interesting in this book is not just the plotting, though that is interesting, with all the twists and turns involving everything from Dian’s mad suitors pulling tricks on the characters, to the antics of to Abner Perry trying to invent gunpowder (and then inventing flame retardant instead), to rendering the Mahars (an all-female race of reptilian humanoids (note the fact they’re all female: it seems significant to why they’re villains, as well as the—somehow “surprisingly”—dominant race of Pellucidar) a little more sympathetic: they turn out to be beings who can be negotiated with, who can make deals with humans, once they’re convinced that humans are capable of abstract thought. They’re not nice to humanity, but they are are least able to realize that humans aren’t cattle, even if they don’t possess the power to speak directly from mind-to-mind. Of course, it’s a little odd that Innes and Perry could, in the space of the first two novels, overthrow the Mahars’ tyranny, but it’s not the last we’ll hear of them in this series. 

A couple of other things are interesting here: one is the weirdness of time in Pellucidar. It’s often explained in terms of the lack of a rising and setting sun, the moon and the stars above, and all the other rhythms and cycles of the surface world used to track time, but there’s something much odder going on here: months can pass for one person—especially on the surface—while only moments pass for another, in another part of Pellucidar. I’m not sure whether Burroughs will get around to explaining that weirdness in the remaining four books, but I guess we’ll see. (I plan on getting around to the rest of the series—well, except maybe the Tarzan crossover one, because… er, Tarzan crossover? Huh?)

The other thing that’s interesting is that toward the end of the book, the story shifts gears from being a jungle adventure to being a sort of mini-naval adventure. It feels like gears shifting, but it also introduces a surprising terrain shift: there are thousands of islands in a great sea within the interior of the Earth; this makes sense, of course, but the first two books had felt a lot more like small-locale adventures—like “adventures in Congo” or “travels in Korea” as opposed to world-spanning adventures. The consistency of specific villains (Hooja, the unwanted suitor pursuing Dian the Beautiful) and locales (like one of the Mahar cities) kind of gets tossed aside in this section: Pellucidar is much bigger than Burroughs had let on. The timing makes me wonder whether Burroughs found himself nearing the end of the novel and thinking he could expand the scope of the setting and work in a climactic sea-adventure section at the same time. 

Anyway, these Burroughs novels have been brisk reads, and enjoyable enough—at least as audiobooks. 

Tanar of Pellucidar by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Whereas At the Earth’s Core was published in 1914, and Pellucidar in 1915, it took 14 more years for the third installment to come out, with Tanar of Pellucidar in 1929. This one isn’t available as an audiobook—because of America’s heavily-extended copyright laws—so I’ve been reading it in paperback form. 

The focus is a little different: for one thing, David Innes doesn’t do more in it than make a small cameo appearance. Instead, the novel  is mainly concerned with the exploits of its title character, Tanar, who is the son of a chieftan in a tribe that is contained by the Pellucidarian Empire (which in turn is run by the surface-men Innes and Perry). It features a lot of nautical adventures, and also introduces Korsars—yes, “corsairs,” the descendants of some pirates who apparently sailed into Pellucidar by accident through a polar opening leading to the interior of the Earth. 

A lot of things in the book are familiar: rampant kidnapping of female characters by hostile males who wish to take them as “mates”; love triangles between male protagonists and females of different tribes; the revelation of some new, degenerate inhabitants of the interior world; and a frame story with the conceit that everything really, truly happened, just as it’s being related in the tale. 

Though I can’t say I observed a marked difference in Burroughs’ approach, there are nonetheless some very compellingly interesting bits here and there. One example that comes to mind is how, despite the very  familiar Burroughs trope of the hunky masculine hero having women falling in love with him everywhere he goes, Burroughs does manage to do something slightly more interesting in terms of speculative anthropology with the “everywhere he goes” part of that trope. Specifically, as Tanar wanders between Pellucidarian nations, he encounters marked cultural differences and contrasts them with his own culture. What’s interesting about this is that Tanar’s culture isn’t much like American 1920s culture: in Tanar’s society, for example, “marriages” were not seen as permanent, and could be dissolved whenever the couple wanted. It’s in a much more brutish culture, in a land called Hime, that we see a dark reflection of the American social values in which Burroughs lived immersed, in fact! Here’s a (longish) passage set in one culture in Hime, to which Tanar is brought by someone he has just rescued: 

In the center of the ledge, opposite the mouth of the cave, a small fire was burning beneath an earthen bowl, which was supported by three or four small pieces of stone.

Squatting close to this was a female, who, in youth, might have been a fine looking girl, but now her face was lined by bitterness and hate as she glared sullenly into the caldron, the contents of which she was stirring with the rib of some large animal.

“Tanar is hungry, Sloo,” said Balal, addressing the woman. “When will the food be cooked?”

“Have I not enough to do preparing hides and cooking food for all of you without having to cook for every enemy that you see fit to bring to the cave of your father?”

“This is the first time I ever brought anyone, mother,” said Balal.

“Let it be the last, then,” snapped the woman.

“Shut up, woman,” snapped Scurv, “and hasten with the food.”

The woman leaped to her feet, brandishing the rib above her head. “Don’t tell me what to do, Scurv,” she shrilled. “I have had about enough of you anyway.”

“Hit him, mother!” screamed a lad of about eleven, jumping to his feet and dancing about in evident joy and excitement.

Balal leaped across the cook fire and struck the lad heavily with his open palm across the face, sending him spinning up against the cliff wall. “Shut up, Dhung,” he cried, “or I’ll pitch you over the edge.”

The remaining member of the family party, a girl, just ripening into womanhood, remained silent where she was seated, leaning against the face of the cliff, her large, dark eyes taking in the scene being enacted before her. Suddenly the woman turned upon her. “Why don’t you do something, Gura?” she demanded. “You sit there and let them attack me and never raise a hand in my defense.”

“But no one has attacked you, mother,” said the girl, with a sigh.

“But I will,” yelled Scurv, seizing a short club that lay beside him. “I’ll knock her head off if she doesn’t keep a still tongue in it and hurry with that food.” At this instant a loud scream attracted the attention of all toward another family group before a cave, a little further along the ledge. Here, a man, grasping a woman by her hair, was beating her with a stick, while several children were throwing pieces of rock, first at their parents and then at one another.

“Hit her again!” yelled Scurv.

“Scratch out his eyes!” screamed Sloo, and for the moment the family of the chief forgot their own differences in the enjoyable spectacle of another family row.

Tanar looked on in consternation and surprise. Never had he witnessed such tumult and turmoil in the villages of the Sarians, and coming, as he just had, from Amiocap, the island of love, the contrast was even more appalling.

“Don’t mind them,” said Balal, who was watching the Sarian and had noticed the expression of surprise and disgust upon his face. “If you stay with us long you will get used to it, for it is always like this. Come on, let’s eat, the food is ready,” and drawing his stone knife he fished into the pot and speared a piece of meat.

A little later, Tanar discovers that among this group of Himeans, everyone pretty much hates and resents everyone else, something that several residents of the culture chalk up to the fact that in their culture, one must take a mate for life. One of the characters he talks to about this, Gura, is a Himean woman with a mother from another culture (an abductee from a land called Amiocap): she says that her mother was not always as angry and resentful as the other Himeans, but that she eventually came to fit in and be just as unhappy as everyone else. She muses about leaving, only to learnt that because she has a Himean father, she will find no refuge in Amiocap. Gura, of course (since this is Burroughs), has fallen in love with Tanar by this point, and weeps at the knowledge he doesn’t think being her mate is sufficient enticement for him to remain in her village.

All this is in a single chapter in the book (“XI: Gura”), so it’s not like Burroughs has written a faux-anthropological novel or something. Still, it’s an interesting little fragment to puzzle through: to what degree was Burroughs engaging in cultural criticism? It makes sense to imagine that he was, perhaps furtively, using the primitive tribes of Pellucidar to emblematize different sets of values within contemporaneous American society… and, probably, Burroughs was writing through out of experience. (Burroughs’ two both marriages both ended in divorce: with the first, in 1934, he alleged extreme cruelty on his wife’s part, whereas in the second case, in 1941, his wife alleged mental cruelty.) While divorce was slowly gaining social acceptance in America in the 1920s—people were, at least, accepting that it existed—there was still a terrible stigma associated with it, and doubtless this kept a lot of couples together in an unhappy state, something prone to resulting in a great deal of misery punctuated by some degree of cruelty. Gura comments about how the dissolution of mate partnerships is seen, in her culture, as “wicked” and something that would get a Himean killed. Resignation keeps things the way they are, as miserable as that is. Gura, learning she cannot go to Amiocap, seems to accept her fate stoically:

“Well,” she said with a sigh, “then I suppose I must remain here and seek a mate whom I shall learn to hate and bring children into the world who will hate us both.” 

It’s an oddly anachronistic observation that rigid, moralistic, patriarchal societies immiserate most of the people trapped within them, not just the women but also the men and children. The resignation Gura expresses, though? I suspect that’s not anachronistic at all: it’s something that wouldn’t have been out of place in a realist novel of the period. 

At the same time, it’s interesting that the abusive Himean culture is also the one that is less judgmental of individuals of mixed ancestry: in Amiocap, Gura would be slain for being of mixed race, where in Hime it is effectively a non-issue. Himeans are abusive, but they’re democratically abusive: the Amiocapians are less abusive, but murder anyone who isn’t a member of their in-group. So Burroughs isn’t painting one or another culture as perfect here. (Well, with the possible exception of Tanar’s culture, which is now part of David Innes’ Pellucidarian Empire, though they seem to have their internal problems too.)

As for the rest of the book: I’ll confess that at first, it was a little slower going than At the Earth’s Core and Pellucidar, but I still found it a fun diversion. I have no trouble seeing how Burroughs managed to get so many books out of the setting: though it seems like a small setting in the first couple of novels, this third book expands Pellucidar out, to a scale so big that naval adventure is possible, that it can encompass cultures that never even interact, and that new monstrous primitive species of creature can be introduced without any sense of incongruity. In some senses, it’s a pretty instructive example for anyone developing a fictional (or RPG) setting that they’d like to be open to future expansions.

For the record, the trick isn’t just to leave white space on your map—leave most of the map as white space—and fill it in as needed: it’s also to seed in compelling mysteries, and to detail whatever localities you do write about in sufficient detail that people wonder what else lies beyond them.If you do this, you are hinting at where future expansions could lead, and creating an appetite for them to be explored. Burroughs is far from the first to do this, but he does it well: in the first two books, there are enigmas surrounding the presence of humans and primitive animals in Pellucidar and the various lands within that hollow world. In this third novel, we see more of those lands, and learn of a passageway leading between the Earth’s surface and Pellucidar. This latter point is revealed in connection with an interesting set of antagonists: the Korsars (“corsairs”), a group of seagoing humans who traveled from the Earth’s surface into the hollow world within… which opens the way to future books exploring the polar entrance to the center of the Earth. Plot-wise, they’re the ones who compel Tanar to undertake his quest, when they kidnap the woman with whom he has mutually decided to take as a “mate.” (That is, they kidnap what would, in our terms, be his girlfriend or fiancée.)   

As for the remainder of Pellucidar, we’ll see when I return to those: I managed to pick up (at a good price) a pretty tall stack of old Ace and Ballantine Burroughs paperbacks, including the full series of Mars, Venus, and Moon novels… but it only has one of the four remaining Pellucidar novels, and unfortunately, that one the final book in the series.

Given my current hankering to read books in print form, instead of as ebooks, I think I’ll probably dive into the other series first, and I’ll probably return to Pellucidar after I manage to pick up the three missing paperbacks—Tarzan at the Earth’s Core (a crossover!), Back to the Stone Age, and Land of Terror. (Or, who knows, maybe I’ll be back onto reading ebooks by the time I’m ready for those novels.)

  1. Burroughs has Perry handwave some stuff about how it’s not actually telepathy, but communication via a Sixth Sense that works through a dimension inaccessible to humans, but… well, it’s basically telepathy, though it only works with the similarly endowed, like the Mahars.

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