Sunday, December 10, 2006

Facts and Fictions

This weekend I've been reading the works of Philip Jose Farmer. Farmer is a science fiction writer, probably best known for his Riverworld series. He's also a dyed in the wool fan of pulp characters like the Shadow, Doc Savage, and most of all Tarzan. So great is Farmer's obsession that he even wrote a full scale biography of the jungle lord called Tarzan Alive. This book, patterned after William S. Baring-Gould's Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, adopts the idea that Tarzan was a real person and that the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs were fictionalized accounts of Lord Greystoke's life.

Farmer works his way through all 24 of the Tarzan novels, explaining what events 'really' happened and what were fictional, revealing the real world identities of various characters in the books and explaining away many of the internal inconsistencies in the series. There are maps and charts and family trees and long involved timeliness of the life and times of everyone's favorite ape man.

Farmer also gives a huge extended family tree of the 'Wold Newton Family.' Wold Newton is a spot in Yorkshire County in England where a meteor struck in 1795. At the time that the meteor landed, two large coaches, containing fourteen passengers and four coachmen were passing by. The radiation from the meteor changed the genetic structure of these passengers who went on to be the ancestors of most of the fictional supermen of the next several decades, including Tarzan, Doc Savage, Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Captain Nemo, and many others. Thus most of the pulp characters and heroes of popular fiction are related and owe their super human mental and or physical abilities to the Wold Newton event. This has become a sort of huge game played by writers and artists ever since Farmer introduced the idea. For more about it, see Win Scott Eckert's exhaustive Wold Newton site.

Anyway, after re-reading Tarzan Alive, I also read Farmer's two novels about Opar, Flight to Opar and Hadon of Ancient Opar. As every school boy knows, Opar is the lost city that Tarzan visits in several of the novels and where he meets Queen La and her beast-men servants. Opar was an Atlantean colony, abandoned when Atlantis sank. Farmer's two novels take place 12 thousand years ago when Opar was still a thriving city, in fact only one of several Atlantean cities that once existed in Africa. I'm always amazed at the amount of anthropological detail Farmer puts into works such as this. Flight to Opar has an appendix explaining much about the culture of Atlantean society, and the narrative itself is written with sufficient 'historical' details to make one almost believe that Farmer was writing about a real place and time.

The two Opar books are out of print, but Tarzan Alive has recently been reprinted by Bison books with some new material, and Monkey Brain Books has recently released a volume about the Wold Newton Family titled Myths for the Modern Age. Well worth checking out.

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