Monday, July 21, 2008

Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars

Mostly I'm a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan novels, who is not for nothing one of the most romantic and exciting characters in all of adventure fiction. But, though it's not common knowledge today, Burroughs was also the "Grandfather" of modern science fiction, telling swashbuckling boys' adventure tales.

There's one easy way to determine if you'll be a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars stories. Ask yourself this question: am I a fourteen year old boy?

If the answer is no, then sadly, the moment has passed.

Part of the reason Tarzan is so readable is because of the incredible personage of Tarzan himself and his supporting cast. John Carter isn't quite as interesting as Tarzan is, and so his stories consequently suffer from this. A confederate soldier transported to a dry, dying planet Mars filled with monsters, four-armed barbarians that hatch from eggs, "radium" guns, and swordfights, John Carter eventually seeks and wins the hand of a Martian Princess.

Beats me why John Carter would shlep from one end of Mars to the other to save her. Dejah Thoris was never terribly interesting, and in the great tradition of ERB females, is something of a bimbo whose specialty is behaving wildly out of character in such a way that it creates problems for the hero.

Personally, I always preferred Thuvia, Maid of Mars - who except for La in RETURN OF TARZAN, is arguably the only interesting female character Burroughs ever created. In GODS OF MARS, Thuvia is a woman that has a natural Tarzan-like command of Banths, or Martian Lions. There's some wonderful beast-humor there where she slaps a giant banth on the nose, and the creature lowers its nose and whines penitently like a puppy hit on the nose with a rolled up newspaper! Thuvia is a naturally self-sacrificing sort, and a woman of action - she eagerly leaps off her mount at one point to delay enemies and ensure her friends escape. The final cliffhanger of GODS OF MARS has Dejah Thoris, the insanely jealous Phaidor who wants John Carter for herself, and Thuvia trapped in a hidden chamber that would not open for a full Martian year. Slowly, the door creaks to a close, and John Carter see Phaidor dive at Dejah with the knife, only to have Thuvia jump in its path. Then the door shuts completely.

What an ending, huh? Well, enjoy it while it lasts: Thuvia vanishes entirely in the next book, and by the time she gets her own book, THUVIA, MAID OF MARS, Thuvia is depressingly reduced to the usual role of female hostage in need of rescue. There was one particularly irritating scene in MAID OF MARS where Thuvia allowed herself to be captured.

Edgar Rice Burroughs had a habit of creating fascinating side characters that never get the spotlight treatment they deserve, and Thuvia is hardly even the worst example. How about the strong, handsome native warrior Mugambi, who in TARZAN AND THE JEWELS OF OPAR was quite willing to protect Jane with his life when Tarzan was away, and pursued her kidnappers? He was described as "a fellow of great physique and intellect." And going back to Mars for a minute, what about Tars Tarkas, John Carter's green Martian friend, the only one of his friend to know feelings of love? Or Xodar, John Carter's friend in the Black Pirates of Omean, a great swimmer besides?

I used to eat and drink Burroughs, although since discovering Leigh Brackett and her version of gutsy sword and planet tales, it's been hard to look back at Burroughs. Brackett's men were wonderfully tough, part private dick, part cowboy, part gangster, the scruffy Han Solo character archetype decades early. And she could be creepy and atmospheric, something Burroughs, too much a romantic, never let himself be. Sure, Leigh Brackett was inspired by Burroughs just like a whole generation was...but just have a look at NEMESIS FROM TERRA to see a student that is greater than the teacher.

Roger Zelazny's Greatest Hits: "Nine Princes in Amber"

I'm very surprised that I enjoyed Zelazny's NINE PRINCES IN AMBER, Zelazny's take on the mythology of the Tarot, as much as I did. I generally dislike the traditional kind of "fairies and dragons" fantasy, opting for the more innovative and weird kind like Tanith Lee and Moorcock's. There is still a soft spot in my heart for Andre Norton's WITCH WORLD.

One advantage I had was, I read NINE PRINCES IN AMBER "cold," without any prior knowledge of the series, so the mysteries in the beginning part of the book really were captivating. Corwin wakes up in a hospital bed after a car crash without his memory, where the nurses are determined to keep him drugged. Corwin has no memory of who or what kept him prisoner, and he discovers that he is kept prisoner on our Earth by members of his own family, all of whom have been struggling for power since their father died.

"Never trust a relative. It is far worse than trusting strangers. With a stranger there is a possibility that you might be safe."

The greatest prize is Amber, located at the center of the universe and the very model and archetype of the perfect city. Everything else in the multiverse, every other city, every other earth (even our own) is a mere shadow reflection of the true Amber. This is why Corwin and his relatives fight over Amber. Sure, they could just as easily find in the cosmos another Amber where they are rulers, but only Amber, the perfect city, is "real." Each and every one of them have a distinct appearance, fit to be placed on playing cards: Corwin's colors are black and silver, for instance.

The character of Corwin himself is one of the most fascinating in fantasy fiction. Corwin is rather like Elric in a lot of ways, and the series shows a definite Moorcock influence: Corwin is a brilliant strategist whose greatest advantage is his mind, from a family, a race that is expected to consider other races in the multiverse as disposable cannon fodder, so haughty that even insulting a Prince of Amber means the offender can be killed on the spot. Yet, at the same time, because of his time on our Shadow-Earth, Corwin is "softened," and fights between his natural instincts and his embryonic conscience. In the world of Amber, evil can only be opposed by a better class of evil, and Corwin remarks in THE GUNS OF AVALON that if the day ever comes when evil itself ceases to exist, Corwin too, would be dragged into oblivion.

Corwin is hardly a clean-limbed gallant prince, but a rough, tough scrapper, more Humphrey Bogart than Prince Charming, reminiscent of the brawling he-man heroes of Leigh Brackett. Unlike Elric, Corwin has a wonderful sense of humor: when battling a demon, the demon warns him against using the name to summon him.

"Use it? I can't even pronounce it...!"

The world that Zelazny created was nothing short of astonishing. One of the more incredible sequences features an exact double of the city of Amber, Rebma, located entirely underwater. Astonishingly, the water is entirely breathable by air breathers! Every member of the sons of Amber are equipped with a Trump Deck that enables the family to communicate with each other no matter where they are in the cosmos. What's more, the closer one gets to Amber the less likely things are to work: gunpowder, for example, doesn't ignite in any dimension close to Amber, which gives the warfare on that world an old-fashoined character.

One of the more fascinating sequences involves Corwin and his little irresponsible little brother brother Random zipping through the cosmos in a Mercedes-Benz. They watch the Mercedes-Benz shift and change as they switch between Shadow Worlds, where their brother Julian (nice name!) guards the entrance to Amber. His enchanted silver mail stops their bullets, and his huge hounds keep pace with their car, ripping bumpers off with their teeth.

"It's a good thing his hounds never hunted a car before," Random says, "or else they'd know to go for the wheels."

It's that sort of humor that defines the Amber series. It's not broad Gilbert-and-Sullivan stuff like Fritz Leiber, but a subtle, very venomous and dry kind. It's also the series's best recommendation.

Coming up next: Zelazny's magnum opus, LORD OF LIGHT!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mythologies of the World Part 1: Finnish Myth

For my first part in a series about the myths and folklore of the world (which I'd love to eventually include something on Basque myth, the Arabian Nights, Christian Europe, and Greece), I'd like to tackle the fascinating traditions of Finland.

Often, I'm asked how Finn myth is different from their neighbors, the Scandinavians and Slavs.

First, the main hero of Finnish mythology is Väinämöinen, a rascally, horny old man, one part culture hero, another part hobo, who challenges other musicians to musical fights not unlike modern-day rap battles. He's doomed to never find love: one of his most tragic stories is his pursuit of a younger woman, Aino (still a common female name in Finland today) who drowns himself rather than marry a man so much older than she is.

Väinämöinen invented the Kantele, a type of magical harp not unlike the cwyth of Wales, from the jawbone of the giant monster Pike of the North Sea. Väinämöinen also rides a flying wooden sawhorse, reminiscent of the witch's broomstick.

There's a type of picaresque humor about Finnish myth that makes it wonderful to read. Lemminkäinen, a hotshot young hero, lives with his Mother, and what's more, Mom has to rescue him on occasion and return him to life! (How many Scandinavian heroes lived with their Mother, I ask?) One of my favorite passages from the Kalevala was where Louhi, the evil crone that rules the Northland, turns a giant house-sized bear against her foes. Naturally Väinämöinen goes out to slay the monster. Instead, he has a change of heart:

"Otso, thou my well beloved,
Honey-eater of the woodlands,
Let not anger swell thy bosom;
I have not the force to slay thee,
Willingly thy life thou givest
As a sacrifice to Northland.
Thou hast from the tree descended,
Glided from the aspen branches,
Slippery the trunks in autumn,
In the fog-days, smooth the branches.
Golden friend of fen and forest,
In thy fur-robes rich and beauteous,
Pride of woodlands, famous Light-foot,
Leave thy cold and cheerless dwelling,
Leave thy home within the alders,
Leave thy couch among the willows,
Hasten in thy purple stockings,
Hasten from thy walks restricted,
Come among the haunts of heroes,
Join thy friends in Kalevala.
We shall never treat thee evil,
Thou shalt dwell in peace and plenty,
Thou shalt feed on milk and honey,
Honey is the food of strangers.
Haste away from this thy covert,
From the couch of the unworthy,
To a couch beneath the rafters
Of Vainola's ancient dwellings."

- Kalevala, Rune XLVI

In other words, as soon as Väinämöinen gets a look at the monster bear, he says, "nah, I can't kill him, he's too cool" and instead decides to take him with him back to the land of Kalevala for some drinking and picking up girls. Now, obviously this is not exactly how St. George or Siegfried would have solved the problem! The last time I saw this sort of sly humanity in a monster was in Beowulf, where the dragon, indecisive and nervous about his lost treasure cup, paced back to his hoard and looked for it to see if it was not misplaced.

This sort of picaresque levity that almost parodies the epic myth is one point of difference between the myths of the Finns and their neighbors. It's hard to imagine an Icelandic Rune with a hero makes a monster his drinking buddy. And the Slavs? Forget about it. Slavic mythology, with gods named Graak and Kog, is so dark that it makes Norse Myth look like Rainbow Brite.

There's only one occasion where the Kalevala gets extremely dark, and that's in the story of Kullervo. What's fascinating about Kullervo is, it's one of the few mythological stories that actually depicts the realistic effects of child abuse, and the very broken people it creates, trapped in cycles of self-destruction. In the end, Kullervo dies by his own hand when, after accidentally marrying his own sister, he mournfully wonders if he ever should have lived at all. Jean Sibelius, Finland's best composer, immortalized this moment in his opera, Kullervo:

Another defining characteristic of Finn Myth, apart from the levity, is its emphasis on a very wild perspective similar to shamanism. Everything has a spirit, and everything can talk: there's a very famous part where iron itself speaks, which is vaguely reminiscent of certain Javanese myths where the metalworker's position has a mystical component. One of the more explicitly shamanistic images is when Väinämöinen descends into the open mouth of Antero Vipunen, a monstrous giant in the shape of a mountain.

Another characteristic of Finn myth is the sense of magic and the supernatural. This can only really be driven home by its contrast against something like the sheer realism of Homer's Illiad. Just about every hero in the Kalevala is a sorcerer of some kind. One of the most striking images in the entire epic is the Theft of the Sampo, where while escaping from the evil kingdom of Pohjola, Väinämöinen causes his ship to grow a face and sprout wings like a bird with his magical songs. Not to be outdone, Louhi transforms into a giant monster bird and attacks the flying ship with men on her back! This scene is understandably almost always in some form represented on the illustrations or painted covers.

Finally, the myths of Finland, though dating back to the early iron age, were only written down and organized in the 19th Century as a part of the Romantic awakening of the smaller nations of Europe. Try to imagine if French was the official language of England for 700 years, and the first poet to write in English was Byron. So important to the spirit of Finn nationalism, that in Finland, a national holiday is "Kalevala Day." When Jean Sibelius composed his symphonies in the early 20th Century in Helsinki, they were based on Kalevala themes, and his Finlandia is to Finland what the music of John Phillips Sousa is to the United States.

The canon of Finn myth was collected and compiled by the poet and nationalist Elias Lonrot, in a single work, the Kalevala. What's interesting about this is, because of the late date, Finn myth has the most explicitly Christian elements. The chief god of Finland, the sky-father Jumala, a cross between Odin and Thor who wields a hammer, is much more like the Christian god, remote and never active in His creation. Finally, in the last Rune, Maryätta (Mary) arrives in Finland and has a virgin birth.

The overall story of the Kalevala is rather like a Finnish Illiad, based on the conflict between Kalevala, land of heroes, and Pohjola, land of evil and ice magic ruled by an evil old witch. It's often been argued that Kalevala represents the Finns, whereas Pohjola represents the Lapps...which is a theory that sounds pretty unlikely to me. When in history were the Lapps powerful enough to demand tribute?

In any case, the conflict heats up when the Daedalus-like artificer-smith Ilmarinen forges an object of otherworldly wonder, the Sampo. Like the Holy Grail, the Sampo's exact nature is vague, but it generally is supposed to be a grain cover that changes anything worthless, mulch or dirt, to gold, gems and salt. Naturally the heroes of Kalevala mount an expedition to get it back. When Louhi sees the Sampo was stolen, she sends a three-headed monster that shoots plagues, a giant bear, and finally, even steals the sun. The heroes find a way to get around this, of course: the smith Ilmarinen builds in his workshop a new sun!

Connections to Other World Mythologies

The single most obvious connection is to the Estonians, who have a tradition that is very similar. The Kalevipoëig of Estonia was composed as a direct answer to the worldwide success of the Kalevala. In fact, one intriguing theory makes a linguistic connection between Talinn (the capital of Estonia) and Kalevala. Theories about Kalevala's "real" location are a dime a dozen, as common as grail myths in most of Europe. One town in Finland even renamed itself Kalevala for the purposes of tourist-grabbing!

Estonia was only converted to Christianity in the great Baltic Crusade of the 13th Century, which fit the pattern of the European Crusades: convert the heathens, but preferably the heathens that are not too far away. The conversion was undertaken by the Teutonic Knights, best known in modern times as the villains of Sergei Eisenstein's cinema classic, ALEXANDER NEVSKY, and it was done with the usual lack of style that made the child-sacrificing moustache-twirling antics of ALEXANDER NEVSKY look almost realistic.

Estonian myth even features the same protagonists as Finnish myth, just like the Romans shared the myths of the Greeks. Väinämöinen, for example, is worshipped in pre-Christian Estonia as a god of music.

There are a few connections to the Scandinavians as well. The Vannatar, or Air Maidens, are females able to fly who have great similarities to Valkyries. I've even heard an intriguing argument that there may even be a connection to Väinämöinen in Beowulf!

Where can I read more?

The absolute best translation of the Kalevala was in 1996 by Keith Bosley.

A version of the Kalevala translated in the 19th Century into English is available here, at

Monday, July 7, 2008

Alternate Superman Outfits

Over at Project Rooftop, they're designing alternate outfits for Superman. While I like the character of Superman, I'm not exactly married to his classic longjohn look, so any makeover is interesting to me.

Now this one jumped out at me as being bona-fide badass. If I was a superhero, I'd wear something very much like this:

The cutest thing I've seen

A stop-motion movie by some British 4th Graders about the story of St. George and the dragon.