“Hello, children. Would you like to hear a story?”
I just saw a ten minute preview of the new movie John Carter, and it got me thinking.
I’ve met a lot of professional writers, many of which I admire as artists who have skills I cannot and could not possibly match. But not all the writers I’ve encountered in my life fit that description. The simple fact is that being a good writer and being a successful writer are often different things and depend on factors that have nothing to do with skill.
So I see the John Carter preview and it looks great. And I am reminded of the book and the author that inspired it back in 1912 – exactly a century ago. And I realize, again, that no one can say what is good or predict with any accuracy what will last.
What follows isn’t exactly a grim fairy tale, but it’s close enough to fit in that category.
So, without further faffing, I give you…
FREE AMONG THE MONKEYS AND ELEPHANTS
On night in late October, 1913, in Dover, England, in a pub at the bottom of a hill, in the shadow of Dover Castle – walking distance to the beach where Matthew Arnold heard ignorant armies clashing by night – George Bernard Shaw was working hard to persuade Lydia, an aspiring American actress, to have sex with him.
“Should we be going?” Lydia asked. The piercing cry of gliding seagulls sounded loudly throughout the thick seaside darkness. “The train back to London leaves in ten minutes.”
“We can catch the next one,” Shaw responded.
“Do you really think you can get me a reading for Liza?”
“I am the playwright. Of course I can.”
“But I don’t know how to do a cockney accent.”
“That’s won’t be a problem,” Shaw said. “I can teach you. Look, since we’re waiting for the next train, why don’t we take a walk down to the beach? Matthew Arnold wrote his famous love poem there.”
“Who? Lydia asked.
“Never mind,” Shaw said, taking her hand and guiding her out of the pub. They passed where James Joyce sat with his traveling companion and lover, Nora. Joyce listened to Nora and watched her face as she drank pint after pint of bitter, dark, thick beer. He listened as she talked about her sex life prior to meeting him.
“I think he made them a bit firmer sucking on them so long,” she slurred, nourishing her thick Irish working-class accent each time she lifted her glass and gulped beer.
Joyce and Nora were on their way to Paris from Dublin by way of London. Joyce was struggling to find a publisher for two books – a collection of short stories and a short semi-autobiographical novel. At that moment, in the middle of her beer-sodden reminiscence, Nora could not have cared less.
“He made me spend the second time tickling my behind with his finger,” Nora laughed, red eyed.
Joyce smiled and nodded, encouraging her to continue.
“I tried it with the banana,” she confessed. “But I was afraid it might break and get lost up in me somewhere.” Joyce looked concerned, but wasn’t. He listened carefully, trying with all his might to memorize every single word.
In the same pub, Edgar Rice Burrows sat with his friend and fellow writer, William Seabrook. Burrows eagerly described a novel he was writing.
“Thuvia is this voluptuous Martian princess,” he began
“Are there any other kind?” Seabrook asked. He genuinely liked Edgar, and admired his success as a popular writer, but nevertheless believed that Burrows was an idiot.
“She is in love with the son of John Carter, the Warlord of Mars -” Burrows explained.
“The Martian princess?”
“Yeah. So she’s in love with this big warrior type who can jump really far and high because his father is from the Earth.”
“He can jump high because his father is from Earth?”
“Sort of like a handsome, muscular grass hopper.”
“Look, do you want to hear about this or not?”
“Yes, I’m sorry. Please go on.”
“So Carthoris – that’s the guy – he has the hots for Thuvia -“
“Carthoris and Thuvia?”
“Sounds like a bad Shakespearian play.”
“So she’s got the hots for him, too, but bad guys kidnap her and make it look like Carthoris did it.”
“So he sallies forth to rescue her.”
“Yeah. What do you think?”
“Charming. But tell me about that ape-man novel you are writing.”
“Sure. It’s based on the short story I published. Did you read it?”
“No, but I’m still interested. It is about a man who is half man, half ape, if I remember correctly.”
“Not half-man half-ape. He is an ape-man named Tarzan.”
“Whatever. You say that your publisher is willing to pay you in advance to write it?”
“Well then, why waste your time with your Martian Romeo and Juliet until you’ve finished the Tarzan novel? What are you going to call it?”
“I should have guessed. Sort of a foreign adventure piece I take it?”
“On, yeah. Lots of adventure. Tarzan is a guy who was raised in the African jungle by apes.”
“It sounds ghastly. Are you sure they’re going to pay you for this?”
“I wonder what the appeal is?” Seabrook pondered.
“Every guy wants to be Tarzan,” Burrows explained. “Tarzan has everything a man could want.”
“Tarzan doesn’t have fleas,” Burrows said, irritably.
“Because I’m not going to give him any,” Burrows said. “I’m giving him a great life. He’s king of the beasts, lord of the apes. He can talk to elephants.”
“He can call elephants if he needs them.”
“Why would he need elephants.”
“If he needs a ride, or if he needs help.”
“How helpful can an elephant be?”
“Lets say he’s surrounded by bad guys, and there’s no way out. Well, he calls to the elephants and they come and trample the bad guys.”
“Deus Ex Elephant?” Seabrook asked.
“The point is that Tarzan does what he wants. He is totally free from the pressures of the modern world. He could have been anyone, any one of us. And that’s my point. I want the reader to think, ‘Hey, if I had been dropped into a jungle, I could have been Tarzan. Tarzan and me are the same guy, we were only brought up different.”
“You see this Tarzan as leading some kind of idyllic life?”
“Not idyllic – ideal. Idyllic lives are boring lives. Tarzan faces plenty of danger to keep things interesting. And there are things missing that he really needs.”
“Soap and water?”
“No. Women. There aren’t any women around.”
“What about native women?”
“Oh, yeah, plenty of those. But there are no white women anywhere. So he meets this beautiful explorer, and she shows him the ropes -“
Seabrook smiled at the reference.
” – and brings him back to London. Good stuff. But the biggest reason why my readers are going to admire Tarzan is his total freedom, so it won’t surprise anyone when Tarzan would rather be in the jungle instead of in civilization.”
“Free among the monkeys and elephants?”
Elmo Lincoln, in the first Tarzan film (1918)
George Bernard Shaw
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Cathorsis (the one doing the stabbing)