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While best known as the creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote dozens of action-packed science-fiction novels. Perhaps his most acclaimed novel, The Land That Time Forgot takes readers from World War I naval battles to a mysterious island filled with ferocious prehistoric beasts and savage subhumans ranged along the evolutionary ladder. While Burroughs’s explanations for these strange phenomena are wildly fantastic, the focus is on survival, and as in most of his fiction, modern civilization is tested by the threats posed by nature and by dangerous foes. The result is a page-turning adventure with a scientific mystery at its core, a set of linked stories where, in the midst of fighting one danger after another, men become heroes and find love along the way.
Despite his popular tales of heroism and romance, Edgar Rice Burroughs had the kind of life that inspired the fantasies he eventually published to wild acclaim. Born in 1875 in Chicago, he aspired to a military career but failed the entrance examination to West Point. Drawn to the West, he briefly served in the cavalry in Arizona, then drifted from place to place, pursuing one unsuccessful and unappealing business venture after another and also working briefly as a railroad policeman, a construction worker, a salesman, and an accountant. During these years of wandering and searching, he married in 1900, and by 1909 he and his wife had two children. To escape the drudgery of dead-end jobs and an increasingly unhappy marriage, he fled into the exciting world of pulp magazines, with their stories of action and adventure, valiant heroes and impossibly lovely ladies. However, none of these stories could match his own imaginative fantasies, and in the early 1910s, while trying to sell pencil sharpeners, he determined he could do better and saw writing as a possible means toward the riches he longed for. As he famously said about his initial motivation for writing, “I had a wife and two babies.” In 1911, at age thirty-six, he sold his first story, A Princess of Mars, which began his popular Barsoom series about the exploits of John Carter on the red planet, and the following year the magazine All-Story published the first installment of Tarzan of the Apes, which appeared as a book in 1914. Tarzan became one of a handful of literary characters known around the world, and Burroughs’s success was assured. In addition to writing about Tarzan and other equally fantastic characters, Burroughs oversaw adaptations of his most popular character in movies and comic strips and books. He was the first American writer to incorporate himself, and his estate in California, named Tarzana, eventually expanded to become a city. As a war correspondent during World War II, he witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor. When he died in 1950, he was one of the most commercially successful and critically scorned authors in America.
The same aspects of Burroughs’s fiction that his fans adored were why others deplored his popularity. In Burroughs, plot is everything; ideas, style, and characterization are secondary concerns. Moreover, Burroughs’ plots in his most popular novels and series rely heavily on science-fiction elements, which are typically explained away casually: John Carter travels to Mars simply by thinking himself there; without human instruction, Tarzan learns English by looking at books, and of course he learns the language of the apes that raise him; evolution has come to a standstill in The Land That Time Forgot because of the island’s isolation and its fauna’s unusual evolutionary history. As science-fiction historian E. F. Bleiler has said, “Burroughs is a science fiction writer in externals only, not in inner essence.” Also, Burroughs’s plots often hinge upon coincidence, and over time he tended to repeat himself. Yet his many readers found in Burroughs exactly what they wanted, which was precisely what he aimed to give them: escapist entertainment, exciting fantasies, as Bleiler put it, “of eroticism and power,” with no pretence to literary merit or intellectual significance. While the gatekeepers of literature looked down on his work and lamented his success, Burroughs managed to keep his readers coming back for more, partly because his stories were so exciting to read, even if they required a healthy suspension of disbelief and a high tolerance for flat characters and flatter dialogue.
Despite his limitations, The Land That Time Forgot stands out among Burroughs’ many books for both Burroughs’ skill as a storyteller and for the novel’s imaginative if implausible premise. The book was initially published in three parts: “The Land That Time Forgot” in August 1918, “The People That Time Forgot” in October 1918, and “Out of Time’s Abyss” in December 1918, all in Blue Book Magazine. The editor of Blue Book, Ray Long, changed the title of the first installment from Burroughs’ initial one, “The Lost U-Boat,” and also changed the second, which was “Cor-Sva-Jo”; thus Long is responsible for the title of the book, which brought the three installments together for the first time in 1924.
Because each installment was published as a separate novella, some view The Land That Time Forgot as a collection of linked novellas rather than as a novel. Others contend that since the book involves the same small set of characters in the same setting, it is indeed a novel. Complicating matters further is the fact that the book’s three parts have also been published separately in paperback, suggesting that the work is actually a trilogy. In any event, the three parts are clearly intended to be read together, in part because of the skillful way in which Burroughs structures the story and gradually reveals its mysteries.
The story begins with an unnamed narrator, whom some commentators believe is Burroughs himself, discussing his discovery of a manuscript that has washed ashore in a Thermos bottle. The author of the manuscript is Bowen J. Tyler Jr., whose family’s factory has made the German U-boat that attacks him and his party in the Atlantic. After various exciting adventures, the American Bowen and his British comrades capture the Germans and take control of the submarine. Along for the ride is a young woman who, in another of Burroughs’ great coincidences, happens to be the fiancée of the German commandant because of an arranged engagement. After more turns of fortune, including the sabotage of a labor radical, they find themselves lost at sea, with their only hope of survival to be found on an unexplored island.
Once they figure out how to get to the seemingly inaccessible island, the story veers radically from contemporary wartime adventure to a subgenre of science fiction known as the lost-world story. Popular chiefly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lost-world stories defy the fact that by the time of their writing the planet had been largely mapped out and explored and instead were built on the premise that there could exist, in remote parts of the world, places unknown by and alien to modern civilization. One of Burroughs’s favorite authors was H. Rider Haggard, the chief writer within the subgenre. Also, Burrough’s The Land That Time Forgot featured prehistoric beasts, as did Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), one of the major works of this type. The attacks of such creatures in Bowen’s narrative clearly indicate that this island is a different world indeed.
From this point, Bowen’s narrative relates their gradual understanding of the nature of this world—an understanding that is still limited by the conclusion of this part of the story. The next part is also a first-person narrative, here Bowen’s employee and friend Tom Billings, who organizes a rescue party only to find himself stranded on the island. In addition to having read Bowen’s manuscript, he learns more about the nature of life here. Finally, the last version shifts to a third-person narrative focused on Bradley, a member of Bowen’s party, tying up the loose ends of the story and revealing the last of the unresolved mysteries.
Central to these mysteries and to the nature of life on Caspak, as the island is called, is the notion of phylogeny recapitulating ontogeny—that is, the idea, now rejected by scientists, that human embryos developing in the womb reenact the evolutionary stages that preceded the development of human beings. In The Land That Time Forgot that notion is made literal, not within in the womb but outside it. On Caspak, not only have the higher orders of subhumans “come up” from less advanced subhumans, but they have done so in a single lifetime; moreover, these subhumans developed from apelike primates, which developed from less-advanced mammals, which developed from lizards, and so on—a complete evolutionary history in a single individual. The idea is both ingenious, providing material for Burroughs’ fast-paced plot, and admittedly absurd. However, Burroughs knew of the evolutionary writings of Charles Darwin and took some efforts to present his pseudoscientific explanations as coherent if not exactly plausible. Perhaps more than any other writer working in the lost-world tradition, Burroughs attempted to reflect existing knowledge of biology, geology, and paleontology—even if, as Bleiler notes, “the paleontology of The Land That Time Forgot involves more fangs than facts.”
More important than Burroughs’ use of the lost-world motif as a forum for discredited or poorly understood science is how the book’s Caspak, like Tarzan’s Africa and John Carter’s Mars, becomes an arena for his characters’ bravery. According to science-fiction historian Thomas D. Clareson, the most important theme of lost-race fiction—a subtype of lost-world fiction, featuring humans cut off from the rest of the world and their discovery by their modern counterparts—is the rejection of modern civilization and the embrace of primitivism. Clareson says of the works of these writers, “Their narratives became increasingly a proving ground for the protagonists’ masculinity: survival in a hostile world; physical victory over sundry opponents; and the devotion of a sensuous and primitive woman.” This description could easily be applied to much of Burroughs’s work, including The Land That Time Forgot but also the Tarzan books and most of his other novels as well.
In Burroughs’ fiction, primitivism serves a number of functions. Some critics, like Michael Orth, claim that Burroughs’ fiction takes its characters from the complexities of modern urban existence to pastoralism. To be sure, this may be true of Tarzan, but in The Land That Time Forgot the characters escape from contemporary urban complication to the dangerous realm of nature, and for the most part they are happy to escape it if possible. Similarly, in his 1963 essay on Tarzan, Gore Vidal remarks, “In its naïve way, the Tarzan legend returns us to that Eden where, free of clothes and the inhibitions of an oppressive society, a man is able, as William Faulkner put it in his high Confederate style, to prevail as well as endure.” The aim of daydream figures such as Tarzan, Vidal says, is “to establish primacy in a world that, more and more, diminishes the individual.” While such themes are apparent in The Land That Time Forgot, the rejection of civilization is less clear cut in this book, where sometimes the characters are forced to deal with savages and savage beasts under primitive conditions but usually are happy to stick to their guns when weapons are handy. But the ideal of the “real” man, stripped of the accoutrements of society as well as his clothes, who can stand up to any challenge with nothing but his wits and his bare hands, was a strong one for Burroughs and appears, although in a more ambiguous fashion than elsewhere, in The Land That Time Forgot.
Related to this theme in Burroughs’s fiction are two ideas that find expression in this book, Social Darwinism on the one hand and racism and nationalism on the other. Without editorializing—Burroughs is always sure to keep things moving—it is implied that those capable of surviving are superior to those who cannot, that survival of the fittest is the way of the world. Burroughs modifies this somewhat with his heroes’ adherence to a strict moral code more complex than “might makes right,” but his strong men—and, for all the capabilities of Burroughs’s admirable female characters, his heroes are men—are clearly set above others. They are, after all, idealized fantasy figures, intended for readers to identify with as well as admire.
And Burroughs’s heroes tend to be American or British, and in any event definitely of European descent. While the racism that plagues other Burroughs novels is less apparent here, nationalism is quite apparent, and the book in its initial magazine publication was virulently anti-German—in large part, he later wrote with regret, in response to the propaganda generated during the Great War. Prior to the book publication of The Land That Time Forgot, he considered changing the German villains to Austrians so as not to hurt his German sales; instead he toned down the more egregious passages, and in later works wrote about sympathetic Germans.
If the Germans are among the villains in The Land That Time Forgot, what are the women? Although the female characters are intelligent and brave, they are essentially objects of romance and occasionally damsels in distress, opportunities for the male heroes to demonstrate not only their love but also their courage and prowess. At the same time, it is significant that in each of the three stories each hero has a love interest. One might think that Burroughs’ male readers would have disliked the intrusion of romance into the action, but again Burroughs knew his audience and realized that readers’ fantasies could involve sex as well as violence. It is surely no coincidence that neither Bowen nor Billings claims to be a ladies’ man—which undoubtedly applied to many of Burroughs’ young male readers, who could at least vicariously enjoy these characters’ romantic successes.
Not that there is anything terribly erotic in The Land That Time Forgot, apart from modest descriptions of scantily clad men and women. Burroughs manages the rare feat of being both prurient and chaste, and although there is ample nudity in Burroughs’s work, science-fiction writer and historian Brian W. Aldiss points out, “sexual intercourse is neither mentioned nor implied. . . .” Yet clearly, as Aldiss and other critics have observed, there is a dangerous erotic edge to Burroughs’s stories, supplied by the perpetual threat of rape. Not only does the hero’s rescue of the endangered female prove his heroism, but it also demonstrates his ability to control the lust and violence from which he saves her.
Here again one can see one of the major thematic tensions in The Land That Time Forgot and other Burroughs novels, the conflict between civilization and primitivism. In Burroughs’ work, civilization certainly has its problems. This is presented most clearly in his first Tarzan novel, where the hero gratefully returns to the jungle after experiencing the savagery of modern life in Europe. Yet Tarzan and other atavistic Burroughs heroes are men, not animals, and as such they adhere to a firm moral code, which includes protecting the innocent. Burroughs’ heroes are thus akin to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s noble savages, romantic figures who are civilized despite the corrupting influences of modern civilization. Yet these romantic figures function not in an edenic paradise, where the lion lies with the lamb, but in a Hobbesian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short, where the rule is eat or be eaten.
A related tension occurs in The Land That Time Forgot in its characters’ attitudes about science and religion. In the story, evolution is taken for granted, but this is no naturalistic world, even if characters occasionally refer to fate. Rather, a religious element pervades the story; even if the characters are not explicitly religious, they refer frequently to God, faith in whom is not viewed as incompatible with an acceptance of the evolutionary marvels surrounding them. Yet they expect no divine miracles to preserve them, believing—to echo Benjamin Franklin’s famous phrase—that God helps those who help themselves.
Recurrent themes such as these as well as the threat of rape, racism and nationalism, and Social Darwinism, all of which are evident in The Land That Time Forgot, have provided ample opportunities for scholars to explore aspects of Burroughs’ work that, like much popular fiction, reveal important facts about the author, his audience, and his times. Such attention was slow in coming to Burroughs’ fiction, which suffered critical dismissal during his lifetime and critical neglect until the 1960s, when scholars began to approach the products of popular culture with a new critical eye. Thus, in addition to analyzing persistent themes, Burroughs scholars have explored his creation of new heroic myths, his exploitation of his readers’ fantasies, and his influence on other writers (particularly in the field of science fiction) and in mass media.
Certainly Burroughs’ cultural influence has been extensive. This is most obvious regarding Tarzan, but even The Land That Time Forgot has, in contributing to the lost-world subgenre of science fiction, helped to influence numerous later works, ranging from Carl Barks’ comic book adventures featuring Scrooge McDuck, his nephew Donald Duck, and Donald’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990) and its sequel, The Lost World (1995). The book also inspired two motion pictures, adapted from the first two sections. The Land That Time Forgot (1975) was a fairly faithful adaptation, and one of the screenwriters was the British fantasy and science-fiction writer Michael Moorcock; The People That Time Forgot (1977) is a far looser adaptation. While not terrible, neither film is outstanding, and occasionally the prehistoric creatures are laughable instead of terrifying.
Most readers of The Land That Time Forgot feel the monsters they conjure in their minds are far more engaging. For all his faults, there is no denying that Burroughs was a master storyteller, capable of transporting his readers into exciting adventures. As Vidal wrote, “Though Burroughs is innocent of literature and cannot reproduce human speech, he does have a gift very few writers of any kind possess: he can describe action vividly.” Burroughs has enthralled generations of readers with this gift, and The Land That Time Forgot stands as an example of Burroughs at his best.
Darren Harris-Fain is an associate professor of English at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. He has edited three volumes on British fantasy and science-fiction writers for the Dictionary of Literary Biography and is the author of Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Age of Maturity, 1970–2000 (University of South Carolina Press, 2005).
Posted September 24, 2008
I love Edgar Rice Burroughs. Having lived 1875 - 1950, he pioneered the way for many writers today. This trilogy ranks right up there with Jules Verne. The ending is slightly corny with the 'lives happily ever after' kind of theme, but it is a great story and should be enjoyed as such.
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