Saturday, April 11, 2020

Some notes on Tarnsman of Gor, Outlaw of Gor

A yoked Tarl Cabot beneath the
haughty gaze of Lara, Tatrix of
Tharna. Bondage! 

Daring admission: I am reading John Norman’s controversial Gor series and so far have enjoyed it, un-ironically. Tarnsman of Gor and Outlaw of Gor are entertaining sword-and-planet, with the latter ending on a cliff-hanger that has hooked me enough to want to seek out the third in the series, Priest-Kings of Gor.

Hold the pitchforks and torches for just a moment as I explain why.

Yes, they are a 100% unrepentant pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. Tarnsman of Gor is a shameless clone of A Princess of Mars. You’ve got your strange interplanetary journey of the main character, Tarl Cabot, an excellent swordsman and general bad-ass back on earth. Tarl falls in love with a beautiful woman, saves the day, and at the end is sent back to a drab earth, left to pine for his love beyond the sun and dreaming of his eventual return.

The Gor series is of course more than little controversial. There are hints of the infamous S&M/dominance narrative creeping in after two books, and a few elements “problematic” for a 21st century audience. Female slaves submit to men, and lose their autonomy, in a ritual that includes kneeling and placing their crossed wrists over their head. In general women in the Gor universe seem to spend an in ordinate amount of time cuffed, in chains, or asking to be whipped. Without question there is a weird undercurrent of what a healthy male/female relationship should look like, but in these early books it’s not so pronounced, and can be written off to Norman’s attempt at creating a unique, alien culture. There is no explicit sex, nothing (beyond ample violence, though this is largely stylized) to even warrant an “R” rating. From what I understand the series eventually goes entirely off the rails with S&M overwhelming the plot. But through two books at least these elements are (mostly) downplayed.

Is there better sword-and-planet to read? Absolutely. LeighBrackett is probably the best example of this sort of fiction, and of course you should go straight to the source and re-read Burroughs. Seek out Otis Adelbert Kline’s S&P, or Adrian Cole’s The Dream Lords Trilogy, for more examples. But honestly, the first two Gor novels are solid entertainment. Two books in and I find them to be entertaining, well-paced, with plenty of plot-twists and cliff hangers. Gor possesses an interesting alien culture. And Norman is a good writer. His style lacks a little of the Burroughsian/Howardian narrative drive, but it does the job, and in places is elevated, even inspiring.

If this makes me an awful person or just someone with unbelievably bad taste, so be it. I also think 80s metal is the pinnacle of music, so consider that in your evaluation.

Perhaps one of the reasons Gor has been working for me is its close relationship to my favorite genre. I happen to enjoy Gardener Fox’ Kothar and Kyrik series, and to a lesser degree John Jakes’ Brak and Lin Carter’s Thongor stories, and consider Norman’s series to be the sword-and-planet equivalent.

The Gor series is very sword-and-sorcery in many ways. The culture on Gor is advanced but is restricted to the use of medieval era weapons—swords, spears, longbows and crossbows. The warrior ethos is exalted and there is ample swordplay. The culture of Gor is clearly influenced by ancient Greece, down to the style of its helmets and spears, and its caste system is something out of ancient Athens or Sparta, with a range of sharply defined classes from upper class citizens to slaves. Its cities of towering stone pillars are both classical and alien, and the world itself is populated with monstrous critters, from feathered pterodactyl-like tarns, to monstrous tiger-like hunting larls. All fun stuff.

Where Gor diverges from S&S is it’s “science”-based, meaning there is no overt magic. You won’t find any demon-summoning sorcerers cackling over pentagrams and skulls. There is one scene near the end of Tarnsman of Gor where an old priest spontaneously bursts into flame, a victim of the “Flame Death” which befalls those who transgress the will of the mysterious Priest-Kings. But even that event can be explained by scientific means. Tarl is taken to Gor via space ship, and the Priest-Kings are protected from the air by a force-field that appears tied to some anti-gravity device. I’d also say it lacks a little of the S&S feel. Tarl Cabot is an outsider, but he attempts to bring a 20th century Earth morality to a barbaric world. He shares more in common with gentleman John Carter than savage Conan, and his altruism trumps self-interest. There’s none of the shades of gray morality, or plots of self-enrichment, that are hallmarks of much S&S. Nevertheless it’s a reminder that sword-and-sorcery and sword-and-planet are birds of a feather, products of the early 20th century and both children of Burroughs.

But back to the books. As noted Norman writes better than I had expected, and some of the writing is elevated, and compelling. Tarl’s imprisonment in the mines of Tharna, and subsequent revolt and harrowing escape up a mine shaft and the bloody pitched battle that follows, is inspired. As are Norman’s depictions of the Pterodactyl-like tarns. These are not just tossed in a-la Lin Carter; these beasts share a complicated relationship with their riders, with whom they share a symbiotic relationship as near equals. If hungry enough the tarns occasionally devour their tarnsmen.  

But yes, despite the compelling world-building and storyline there is some weird shit going on. In the last ¼ of Outlaw of Gor we get a deep whiff of where this series may be headed. If Tarnsman of Gor is almost straight no frills S&P, Outlaw of Gor takes an odd turn in its last 50 pages with “Yellow Cords,” a chapter which describes how the city of Tharna went wrong when women gradually assumed power and implemented a “gynocracy.” Men became regarded as beasts, and women hid their faces behind masks of gold and silver, an outward symbol of repressed emotion. Writes Norman, “But even more strangely the women of Tharna do not seem content under the gynocracy. Although they despise men and congratulate themselves on their more lofty status it seems to me that they, too, fail to respect themselves. Hating their men they hate themselves.” Surely there is a happy medium to be had here?

I’m of the opinion that writers are of their time, and cannot entirely escape the influence of the culture and politics in which they write. If we take a look at the United States of the late 1960s (Outlaw of Gor was published in 1967), the prevailing winds of the day were one of social change. A second women’s rights movement was sweeping the nation, calling into question long-held beliefs about sexuality, and women’s roles in the family and the workplace. Some authors pushed back against this movement in their writings (I believe you can see the same counter-reaction, though less strongly, in Fox’s S&S for example). Perhaps Norman was struggling with his own conflicted thoughts on what this revolution might mean to the traditional American way of life.

Time and place are one explanation for Norman’s treatment of women, but we also have to look at the author. Norman has a reputation for various oddities and predilections. He wrote a work of non-fiction called Imaginative Sex, which apparently offers instructions for incorporating dominant-submissive role-playing into your bedroom). So there’s that too.

To be fair to the Gor series (yes, I am trying to be even-handed here), it incorporates more than just a black and white “women are bad” view of the world. Tarl for example has thus far rejected the enslavement of women. And beneath this charged layer of male-female relationships is an underlying philosophical question. The peoples of Gor are repressed under the puppeteer Priest-Kings. Through two books we don’t know who the Priest-Kings are, just that they are described as both all-knowing and all-powerful, but also distant, remote, even perhaps mythical, fictitious. And hold the strings. They seem to keep men on a leash, permit them only to go so far, know so much, and explore so much of the world, before meting out swift punishment. Perhaps they are an allegory for our own cultural assumptions and values, and it is our responsibility to examine and potentially cast off old beliefs when they no longer serve our best interests. Norman seems to be using the series to explore whether we can find morality when old systems—political, sociological, religious—are stripped away. What is left?

Adults should be able to read this stuff and make up their own minds. Science fiction (and yes, Gor included) is a literature of ideas. Some might find the Gor series offensive. I’m not in the business of telling people how they should react to literature—that’s highly personal. Just know that I read it, and did not burst into flame. When we read books we should expect our beliefs to be challenged. But as a reader we can evaluate and reject ideas that clash with our own beliefs.

These elements aside, I believe that there is a very good adventure story to be found in the first few Gor books. Not having read any further than Outlaw, I cannot speak for the rest of the series. For what it’s worth the Gor series has spanned 34 books and sold between 6-12 million copies, according to Wikipedia. Someone is reading this stuff. I plan to read at least one more while I’m trapped inside, as COVID-19 rages without.


Michal said...

I'd be remiss not to post the two most entertaining reviews of anything I've read, which happen to be of these 2 books:

Brian Murphy said...

Good stuff, thanks for sharing these Michal. I guess if I had a critique of those (amusing, well-written) reviews, it's that I don't find the Gor books boring. Pretty clearly the reviewers are disappointed by the Gor books' tameness and lack of explicit sex, and through two books at least I can confirm they are largely bog-standard Burroughsian sword-and-planet, with some slowly encroaching S&M. That's a sentence I never thought I would write.

jason said...

Umm, 80's metal IS the pinnacle of music. So your good taste is established.

Brian Murphy said...

I agree Jason. 1986–Somewhere in Time, Master of Puppets, Peace Sells, Reign in Blood, Rage for Order... mostly downhill ever since. Or at least since 88.

Chris Lopes said...

The first half dozen books are quite readable, but after that, Norman's peculiar take on male/female relationships starts to (if you'll pardon the pun) dominate. It's a shame too, because outside of the S+M stuff, there is some good sword and planet adventure to be had. Unfortunately, entire books in the series are dedicated to the busty earth woman in chains idea.

Ayube said...

It was B&D not S&M. Norman was very good world builder unfortunately his B&D stuff took over. Most of the time I just skipped over the stuff because it was boring. There are 26 books I think.