Friday, September 28, 2012

Book review: Tarzan of the Apes and Other Tales - Centenary edition

  This year marks the 100th year since the first Tarzan story was released. Tarzan, the lord of the jungle, is one of the most iconic characters in fiction. At the mention of the name "Tarzan", most people will conjure the mental image of a muscle bound man, garbed in loincloth, swinging between tree branches in the jungle while shrilling weird cries of an ape, rescuing damsels in distress from the clutches of ferocious man-eating predators.

These mental images come from movies and TV series, such as the Disney animation "Tarzan" (1998). But I wonder how many people have actually read the original Tarzan stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan? Personally, though I have seen a lot of movies and TV series based on his literary inventions, such as John Carter and Tarzan, I have never read any of the works by Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB). One day, when I was browsing in the bookshop, I came across this omnibus collection, and decided to add this to my "to read" list.

When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the first Tarzan book, he was at the bottom of his financial status. At that time, ERB was struggling to find a good job to support his family, as a pencil sharpener salesman, ERB was exposed to and was attracted to the pulp fiction market. He disliked the pulp fiction materials of his era, so he decided to write his own. As a result, Tarzan was born. Little could anyone guess Tarzan would go ahead and become one of the most well known fictional characters to embrace the world, and ERB became a millionaire with it.

This book, is a beautifully made omnibus, collecting the first 6 Tarzan novels published from 1912 to 1919. It comes in both hardback and paperback format, both covered with leather binding. At 976 pages, this is a big tome, and if you decide to purchase this book. I would recommend the hardback format, because a hardback book is more durable, especially with a big volume such as this one. The price difference between the hardback and the paperback format is only 10 dollars. The hardback format of this book costs approximately 35 dollars, which is a reasonable price for a book such as this.

So, the appearance is good, and the price is good, but what about the content of this book?

As I mentioned earlier, this omnibus collects the first 6 Tarzan novels published through the 1910s. I will briefly provide synopsis for these six novels below:

Tarzan of the Apes:
This is the first Tarzan story published in 1912. This is the "origin" story of Tarzan. The story told how Tarzan's parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, became lost in the wild African jungle. After giving birth to Tarzan, Lord and Lady Greystoke died, leaving Tarzan as a helpless baby orphan unprotected in the savage African jungle. At the same time, a mother gorilla lost her baby after an accident. By a whim of chance, the grief stricken mother gorilla came across baby Tarzan, and adopted Tarzan to replace her lost baby. The rest of the story entails the journey of Tarzan from boy to manhood, growing up thinking he is an ape, his first contact with the civilized men, and the eventual pursuit of his romantic love interest, Jane Porter.

The Return of Tarzan:
Following the conclusion in the first book. Tarzan was living in Europe with his friend. The ape man struggled to comprehend with the civilized mannerism in his new environment. Furthermore, Tarzan made a mortal enemy in Europe, a villainous Russian spy Nikolas Rokoff. The story progressed, where Tarzan eventually traveled back to the African jungle, and encountered a series of adventures which will ultimately pave his way to his romantic love interest, Jane Porter.

The Beasts of Tarzan:
Tarzan is now married to Jane Porter, and the couple has a son named Jack. Their peaceful life were ruined by Tarzan's long time enemy, Nikolas Rokoff. Tarzan's wife and son were stolen by the evil villain, and Tarzan attempted a desperate mission to rescue his family from the clutch of the villain.

The Son of Tarzan:
In this story, Tarzan's son, Jack, was in his teenage years. When a mysterious gorilla entered into the life of Tarzan's family in Europe. After a series of events, Jack landed up in Africa with the gorilla, and spent the remaining of his teenage years as a jungle man, acquiring the survival skills as his father had, and finally became his own man.

Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar:
 Tarzan and his wife lived in their African estate. Tarzan often ward off against the elephant tusk hunters, and made some enemies. When Tarzan finally ran out of money, he traveled back to the ruined city of Opar (mentioned in The Return of Tarzan), to acquire more treasures. His enemies were on his trail and plotted revenge against Tarzan by kidnapping his wife, and taking his treasures. Once more, Tarzan must engage a rescue attempt to be reunited with his beloved wife, Jane.

The Jungle Tales of Tarzan:
 This part of the omnibus, is actually not a novel. Rather, this is a collection of 12 short stories of Tarzan, featuring Tarzan in his younger years. The stories mostly revolved around Tarzan's first love interest, a female gorilla. As strange as the idea sounds, but some of these short stories are very interesting, and serves as "tie-in" stories to fill in the gaps about Tarzan's time as a young man.

What I think about the book (Civilization vs. barbarism part 2 - The noble savage):

To be honest, after reading almost 1000 pages of Tarzan. I think Tarzan stories are quite repetitive. There are too many repeated scenes; Tarzan fights/kills lions and panthers, battles against giant gorilla for supremacy etc.. At about half way into this massive tome, I was a bit bored with repetitive scenes.  I struggled to read through the last 200 pages of this book. In addition, ERB's writings can be a bit monotone at some places. In the last 50 pages, all I wanted to do was to finish this book and shelve it, because it was becoming such a laborious task.  In my opinion, other than the first book "Tarzan of the Apes", the other Tarzan novels and stories are mediocre at best.  

Based on the quality of the stories, I don't really understand why Tarzan has gained such fame, that after 100 years, Tarzan remains to be a well known legend. I speculate, the element behind the lasting success and the charms of Tarzan, is the romanticism of the idea "the noble savage".

The noble savage (nature's gentlemen, originated in the 19th century), is the idea that uncivilized men have innate goodness if they are unexposed to the corruption of the civilization. This is a highly controversial idea, and no doubt it was highly criticized by many. For example, some Christians might rebuke this romanticized idea, because the idea that men have innate goodness/unselfishness/righteousness is in contradiction with a branch of theological teaching within the greater Christian community, who believe that after the fall, human are born completely selfish, and are utterly incapable of being good/unselfish/righteous unless God works in his/her heart. At the same time, I speculate some proponents of neo-atheism might rebuke the idea of noble savage as well, probably because the concept that human can be good without civilization, must sound appalling to those who believe that civilization, human progress, and technology is the answer to solve all problems facing humanity. In other words, the idea of noble savage is probably being battered by both ends whenever the it is brought to the discussion table.

In this review, I am not going to argue against, nor will I support the idea of the noble savage, because I realized people's views on this subject are going fluctuate according to their personal experiences in life. Instead, I will like to propose a new perspective, to explain why Tarzan, and the idea of noble savage is a subject of immense fascination.

Why the fascination with noble savage? Very simple, I think the reason can be summarized in one word: Hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy and the corruption in the civilization, from my speculation, is probably the reason why some people adore the concept of noble savage. And perhaps this is also the trigger for this romanticized idea. In ERB's Tarzan stories, it is evident that while ERB always refer to the jungle beasts as savage and brutal creatures (not very positive descriptions), but the jungle beasts lack the greed, cowardice and evilness compared to his descriptions of civilized men.

In other words, I realized, the idea of the noble savage is not romanticizing the possibility that human beings are better off without civilization. Rather, the idea of the noble savage, seems to be a complaint against the hypocritical treatment people give out and receive in each other, within the human world. In other words, many people had the experience of meeting someone who appears nice, perhaps with good clothes, good table manners, good taste in food, music, literature, highly educated, and speaks of noble things, after civilized mannerisms. Then after all the nice things on the surface faded, they are somewhat hurt (and sometimes being hurt) to discover this person is actually NOT as he/she appears (or claims) to be. So some people complain about such hypocrisy, by arguing that civilization only brings corruption (as ERB tended to describe civilization in the Tarzan stories). But the question is, are barbaric people really "better" than civilized people? What about cannibalism in the primitive tribes? I think while some hypocritical behaviors unique in civilization might be absent in a more primitive human settlement. However, I do not think the primitive human settlement is necessary more ethical. Rather, it must also have some problems unique in barbarism, with the absence of civilization (such as cannibalism, strong dominate against the weak etc..). To me, it seems that the argument of civilization vs. barbarism arrives at this conclusion: Neither barbarism nor civilization can bring a perfect justice system to the human world to achieve absolute righteousness.

I wonder how many people realized, at this crucial point of reflection. The general theme of the Bible comes in agreement with our observations in the human world. The Bible says that after the fall, human beings are corrupted with sin and this is why we have all the human induced tragedies. While it is true that the level of evilness/selfishness is not the same across the spectrum of humanity. But equally is true that no human beings in this world can truly, and honestly say that he/she has never wronged, or hurt others by our selfish nature. So what hope is there for us? Very simple, the Gospel tells us that God loves us so much, that He has send his son, Jesus, to come and take away our sins, so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). This means in God's divine plan, those who repents and believes in Jesus as his/her savior and starts to live a new life, will be saved, and enter the kingdom of heaven, where the hypocrisy/corruption of human civilization, and the brutality and the savageness of barbarism will both cease to cause suffering and tragedies.

It seems, that in contrast to the ideologies of secular humanism and neo-atheism, Christianity is the ultimate answer to all the problems in the human world.

I do not own this artwork. The copyright of this image belongs to  Frank Frazetta Properties LLC

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review: The Long Ships - Published by New York Review Books Classics

 In the medieval world, a group of people plundered and pillaged unopposed, for almost 300 years. They were masters at sailing in the deep waters, explorers of uncharted worlds and ferocious in battles, their songs of ancient heroes echoed in the vastness of the open sea. Their enemies, trembled at the sights of their approaching dragon ships, they were warrior poets. They were, the Vikings.

Have you ever wondered, what it is like to be a Viking? Sailing the seven seas, singing songs of ancient heroes, gulping ales, where fighting, blood feuds, counting booty, plunder and pillage is the way to make a living? Well, Frans G Bengtsson's adventure/historical novel "The long ships" will tell you a thing or two about the stories of Vikings, in the way these ferocious Norsemen would have like to be told; epic, poetic, heroic, action packed with adventures at every corner, and (probably) most importantly, filled with dry humor. More over, this book also tells a very interesting history, of the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity in 10th century AD. Is this the kind of yarn that you tickles your fancy? Read on!

I have not met many people who have heard of this book, and this is rather baffling, because of the people who have read this book (such as on goodreads), almost everyone liked it! The Long Ships, is one of the most read books in Sweden. This is originally a Swedish novel, and New York Review Book Classics has wisely incorporated this book into their list of publications.

Written in 1943 by Swedish author Frans G Bengtsson, The Long Ships is a historical fiction centering around a character called Red Orm. Orm is the protagonist in this novel, his is well known for his red hair, red hot temper, and his legendary adventures. The story of Red Orm took place in the late 900AD to early 1000AD, during the late Viking age, in the middle of Christianization of Scandinavia. The story developed around the historical, political and cultural conflicts of the time. Even more interestingly, the story also depicted the contrast between the pragmatic views in the Nordic pagan religion, against the spread of Christianity and Islam.


The book is divided into 4 parts. Each part recounts the story of Orm at different stages of his life, in chronological order. The first part of the book told the story of Orm as a young man, who was born and lived in Skania, he was captured and joined a Viking ship through a twist of fate. On this voyage, Orm made some good friends. Their ship encountered a Danish ship along the coast of the Frankish empire, and they collected an escaped prisoner, Solomon the Jew. Solomon vowed revenge against the one who betrayed him, and took the Norsemen to plunder the castle of the Castillian Margrave. The Norsemen derived rich booty from this venture. On the voyage home, Orm and his men were attacked by an Andalusian fleet. After being defeated, Orm and the surviving Norsemen were captured by the Andalusians and forced to become galley slaves. Through another twist of fate, Orm and his fellow Norsemen were rescued by Solomon the Jew and entered into the service as bodyguards for Al-Mansur. They were forced to (partially) convert to Islam and partook in the campaign of Marca Hispanica. In this campaign, Orm and his men captured the bell of St. James, and they came upon a chance to exact the revenge against their former slave masters at the galley. Orm and his men escaped from Al-Mansur with the bell of St. James and returned to the north, where they seek the service under King Harald (Harald Bluetooth), who have recently converted to Christianity. Upon presenting the bell to the king, Harald invited them to celebrate the Yule with him. From there, Orm's luck changed, many high adventures followed, and told in this book that recounts the story of Red Orm..

What do I think about the book:

I enjoyed reading The Long Ships. This is an old-school style adventure yarn, but it is also a very interesting historical/adventure novel. Retelling the history of Christianization of Scandinavia. The essence of the book, is essentially a story of a barbaric culture progressing to a more civilized society. The style of writing in this book, is very different to the writing style in contemporary literature. It has a saga feel to it, and is very fitting for the story-telling of an adventure tale of this category. Besides all the adventures and actions, this book is also full of dry humor. I pretty much read the entire book with big smiles on my face (and sometimes, bursts of laughter). The characters in this book are impressionable and likable, and I really appreciated Frans G Bengtsson's depiction, of the contrast of Norse pagan religion, against Christianity and Islam. For example, in the story, Orm is pretty much a pragmatist. When he was a bodyguard in the service of Al-Mansur, he followed the tradition of Islam to please his master. When he left the service of Al-Mansur and once again put to the open sea as a Viking, Orm reverted back to the old Norse pagan tradition, sacrificing a goat, to exchange for a peaceful sea voyage. Eventually, Orm converted to Christianity, so he can marry a princess who is a baptized Christian, and he stayed a Christian because he believed that God has blessed him with good "luck" and prosperity in all of his endeavors. Similarly, several characters (Norsemen, and Viking Chieftains) in this book, converted to Christianity because they were promised gifts if they agreed to be baptized, while most of the Nordic folks in the book converted to Christianity because they were assured of God's blessings, and were promised of "good lucks" if they agreed to be baptized. This makes me wonder, if the medieval church strategy of converting Scandinavia was based on "prosperity Gospel"? (actually, some historical records seem suggest this as well). But more importantly, I think this is a good call for people who identify themselves as "Christians" to reflect and remember, just exactly is it that their faith should be centred on.

In this book, the Christian monks are just as likable as the main protagonist himself. The monks are portrayed realistically as noble and zealous for their belief, but at times can be hypocritical (and self righteous). For example, one of the characters in this book, is a monk who, despite his very strong sexual desires for women, yet insisted to remain unmarried to follow apostle Paul's example, because he believed that he can glorify God better by doing more work if he is unmarried. This monk, however noble he tried to be, was unable to obstinate himself from his desires, and landed up having adulterous affairs in secrecy, which eventually lead to his departure from Christianity all together.

The funniest moment in the book, occurred when the Vikings invaded England and demanded the king to pay compensations. The Christian monks were sent by the king to negotiate the bargain. When the monks failed to persuade the Vikings to lessen their demand, they judged the Vikings as, unable to enter the kingdom of heaven due to their reluctance to let go of the riches. Upon hearing this, the Vikings replied that surely, if what the monks said about the kingdom of heaven, the eyes of the needle and gold were true, then they are actually helping the king to enter heaven, by relieving him of his burden of "being too rich". Obviously, the monks/king refused to yield to the demands of the Vikings, this event demonstrated the hypocrisy of the Christian monks in the book.

 Personally, I really appreciated the way Frans G Bengtsson portrayed the Christians in this book. Because after spending 6 years at churches as a Christian, I have personally seen people who are similar to the Christian monks portrayed in this book. I think this is a very realistic portrayal and should make every Christian reflect on what they "should/should not" say to other people. Equally as important, the story of the monks should remind us the fact that, God does not value us according to how much work we can do for Him, instead, God loves us, and He has already done the most important work for us as Jesus. Religion sets up standards and measure your performance accordingly, but true faith is all about trusting in God and know that He loves us.

The Long Ships, is a very entertaining read. This is an action packed high adventure filled with dry humor, with intriguing political situations, conflicts of cultures and religions, and has some very likable characters. I think most people have probably never heard of this book, which is very well known in Sweden, but not as well known in the English speaking world. Seriously, go to the library now and barrow this book, or buy this book online, do whatever you can to get hold of this book. This is a classic not to be missed!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review: The Sword and Sorcery Anthology - Tachyon Publications

 Dragons roar, quaking trolls, flashing swords and then heads roll....

Welcome to the world of sword and sorcery fiction, a sub-genre in fantasy fiction. The origin of Sword and Sorcery can be traced back to the writings of Lord Dunsnay, in the early 1900s. However, it was only until 1930s, when the stories of Robert E. Howard's famous barbarian warrior, Conan the Cimmerian, took the world of fantasy fiction by storm. With Conan, the genre blossomed and solidified into the genre of sword and sorcery as we know today.  Sword and Sorcery fiction is often inspired by Nordic sagas and mythologies, and is a union of horror fiction and heroic fantasy, sword swashbuckling adventures.

 The differences between Sword and Sorcery fiction and high fantasy fiction (such as Tolkien's Middle Earth stories), is that Sword and Sorcery yarns are often darker, with elements of realism. In sword and sorcery stories, the protagonists are often anti-heroes/barbarians, instead of being all-round nice guys, such as heroes from The Lord of the Rings. The poster child of Sword and Sorcery today, is George R.R Martin and his series, "A song of Ice and Fire", made popular by the HBO TV series, A Game of Thrones.

Personally, Sword and Sorcery is my favorite genre. Only 15-20% of my reading consists of non-fictions, because I don't like to read about facts. I love reading fictions, I enjoy suspending my disbelief/skepticism, and let the author tell me a good story, and use my imagination to reconstruct a fantastic world in my mind, with bigger than life heroes and adventures in wonderful ways! I read a lot of Sword and Sorcery stories, because I think anti-heroes are more interesting than the all round good guys such as Aragorn. I also prefer the style of storytelling in sword and sorcery, because often the morality of the stories are neither black nor white, but with shades of grey, it is a world much like our own (with the exceptions of fire breathing dragons, roaring trolls and evil necromancers). My journey of fandom into the world of sword and sorcery, started years ago; when I chanced upon a complete collection of Robert E. Howard's Conan chronicles. I became a fan instantly, this passion would eventually drove me to to read ancient literature/saga/epic poems, such as Beowulf, the Nordic sagas, Arthurian legends and the ancient Sumerian epics. In many ways, I think reading Conan the Cimmerian is what got me into reading at the first place. Over the years, I have horded a collection of ancient epics, sagas, fantasy novels, and sword and sorcery writings by various authors (including some out of print and rare books).

I was delighted when I found out, that Tachyon Publications published an anthology of Sword and Sorcery. The cover art of this book certainly captured the essence of Sword and Sorcery fiction, full of blood and thunder! This book contains 19 stories, written by different authors in the genre, each with different styles, settings and background. The chosen authors in this anthology represent 75 years of the history in this genre, and the list consists of an all-star cast: Robert E. Howard, George R.R Martin, David Drake, C. L Moore, Karl Edward Wagner, Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, Glen Cook etc..  At 480 pages, this hefty anthology is quite a collection. I did not like all stories collected in this book, but I loved at least half of them. Instead of reviewing all 19 stories, I will only briefly mention the stories I liked:

Tower of the Elephant - Robert E. Howard:
The anthology started appropriately with a classical Conan yarn from Robert E. Howard. Titled "The Tower of the Elephant". In this tale, young Conan broke into the Elephant Tower to steal a jewel from the hands of an evil sorcerer. The story has a dramatic twist at the end. The Tower of the Elephant has long been one of my favorite Conan stories.

Black God's Kiss - C. L. Moore:
The next interesting story, is C.L. Moore's "Black God's Kiss". The main protagonist in this story, is a French fighting woman in medieval France know as Jirel of Joiry. Moore wrote the stories of Jirel back in the 1930s. It was unusual for its time, because the protagonist is a strong woman. Many critics has often claimed that C.L Moore's Jirel stories are ahead of its time. While this story is interesting, but I do not find it as intriguing as Robert E. Howard's writings. Still, it was a fun read.

The Unholy Grail - Fritz Leiber:
Fritz Leiber, is famous for his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. A pair of very humane heroes traversing a land full of dangers and adventures. A story featuring Gray Mouser's origin was collected in this book, titled "The Unholy Grail". There is not much actions in this story, the plot was interesting enough, but I was hoping for a tale that would showcase both Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, instead of a story entailing Gray Mouser's origin.

The Tale of Hauk - Poul Anderson:
Poul Anderson is one of my favorite authors. I enjoy his writings immensely. Collected in this anthology is a short story by Poul Anderson, titled "The Tale of Hauk". This is a story crafted after the fashion of Beowulf and Nordic sagas. The story telling, and the language used in this tale, give the story a feel similar to an epic saga, and is one of the better stories in this book. If you haven't read Poul Anderson's books, but enjoy reading Nordic sagas, or fantasy stories fashioned in similar styles as Tolkien's books. Then I recommend three of Poul Anderson's novels: Hrolf Kraki's Saga, The Broken Sword, and Three hearts and Three lions.

The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams - Michael Moorcock:
Elric of Melnibone is one of the most interesting characters/anti-heroes in fantasy fiction. He is the most well known character invented by author Michael Moorcock. Elric is a sickly albino prince from an empire already faded. Elric has a sword, StormBringer, a cursed rune blade that steals the souls of the lives it has taken. In his sickly status, Elric needed this sword to give him the life force that he naturally lacks. However, the sword also caused Elric much grief and sadness as it steals the souls of the ones he loved, a truly tragic character. In this anthology, one of the Elric stories is collected, titled "The Caravan of  Forgotten Dreams". This is a fine story, one of the better ones in this collection. Featuring Elric and a rare occasion when he is motivated by a noble purpose rather than his usual, self-serving manner.

Undertow - Karl Edward Wagner:
Karl Edward Wager, is one of the most overlooked fantasy/horror author of the 20th century. This man is talented, and his most well known literary character Kane, happens to share the same origin as the Biblical Cain, mankind's first murderer. The Kane stories became really popular in the 1970-80s, when three of Wagner's Kane novels were published, with cover arts done by Frank Frazetta. Kane is definitely one of the most memorable characters in fantasy literature. The stories of Kane are interesting, because more than often, Kane is actually a villain rather than a hero (he is not even an anti-hero). I suspect that Wagner's Kane stories is probably not everyone's cup of tea, because in the stories, the protagonist is often the villain, and the stories are, very, very dark. However, in this book is a short story about Kane, titled Undertow. In my opinion, this is probably the best story in this anthology. The story started off as a traditional sword and sorcery yarn, then it branched off and contains such a twist at the end that is completely unexpected. If you are interested in Wagner's Kane stories, you can get the two volume set, the first book is called "gods in darkness", the second volume is called "The midnight sun - the complete stories of Kane".

The Barrow Troll - David Drake:
Another good story in this book, is called The Barrow Troll. Written by David Drake. I have never read any of Drake's writings. But this short story is very well crafted. The Barrow Troll is a short story fashioned after, and inspired by Nordic mythologies. It is somewhat creepy, and has lots of actions. I quite liked this short story.

Solider of an Empire Unacquainted - Glen Cook:
Although I have heard of Glen Cook, but I have never read any writings by him. In this book, is a short story (the longest in this book) called, Solider of an Empire Unacquainted. A very strange title for a story perhaps, but I think this is the third best story in this anthology. I look forward to reading more writings by Glen Cook.

Path of the Dragon - George R.R. Martin:
Another story I enjoyed tremendously in this anthology, is George R. R Martin's "Path of the Dragon". This is a short story as a part of the series "A Song of Ice and Fire". This is actually the first time I am reading Martin's writings, and I have to say I am impressed. Perhaps one day, I will sit down and read A song of Ice and Fire series.

My major complain about this book, is that for an anthology. This book lacks the appropriate introduction and background for each authors, and the stories showcased. The only editorial voice consists of a 3 page introduction by David Drake, and this essay does not mention anything about the background, development and the history of Sword and Sorcery fiction. I also think some of the important authors in the field have been left out. For example, regrettably, Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsnay's writings are not included in this anthology, yet these two authors are some of the best authors in this genre alongside Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and Karl Edward Wagner. Out of the 19 stories collected in this anthology, the 9 stories above, in my opinion, are the better ones and definitely worth a read. The other 10 stories varied in quality, some of them are average, some of them are not very good. Overall, I think the 9 stories I mentioned, make this anthology a good collection. In addition, this anthology should be a good introduction to anyone who might be interested in taking a sneak peek into the world of sword and sorcery.

Happy reading, open the pages, brace yourself and be transported to a whole new world!