Foreword to Philip José Farmer’s
Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke
(University of Nebraska Press Bison Books, 2006)
by Win Scott Eckert
Win Scott Eckert © 2006-2010
So states Philip José Farmer in his foreword to Tarzan Alive and in so doing follows the Sherlockian tradition in which the object of the fictional biography is treated as a real person. Sherlockian biographical scholarship (commonly called the “Game”) arose as a response to a myriad of discrepancies in Watson’s writings of the master detective Sherlock Holmes. In the Sherlockian Game Holmes’s amanuensis, Dr. Watson, is also treated as a real person. As Dr. Watson narrates the cases, Arthur Conan Doyle is relegated to the status of Watson’s “editor.”
Game players then write critical essays that resolve the chronology of the Sherlock Holmes canon and otherwise provide explanations for inconsistencies in Watson’s work. Sometimes the inconsistencies are explained as resulting from Watson’s carelessness, whereas in other instances we are told that Watson deliberately changed certain details, times, and names to protect innocent parties and prevent delicate information from being uncovered through his writings.
Occasionally Game players go so far as to research and write complete biographies of their subjects. Some of the better-known examples are William S. Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street and Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, C. Northcote Parkinson’s The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower and Jeeves: A Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman, John Pearson’s James Bond: The Authorized Biography of 007 and Biggles: The Authorized Biography, Anne Hart’s The Life and Times of Hercule Poirot and The Life and Times of Miss Jane Marple, and Philip José Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, which serves as a companion piece to Tarzan Alive.
Lesser-known instances of the genre include The Life and Exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel by John Blakeney, The Flying Spy: A History of G-8 by Nick Carr, The Wimsey Family by C. W. Scott-Giles, Radio’s Captain Midnight: The Wartime Biography by Stephen A. Kallis, Jr., and John Steed: An Authorized Biography, Volume 1: Jealous In Honour by Tim Heald.
These fictional biographies, to varying degrees, share the same characteristics; they all:
discuss and resolve inconsistencies in the canon of the character’s novels, stories, or adventures
provide a timeline of the character’s life (either as a formal chronology, or merely through a discussion of the timing of certain events)
provide information on the character’s family tree and forebears
treat their subject as a real person.
What distinguishes Tarzan Alive from other fictional biographies is the level of detail with which Farmer imbues his subject and with which he dares us to disbelieve. Farmer has not simply studied Tarzan—Lord Greystoke’s—life; he has actually met and interviewed Greystoke. Farmer has not only identified a few of Tarzan’s forebears; he has spent uncounted hours poring over Burke’s Peerage in an effort to uncover his real name, titles, and arms. Farmer has not merely discovered other real-life personages who are distantly related to Tarzan (such as Lord Byron); he has uncovered a plethora of other ostensibly “fictional” characters to whom Tarzan is related in a massive and complex family tree—and provided a cosmic explanation for the almost superhuman nature of these characters’ adventures and abilities: the ionized radiation of the Wold Newton meteorite, resulting in the Wold Newton family.
The roster of Farmer’s Wold Newton family is nothing if not bold. In addition to Tarzan and Doc Savage, other members include Solomon Kane (a pre-meteor strike ancestor); Captain Blood (a pre-meteor strike ancestor); Harry Flashman; Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty (aka Captain Nemo); Phileas Fogg; the Time Traveler; Allan Quatermain; Rudolf Rassendyll; A. J. Raffles; Wolf Larsen; Professor Challenger; Arsène Lupin; Richard Hannay; Bulldog Drummond; Doctor Fu Manchu and Sir Denis Nayland Smith; G-8; Joseph Jorkens; the Shadow; Sam Spade; the Spider; Nero Wolfe; Mr. Moto; the Avenger; Philip Marlowe; James Bond; Lew Archer; Kilgore Trout; Travis McGee; and many more. In a dazzling display of non-canonical revisionism, Farmer even goes so far as to place Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) and Sir Percy Blakeney (from Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel) at the actual Wold Newton meteor strike in 1795.
Farmer’s creation of the Wold Newton family elevated the fictional biography genre to a whole new level. Instead of focusing on one particular character, Game players following in Farmer’s literary archaeological footsteps now determine how to extend and build upon Farmer’s original family tree in an ongoing series of essays, timelines, and crossovers.
One of the first such forays into post-Farmerian Creative Mythography (as Farmer termed the Wold Newton Game in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life) was The Wold Newton Meteoritics Society’s Wold Atlas fanzine (1977-78). The Wold Atlas included genealogical essays, a serialized novel, and original illustrations and ran for five issues. A few essays inspired by Farmer’s Wold Newton concept appeared in the 1980s and 1990s in various pulp-oriented publications such as The Bronze Gazette, Nemesis Incorporated, and Pulp Vault.
sites that have at least some Wold Newton material on them. Of these, about seven or eight are focused exclusively on the Wold Newton universe. The revived interest in Wold Newton studies has even spawned a new anthology of essays devoted entirely to the concept, Myths for the Modern Age: Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe (MonkeyBrain Books, 2005), with contributions by Farmer himself and several other scholars, writers, and pop culture historians.
Though readers may come to Tarzan Alive through a love of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan—a love deeply shared by Farmer—in finishing the story of Tarzan’s life, they gain something more than a mere retelling of the Jungle Lord’s adventures. Tarzan Alive shines brightly in the unusual subgenre of fictional biographies because it creates a whole world of interacting super-characters outside our window. Farmer makes you believe not only that Tarzan is real but that all the other characters are as well, because he inextricably weaves their history and Lord Greystoke’s together.
Which brings us full circle. “This is a biography of a living person.”
When Farmer interviewed Tarzan on September 1, 1971, the Lord of the Jungle was in his mid-eighties but looked about thirty-five. There’s no reason to doubt that Tarzan is still alive today. Indeed, in the intervening thirty plus years several more of the ape-man’s adventures have been revealed. In various comic book adventures the Jungle Lord has been crossed-over with the rest of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s major creations. He has traveled to Barsoom and met John Carter; visited Burroughs’s Amtor (Venus) via astral projection; fought Burroughs’s Moon Men in the twenty-fourth century; journeyed to the Land That Time Forgot, Caspak; and returned to Pellucidar again and again (once he even fought the Predators there). Tarzan has also encountered Frankenstein’s Creature, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and perhaps most remarkably, the Golden Age Batman!
In the mid-1970s, western writer J. T. Edson played on Farmer’s background for Lord Greystoke from Tarzan Alive, giving Tarzan another adopted son named Bunduki and sending the rest of the Greystoke clan to live in Pellucidar. However, yet another comic book revival saw Tarzan and Jane living back on the surface world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Joe R. Lansdale completed a Burroughs manuscript, returning the Jungle Lord to the 1940s in Tarzan: The Lost Adventure. But readers of Tarzan Alive will likely be more intrigued by yet another contribution from Philip José Farmer. In 1999 he finally realized his dream of writing an authorized Tarzan novel with the publication of The Dark Heart of Time. True to form, Farmer took a barely hinted-at incident and fleshed it out into a complete “lost adventure” taking place between the events of Burroughs’s novels Tarzan the Untamed and Tarzan the Terrible.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is Farmer’s time-travel novel, Time’s Last Gift. The main character, John Gribardsun, travels back in time from the year 2070 to 14,000 BCE. Inexplicably immortal, he lives a full life for 14,000 years until the year 2140 when he and his wife—Jane—depart Earth in a cryogenic sleeper spacecraft bound for the star Capella and new adventures. If Gribardsun is who we think he is (readers have speculated that the abbreviation of Time’s Last Gift, TLG, provides a significant clue to Gribardsun’s identity), then the Jungle Lord’s motto—“I still live!”—takes on new meaning.
In Tarzan Alive Farmer convincingly demonstrated that there is a real pulp fiction universe just waiting to be explored. His boundless imagination keeps Tarzan alive forever, both figuratively and literally, and in so doing, Philip José Farmer will also always still live.