Monday, June 6, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Tarnsman of Gor

If you want to get a good sense of just how big fantasy was becoming in the late '60s and early '70s, I can think of no better illustration than John Norman's 1966 novel, Tarnsman of Gor. Set on a counter-earth called Gor peopled by human beings kidnapped from our world by a race of insectoid aliens called the Priest-Kings, Tarnsman of Gor isn't what I'd call a great book, or even a particularly good one. It was, however, quite successful and widely read, spawning seven sequels by the time OD&D was published in 1974, with many more appearing afterward.

Just why Norman's novel proved so successful is an interesting question, complicated by the fact that the Gor series enjoys a great deal of notoriety nowadays for themes implicit in its early novels that only come to the fore later on. Tarnsman of Gor could, I think, be reasonably described as a sword-and-planet tale in the Burroughsian mold, but shot through with a decidedly un-Burroughshian philosophy. It tells the story of an Englishman named Tarl Cabot, who works as a history teacher in New Hampshire before he is whisked away to a planet occupying the same orbit as our Earth but on the other side of the Sun. Norman tells this story in the first-person, a stylistic debt he clearly owes to Burroughs, even if, as I said, the rest of the novel isn't particularly Burroughsian in its themes or tone.

Upon his arrival on Gor, Cabot learns that the immortal Priest-Kings have taken men and women from Earth at various times throughout history and set them on this other world, for reasons that are inscrutable. For the most part, the Priest-Kings take no interest in the affairs of humans, allowing them to behave as they wish.
“There is at least one area, however,” ... “in which the Priest-Kings do take a most active interest in this world, and that is the area of technology. They limit, selectively, the technology available to us, the Men Below the Mountains. For example, incredibly enough, weapon technology is controlled to the point where the most powerful devices of war are the crossbow and lance. Further, there is no mechanised transportation or communication equipment or detection devices such as the radar and sonar equipment so much in evidence in the military establishments of your world.”

“On the other hand,” he said, “you will learn that in lighting, shelter, agricultural techniques, and medicine, for example, the Mortals, or Men Below the Mountains, are relatively advanced.”
In this way, Norman creates a world in which Earth men must fight as did their pre-modern ancestors, but without all the messy and difficult aspects of living in those times. It is, to be blunt, the kind of world many gamers like for their RPG settings, preserving the "cool" aspects of the past while jettisoning those things that might make it unpleasant. Perhaps it's for this reason that you'll find lots of references to Gor in fantasy and science fiction fandom during the late '60s and early '70s, including in the roleplaying hobby. Dave Arneson's Blackmoor, for example, incorporated some elements from Tarnsman of Gor and other early novels in the series, but the impression I get is that these elements were, like those from Tolkien and many other sources, very superficial and not at all indicative of having adopted the philosophy of Gor's author.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room when it comes to Tarnsman of Gor -- its philosophy. I never read a single word of John Norman until I was an adult, but, when I was a kid, I distinctly remember there being hushed tones and knowing glances whenever the word "Gor" came up in gaming circles. This baffled me, all the moreso after I'd read issue #61 of Dragon which included a write-up of Tarl Cabot as part of the "Giants in the Earth" series. Writer Glenn Rahman (of Divine Right fame) judged Cabot's alignment as Lawful Evil, a decision that occasioned at least one letter to the magazine questioning his decision and much bafflement from me, as, back then, I naively thought that evil characters didn't make good protagonists. Why did Rahman think Tarl Cabot was evil and, if he was right, why were gamers so taken with this character?

When I finally did get around to reading the first few Gor novels, including Tarnsman, it soon became apparent. Gor might crudely be called a "Nietzschean" world where slavery is not only a common and "natural" practice but treated as beneficial for both slave and master. This aspect of Gor is not strongly evident in the early novels, though it's definitely there implicitly, and, given the large role in plays in later novels, it has come to be the aspect nearly everyone mentions when discussing these books. "Gor" has become a byword for deviant sex and misogyny and it was on this basis that it was treated as something "secret" among the older guys I knew involved in the hobby.

In Tarnsman of Gor, though, this stuff is very much in the background. Instead, we're mostly treated to the story of Cabot's transformation from a boring college professor to a boring swordsman and rider of giant birds. And that, for me, is the biggest bafflement I have about the Gor novels: they're pretty dull. Cabot isn't a very interesting character; he comes across mostly as a mouthpiece for Norman's views on politics and morality and is disappointingly cerebral. He's no John Carter, who, for all his Virginian stolidness, is at least compelling to read about. The same cannot be said of Cabot, who's about as boring a fantasy character as any, despite the occasionally intriguing world he inhabits.

I can only chalk up the popularity of the early Gor books like Tarnsman of Gor to the fact that, at the time they were published, there was a hunger for fantasy -- any fantasy -- and so mediocre volumes like these were eagerly snapped up. You might think that prurience played a large role in their success and that may be the case, but I do wonder about that. As I said, the first few books don't dwell on these aspects and those that do are, like Cabot, rather dull and uninteresting, being far more focused on philosophizing than titillation. For my money, Howard and Leiber provide a greater erotic charge than Norman, but then both those authors created memorable characters and stories whose primary purpose is to entertain rather than inculcate the reader in their own worldview.


  1. I seem to remember reading Tarnsman of Gor simply to understand what the fuss was about, and raising an eyebrow at the plot point where, having won the day, Cabot seizes his slavegirl lover and takes off on his flying mount, ditching her clothes over the side... a move which is specifically supposed to evoke the practice of tarnsmen of simply kidnapping women they desire and sexually assaulting them whilst still making a getaway. If these themes are "only implicit" in the first book and get more extreme later on, well, we're basically in porn territory at that point aren't we?

    Then again, I believe the copy I read was a recent revised edition so Norman might have injected a lot of sexual material his editors would have frowned on; I believe he's self-publishing these days.

    FWIW, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to have the sort of sexual fantasies Norman writes about... but I do think there's plenty wrong with implying that your sexual fantasies are special and superior to those of others, and I think there's plenty wrong with taking your sexual fantasies and constructing an entire theory about how society as a whole should be around them. As I understand it, the later Gor books are just as philosophical as the early ones, the S&M sex fantasies are just more explicit. Not surprising considering that Norman's a philosophy professor in real life, but still, I can't find anyone who isn't a zealously devoted Gorean who can is seriously willing to argue that the man's grown as a writer over time.

    Then again, has anyone ever managed to crank out a 50-volume fantasy series which wasn't dreadful schlock? Mike Moorcock comes close but only if you count all the Eternal Champion stuff as one big series, and at that point you're lumping Jerry Cornelius in with Elric and Michael Kane and that's just nonsensical. Either way, I don't think a single author could come up with 50 novel-length stories set in Middle Earth or Lankhmar or the Hyborean Age or the Dying Earth, let alone Gor.

  2. I distinctly remember a copy of Tarnsman of Gor on my older sister's bookshelf, next to Raymond Feist's Magician. She was a D&D player back then. I wonder what her take on it was.

  3. If these themes are "only implicit" in the first book and get more extreme later on, well, we're basically in porn territory at that point aren't we?

    Even the later books, from what I gather, not having read them, are, first and foremost, escapist tales in the sword-and-planet mode, albeit with (sometimes lengthy) digressions into the philosophy of dominance Norman himself apparently espouses. If that's porn territory, then, yes, the Gor books qualify. But, judging from the first few books, I'd wager that they're pretty dull porn.

  4. This was a time period when many things like this took root, some produced in massive numbers even to this day.

    The Destroyer (149 volumes), The Executioner (with 713 volumes as of January 2010), The Horseclans series (18 volumes + 2 short story collections) and many minor series fueled by the zeitgeist of the late '60s / early '70s - the time of Women's Rights,the ERA and 'tree hugging hippies'.

    The 'heroes' of these books were often racist, sexist anti-heroes who broke laws and conventions every other page.

    For men who had been raised under a different mentality these were the successors to ERB and REH.

    It's weird to look back today and think just how popular these books were and to a great degree still are today.

    A literature of a dying world and way of life.

    Even GURPS did a Horseclans world book.

  5. I read the first seven books--the ones published by Del Rey in glossy PB editions. I agree with you, James, that their influence in early gaming had more to do with the fact that Gor showed up to play at a time when precious little else was available than with any inherent quality. (Especially if your only access to SF/fantasy was through a Waldenbooks on the other side of the mountains.) Certainly my first city maps in the early 1980s were filled with round buildings a la Gor. My sense is that the series is more or less bog standard planetary romance up until Book 7, Captive of Gor: that book introduces a female protagonist, and suddenly all of the squicky stuff that was implicit in the six books focusing on Tarl Cabot suddenly becomes explicit in a way that my teenage mind could no longer handle comfortably.

  6. On a side note to this post, for those of us who came into the hobby via Tunnels and Trolls Glenn Rahman is a familiar name. He wrote two T&T solo adventures, "Sea of Mystery" and "The Jungle of Lost Souls" and was a contributor to its house magazine, Sorcerer's Apprentice. Get your hands on the solos if you can--they're very good. If you're the type who's not into solo adventures, get them anyway.

  7. Does masturbating to Frank Frazetta paintings count as a philosophy now? :)

  8. Although I am unfamiliar with the actual books, this post is incomplete without the Houseplants of Gor:

  9. Also in the same basket: the Kregen series (referenced in the miniatures rules Hordes of the Things) and ... aw here, have the whole list.

  10. Go to a bookstore. Grab a romance novel at random from off the shelf. I can pretty much guarantee you that it's contents are far more sexual and explicit than almost any Gor book, if not all of them.

    Granted, I've only read the first 10 Gor books, but what I've read isn't any more "porn-y" than any given romance novel, and probably even less so from what I've seen of romance novels. I've actually seen far worse stuff in terms of rape and slavery in some Anne Rice novels, yet I don't see anybody making as big a stink out of her work as I do with Norman's work.

    I hope someday that other authors are able to write novels based in the Gor world, because I think John Norman really has created an interesting, vibrant, and (at times, excruciatingly) detailed world. Unfortunately, he's never seemed to really do his own creation justice.

  11. As a funny additional fact, the Gor series was apparently so popular, they made movies (yes, plural) for it:

  12. I remember those movies - absolutely awful. And the feature Jack Palance when he was slumming for anything he could get.

    Looking at the photos, I definitely want to make an artifact that looks just like that skull/necklace deal the ?Wizard? dude is wearing! Just like it.

  13. @turnerhooch

    I had a girlfriend that loved the Anne Rice Sleeping Beauty series. I made it about 45 pages into the first book, at her request, before I decided that she was a pron fiend. She loved Anime Maid stuff too, go figure.

  14. So, if I might ask, what makes John Carter a less boring character? Is it the simple fact that his asides are about the people and places that he finds himself dealing with, as opposed to diatribes about how The Author is right? Or is there something more to it?

  15. I think that those who suggested there weren't many other options are close to the mark. There were domr books by Howard, Leiber, Tolkien, Anderson, Moorcock, and a few classic others, but remember that the huge fantasy surge really began in '75 or so with the Sword of Shannara, and before that there weren't that many S&S books out there. You had to read what you could.

  16. Well count me in the minority. I've read all of the books (well, except the last two, which my wife has read but which are still stuck in "going to read" limbo) and found them quite a decent fantasy series.

    Yeah, there's a lot of "all women yearn in their hearts to be slaves to a truly masterful male" soliloquies that go on for pages, but in and around that is a very well crafted fantasy world with a very intricate plot that has gone through 30 or so books and is still being resolved. There's political intrigue on a variety of different levels (Cos vs. Ar, Priest Kings vs. Kurii, etc.) which really appeals to me, plus dealing with issues of personal honor and the conflict between civilization as we know it and barbarism. There's more than a little of REH's "noble savage" to be found in the Gor books.

    The various cultures are mostly derivative of Earth models, but that's nothing new to fantasy; how many other fantasy settings have their own pseudo-Vikings or pseudo-Indians? They are cleverly shifted to accommodate the Gorean milieu, and well fleshed-out.

    A lot of people, in my experience, only see the slavery stuff and ignore all the good fantasy content. "It's sexist, so it can have no redeeming value and must be torn apart at any given opportunity" is not, to my mind, a valid argument. (And I got more than a little of that when I suggested Gor would make a good FRP setting a while back <a href="" target="_blank>on my own blog</a>.)

    It should be noted that there's been a thriving Gorean RPG community online for years.

  17. Down in Tacoma, WA there was a recent case this year where a man was arrested for having a torture chamber hidden in his home. He was caught forcing a prosititute to take part in the activities of his room. I was very shocked to see an article in the paper right afterwards that highlighted the fact he was an avid/fan reader of the Gor books. Shocked in the fact that they had selected these novels as a sign of his depravity.

  18. My dad had the first book (no others). Cabot was all proclaiming that he was going to bring down the corrupt sexist system of slavery in that book, and I would have liked to have read more of that series. But apparently Fighting the Man and Saving the Woman didn't sell as well as Chicks Dig Being Enslaved.

    I will forever remember the show where a CBS newsman was interviewing a rapist in prison, who was proclaiming his rehabilitation and his participation in the literacy program. It turned out that he was then-currently reading Slavegirl of Gor. The prisoner had the grace to be embarrassed, but the newsman obviously thought it was as innocent a title as LOTR and Shannara.

  19. If you want to read something creepy in the opposite direction, there was a sort of anti-Gothic romance trope in Seventies feminist fantasy/sf, where the heroine would begin her story by being oppressed and raped, and eventually would get violent revenge and/or start heroing. The late Jo Clayton wrote the huge Diadem of the Stars series in the Seventies and Eighties, wherein the heroine repeatedly crashed her spaceship, landed among baddies helplessly, was raped and humiliated and beat up, and then wreaked violent revenge with the incredibly powerful alien Diadem artifact. Not recommended.

  20. My complaint with the Gor series, BDSM aspects aside, is that Norman is an incredibly bad author. Which is too bad, but (especially in the first few books) he did have some interesting setting ideas. At a certain point it must have struck him that going with the straight slave/master bondage routine was going to make him a lot more dough, and he ramped that up to 11. At that junction the series went from average at best fantasy SF to eye-rolling swill.

  21. I've read Tarnsman and Priest-kings, and possibly Slave Girls, it was years ago, and the one thing I remember was how gawd-awful the writing was. I always assumed the moniker "John Norman" was a nom-de-plume for a stable of ghost writers who were commanded to crank out drivel at a penny a word or something so the publisher could make money.
    Apparently, there was/is a well established BDSM community long before Norman's works, and when the so-called "Goreans" came on the scene, they were criticized as being "wannabe's" and not invited to the best (BDSM) parties.
    Has anyone ever met John Norman? At a convention? Book-signing? anywhere? I still think he's not a real person, but I could be wrong...


  22. "I still think he's not a real person, but I could be wrong..."--DaveL

    According to Wikipedia - -not only is he a real person, but he's a professor of philosophy at Queens College of the City University of New York.

    And, if his adventure fiction is so boring, I can barely imagine how boring his lectures must be.

  23. I think I'd have more respect for the Gor series if it was openly porn. As Arthur said, nothing wrong with or even uncommon about having sexual fantasies that would be wrong in real life. It's the air of "I'm saying what you're all thinking and you FEAR it."

  24. I wonder if anyone's ever done any Gor anti-fanfic, where the main character learns to love strapons or something? Other than the Houseplants of Gor parody.

  25. I originally picked up the 4th and 6th books at a remainder sale and actually quite enjoyed them. Enough to go grab 23 more ["Hey! There's some new ones. Cool!"] If I'd started with #2 or #11, I doubt I would have bothered, even if I am a compulsive collector.

    [I did vastly prefer the Boris Vallejo covers myself. His work was particularly suited to the sword and sorcery and slave girl market.]

    Whilst I will read anything (even John Jake's Brak the Barbarian trilogy), there actually was an interesting and coherent world behind the pseudo-sexual drivel. Such as the war between Ar and Cos (an interesting counterpoint to the war between Kurii and the Priest-Kings), and the politics and organisation of the various cultures (such a Tortugaesque Port Kar). Of course, with some of the books, such as Slave Girl of Gor, it meant reading an entire 400+ pages to get the one (I counted) line of actual plot development.

    I know one person that ran a campaign in that world. It worked well, mainly because the players took the social setup as something that was said, and didn't dwell on it, allowing us to get onto more interesting stuff. [After all, we weren't weak and depraved Earthlings that would get consumed by such behaviour. <grin>] It was simply how things were. Unremarkable. And being treated like that changes the whole nature of the books/campaign.

    And as a bonus the books made an excellent talking point when I had dinner parties. Especially when some of my radical feminist friends were invited. At least until they discovered I had moved them so as to be more prominent. <grin>

    Oh, and John Lange (aka John Normal) is a real person and rather well socially adjusted for someone with a PhD in Philosophy. Although I am reliably informed that if you say you like his books he won't actually talk to you (at least this was the case in the 80s). If you are interested there is an interesting interview with him here.

  26. I was invited to a Gorean event, but I couldn't go. I was tied up.

  27. @Reverance:
    I'm reading that interview now.

    "The greater science fiction community's seeming unwillingness to recognize John
    Norman's popularity and influence says a lot about the cognoscenti of the genre, and perhaps more than a little about the state of contemporary Western culture in general."

    Yes, it does. All good things.

    Oh. My. God. Everyone should read this interview. Let's just say that this guy doesn't suffer from a cripplingly negative self-image.

  28. I waded through this one a few months ago. I've had a thing for the Gor books ever since I read one of them back in middle school. They're never totally awesome, but there's always something I can steal in there. As it turns out the original DAW paperback printings are INCREDIBLY expensive now, ranging 20-30 dollars for some of them at my local store.

  29. Probably the only books I've ever been embarrassed to be seen looking at in the Sci-Fi section.

  30. My wife makes fun of me for owning the series, but I agree that there are some fun intrigue elements in there (and not the sexual ones, either). Others have mentioned the ones I mean, including Ar vs Cos and Priest Kings vs Kurii. Some fun "sword and planet" stories in the midst of the drivel.

  31. "...there are some fun intrigue elements in there (and not the sexual ones, either)."--finarvyn

    The sexual elements sound like they could be fun too -- in the context of consensual play. There's nothing wrong with consensual power exchange. It's just forcibly taking power from someone without their consent that's wrong. And it's creepy, at the very least, to say that all women, regardless of whatever they might say, or even consciously think, really want men to forcibly take power from them without their consent too.

  32. Also in the same basket: the Kregen series

    Shhh! You're going to spoil one of my future Pulp Fantasy Library entries :)

  33. So, if I might ask, what makes John Carter a less boring character?

    The biggest thing in my opinion is that he feels like a person distinct from Burroughs. His actions in the novels aren't just illustrations of a philosophy Burroughs holds but reflections of Carter's personality. The other thing, too, is that John Carter's personality is one I can readily identify with, whereas Tarl Cabot is practically a cipher whose inner life is a mystery to me.