Science Fiction Studies

# 11 = Volume 4, Part 1 = March 1977

Russell Letson

The Faces of a Thousand Heroes: Philip José Farmer

Philip José Farmer writes formula fiction—not in the derogatory sense intended by detractors of SF and other forms of popular literature, but in the sense John Cawelti develops in Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, in which "specific cultural themes and stereotypes become embodied in more universal story archetypes."1 Thus, since it stays within the bounds of the universal adventure-story tradition and uses the conventions and traditions of the science fiction/fantasy genre as developed in Europe and America during the last century, the bulk of Farmer's fiction qualifies as formulaic. As Cawelti points out, far from branding the writer as a hack, such a description provides us with a way of explaining and defining the virtues of the formula writer as he extends the limits of his genre and stamps on his work the marks of his own sensibility, world view, and artistic vision; it is this side of Farmer's writing, and specifically his use of the hero, that I wish to examine here.2              

One of the qualities that makes Farmer's work interesting—perhaps the main factor—is his ability to break new ground in a field which, at its worst (like all formula fiction), repeats standard patterns in standard ways; this is most clearly seen in the motifs Farmer has introduced or championed since the start of his career nearly twenty-five years ago: alien sex and sex with aliens, pocket universes, the Riverworld. I suggest that in addition to his justly-recognized inventiveness in the realm of ideas, Farmer has also pushed at the limits of the science fiction/fantasy conception of the hero. Cawelti writes that the poles of hero design in most adventure fiction are the superhero and the ordinary man, and that "more sophisticated adults generally prefer the 'ordinary' hero figure who is dominant in the fictions of those who are usually considered the best writers of "grown-up" adventures.... Some of the most popular writers of this type have managed to combine the superhero with a certain degree of sophistication as in the James Bond adventures of Ian Fleming" (Cawelti, p 40). Farmer has created heroes at both ends of this spectrum, and it is probably his superheroes that show the greatest degree of innovation in the use of the formula. The fictional logic which results in the superhero, however, also affects other, "lesser" characters, so that there is a constant tendency in Farmer's work to go beyond the ritual and formulaic demands of the genre to examine the nature of the hero and his relationship to ordinary men and their world.

Farmer's work exhibits a fascination with the great hero, both the fictional figure who in the past was the center and protagonist of epic and romance and the historical man whose actions have approximated those of imaginary heroes. Riverworld features the explorer-adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton and a number of fictional and historical characters who qualify as heroic despite their secondary roles: Lothar von Richtofen, Cyrano de Bergerac, Eric Bloodaxe, Joe Miller. The historico-fictional world of the Rivervalley, however, is less epic in its proportions than Farmer's wholly fictional creations and continuations; the universes of the World of Tiers, Wold Newton, and various non-cycle stories3 give us the neo-Amerindian figures of Roger Two-Hawks and Kickaha, the neo-Tarzans Ras Tyger, Grandrith, John Gribardsun, and the borrowed figures of Doc Savage/Doc Caliban, Sherlock Holmes, and Phileas Fogg, to name a few. These heroes coexist in Farmer's fiction with two other classes of central character: the ordinary man who must act the hero and the ordinary man who is transformed into a superhero.

The first class is by far the largest of the three, and includes Hal Yarrow (The Lovers), Sam Clemens and Peter Jairus Frigate (Riverworld), Alan Green (The Green Odyssey), Ulysses Singing Bear (The Stone God Awakens), and Ishmael (The Wind Whales of Ishmael). (Note that there is no correlation between super-heroism and status as an Amerindian, historical, or borrowed-fictional character; only the neo-Tarzans and the pulp heroes are inevitably superheroic.) The second category consists of those who pass beyond the limits of ordinary men to join the ranks of the superheroes: Peter Stagg (Flesh), Wolff/Jadawin (World of Tiers), Herald Childe (Image of the Beast, Blown), and Dan Temper ("The God Business").                

This typology requires a few qualifications. First, it does not include antiheroes—Jack Cull of Inside Outside or Morfiks of "A Bowl Bigger than Earth"—or satiric antitypes like Ralph von Wau Wau or Simon Wagstaff. Nor are the compartments watertight; there are variations, characters that cross boundaries or modify qualities. John Carmody is an antihero who is transformed, at least temporarily, into a superhero, entering that class from an unlikely direction, and there are maturing experiences that have the effect of transforming a young man into a hero, as in the cases of Hadon of Opar or Benoni Rider (The Cache from Outer Space). And a final caveat: this typology is only the beginning of an investigation of the web of motifs that unifies much of Farmer's work in this area, and is useful mainly as a rhetorical framework at this point.               

The ordinary-man hero is generally one who has been removed from his habitual landscape and placed in a situation requiring him to behave heroically: Ulysses Singing Bear and Ishmael find themselves in the far future; Alan Green is marooned on a backward planet. In each of these cases the new environment is primitive technologically, but it is not the newcomer's superior knowledge so much as his partly-developed strength, cunning, and courage that allows him to save not only himself but his adopted people or family. The qualities they develop in worlds of danger are those of the hero, but the men themselves, though brave and good, are not epic in stature. Like the ordinary folk who gather about Burton on Resurrection Day in the Rivervalley, they are ourselves, involuntarily translated to a world that requires heroism even of the unheroic. Unlike some of the other resurrectees, however, they are able to respond to the challenge.                

Riverworld can be seen as an application of this formula on a grand scale: every human ever born is forced to adjust to a completely new, alien environment, to test courage, strength, and nerve. The range of responses is illustrated throughout both volumes, but can be seen in miniature in the description of Resurrection Day's madness: Burton is epic-heroic; Frigate and the others of the group adjust and struggle for a new life; the great majority turn to the old behaviors of Earthly life or worse. Riverworld, in fact, in its recapitulation of human history from Eden through savagery to the industrial state, provides a broad ironic-mimetic background against which we see how human vanities and follies persist despite the fresh start of Resurrection Day and new set of conditions. The heroic ideal is not immune to this irony. As the central character of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Burton can qualify as a hero of nearly superhero class; but while his outward actions are epic enough, his psychology diverges somewhat from that of the superhero, as a comparison with Grandrith shows. For now it is enough to say that Burton is a driven man, that while he often possesses the clearheaded, alienated rationality of a Grandrith or a Kickaha, he is also a possessed, compulsive adventurer who has no true home. The second volume, The Fabulous Riverboat, offers us as central character a man with almost no heroism at all, the neurotic Sam Clemens, a physical coward (certainly not one of Burton's problems) haunted by memories of his lost Libby (whom he finds only to lose her to Cyrano, a truly heroic figure) and driven to recapture his old dreams by recreating the industrial state with all its attendant diseases so that he can build and command a unique Riverboat. In fact that Clemens is a likeable, generally sympathetic character does not change the fact that he is more like Farmer's antiheroes than his heroes. Clemens can be seen as an incomplete man, not only because of his unattained dreams, but because some of the heroic qualities that should be his, specifically the physical courage and strength and the innocent savagery possessed by many of Farmer's heroes, reside outside him in the person of the titanthrope, Joe Miller. Sam is neurotically complex, sophisticated, and verbal, a user of technology (such as the firearms he demands his engineer, Van Boom, to make for him); Joe Miller is innocently (though not naively) direct, has a speech impediment, and fights with fists, club, or his iron axe.                

Where the Riverworld reveals the limitations and contradictions of heroism as well as the distance between the herd and the hero, the tales of transformed heroes increase the distance between ordinary and extraordinary men, and at the same time unironically portray the hero as an integral man. There are three ways of acquiring the attributes of a hero in Farmer's work (avoiding the problem of the born hero who is merely given the chance to reveal his talents in a tale: Benoni Rider, Kickaha, Hadon): an ordinary man may be forced to act heroically by new surroundings; parental or other influences may control the young hero's upbringing to provide unusual attributes, talents, and attitudes (Grandrith, Caliban, Fogg, Ras Tyger); or transcendent forces can unlock the true heroic self or work a near-magical transformation to create a hero of semidivine capacities. In tales of this last class, the pattern has similarities to those outlined by mythographers such as Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell. Flesh and "The God Business" are stories of the demigod that dwells in all men, while "Son" and Blown are the less epic fables of the release of the protagonist from the grip of neurosis or sexual repression; Part One of Night of Light partakes of both patterns of transformation. But whether it is the superman or the healthy man who emerges from the chrysalis of ordinariness or neurosis, the theme of such stories is release and growth, a motif important in most of Farmer's fiction; it is echoed in the stories of involuntary heroes, in Wolff's discovery of his true self and nature, and in the maturing process of Benoni Rider, Ras Tyger, young Grandrith, and other born heroes. But the crucial factor in the cases at hand is the release by transcendent, nearly supernatural forces of the demigod-hero. In Flesh, "The God Business," and Night of Light, the ties with divine powers and/or religion are strong, even if the immediate causal machinery is technologically or scientifically rationalized. In each of these stories the hero undergoes a real or symbolic death and rebirth: Stagg's physical death and resurrection marks the end of his reign as Sunhero, but the symbolic and spiritual rebirths of Dan Temper and John Carmody are the beginnings of their powers. Both of the latter are freed of psychic bonds; Temper becomes a god permanently, while Carmody only fathers one and acquires supernormal powers temporarily.                

This process of transformation and release is not the exclusive property of demigod-heroes, but also works its magic on more ordinary men who are chained down by their own neuroses and weaknesses. Chris Jones of "Son" recapitulates the Jonah story and gains true maturity by being born again psychically from the belly of a cybernated whale-submarine; Hal Yarrow is born into the world of (relatively) unrepressed sexuality (see the end of §15 of The Lovers); even Grandrith and Caliban, already superheroes, undergo psychic catharses which purge them of unhealthy connections between sexuality and violence. These transformations are not accomplished by transcendent powers, nor are they associated with religion (Yarrow moves away from the influence of the Sturch); in fact, these renewals have little or nothing to do with heroism (though I will deal with Grandrith below). But they do suggest the ways in which Farmer's fiction is unified in its uses of myth and psychology.

The center of my examination of Farmer's portrait of the hero must be the superhero, especially that figure characterized by Leslie Fiedler with some slight exaggeration as "the lonely phallic übermensch triumphing by his ability not to create but to kill."4 The superhero is not necessarily the phallic superman, though the two types are generally different in degree rather than kind. The qualities they share are predictable: they are larger than life, smarter and luckier than any ordinary man; they are more separated from the herd than the involuntary heroes, or even the transformed demigods (since these were once ordinary men), and are frequently symbolic savages—but always outsiders. The phallic superman is set apart by Farmer's study of the demonic potential of the heroic character, particularly the heroic libido, and the nexus between sexuality and violence. Perhaps the best way to sort this out is to look at the characteristics of the superhero and then go on to the qualities or degrees that make the hero a phallic superman.                

If an essential quality of a Farmer hero is some sort of separation from the run of humanity, whether caused by inherent qualities or circumstances outside the character (temporal displacement, for example), then the superhero is super-alienated. As if the fact of extraordinary physical appearance and physical and intellectual prowess were not enough to accomplish this, Farmer frequently takes his hero completely out of the stream of human affairs. Caliban/Savage and Phileas Fogg, although they live among the herd, possess superhuman mental and physical powers, the results of their unusual upbringings, that set them off—they are among us but not of us, and they live apart even in the metropolis. Most of Farmer's superheroes, however, choose to leave civilization altogether—they are, at least symbolically, wild men, flourishing where lesser men would die, ranging jungle, desert, or plain. The Tarzan recreations combine a special upbringing with the wild man motif that has been present in Farmer's writing at least since "The Alley Man" (1959) and The Cache from Outer Space (1962) and which appears in the primitivism of Riverworld. The usefulness of the Tarzan version of the wild man, not only as an adventure hero, but as a device for Swiftian or Voltairean satire, I will return to below.                

Another type of romantic wild man is the neo-Amerind, Kickaha or Benoni Rider. Kickaha is a complex figure, a civilized man (like Gribardsun) who prefers the life of an Indian, but who maintains several other identities on other levels of the World of Tiers. As a trickster-hero he is also reminiscent of Odysseus (another of Farmer's personal heroes), and seems to share some of the attitudes and characteristics of the phallic superman. Benoni Rider is also a Caucasian whose Amerindian values are adopted, but in this case a whole post-holocaust society has taken on the culture. As a result, Benoni is not homeless in the ways Kickaha and Grandrith are, but, like Hadon of Opar, he is forced to wander away from home before he can encounter adventure and confirm his status as a hero and an adult.                

This hero with at least one foot in the wilderness is more than a movie Tarzan or noble Red Man; in his behavior and attitudes he is close to the conventional idea of the savage. Grandrith/Greystoke will not hesitate to eat human flesh when he must; in fact, his diet when in the jungle, or that of Benoni Rider in his desert trek, includes items shunned by modern Westerners (insects, baby birds). There is a more casual attitude toward, and a greater capacity for, violence and homicide, and a corresponding respect for physical courage even in enemies—and little concern for abstract ethical questions. Grandrith and Kickaha are typical of heroes who have chosen to live in the wilderness in that they long for the earth to return to its primitive state, with mankind few and weak, animal life numerous and strong, and no cities or industries to poison the land. Grandrith is even tempted to take part in a scheme to destroy industrial civilization so this can come about (see A Feast Unknown, §43). Clearly this combination of Darwinian ruthlessness and noble savagery is more than a symbol of the primordial strength and purity of these characters; it is an indication of how far removed they are from the concerns and desires of the ordinary man—and the reader.                

The range of superheroes runs from Ras Tyger, Hadon, and Benoni Rider, who are exceptionally smart and strong young champions, through Kickaha, a mature Amerindian Odysseus, to Caliban/Savage, Fogg, Wolff, Grandrith/Greystone, and Gribardsun. These last are so far beyond even the superior heroics of, say, Kickaha, that they are properly supermen. All are effectively immortal. Grandrith possesses a special luck, "a 'field' that pulls events together" (Feast, §5); the unlikely escapes and fortunate coincidences that gather about other Farmer heroes suggest that Grandrith is not the only such man. It is among these more-than-men that we find the hero farthest from the common man, the phallic superman. In the persons of Caliban/Savage, Grandrith/Greystoke, Ras Tyger, and even Kickaha and Benoni Rider I can see Farmer extending the limits of the conventional pulp adventure hero, not only to show more about the personality and values of such a man (for example, attitudes toward justice, violence, the taking of life, and the like), but to show sides of him not examined ordinarily, especially the sexual side.5 The primary unconventional exploration, one that Farmer has been drawn to throughout his career, concerns the connections between sexuality and violence; this is apparently what prompts Fiedler's "phallic übermensch" remark. The genuine phallic superman is, in the current euphemism, sexually active; more than that, there is a connection between his capacities for copulation and destruction—one is the mirror of the other. The focus of this concern with the demonic aspect of the hero and of sexuality itself is to be found in the novel that Fiedler characterizes as "sadopornographic": A Feast Unknown.                

Feast represents the intersection of two sets of formulas, the adventure tale and the pornographic novel. While the adventure component needs no comment at the moment, perhaps it would be useful to clarify the workings of the "pornographic" part. For the novel is not pornography—there is too much plot between the sexual encounters for it to qualify as the sort of non-novel that used to be sold at train stations (Cawelti, by the way, has an excellent short section on the operation and appeal of the pornography formula; see Cawelti, pp 14-5). Rather, it is like pornography in that every time there is an opportunity for a sexual encounter, one takes place. Given that one of the book's themes is the connection between sex and violence, this adaptation and mixing of formulas works.                

The feud between Grandrith and Caliban in Feast is overtly and covertly sexual: Caliban thinks Grandrith has kidnapped, raped and murdered Caliban's cousin, Patricia Wilde, and understandably wants revenge—though Caliban's bloodlust is unexpected in view of his ethical qualms about killing. The real moving force, however, is a homicidal sexual psychosis which has overtaken both heroes as a side effect of an immortality elixir. Grandrith has been experiencing orgasms each time he kills an enemy, as, presumably, has Caliban. In the final showdown they castrate each other in the course of a horrendous battle, and eventually regain their usual mental balance. Grandrith's understanding of this: "I had always thought my attitude toward killing was very healthy. And I'd always thought my attitude toward sex was extremely healthy. But somewhere in me was a linkage between the two. Something in me equated the act of coitus with killing, the thrust of the penis with the thrust of the knife, orgasms with the bliss of the knife, as Nietzsche called it" (Feast, §60). The point is not that this is a new revelation, but that Freudian psychoanalytic ideas about sex and death are applied to a traditional hero in the context of a formula adventure. I doubt that many readers of Feast or "Extracts from the Memoirs of 'Lord Greystoke'" will ever think of Tarzan, or any hero vaguely like him, in the nineteenth-century terms in which he was originally conceived.

While Grandrith in the grip of his psychosis represents the most complete development of the phallic superman, other heroes possess varying degrees of phallic qualities. Ras Tyger and Greystoke, as versions of Tarzan, are closest to Grandrith. While Tarzan Alive and the "Extracts" are less melodramatic than Feast, Greystoke clearly has a libido to match his heroic strength, a sexuality free of the repression and hypocrisy of human civilization (he has, for example, several wives among the subhuman n'k). Ras Tyger, while still an adolescent, seduces nearly the entire younger generation, male and female, of a neighboring black tribe, which he later singlehandedly decimates as a result of a feud. As with Greystoke, however, there is little or no exploration of the sex-violence connection; these two characters, like Kickaha with his several families, are merely sexually superpotent, not sexually demonic. The clearest approaches to Feast's explorations come in a "sexy" Glaxy Novel, Flesh, and, oddly enough, in an Ace novel (noted for their surface propriety because they were aimed at adolescents), The Cache from Outer Space.                

Leslie Fiedler suggests that Peter Stagg is the opposite of the phallic superman, since the latter "comes into direct (and perhaps irreconcilable) conflict" with the Gravesian tale "in which the male [is] not a Hero but a Servant of that great principle of fertility" (Fiedler, p 236). True enough, but Peter Stagg's reign as Sunhero is as violent (though not as sadistic) as Grandrith's adventures, and the sources of his capacities for both destruction and copulation—the antlers—are the same, and he has as little control over his actions as Grandrith in his madness. Perhaps it is better, though oversimple, to say that both books attempt to penetrate to that level of reality from which spring birth and death, generation and decay—love and murder—and that Feast is Freudian and psychological in its emphasis while Flesh is Jungian and mythic.                

Benoni Rider's sexuality is darker than Stagg's and closer to Grandrith's. The only thread that runs all the way through Cache from the first page to the last is Benoni's desire for a particular young woman of his town and his rivalry with Joel Vahndert over her. In the end, having matured in the course of his travels, he accepts her marriage to a third young man and turns his attention to the taming and possession of the captured queen of Kaywo. Benoni, like Hadon of Opar, is a young champion whose adventures are part of a rite of passage (Hadon's rite is not for entry into manhood but an imperial crown, but the ritual nature remains), and whose talents, especially his sophisticated intelligence, are so superior as to strain credulity. His rivalry with Joel Vahndert is the product of opposing natures and personal styles, but its heart is sexual—both want Debra Awvrez. The overt feud begins with Benoni kicking Joel in the crotch (Joel returns the compliment later) and ends with the obligatory fight to the death. Benoni kills Joel by tearing his tongue out—as close to castration as one could get in an Ace Double at the time. The scene that ends with Benoni "staring at the thing, so like a headless fish, in his hand"6 is strongly reminiscent of the climactic fight in Feast in which Grandrith and Caliban barehandedly castrate each other. Benoni's barely-veiled sexual aggression seems to be at odds with his Jack Armstrong character; in fact, it is the sexual energy and territoriality of the young buck that strikes me as more true to life than the Eagle-Scout civic virtues of the boy who saves his people.                

Finally, though, the superior or demonic sexual powers of the hero are only part of the whole package of characteristics that emphasize the distance between him and us. If the Tarzan recreations are the farthest from the reader, then Grandrith/Greystoke marks the very limits of the heroic outsider, the superman who can still be called human, but who possesses none of the conditioning of human society, whose rationality is minimally impaired by the habit of rationalizing. This most important psychic distance is the result of Grandrith/Greystoke's upbringing as a feral man—what Farmer calls his "infrahuman" nature. While Kickaha, Ras Tyger, Gribardsun, Caliban, Wolff, and other heroes maintain some human contacts and some sense of connectedness with humanity, Grandrith/Greystone is truly at home only in the wild, independent of the socioeconomic needs of normal men, and free even of time. In a section of the "Extracts" entitled "Time Has No Shadows," Greystoke says, "And when I am back in the jungle, it is with relief that I sink back into my natural timelessness. I become one with the beasts and trees, and I can laze away weeks or months with no thought beyond the now. If I were a true n'k I would be unable to imagine beyond now" (Mother Was a Lovely Beast, p 87). This dreamlike, edenic timelessness may be attractive to us, but Greystoke makes it clear that it is not for humans, who are always "bound to their economics" (Mother Was a Lovely Beast, p 85). The other qualities that accompany this are likely to trouble us: a survival ethic untouched by sentimentality, hypocrisy, or a feeling of community; a capacity for ruthless, uninhibited violence; intolerance of the self-serving and self-deceiving sides of herd morality. What is most troubling for us, perhaps, is the finality of the fact that Grandrith/Greystoke is not one of us, is better than we are, and feels no guilt or embarrassment about it. He accepts an isolation that his readers could not bear and goes his own way. We interfere at our own risk.                

Farmer's phallic supermen go beyond the stylized heroes of space opera and adventure formula. Having shown the heroic or even divine capacities of ordinary men, he turns back to look at the dark side of the hero, rejecting the simple, clean, romantic optimism inherent in much of the adventure formula in favor not of an equally simple pessimism, but of a complex, ironic view of man at the extremes of his potential and even his humanity. Through all this, but especially in the Riverworld and the Tarzan recreations, runs an acceptance, edged with anger, of human frailty, foolishness, and stubbornness—and the certainty that heroism is possible despite our flaws. Insofar as Farmer's lesser heroes participate in the phallic superman's alienation, alien morality, and demonic sexuality—and his power to be authentically himself—they extend the limits of the science fiction/fantasy formula and provide Farmer with a means of making these universal archetypes his own.


1. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance (US 1976 viii+336), p 6.

2. Appropriately enough, the two major evaluative essays on Farmer turn on the question of his worth as a genre writer: Franz Rottensteiner sees Farmer as an all-too-typical sf hack, while Leslie Fiedler portrays him as a man whose personal vision transforms received materials into a feast for the imagination. See Rottensteiner, "Playing Around with Creation: Philip José Farmer," SFS 1(1973):95-97, and Fiedler, "Thanks for the Feast," 1972; rpt. The Book of Philip José Farmer (US 1973 vi+239), pp 233-9.

3. Two pieces that attempt to untangle the relationships among Farmer's story cycles are Thomas L. Wymer, "Speculative Fiction, Bibliographies, and Philip José Farmer," Extrapolation 18(Dec 1976):59-72, and Russell Letson, "The Worlds of Philip José Farmer," Extrapolation (forthcoming). I have taken Wymer's advice on the several Tarzan recreations: while Grandrith and Greystoke are probably distinct creations (despite similarities in their family trees), I will refer to them in this paper as a sort of composite figure, Grandrith/Greystoke, except when I refer to only one of them. When I refer to Tarzan, I mean the original creation of Burroughs rather than any of Farmer's recreations or the real man who uses the Greystoke pseudonym. Tarzan Alive (US 1972) and "Extracts from the Memoirs of 'Lord Greystoke'" in Mother Was a Lovely Beast (1974; rpt. US 1976 xiii+253), pp 36-87, are parts of the Greystoke life story, while A Feast Unknown (US 1969) and Lord of the Trees (US 1970) are volumes IX and X of the memoirs of Lord Grandrith.

4. Fiedler in The Book of Philip José Farmer, pp 236-7. Hereafter cited in the text as "Fiedler."

5. For a statement of Farmer's view of what he was doing, see "Philip José Farmer, An Interview Conducted by Paul Walker," Luna Monthly 54(Sept 1974):1-11.

6. The Cache from Outer Space (US 1964 139), p 134.

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