Thursday, May 2, 2013

An insatiable hate and vengeance.

Edgar Rice Burroughs had some pretty evil guys filling the roles of villains in his various novels. In The Beasts of Tarzan (1914), for instance, the evil Nikolas Rokoff takes revenge on the Ape Man by kidnapping Jane Clayton and her baby son, intending to eventually kill Jane and leave the son to be raised by cannibals.

But my vote for most evil ERB villain would be Jules de Vac, a French fencing master who served in the court of England's Henry III in the 13th Century.

We learn about de Vac in The Outlaw of Torn, which was serialized in New Story Magazine in 1914, then published in book form in 1927. We don't know a lot about de Vac's back story before he came to England, but it must have been an odd story indeed. Because this guy hates Englishmen. He really, really hates Englishmen.

And when Henry III--who is kind of a jerk--slaps him one day, de Vac decides its time to take action. His plan involves kidnapping the king's toddler-aged son Richard and sneaking off with him. He'd claim to be the boy's father, teach him to be a master swordsmen, and set him to work killing as many Englishmen as he can before he's eventually caught and hanged. It's a plan that will take a couple of decades to come to fruition, but de Vac is nothing but not patient. It gives him plenty of time to teach Richard swordsmanship.

Richard, of course, doesn't remember he's Richard. As he grows up, he goes by the name of Norman of Torn (Torn being the old castle de Vac takes him to). And he becomes an outlaw, raiding both castles loyal to King Henry and castles loyal to the nobility that is starting to rebel against Henry's dictatorial rule.

But de Vac's plans are partially spoiled when young Norman befriends a priest named Father Claude, who teaches him to read and write and to show chivalry for women and the down-trodden.

This turns the outlaw into a sort-of Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Pretty soon, he's got a small army encamped at Torn--with the fractious political situation preventing either the king or the nobility from bringing enough force to bear to beat him in a fight. He and his men kick butt and take names across England.

Norman's chivalry towards women eventually leads him to rescue the beautiful Bertrade de Monfort from a kidnapper. The two fall in love, but she doesn't know he's the so-called "Devil of Torn" and he doesn't see a way out of the life he's living. He doesn't hate the English any more, but Burroughs manages to create quite an interesting moral dilemma. Norman might give up being an outlaw, but his men won't necessarily do so. That would mean they'd be free to rampage across England without his force of will to keep women and the poor safe from their depredations. He seems stuck where he is. Following Norman's character arc (paralleled by Bertrade's arc in her eventually accepting the love of a man she believes to be "low born") makes for a fascinating journey.

It's a great yarn, fast-moving and full of action without sacrificing what are some of the author's best characterizations. And Jules de Vac is a villain you really love to hate. He's a guy who raised Norman as a son with the direct intention of eventually getting Norman killed. And when his plans seem to unravel as the book progresses, he takes ruthless and bloodthirsty steps to get that plan back on track.

The dialogue is fun to read as well. Burroughs has everyone speaking in vaguely Shakespearean English. This isn't quite historically accurate and there are a few instances where the speech is a bit stilted, but for the most part Burroughs skill at picking the right words and sentence structures make it sound "right."

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