The Tarnsman of Gor by John Norman (real name, John Frederick Lange Jr) was first published in 1966, and is mostly about a man who repeatedly falls from great heights, and through no skill or talent of his own, lives to fall another day after a not-so-engaging game of capture the home stone. In fact, in this novel alone, there was two times where Tarl Cabot, the hero and narrator of the novel, falls to his assured death, and one account of a flying drawing-and-quartering where he should not only be torn in half by mighty giant birds, but possibly also fall to the ground below in pieces. That there are 36 books in the series seems to suggest that Cabot survives a great many falls, though in honesty, this is the only one I have currently read. I am at the beginning of Outlaw of Gor (1967), which seemingly chronicles the entire first book over the span of 7 months. In those seven months, Tarl Cabot went from a middling academic to a mighty warrior, who not only learned the language of Gor through intense immersion, but also its customs and learned to manage a Gorean weapons and massive flying warbirds call tarns expertly.
When I was a kid, I tried to read every book in the fantasy and sci-fi section of our library, but I have no real memory of the stories of Gor. I do remember hearing they were of a more erotic track than they actually are, however. Or at least the first one had little eroticism in its fantasy adventure. From research, it seems the eroticism and the Gorean BDSM sub-culture stem more from his future novels. Even in this first novel, the varieties of slaves are referenced rather than explained in depth, which keeps the novel moving in a swift pace.
Tarnsman of Gor, much like 2012 John Carter film, is a victim to future, more accepted, and tightly crafted fantasy works, so going back and reading it feels like it is a trite adventure rather than an influential work. Read in 1966, among the resurging popularity of Tolkien, it would have probably have felt much newer and more innovative. It feels more like well-tread ground due to the deluge of fantasy novels which have come afterwards, many of which have moved into mainstream readership. Like John Carter, based on the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, A Princess of Mars, written in 1912 as a precursor to the fictional work of Tolkien. His grand story, like that of Tarnsman of Gor, is diluted by other works that come after it, making it difficult to read it as originally intended.
The prose is often clumsy and full of commas, appositives, and extensive nonrestrictive clauses in nearly every sentence. It is this denseness and use of clauses that harkens to Norman’s academic career as it is common to examine, dilute, explain, and clarify each sentence as it will likely need to be defended upon peer review. He had earned his PhD three years prior to publication of the novel, and the title of his dissertation, “In defense of ethical naturalism: an examination of certain aspects of naturalistic fallacy, with particular attention to the logic of an open question argument” (Princeton, 1963) is relevant to any discussion of his prose styling since he borrows from his academic writing influences with broad strokes. Even his description of his readers who consume the Gorean novels is “highly intelligent, highly sexed individuals” (Polygraff, 2010). I’ve seen more of the highly intelligent than the highly sexed in the first novel, where there is little in terms of heated or even marginally sexy exchanges.
In fact, spoiler warning for those hoping for some sexy Gorean erotic action dripping from the pages of Tarnsman, the only actual reference to sex as an act in the book is when Tarl flings Talena’s dress to the ground as they fly away so all of Gor could see what was going to happen. That’s pretty much the most direct. Nothing happens, but if there were a circle fade to black on the Tarn flying away with Tarl and the naked Talena in tow, the soft sounds of Marvin Gaye would beg them to get it on. There are references to pleasure slaves and rape, but very little of actual consequence in the action of the novel. Even Talena’s submission to him had a huge air of restraint because of both Tarl’s dedication to her honor and her cunning defiance of lying rather than really submitting to him. Perhaps there will be more tawdry scenes in the future novels of Gor. Much seems to have been made of the BDSM aspects of the series, and while there was a throughline of submission in the nature of the slave structures of Gor, little of it was of direct connection to the adventure. It was flavor text within flavor text, bound by commas, and submitting to no man. Much like Talena until the end of the book, where even then, she was a free woman of Gor rather than a submissive to Tarl Cabot.
There are essays and think-pieces and rants about Norman’s portrayal of women in the Gorean saga. Most of what is available hold contempt for his world of captive slave women and their supposed natural subservience to the men of the world. It is with this eye to the contempt of many that John Norman blames his publication blacklisting from DAW Books. Regardless of his blacklisting, though, Norman has continued to release novel after novel, doubling-down on the world of Gor, and if one would believe the critics who make much of his vast and varied descriptions of submission and slavery of women from Hunters of Gor on, he has decided that making the slavery and submission aspects even more prominent was the necessary reaction. In Tarnsman, however, there is little to be found.
Rather, Tarnman is an awkward and forgettable tale. While I know I read it because of the lurid descriptions of the series when I was younger and even the mere mention of a sweat-heavy bosom would set fire to my loins, the base description of passion in this sentence is ten times as erotic as anything within the pages of Tarnsman. I only remembered I had read it because of what it was supposed to have in it, and remembered none of the book because it did not live up to the naughty reputation that preceded it. Listening it and reading passages from it to better get a feel for Norman’s prose, I feel that my time could have been spent more positively. Perhaps I should have spent it watching the second film, Outlaw of Gor (1988), which, like the first film, had next-to-no relation to the books other than a few place and character names.
Other Reviews and Thoughts on The Tarnsman of Gor:
- Review: Tarnsman of Gor, by John Norman | by Matthew Kuhl | Medium
- [Review] Tarnsman of Gor, by John Norman | EN World | Dungeons & Dragons | Tabletop Roleplaying Games
- Detailed Review Summary of Tarnsman of Gor by John Norman (allreaders.com)
- Priest-Kings of Gor: Trying so hard not to be sexist | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews
- I Swear to Gor (somethingawful.com)
Tarnsman of Gor begins with Tarl Cabot, a generally unremarkable fellow from Bristol who fibs his credentials and teaches at a college in Massachusetts. He borrows some camping gear and is abducted by a UFO after finding a strange metallic letter from his long-lost father on a rock in the woods. The UFO takes him to Gor, a counter-Earth that hides on the other side of the sun out of sight from astronomer eyes. In the next undetermined amount of time, but no more than seven months according to the second book, Tarl meets his father, who abandoned he and his mother on Earth to live on Gor those many years ago, learns the language, history, and customs of Gor, learns to ride a Tarn (a large bird) expertly, becomes extremely proficient with swords, spears, shields, bows, and crossbows, and is sent on the most important quest in the entire city of Ko-ro-ba, where his father is the city leader. The last two things, him riding the Tarn expertly the first time, joining the Warrior Caste, and going on an important city mission, happen within mere days of each other. In fact, a large amount of his time on Gor is spent during a siege which spans weeks later in the novel, so he is adept at mastering melee and ranged combat as well as riding mounts in a very short time indeed.
So off he goes on his mission to steal the Home Stone of the city of Ar, which is ruled by Marlenus, an emperor-esque figure called the Ubar. By stealing the Home Stone, the city will fall into disarray and the various cities he has captured and forced to do his bidding may rise up and stop him. Tarl is given a female slave, Sana, who is part of the plan. She is to impersonate the Ubar’s daughter, Talena, who will be visiting the Home Stone for a ceremony and buy him time to escape. It is a suicide mission for her, and Tarl’s first act in his mission is to completely disregard the mission and take her back to her home and free her from his service. He then heads to Ar to steal the Home Stone, but without any real plan.
He grabs the Home Stone, and the daughter of the Ubar climbs up onto his Tarn as he flies off with it. He locks the Home Stone in his pack. Rather than see her fall to her death, he pulls her up and holds her close. She whimpers and he feels bad. Then she tosses him off of the tarn to his death because that’s what daughters of the Ubar do to stupid tarnsmen. This is Tarl’s first fall. He lands in a sticky web and a friendly spider named Nar helps release him. The spider agrees to take him to the edge of the swamp to continue his quest, even though he lost the Home Stone when Talena tossed him from the tarn.
Against the laws of credulity, Tarl and Nar see Talena about the be eaten by a wild Tharlarion, a giant lizard. Tarl, of course, jumps to her defense and kills the beast. When he tries to assist her, she attacks him with a dagger. He saves her from quicksand again and takes her to some Ka-la-na trees where he tries to have her strip naked so he can check for hidden weapons. He is interrupted by soldiers of Ar. They shackle him and tell them that Marlenus has fled the city and Ar has fallen. So now Talena and her family are to be killed. Tarl fights the soliders and somehow wins, even while bound. So now Talena is his travelling companion.
They travel and are beset by soldiers. Tarl wins a fight and just as he is supposed to kill the soldier, Kazrak as is the custom on Gor, the Merchant Mintar appears. Kazrak calls Tarl a sword brother because of the blood drawn in the fight, and Tarl joins the merchant caravan heading to Ar. During this time, Talena is a happy slave who sleeps in Tarl’s tent but cavorts with the other slave girls. they arrive at the city of tents, where a siege is set to overtake Ar from the Initiates, Gor’s take on largely imponent holy men. But Talena is discovered by Pa-Kur, the Master Assassin of Ar. He plans on taking over the city and installing himself as Ubar. He decides to make Talena his queen to gain the loyalty of those still loyal to Marlenus. That just leaves Tarl.
He is bound to a crude log device called the frame of humiliation and tossed into the river. It is forbidden for any on Gor to rescue someone on the frame. So, Tarl floats away and is nearly dead when a tarn picks him up from the water. The ropes break and the frame drops to the ground below as the tarn flies off with Tarl in its claws. Then a second tarn attacks the one holding Tarl and it lets for. Tarl falls again. Then, the attacking tarn grabs him and flies off to its nest. Surprise! It’s Tarl’s war tarn that had escapes. He pets it and it decides a life in captivity is better than freedom. Tarl also finds the Home Stone in its makeshift nest.
Tarl decides to fly home to Ko-Ro-Ba, but sees some campfires in the mountains. So he drops down to investigate in time to save a poor man afflicted with Darkosis, Gor’s form of leprosy, from a larl, a giant mountain lion like creature. But the man is not really suffering from Darkosis. It is Marlenus in disguise! Because he stole the Home Stone and caused Marlenus to fall from grace as the Ubar of Ar, Tarl is sentences to the “tarn death.” It is basically an in-flight drawing-and-quartering, or halving since there are only two tarns and the ropes are attached to the arms and legs of the victim to rip them in half. This is an almost-fall. He doesn’t actually fall from the tarn, though he is dangled from it. Of course, no one has ever survived the tarn death. Never in the history of Gor. This means that Tarl, our accidental hero, will definitely survive the tarn death. He gets out of the ropes of one tarn before it tears his arms off, and climbs up to the other tarn. He then tossed the tarnsman off and flew off to the tent camp outside of Ar. He had learned from Marlenus that Talena had asked for the frame of humiliation in hopes he would live to return to her.
Obviously, he decides to return to her, and proclaims his love for her. He flies to the camp and joins Kazrak. But then they are summoned to the tent of Mintar where Marlenus is playing a chesslike game. Marlenus uses the pieces to explain that he and his followers will sneak into Ar and attack from within to retake the city. During that time, Tarl decides he will find Talena. He poses as a messenger from the Caste of Assassins and finds her tent. But it is not Talena inside, so he does not give himself away. He waits, wondering where she might be during the weeks of the siege.
Pa-kur’s siege is successful, and the Initiates agree to let him take over Ar. The condition most relevant to Tarl is that Talena must be killed as originally proclaimed. Pa-kur agrees. Over these weeks, Tarl did not have any solid plans, but as soon as she is in danger again, he realizes Marlenus must have a secret way into Ar. Since he used the robes of the afflicted, it must be the Darkosis pits. He flies his tarn to an empty pit and finds a mechanism to enter the city and the main tower where Marlenus and his loyal followers are besieged. He releases their wild and starving tarn into the main hall where guards were playing the waiting game against Marlenus. It is a slaughter and everyone dies except Tarl. He heads up the stairs and is spotted by a crew of soldiers. In convenient deus ex machina form, Tarl suddenly becomes the chosen one of the Priest Kings and murders all of the guards quickly. He then signals to Marlenus who comes out of hiding.
Tarl decides to stop the execution of Talena while Marlenus decides to rally the troops in Ar against Pa-Kur’s army. Tarl flies to the cylinder where Talena is to be impaled upon a lance and challenges the Initiates and Pa-Kur. The self-appointed leader of the initiates screams some religious mumbo-jumbo about being the voice of the Priest Kings and attempts to kill Talena, which is a violation of the laws of the Initiates. For his insolence, the Priest Kings cast holy fire on him and he dies. So Tarl faces off against Pa-Kur, the finest swordsman in all of Ar. He, of course, bests him in battle, and rather than be killed as a dog, Pa-Kur leaps to his supposed death. Marlenus, Tarl’s father, along with Kazrak and the slave girl he freed in the beginning of the book, Sana, pop in to celebrate. Tarl binds Talena and flies into the sky, dropping her dress to the streets so the people of Ar know he is finally going to have sexy time.
Then, sometime later, Tarl is transported back to Earth in a UFO. He longs for Gor and Talena, but that is a story for book 2: Outlaw of Gor (1967).