John Norman’s Gor – September Reading Review

I’ve started a few books this month, but only finished the first three of John Norman’s Gor series.  The series is (in)famous for its sexual politics and the philosophy underpinning them.  I read them having been pulled into a nostalgic reverie on my adolescent fantasy and sci-fi reading habits by the remake of Predator (my mind moving from Predator to Conan, to the books I was inspired to read by a slightly older, similarly fantasy oriented boy).  I never read the Gor books then, but remembered them from their covers and decided to immerse myself (one needs an excuse to have done so…).

  • Tarnsman of Gor – John Norman (1966)
  • Outlaw of Gor – John Norman (1967)
  • Priest Kings of Gor – John Norman (1968)

The first three of the now 30+ series work quite well as a trilogy of novels, building from the protagonist’s first encounter with the world of Gor and the mysterious power of the Priest Kings, who rule it remotely from their stronghold in the mountains, through to his meeting and interacting with them in the third book.  I’ll discuss the big issue many people have with the novels below – but first a quick review of each excluding the sexual politics.
Tarnsman of Gor
The first in the series, this does a good job of setting up the world of the counter-earth (so called as it is located on the opposite side of the Sun to the Earth).   Principally a quest and rescue adventure, the set-up is of the portal to another world type – here with alien spacecraft transporting Tarl between worlds.
The book does well is in leaving a lot of explanation on how the world works scientifically – for example, why is it not detectable from Earth – quite vague.  The exposition here from Tarl’s father, and others, makes sense to me as I am also, shamefully, rather vague on the scientific principles underlying our world.  By contrast, the social system is clearly delineated: a world of latently hostile city-states, rigid caste codes, and even stricter gender norms keeping women in a highly subservient position.
Tarl becomes a warrior – perhaps improbably given his academic background on Earth – and a tarnsman; a rider of the tarns, huge eagle like semi-tamed creatures. Entertainingly I keep mistyping the title as Transman of Gor, ironic as the gender binary driving the social structure of this world is rigid and inescapable with no space for any trans identities.
Tarl’s’ seeming super powers are irritating – I kept mentally redrafting the more ridiculous fight sequences to make them more palatable to me – and the coincidences also  grated.  Some of this is explicable by the lower gravity of counter-earth, giving Tarl great strength, and by the machinations of the mysterious Priest-Kings, who seem to have an omnipotent control over the world.  These elements were irritating, but this is overall, a fun adventure.
Outlaw of Gor
This book was more of a diversion from the main narrative.  Tarl sets himself to find and confront the Priest Kings, but is almost immediately distracted by an adventure centred around the city of Tharna.  As the plot is driven by the city’s unusual structure as a matriarchy it’s hard to avoid the sexual politics in this one, and I discuss this aspect more below.  Quite a lot happens across a range of interesting settings – a gladiatorial arena, and a slave mine amongst others – but in each one I thought Norman did a good job of setting up the situation but then didn’t seem to know quite what to do with it. The result was a lot of the kind of heroics and coincidence that I disliked from the first book.
This was the weakest of the three for me.  It wasn’t a chore to get through, but nor was it gripping, and the flaws were more evident.
Priest Kings of Gor
Tarl finally makes it to meet the Priest Kings, the shadowy figures controlling the world of Gor.   This was easily the strongest of the three for me.  Norman creates a strange alien race and setting and sustains it throughout.  Tarl is not the sole focus of the narrative, while still being integral to all the action.  The action is also all contained in the smaller terrain of the Priest Kings’ nest.  Combined this made for less of the over the top heroics, and reduces the need for  coincidences to get people in the right place at the right time, and also, freed from Gor proper, there is far less of the sexual politics of the world in evidence here.
While far from perfect, this book is quite an achievement – Norman here conjures up an alien enclave in an already alien world and has them convincingly interact meaningfully with each other.  The plot is entertaining, if straightforward, and moves along well, with plenty of interesting world-building and some nice touches of humour.
This one I thoroughly enjoyed, and if I believed the series continued in this vein I would consider working my way through them.  As it is, every review of the series I’ve seen says they fall off a cliff into a monotonous obsession with female sexual submission after book 6 or so.  I’ve enjoyed these first three enough though that I may well read through the next two or three at some point.

Sexual Politics of Gor
John Norman’s Gor Books are (in)famous, and have a cult following not because of the adventures of Tarl, but because of the sexual politics of the world of Gor. The extent of this following surprised me when I looked into it – especially a large, still active community on Second Life (not something I have ever tried).
In essence the world is based on female submission to men, policed by significant use of force.  Women are divided into two categories – the Madonna and Whore – of free women and slaves. Of interest in our current context, the mores regarding free women are based on those of stricter Islamic countries: they are expected to spend the bulk of their lives in the house of their father or husband (Free Companion in Gorean terms), and in public to always to have a chaperone and be shrouded in the Robes of Concealment, akin to the burqa (Norman notes in Tarnsman of Gor that ‘[t]he Robes of Concealment, in function, resemble the garments of Muslim women’).  In large part these restrictions are justified as being for the woman’s safety – an unaccompanied woman might be kidnapped and taken as a slave by a man at any time, with the risks of this happening increased if he can see how attractive she is.  This omnipresent threat for a woman  of being kidnapped is repeatedly referenced throughout the books by Norman, especially so if outside of a city – Tarl often dreads to think of what might happen to a woman he has rescued if he then left her alone to face wild animals and, worse, the threat of other men.
By contrast, female slaves are required to wear a uniform, revealing, outfit, and a collar with the name of their master upon it.  They have far greater freedom of movement than free women, but they too may also be kidnapped, or exchanged, or sold.  As Norman makes clear, a slave woman may wear many men’s collar, though she will only ever carry one brand.  Yes, the female slaves are branded to mark them as such, with the main slave trading street in the principal city of Gor called the Street of Brands (Norman’s imaginative powers sometimes seem to desert him when coming up with names).
Slave women are frequently bound or chained, it recurs throughout the first two books, and makes occasional appearances in the third (there is an especially tedious passage in the third book about the slave ring found at the foot of beds in Gor.  The master sleeps in the bed, whilst the slave is chained to the ring and sleeps on the floor).  Female slaves are also controlled through violence, largely but not restricted to whipping.
So far so unpleasant, but perfectly plausible and even reasonable as part of his barbaric setting – this is clearly derived from historical civilizations, and perhaps some of the less enlightened current ones.   If Normans’ slavery fetish were restricted to overly long descriptions of this it would be irritating: already in these earlier books I sighed when I realised he was about to launch into a discussion on it, and apparently the later books consist of little else .  What shifts this into more interesting territory, for good or ill, is Norman’s insistence that the women like it.
In the first book Tarl, as an Earthman, is still unsure about this female slavery aspect of Gorean culture. He remains occasionally conflicted throughout the first three books, though he comes progressively to simply accept it and then find it a possibly superior way to structure society.  What seems to change him is his realisation of what seems to be one of Norman’s main arguments throughout the books, that this state is inherent to a woman’s nature and in fact necessary for her to be happy.  So, by the third book Tarl is speculating on the evolutionary advantage a woman who submitted herself wholly to a man would possess and how that would then lead to evolutionary selection of women of this kind.
Female acceptance of this state is not so explicit in the first book.  His first romantic interest, Talena, is a free woman of high caste whom he submits to his will.  She grows to love him, and he her, and they end the book as Free Companions.  During this process though, she submits herself to him as his slave, willingly and happily.  The way this is presented does allow some ambiguity: forewarned by their reputation, I determined to read these passages with as open a mind as possible, and it seemed to me that it could be seen as a process of a woman struggling to express her love for a man in a culture in which the only way to do so is through these rituals of submission and slavery.  Likewise, there is material in the first two books that describes, but does not draw out the implications of the terror that forms the seasoning of a slave woman on Gor. This I think would be an interesting set-up for a series – especially one written, as these earlier ones are, during the height of second wave feminism – giving a Western Earthman’s critical perspective on a savage culture which practices female slavery, with a significant component of psychological terror, with which the women appear to comply with quite happily.
The second book however makes clear that this is not Norman’s project.  The plot centres around the city of Tharna, unique in Gor as a matriarchal society. Norman sets this up as at first appearance a well-ordered but dull and lifeless seeming place. Again, there could have been scope, given the historical context, for exploring ideas of difference between male and female rule.  It soon transpires to be a cruel and misandric society however – Norman is clear on how abhorrent the widespread male slavery found here is.  We also get occasional flashes of the terror of the ruling class of women at the idea of being enslaved and forced to submit to men: Tharna has once been a city much like any other on Gor and fear of a return to the old order seems to drive the misandry.
Tarl plays his part in bringing down this matriarchy, agreeing to its reintroduction only when its female leader (the Tatrix Lara) shows her willingness to submit to him, and to assume a proper female role by serving the men in a tavern.  Order is restored under Tatrix Lara, but with a significant difference: the restrictions on women and the institution of female slavery are reinstituted.  The men of Tharna take to wearing two yellow cords in their belt, a ritualistic representation of he yellow cords they traditionally used to bind women as slaves.  Within this restoration there is also much reflection on how necessary this return of slavery is for women to learn their true nature, by both Tarl and Lara.  As they part, Lara assures him that while she may be Tatrix of Tharna once again, she will also always be his willing slave.
As mentioned above, the setting of the third book means there is far less of this aspect of the world present, though Tarl’s interaction with the main female character Vika of Treve is couched entirely in terms of this master-slave dialectic, and takes the form of her slow submission to him, and her developing happiness in her subaltern state.   The Priest Kings however do keep large number s of both male and female slaves that they call ‘muls’.  By the end, they are freed, with the notable exception of the women who found themselves on the wrong side of the civil war the book depicts. They become the sexual slaves of the male leaders of the winning side, an outcome so natural it is simply described and remains unremarked upon by Tarl.
Gor and Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography
As I’ve highlighted, many reviews of the series mention that this aspect of female slavery becomes more and more dominant as it progresses, and that the earlier novels are serviceable fantasy adventure fiction before the descent into pornography.    Nonetheless, whilst reading them I could not help but think of Andrea Dworkin’s classic Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981), especially the holocaust metaphor, memorable to me for its poor taste and implausibility.  Norman seems to have constructed a world that depicts the male view of how society should be structured, as seen by a radical feminist.
Dworkin captures the ethic perfectly.
For Dworkin, ‘men are distinguished from women by their commitment to do violence rather than to be victimized by it’, and from this ‘male sexuality is expressed as force or violence’. ‘The penis must embody the violence of the male in order for him to be male. Violence is male; the male is the penis; violence is the penis’. (Though I note here that Norman is not explicit in the sexual elements of the sexual submission and slavery).  It is this that makes the intimate violence of sex central to male social dominance, with the problem of instances of women’s sexual non-compliance cast as ‘women’s refusal to pay homage to the primary purveyor of male aggression, one on one, against women’.
Going back to the psychological terror of the violence inflicted, Dworkin captures it again: ‘The boys are betting that their penises and fists and knives and fucks and rapes will turn us into what they say we are—the compliant women of sex, the voracious cunts of pornography, the masochistic sluts who resist because we really want more’.  On Earth, according to Dworkin, ‘the boys are wrong’; not so on Gor.
Finally, it even makes that overstated holocaust metaphor seem almost reasonable:

The Jews didn’t do it to themselves and they didn’t orgasm. In contemporary American pornography, of course, the Jews do do it to themselves—they, usually female, seek out the Nazis, go voluntarily to concentration camps, beg a domineering Nazi to hurt them, cut them, burn them—and they do climax, stupendously, to both sadism and death. But in life, the Jews didn’t orgasm. Of course, neither do women; not in life. But no one, not even Goebbels, said the Jews liked it.

However, the women of Gor are not the ‘the dummy forced by the pimp-ventriloquist’ of John Norman to say they like the various cruelties, tortures and humiliations forced upon them. Because Norman is in sole charge of this universe, they do like it – and the whole of the social structure is built upon it.
I’ve written far more than I should have for three not especially good pulp novels.   What is so interesting about them to me is the latent potential of his set-up – a barbaric world structured on the lines Dworkin suggests characterise Western societies, but far more explicitly so, viewed by an outsider who, initially at least, feels uneasy about it.  The collapse from this possibly fruitful tension – and the ability to bring disparate historical and philosophical elements into this fictional world to explore them – into a simple pornographic vision is disappointing.  It shifts the books from interesting material exploring gender as a significant social shift plays out, to being just artefacts that make clear that, at least some of the time Dworkin and her ilk are right about men.