Priest-Kings of Gor: Trying so hard not to be sexist

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews John Norman 3. Priest-Kings of Gor Priest-Kings of Gor by John Norman

I’m not sure why I’m still reading the Gor books. I guess it’s partly because Brilliance Audio has kindly sent them to me (they are nice productions), but it’s also largely because these books have been maligned for years as poorly written sexist-BDSM-erotica, so I can’t help but want to see for myself before dismissing them as such. After finishing book 3, Priest-Kings of Gor, here’s my take so far:

They are not poorly written. The quality of the writing is quite good except for the overuse of phrases such as “to my amazement,” “to my surprise,” “I found it strange that,” “I marveled,” “I was astonished,” “I looked at him dumb-founded,” “I was thunder-struck,” etc. This may be more noticeable with the audio version, because the narrator, Ralph Lister, reads vivaciously, so these expressions of enthusiasm seem a little overdone. (But generally I appreciate Lister’s spirit and recommend the audio version if you want to read the Gor books.)

The best aspect of the books, “to my surprise,” is the world building. John Norman has created a fully detailed alternate world which is fun to explore. In Priest-Kings of Gor, we finally meet the Priest-Kings who rule the planet, and they are not at all what we were expecting. In fact, they’re a different species altogether and Norman gives a lot of attention to their language, culture, sensory systems, and lifestyle. Personally, I found the Priest-Kings to be somewhat disturbing (I won’t go into details so as not to spoil things), so I didn’t enjoy spending so much time with them, but other readers are likely to feel differently.

The Gor books are not, so far, erotic. Yeah, there are beautiful scantily-clad pouty women in chains who are kneeling at Tarl Cabot’s feet and claiming to be his pleasure slaves, but so far that’s all they do. It’s pretty silly, really. Which leads me to my next point:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSexist? Yes — but trying so hard not to be. And, unfortunately, this is where Gor goes wrong. It’s too hard to take it seriously because mostly it just feels like a teenage boy’s wet dream. That’s because Tarl Cabot keeps talking like he’s a feminist and denying that any woman is his slave, yet he keeps getting himself in these situations where he accidentally procures a female slave. These ladies are invariably beautiful and proud and are at first contemptuous, insolent, arrogant, and headstrong. Cabot admires their spirit and refuses to consider these wonderful humans to be slaves, but then two things happen:

  1. He suspects them of treachery (while I’m wondering how they can be faithless if they’re not his slaves) and uses this as an excuse to degrade them (“Be silent, slave!”, “Wake up, wench!”), grab them by their hair and throw them around.
  2. His refusal to use them as pleasure slaves insults them and makes them pout and demand to know if they’re not pretty enough for him (my goodness, aren’t they silly?).

The end result is that each slave girl becomes submissive and is soon begging to please him (“please, master!”) and insisting that she loves him and wanted to wear his collar all along. Tarl, meanwhile, innocently insists that he doesn’t understand.

After thinking about it for a while Tarl realizes that “every woman in her heart wants to wear the chains of a man” and that Gor is a man’s world and that women rejoice in this. In Priest-Kings of Gor, he uses natural selection to explain that men have evolved to be courageous and aggressive and that women have evolved to be submissive because they need food and shelter and to be forced to reproduce. If they’re too independent, they’ll die before breeding. Thus, natural selection favors submissive women who want to belong to a man.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThose ideas are intriguing and I won’t completely dismiss them out of hand, but then Cabot goes on to suggest that if a woman is grabbed by her hair, thrown down, and raped, she considers this “proof of her mate’s regard” and the “expected culmination of her innate desire to be dominated.” Cabot’s evidence for this is our practice of giving a bride a wedding ring and carrying her over the threshold, which he suggests are analogous to bondage and rape, respectively.

I don’t know a lot of women who are going to find these ideas acceptable or stimulating, but some do, and that’s fine with me. The problem with the Gor books, though, is that they try to propound this idea while trying to make Tarl Cabot out to be a humanist (and specifically a feminist) at the same time, and that doesn’t work. It just makes him sound like an idiot.

In one scene, a slave girl assigned to take care of him while he’s in a particular room says she’s hungry and Tarl (who has just met her and didn’t know she hadn’t eaten) curses himself for not thinking about the feelings “of a girl who must be protected and cared for.” One minute later, she says something slightly snippy and he disciplines her by not letting her eat dinner. In fact, he’s constantly flipping between spouting humanistic sentiments and announcing that a slave girl (who he says isn’t his slave girl) needs discipline so she’ll learn her place. Um… what place? It’s no wonder he doesn’t understand these women — he can’t even keep his own philosophies straight in his own head.

The whole thing would work better if Tarl Cabot found himself on this misogynist planet and, while being shocked at first, admitted and embraced the fact that all his puerile fantasies had come true and just went with it. Stop making excuses, Tarl. Stop accusing women of secretly wanting to be yelled at, bullied, thrown around, and raped. Gor is a man’s world, so just shut up, get out your collars and chains, and have some fun, okay?

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. LOL, not sure why, Kat, because by now I have a good idea of your diverse taste in reading, but it just trips me out whenever I see your reviews for the Gor series. And I have to say; you’ve done a most awesome job of being unbiased and looking at the story from all angles. And you make a very good point about Tarl.
    It’s been a good 20+ years since I read these books. I think I got up to around #8 or so before I stopped. I think 3 things got me to stick with them that far;
    1. Except like the last one I read, I bought the books with the Boris cover, which made me want to like them more then I did. I wish so much I’d have kept those books for just the covers alone.
    2. I was just hungry for this kind of sub-genre -Sword & Planet for lack of a better word. In fact, I would still love to find a really good book of this sub-genre. I never really got far into Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars,(actually I liked his Pirates of Venus much better) but I loved the whole idea of savage planets with barbarian warriors using both swords and laser-guns. It’s just a theme that I always liked in comic-books but never really found it in book that I liked all that much.
    3. Just the whole thing of “females really wanting to be slaves” even the ones that didn’t know they wanted to be, just made me so curious about J. Norman’s mind. Like was he for real or just trying to stir things up? He really had a thing about slavery. In fact, I read the first book in his other series; the Telnarin Histories. I don’t remember much about it except the main character started out as a slave called Dog.

  2. oh and I meant to comment; I think its kinda funny how the covers for this “re-release” of Gor, focus on the erotica that is associated with the series.

  3. @Greg–I think the publishers figured out what people were reading them for. ;) They’ve got quite the cult following. Most used bookstores I’ve seen that carry them, they’re in plastic protective sheaths and overpriced. The people who like these books, really like them.

  4. The original covers are more indicative of the action in the book. So far I can’t understand the cult following because these girls don’t do anything but pout and beg. He tries to make them come off as feisty, but they’re only feisty for a few minutes. Then they’re on their knees begging to be his slave, but we never see them do anything remotely interesting. This is BDSM-lite. BOOORRRRIINNNNGGG!

  5. @Kelly–you know you just made me groan. I knew I was making a mistake when I used mine as exchange. In the 80’s the first 8 books or so were reprinted, I think by a different publisher, with some really nice Boris covers. I had bought those and didn’t realize the series had any more books until I stumpled across the original covers in a used-book store, -and again this is at least 19-20 years ago..
    @Kat- Yeah I tend to think the cult-following had something else to do with then the so-called erotica. If my memory serves me right, I don’t think these books would get an “R” rating by today’s standard. Heck, how I started reading them to begin with is I remembered a buddy was reading them when we were in high school. (not that, that says much about the content)
    Again “IF” my memory is right, one of the later books, I think it was Captive of Gor, an Earth-girl gets captured as a slave, and of course, deep down she likes it. ;) And, it was either that same book or another later one, where a slave-girl was raised without any contact with males and trained in the ways of love by older slave women.
    Up till then, I’d been reading them for the action/adventure parts, but they just got too ridiculous, even for me, and I just had to call it quits.. That’s about the time I traded them in too. Almost like I was embarrassed to have them. :)

  6. oh– and another funny thing. There was actually a Gor movie or two. I actually rented it on VHS back in the day, and I think it had Jack Palance ( for you younsters -he was one of those tough guy actors, played in a lot of old western, most notably Shane and he played Curly in the City Slicker movies) in it. I don’t remember much other then it was horrible.
    Poor Jack, he must’ve really needed the money.

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