Extraordinary Circumstance: An Introduction to the Wold Newton Universe


Art from the latest version of “Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life” by Joe DeVito

In December 1795, near Wold Newton in Yorkshire, England, a meteor crashed to Earth. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the event made for great publicity. The owner of the land, into which the meteorite lodged itself, was Major Edward Topham, who publicized the event and exhibited the meteorite to all who would come see it*.

Oddly enough, travelers in a passing carriage were present during the event. These travelers were effected by the meteor’s radiation, and were given to genetic modification. These changes in genes presented themselves in special individual several generations down the line. These passengers would go on to sire some of the greatest heroes in popular fiction. This may sound like a Georgian version of the Fantastic Four, but it’s actually the conceit for a series of novels written by Phillip Jose Farmer.


In 1972, Phillip Jose Farmer released Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke, followed by Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life in 1973. These novels took the concept of a shared universe of well known literary characters (mostly in the adventure genres) and through the elaborate Wold Newton conceit, making it possible for characters like Tarzan to cross paths with Sherlock Holmes.

The idea is, that carriages carrying several people near the Wold Newton meteor crash site were exposed to the meteor’s radiation. This radiation, over time, gave the progeny of these carriage passengers special abilities, in strength and intellect. According to Farmer’s literary expanded universe, this meteor created the first round of super-humans; people like Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Bulldog Drummond** and AJ Raffles***.


The first book to lay the groundwork for the “Wold Newton Family Tree” was Tarzan Alive, a novel that treated Tarzan as though he were a living person being interviewed. Farmer used Edgar Rice Burroughs original Tarzan books as a jumping off point for his fictional biography. It was in this book that Farmer also gave readers the Wold Newton Family Tree that linked many of these famed literary characters together.


This concept may not sound new to you, but Farmer’s ideas have, consciously or unconsciously, sown the seeds of some of our greatest shared-universe stories. This type of crossover fiction can be seen in works of Alan Moore (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Kim Newman (Anno Dracula) Ed Brubaker (Incognito) and Warren Ellis (Planetary).

In today’s post modern culture, we like to make things fit together into a cohesive macro-narrative and it’s exciting to imagine a world where Sherlock Holmes consults on a case having to do with Dr. Griffin’s experimentation in invisibility, as Doc Savage tours jungle ruins with the 8th Lord of Greystoke. It’s also interesting to note that these great figures in adventure literature, have spawned and continue to influence modern literary characters from Bond to Batman, proof of the expansive universe of the written word.

*The meteor actually happened.

**Created by H.C. McNeile, Bulldog Drummond was essentially a proto-James Bond character. He was a WWI veteran that took up as a gentleman adventurer after his service.

*** A.J. Raffles, created by E.W. Hornung is considered by many to be the “anti-Sherlock Holmes”. The character is a wealthy man who lives the life of a playboy by day and commits burglary at night.

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