Religious Themes in the Novels of
Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Robert B. Zeuschner, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Pasadena City College
Religion, in one form or another, is a significant part of the lives
of most human beings, and often we are curious about the religious beliefs
of others who are important to us. Edgar
Rice Burroughs is one of the most widely collected authors of the twentieth
century, and his novels and literary creations are important to many contemporary
readers. He has been universally accepted as ranking among the greatest
of the pulp fiction writers, who wrote for pulp magazines between about
1910 to 1940. However, he has not been accorded the status of a great novelist.
Most certainly Burroughs ranks among the greatest story tellers, but his
stories do not rank with the greatest novels, and we can see one reason
why this is so when we examine the treatment of religious issues in the
writings of ERB. Those who read the many novels
of Edgar Rice Burroughs, including his science fiction classics set
in Mars (Barsoom) and Venus and other places, and his jungle romances featuring
Tarzan of the Apes, often see offhand remarks concerning religion scattered
throughout his novels. Let me explore the implications of these various
The topic of religion was obviously something of concern to ERB, because
it is both implicit and explicit in Burroughs’ works, sometimes with just
a brief aside on one page, and sometimes with a fully worked out theology
of a civilization. But we don’t find religious themes discussed the way
many of the great novelists of the early 20th century did. One very good
reason that Burroughs did not deal with religion had to do with the audience
he was writing for. ERB was a pulp
author, and the pulp magazines had no interest in publishing anything
with philosophical or psychological depth. These magazines thrived on action.
The pulp readers were primarily young men who wanted to read about adventure,
not theology or Dostoyevsky. The pulps were simply not the appropriate
forum to discuss religious issues. Although this is true, I doubt that
ERB would have treated the topic differently even if he had sold his tales
to the slicks (higher quality literary magazines) or directly to hardback
publishers avoiding the constraints of pulp magazines.
I believe it is primarily in the Barsoom series and in the Tarzan series
that ERB most explicitly toys with religious ideas (however, he wrote most
often about these two realms so it shouldn’t be surprising).
Let me begin this discussion by trying to figure out in what sense we
are applying the term “religion” to the fiction of ERB. We can start by
noting that Edgar Rice Burroughs uses “religious” in a context in which
formal group membership is not important. Consider Tarzan at the Earth’s
Core, where we find "Tarzan of the Apes was not a church man; yet like
the majority of those who have always lived close to nature he was, in
a sense, intensely religious ..." (Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, p.
In what sense was Tarzan “intensely religious”? Scholars have labored
long and hard in the attempt to define the term “religion,” but most scholars
are concerned with arriving at a definition which will accurately describe
the whole range of activities called “religious” in the world. Although
most Western people assume that all religions involve the existence of
a God, this is simply false. It turns out that there are major world religions
which have no belief in a god or gods, and so "belief in a divine being"
won’t work as a necessary feature of religion. There are major world religions
which explicitly deny (and argue against) the existence of a human
soul, and others which do not think there is any life after death. Obviously
these factors are not definitive for the term "religion." Some religions
put no value on belief, or faith. Some major world religions do not even
have a moral code, so morality is not typical of all world religions.
Despite all of that, ERB was not a scholar of religions, and it is doubtful
that he had any understanding of religions other than one or two forms
of Protestantism and perhaps the Roman Catholic faith. We know that Burroughs'
father expressed a strongly negative opinion about Roman Catholic authoritarianism
and devotion, which he apparently interpreted as fanaticism, as quoted
in the following:
"The major belonged to three military societies, the Masons,
the American League and was lifelong Republican. . . . In 1887 he
was an official witness to the execution of the convicted Haymarket bombers
who had been arrested after the Haymarket Square riots, a mass labor protest
in May of 1886. In 1889 he was even excused from jury duty for his prejudice
against Roman Catholicism after declaring "I have no prejudice against
the individual, but I have against the religion. I do not believe in fanaticism
I do not think that it is going too far to suggest that ERB may have been
influenced by his father’s attitude towards authoritarian religions in
general, which we see in his novels set on Mars which have a strongly negative
depiction of Barsoomian religion.
ERB’s knowledge of Christianity may have been far from exhaustive, but
his knowledge of Eastern religions appears to have been almost non-existent.
There are a few references in his novels which makes this clear. From the
Maid it is clear that he didn’t have a clue how reincarnation is
supposed to work in Hinduism (no Hindu would have recognized the lives
of the Julians as examples of their religious doctrine of transmigration
of souls). In
Girl it is clear that he has almost no understanding of Buddhism.
However, this is not a criticism of Burroughs. He was a writer of pulp
fiction, not a scholar of world religions. In fact, for the first decades
of the twentieth century, virtually no one in this country had any knowledge
of Asian religions because the scholars were only beginning to publish
accurate studies and translations, and most of it was done in Europe and
published in non-English languages (especially France, Russia, Germany
and later in England).
What sort of definition of “religion” would account for ERB’s own view
reflected in Tarzan and his intense religiosity? We can rule out some definitions
right away. Some scholars attempt definitions of “religion” by stressing
the external object of religion, such as "the belief in spiritual beings"
or "the experience of the Holy" Erich Fromm writes that religion is "any
system of thought and action shared by a group which gives to the individual
a frame of orientation and an object of devotion". These don’t seem relevant
to ERB’s religious view as it is found in Tarzan or John Carter. No hero
in the writing of Burroughs have any sort of religious devotion towards
any external supernatural being. Those characters who do have such devotion
are usually depicted as superstitious and foolish.
There is more to most religions than just devotion to some external
deity. Most contemporary scholars attempt to find definitions which can
incorporate the external, the social and the internal
For example, “Religion is the commitment of a person or a group to a way
of life based on certain beliefs and attitudes, and conceived as most likely
to guarantee the conservation of and increase of life's dearest values”
(Lyons). Here’s another: “Religion is man's attempt to 'revitalize' problems
and evils by interpreting them as part of some larger good, some conception
of the absolute that puts the individual's problems into new perspective,
thus to remove or reduce their crushing impact.” Even when we expand the
definition of “religion” to include more than objects of external devotion,
none of these seem to apply to the religious nature ERB’s Tarzan or John
Carter. Nature does not affect Tarzan or John Carter with “crushing impact.”
A textbook says this: Religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts
to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and
motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of
existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality
that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Clifford Geertz,
Interpretation of Cultures). Although this may describe the great majority
of world religions, it does not apply to ERB’s world view.
Some definitions of “religion” stress internal subjective experience,
and these seem closer to the sense that ERB uses. Consider Paul Tillich
who thought of religion as the ultimate meaning of human existence. Robert
Olsen writes: “Religion is that aspect of a culture based upon the premise
that what is capable of dealing with the ultimate problems (death, meaninglessness)
of human existence lies beyond cognition or technological control.” These
sorts of definitions seem to me to be closer to ERB’s use of the term,
and closer to his understanding.
So based on that, I’ll use the word “religion” in the sense that I suspect
ERB would have understood. Religion involves an internal subjective experience
involving the idea that the ultimate problems of human life are beyond
intellectual and technological control. But, it is more than this. For
Burroughs, the term “religious” must stress the sense of awe and appreciation
one feels when face to face with the raw impersonal power of Mother Nature
in all of her untrammeled and even savage beauty. I think it would include
the mountains of Arizona and Utah, the rivers and canyons which ERB explored
on horseback in the 1890s, and even the Otz mountains in the setting sun
of Barsoom, or the ochre dead sea bottoms illuminated by two moons overhead.
There is a mysterious power in Nature (sometimes referred to as mana) and
an emotional awareness of this seems to be what ERB describes as Tarzan’s
It is clear to me that when he describes Tarzan as “intensely religious,”
ERB does not mean typical Western religions. In the realm of Tarzan and
John Carter, there is constant rejection of any religion which is an institution
or an organization which tends to stress belief in a supreme being who
rewards and punishes, a rejection of a being who intervenes in human lives,
who performs miracles, who enjoys sacrifices, and who demands obedience,
devotion and faith. In his novels, ERB criticizes religions where a supreme
being judges human beings, a being who is thought to send some to a heavenly
realm and others to a hellish realm. Burroughs valued a personal freedom,
and he had no use for religious organizations or institutions which claim
to have the authority to control important parts of your life (thereby
echoing the sentiments of his father). So, religion in Burroughs implies
an intense subjective feeling of awe and amazement at the wonder and power
of Nature. That definition is where I’ll start.
Clearly, one major religious theme in the writings of ERB concerns death.
But, in this case, it is the absence of speculation on what comes after
that is so religiously interesting. Consider a very basic religious theme:
is there life after death? Is there anything about a human being which
might survive the death of the physical body and the death of the brain?
Is there anything about your consciousness or my consciousness which might
survive when our brain dies? Are we a mixture of two fundamentally different
things, physical bodies and non-physical minds, or are we basically just
physical? Every one of Burroughs' heroes faces the immediate threat of
death, and faces that often, but ERB never seems to probe this question
of what happens after. Instead, he has the pulp-author’s need to rush to
get to the action, and the metaphysical themes and religious questions
are short-changed. The classic ERB hero does not fear death, and seems
to have no firm feelings one way or the other regarding the possibility
of a heaven or hell.
Another religious theme about which ERB was silent and which he could
have developed was faith, and the loss of faith which results from living
in a cruel world, or which results from the revelation of the falsity of
one’s dearest deeply held religious beliefs. In ERB’s world, is faith in
any power beyond the individual appropriate? I submit in ERB's realms,
faith is irrelevant. It is replaced by self-confidence and courage. Faith
and the loss of faith is a potentially profound theme. But what does ERB
do with this profound theme? Nothing. I would argue that faith was simply
unimportant in Burroughs’s own personal view, and this is reflected in
the obvious absence of the concept in his novels.
There is another religious theme omitted in the ERB canon: can religion
(or art) help people to find meaning in their lives? I think one could
argue that for Burroughs, the beauties of Nature, honor, loyalty, friendship
and love gives meaning to one’s life. But not religion, or art.
The religious imagery is consistently richest in the Barsoom novels.
Gods of Mars is the locus classicus of most of the religious
themes in ERB. The River Iss and the Valley Dor are metaphors which are
difficult to overlook. The River is the image of life, and the Valley is
the Garden of Eden. What does ERB do with these? In the novels of Burroughs,
there is no escape from the river of life, and when one relies on religion
to try to give ultimate meaning to life, one finds that the Garden of Eden
is just the valley of the grave and a final death. There is no deity. The
god or goddess is no goddess at all. The wicked goddess (and her villainous
priests who think themselves godlike) keep all the other Barsoomians from
using the water of Eden which would enrich their lives. The religion is
a false religion. One wonders whether ERB could have recognized any religion
as a “true religion” and what the characteristics of such a religion would
The hero of these novels, John Carter, reveals the falsehoods taught
by the priests, the Therns, and the First Born, but, as we all know, old
religions die hard. It was a common view about a hundred years ago to assume
that as science further explained human existence, religion in general
and Christianity in particular would wither away as facts replaced myths
and superstitions. Clearly, this has not happened. Old religions die hard.
Burroughs notes that many places in Barsoom still hold onto their faith,
but he does not explore the religious dimensions of this. Instead, they
are simply treated as ignorant and as enemies to be overcome or freed from
the bonds of organized religion.
There is another important dimension to the religiosity of Burroughs.
Some of the most important themes of Christianity are simply irrelevant,
or disregarded. Consider the Christian gospel which is one of the bedrocks
of the church: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Now consider the Tarzan
novels or any of the other tales. ERB’s gospel is neither "the meek shall
inherit the earth" nor "Love they neighbor as thyself" nor "turn the other
cheek." The actions which give meaning to life (and in Gods
of Mars, the actions which bring about resurrection after symbolic
death at the end of the river) result not from faith or meekness, but from
standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a friend, sword in hand, fighting to
the death. The gospel is courage and friendship. I am going to guess that
ERB himself would have been a very good friend.
When it comes to religious symbolism, one stellar symbol is one of ERB’s
two greatest heroes, John Carter (the symbolism in the initials “JC” has
been noted by other writers). JC/John Carter is godlike in a very Christian
sense. Carter has the life span of a god. Carter is godlike because he
comes into the world of Barsoom from outside the world (he actually comes
out of the heavens). JC incarnates into Barsoom. JC saves the world. In
saving the world, JC dies in the process, giving up his life so all inhabitants
of the planet can live (A
Princess of Mars). In the cave in Arizona, he dies, and in so doing
he is dying into a new life on Barsoom. There he destroys old religions
and false beliefs. And he offers up his own life so that a world can survive.
His life is sacrificed and not given up happily; he dies on Mars and is
resurrected. But he does not gain a reward in heaven; after death his life
is pain and incomprehensible grief; Carter feels that his god (Mars, the
deity and the planet) has forsaken him.
What religion did John Carter teach to the Barsoomians, and what religion
does he establish? The simple answer is “none at all.” It might be argued
that he replaces belief in Issus with a new recognition of the true religion
which recognizes the inevitability of competition and violence, the scientific
truth that only those who are most fit will survive to reproduce their
kind. In this Barsoom, it is not faith in supernatural beings that gives
meaning to life. It is friendship. It is not being meek or gentle.
JC awakens gentle feelings of affection in Sola and even Woola, brings
the recognition of friendship to the mighty Tars Tarkas, even Thuvia learns
about true love from the love of JC. JC makes a friend of Xodar and then
Talu. In a shallow reading, it just seems as if he is making friends. But,
in the deeper meaning, he is teaching these people the deepest meaning
of life which is friendship, loyalty, and love; these are the meaning of
life, and the religious world-view of John Carter.
I would conclude that this reflects the sense in which Tarzan is “intensely
religious.” I would also suggest that this reflects the religious view
of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a man who never attended church, who never instructed
any of his children in any religion, who rejected church services as he
was dying, and asked to be cremated and buried under a friendly tree. None
of these reflect any interest in anything that most of us associate with
From his life and his novels, we know that he was opposed to organized
religion, and shows no evidence of believing that any force would answer
prayers, or provide a life after death. We also know that ERB himself thought
that Darwin was correct and human beings had evolved from simpler life
forms, and that we were all part of nature. Nowhere in his works does he
indicate that he accepts any of the fundamental claims of Christianity,
things like Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the incarnation, creeds like
the divinity of Joshua (rendered into Greek as Jesus), the carpenter
of Nazareth, or atonement, where the torture and death of Joshua/Jesus
atones for the original sin of Adam and Eve. I feel confident in saying
that Burroughs was not a Christian in the sense of accepting the doctrines
of any of the many sects of Christianity.
The label from religious studies that I feel best fits ERB is deism;
i.e., ERB is a deist. A deist is someone who believes that there is a supreme
force behind an amazing universe, but a deist does NOT believe that the
supreme being cares about us, rewards us, punishes us, answers prayers,
or performs miracles. Where ERB might have got this from is difficult to
say. Deism is ancient, and the term deism does describe Aristotle's view
of religion, but it also describes the religious views of Thomas Jefferson,
Ben Franklin, James Madison, Adams, and many others who signed the declaration
of independence. ERB was well read in Greek mythology and European history;
perhaps some Greek philosophy or the attitudes of European "freethinkers"
towards religion might have rubbed off on him. It is entirely possible
that he simply reasoned his way to the deist position on his own.
We can conclude by quoting the words of his son-in-law James Pierce,
who married Joan Burroughs and knew ERB well from 1927 until Burroughs’
death in 1950. Concerning ERB’s attitude towards religion, James
"He had no religious affiliation, and none of the family ever
attended church to my knowledge. . . . Mr. Burroughs was an agnostic, I
believe, and unlike W. C. Fields, did not turn to the Bible toward the
end of his life. ... He did not believe in funerals. He requested no services
and cremation. His wishes were granted."
The article and its contents is © Robert
B. Zeuschner, 2004. A shorter version of this article appeared as part
of a series of articles in the journal ERBapa,
issue 68, January, 2001.