The Religions of
Dale R. Broadhurst
Once Upon a Time in Heaven
I keep getting the uneasy feeling that this series of articles has already been written and that before I finish composing the final segment, some reader with a lengthy memory (and a lengthier shelf of old Erbania fanzines) will be sending me the concluding pages to my own essay. Well, I hope not. But when I cast my rhetorical net into the foamy metaphysical flow, I'm never quite sure what I might pull back. I suppose I'll soon see.
One thing is for certain -- I do not intend to here offer up some future Literature graduate student's prefabricated thesis or dissertation on a silver platter. I'm not trying to pen the definitive report on where, how, and why Edgar Rice Burroughs made use of religious themes in his voluminous writings. That would require my re-reading all his stories at least two or three times and surveying a vast accumulation of old amateur and professional books and articles that I simply do not care to search out, much less tabulate and analyze. Nor do I have any serious plans to analyze and report a set of arcane explorations into the heart and soul of Mr. Burroughs. It is widely known that he did not participate in organized religion and exactly what his evolving thoughts may have been upon that subject, I'll mostly leave for others to pry out and ponder.
What I wish to do is poke about a bit
in the writer's published stories and see what might be found there, without
being overly methodical or exhaustive in my textual quest. Given the fact
that ERB created a number of different fictional worlds, societies and
beliefs, it follows that he also described (or at least implied) a number
of different religious systems, practices, and ideas, ranging in complexity
from one sentence allusions to meticulously modeled cosmologies, inculcated
in texts spanning whole chapters and volumes of imaginative fiction. What
do these supernatural, superstitious, or supernal systems have in common?
How do they differ? For what purposes and to what effect does Burroughs
insert such satire, speculation, or spirituality into his fiction? And
what conclusions (if any) can the modern reader draw from examining such
a slippery subject throughout the Bard of Tarzana's many stories? These
are the types of questions I hope to raise in my current set of articles.
ERB -- Myth-Maker Unawares?
I am intrigued by something that Bob Zeuschner has said in regard to Edgar Rice Burroughs, his upbringing and the subject of religion:
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... ("Religious Themes in the Novels of ERB," ERBzine 1120 Jan., 2004)
Edgar Rice Burroughs' father was a Freemason. There is likely an autobiographical touch to the words the author puts into the mouth of his fictional character, James Blake: "my father is a thirty second degree Mason and a Knight Templar." Faithful practitioners of "The Craft" are under a nominal obligation to raise their children according the moral guidance of the "Great Architect of the Universe." Although the Masons have traditionally been at odds with "Roman Catholic authoritarianism," they are known for encouraging private piety and/or a reverent group morality. Through the centuries they have drawn their members from all sorts of personal philosophies, ranging from henotheism and monotheism, to deism and practical agnosticism. While their broad toleration in matters of personal faith has allowed the Masons to assemble a philosophically diverse brotherhood, it has also led to their downplaying of religious differences, in just the way that might cause their offspring to grow up fairly ignorant of (and uninterested in) the subtleties of religious denominationalism. For example, the claimed divinity of Jesus is not advocated by Freemasons, who seem more interested in the stories of biblical characters like Abraham, Solomon and John the Baptist than those of Nazarene repute. This Masonic lack of emphasis on things Christian has allowed the "Handmaiden of Religion" to extend its fellowship to Moslem, Jew, Spiritualist, Theosophist, and sundry reverent but irreligious individuals. If young Edgar grew up in a household where such ameliorating notions were current, it would come as no great surprise that the youth did not experience close acquaintance with "religions other than one or two forms of Protestantism." It would also come as no great surprise that he would later write an improbable account, set in the distant future, in which suppressed religionists of very different creeds meet in secret to participate in collective ceremonies.
If Zeuschner is correct in his estimation of ERB's lack of religious understanding, that fact alone might account for the writer's often superficial or stereotypical treatment of both western and eastern religions, but it does not explain his marked inclination to create fictional ecclesiastical systems and superstitions. It was in his elucidation of these fabricated faiths and created creeds that Edgar Rice Burroughs produced some of his most memorable prose. Are these clever creations nothing more than his active imagination filling in the blanks of his own social experience -- or, are they something different and more significant than that? Are some of them (like his story of young Tarzan's attempt to comprehend the word "God") the writer's half-hearted attempts at inflicting some thoughtful "literature" upon a plebeian pulp periodical market?
With that idea of writing for the pulp market still fresh in mind, I want to take another look at what Zeuschner has to say:
The topic of religion was obviously something of concern to ERB... 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.
In other words, Mr. Burroughs was not trying to write literature; he was trying sell what he cranked out of his typewriter, in order to put victuals on the dining room table. I'm not sure that I can buy that explanation without an adjustment or two. Certainly a good deal of the fiction that ERB churned out over the years was directed to a young, male blue-collar readership, but more than a few of the "great novelists" of the past also saw their stories serialized in the popular press, at one time or another. More people bought Charles Dickens' chapters on the next day's grocery wrappings, than ever purchased a gild-edged, library edition of anything. I think that ERB might easily have sneaked in a few lines of "literature," here and there, if he had sensed the editors, readers and advertisers would allow it. If Mr. Burroughs could have successively turned out well-written stories like I am a Barbarian, he might have slipped a tale or two into the highbrow anthologies, just behind A Connecticut Yankee and King Arthur's Court and The Star Rover. But -- such an effort would have required his enlightened reflection upon the human experience and the human soul. No matter the packaging -- he might have disguised these perceptive reflections as metaphorical popular fiction, marketed alongside such volumes as The Wizard of Oz, The Good Earth and Lost Horizon, but he never did that. Instead, he piled up his royalties from the Tarzan silver screen adaptations and settled for a literary reputation a notch below Zane Grey and Conan Doyle.
When ERB attempted to write non-fanciful fiction it failed as a marketable product and it failed as literature. Something was missing from his "serious" prose, and I don't think that "something" was perception, talent, or craftsmanship. I believe that Zeuschner comes close to putting his finger on what it was, when he says "we don't find religious themes discussed the way many of the great novelists of the early 20th century did." Oddly enough, my response to this insightful assessment is that ERB should have tried writing even less like the favored novelists and followed his own story-telling instincts even more resolutely. He might not have thus fed his family quite so well, of course. And Jungle Tales of Tarzan still might not have stood binding-to-binding with The Jungle Book. But I think something good and great could have come of it. Not exactly literature, but rather, that pre-literate progenitor of bardic balladry and elegant epic -- true mythology.
It is my cautious guess that Edgar Rice Burroughs was an unconscious myth-maker -- that he several times pulled together the imaginative raw materials with which to create deep-rooted modern myths, but perhaps came close to achieving success in this unperceived effort only twice -- once in his Carter chronicles, and then again in his first Tarzan tales. In both cases it may have been ERB's lack of "religious understanding" that allowed him to unwitting assemble some ageless strains of the spheres for these creations. In the case of John Carter and Barsoom, the mythical elements employed never quite grew to a critical mass. Had Carter's world-saving personal sacrifice at the end of the first book been integral to the rest of the plot (and not just an editorial add-on) it might have brought the entire story to an eloquent eschatological climax, but it ended up being just a Saturday serial's cliff-hanger. In the case of Tarzan and his fictional Dark Continent, Burroughs came even closer to claiming the laurels of legend-making -- but he did not comprehend the force of the literary lightening he had captured, and consequently he allowed a pop-culture parody to overshadow his original, primordial Prometheus. I believe, that it was largely due to his own ignorance of religion that Burroughs was able to bypass so many civil conventions and plunge his creative hands so deeply into the primeval mire from which true mythic heroes are molded. Then again, his ignorance of the transcendental truth that religion alternately illuminates and eclipses may have hindered his creativity in this interpretive formulation. Who knows? I may be wrong here, but this is more or less the trail I'll follow through my present set of articles.
Life, Death and the Opiate of the Masses
What is religion? Where does it come from and what purpose does it serve? I once had an over-serious Cultural Anthro teacher who tried to convince me that religion arises from superstition; and superstition arises from the innermost fears of humankind. Gods are born in the terrifying crash of a thunderbolt and ritual springs from the frenzy of prehistoric murderers, attempting to escape mass guilt and personal retribution by joining in communal sex, drugs, and rock-n-role. Perhaps. Then again, perhaps there's more to the matter than just that. At any rate, I've not progressed six sentences from my question without stumbling over pregnant precepts like life, guilt, ecstasy, death and other-worldliness. I might just as well have asked from whence comes thunder, lightening, and the existential metamorphosis that occurs in being struck by fire from heaven? It is an easy enough thing to recite textbook definitions of religion and its probable origins. But it is quite another thing to comprehend how religion provides a language for the inexplicable -- or how it protects, preserves and promotes its professors' well-being and unique cultures through centuries and millennia.
If Edgar Rice Burroughs thought about such things, he only offers dim hints of those inner cogitations in his fictional prose. Probably he did occasionally ponder the role of religion in shaping and preserving unique cultures, be they human, sub-human, or alien. Each time he took the trouble to create another lost civilization (most predictably portrayed as two opposing peoples from antiquity, surviving in the wilds of Africa) he had to offer some minimal explanation of what had held that improbable society together since it first became "lost." I might avow that he needed reach no farther than the nearest H. Rider Haggard book to find plausible answers, but even Haggard got his exotic social ideas from somewhere. What I'm trying to say, is that it does not take much imagination to figure out that manufactured religions can supply an excellent literary "glue" for fictional civilizations. Besides that, as Haggard's own borrowings might well teach, several generations of European novelists had already mined the rich vein of others' corrupt and superstitious religion, to uncover reliable plot devices. Can even the most faithful member of Holy Mother Church restrain a smile, when Robin's merry men waylay a greedy bishop in the forest and lighten his heavy purse, or when Phra the Phoenician surprises an avaricious abbot in his cups and inflicts some sobering coercion upon the rotund reveler? Edgar Rice Burroughs did not have to think too hard and long to come up with similar thematic inventions for his own fantastic tales.
It is not so strange that ERB created numerous fictional religions and variants of actual religions, in order to flesh out his imaginative worlds. Nor it is so strange that he never delved so into the spiritual depths of sin and sanctity as is necessary for an author who intends to compose a modern Pilgrim's Progress. What is remarkable are the many ways in which he chose to weave the elements of religion (generally false religion) and spirituality (generally moral philosophy or natural pantheology) into his various and sundry writings. In the article sections which follow, I'll examine just a few of those many instances and try to glean whatever interesting insights might be gained in the process.
Hierarchy of the Control Freaks
I'd like to begin in the middle and work my way towards both ends of this intriguing subject. One end of the matter might be defined as the primitive rudiments of consecrated activities, as portrayed by Mr. Burroughs among his African great gray apes. The other end might include the complexities of religious thought as they appear in ERB's Barsoom tales, his Moon Men accounts, etc. But, as a starting point, consider what he wrote in the opening scenes of Tarzan and the Ant Men: In the village of Obebe the cannibal, the captive Estaban Miranda proclaims he is the river devil -- but Chief Obebe does not believe in river devils. Miranda remains a heartbeat away from execution, however, because Obebe's wise assessment of is the situation is not entirely shared by his superstitious subjects. An important sub-plot of the novel quickly develops around this conflict of beliefs in the aboriginal village.
Khamis the village witch doctor keeps Miranda alive, because he "had aroused the superstitious fears of the villagers by half convincing them that their prisoner was the river devil..." Obebe (the civil authority) allows the captive to live because Khamis (the religious authority) has played upon the fears of the villagers (the popular base for both authorities) to sustain the majesty of authority throughout the village. The role of Khamis in this primitive statecraft is made all the more significant by Burroughs' disclosure of the witch doctor's own disbelief: "The witch doctor who was old and wise did not believe in them [river devils] either, but realized that they were excellent things for his parishioners to believe in." ERB adds this delightful twist to Chief Obebe's predicament: "If he [Miranda] lived on forever, or mysteriously disappeared, the claim of the witch doctor would be accepted as gospel." In other words, ERB has set up a near-comedic scenario, in which Khamis appropriates a little of Obebe's power over the people, whether the white prisoner continues to live in the village or not. This is a clever and understated plot device that implicitly reflects upon the inter-relationship of Church and State, while moving the story along by injecting minor conflicts that promote intrigue and suspense.
Without going to all the trouble of
lengthy explanations that might slow down the progress of the story, ERB
manages to convey the message that the political leader (whether in a wretched
jungle village or in a resplendent palace) is generally not skillful enough
in responding to the people's superstitions to control the masses entirely
-- so the high priest, shaman, or witch doctor (who is skilled in such
manipulation) occupies a place of power beside such a political leader.
Neither authority actually believes in the tenets of their religion, but
the political leader thinks that the ecclesiastical leader believes and
the people assume that all their leaders believe. This is a typical Burroughsian
satire upon the religious power of the authoritarian leaders and their
cold-blooded control of the common people. In the village of Obebe the
local religion has not yet evolved to the point where the people worship
gods; they have only devils -- "which answer just as good a purpose among
the ignorant and superstitious as do gods among the educated and superstitious."
Enter (and Exit) the Devil
The status quo in the village of Obebe has been a little upset by Miranda's outrageous assertions, but the witch doctor is quick enough upon his metaphysical feet to try and turn Miranda's sardonic claims of devilhood to his own benefit. So long as the foreigner remains a chained captive, the witch doctor continues to demonstrate his own superior magic. And, if the white devil disappears, it will prove Khamis correct and problem will be gone. In either event, Khamis' cunning explanations will insure his tight grip on religious power. At the same time, Khamis walks an uncertain tight-rope, whereupon his explanations of things must prove true, or his position will be gravely threatened. He is not entirely aloof from the very superstitions he has inherited and fostered so successfully. After Estaban Miranda eventually escapes, Khamis is left with the unsettling thought that the village's false religion might not be so false after all. Burroughs puts it this way: "The witch doctor thought quickly. In his heart he did not believe in River Devils, yet there was a chance that there might be such things..."
As things work out, the witch doctor (established religious authority) learns that he can not depend upon successfully overcoming every form of opposition (religious reformer/challenger/unbeliever) that might arise among the people. Burroughs the story-teller learned the same secret long before and predictably injects the threat-to-establishment theme into many of his stories. In this one, Miranda (the challenger) co-opts a goodly portion of the local superstitious belief system and forms his own cult following (Uhha, daughter of the witch doctor) in a bid to outwit the village leaders. This sets the scene for a minor religious rebellion, but ERB limits the damage by having Uhha think her secret anti-establishment activities are for the common good -- and then, a little later, she comes to her senses and shakes off Miranda's insidious influence.
Burroughs stops short of having Miranda
displace Khamis and Obebe in their positions of village authority -- the
"devil" had bigger fish to fry in the outside world -- but the author does
allow Miranda to obtain his freedom through the religious scare tactics
he has inflicted upon young Uhha. And all of this intrigue and sacred satire
is but one minor theme in the much larger plot of Tarzan and the Ant
Men. This is one of Burroughs' better novels and Khamis is one of his
better supporting actors. What might have happened had Miranda stayed on
and exercised a devilish power over the jungle community? For something
like second-party variations on the Miranda-style plot, see Hal Foster's
1932, 34 and 35 Sunday Tarzan strip stories, in which modern European mini-Cortezes
are wont to reign among the natives, playing upon their religious superstitions
in remote rain-forest settlements.
How do you spell "God" in Mangani?
In the second volume of the Tarzan series, Burroughs' heroic ape-man first encounters La, the high priestess of the Flaming God, amid the piles of antediluvian Opar. As luck would have it, this ecclesiastical mistress becomes his captor -- and she can speak "ape," allowing the couple to exchange some philosophical niceties:
"Who are you," she whispered, "who speaks the language of the first man?"
"I am Tarzan of the Apes," he answered in the vernacular of the anthropoids....
"You are a very wonderful man," she said. "You are such a man as I have seen in my daydreams ever since I was a little girl. You are such a man as I imagine the forbears of my people must have been -- the great race of people who built this mighty city in the heart of a savage world... I cannot understand why, having me within your power, you do not wish to be revenged upon me... for having almost put you to death with my own hand."
"I presume," replied the ape-man, "that you but followed the teachings of your religion. I cannot blame you for that, no matter what I may think of your creed. But who are you -- what people have I fallen among?"
"I am La, high priestess of the Temple of the Sun, in the city of Opar. We are descendants of a people who came to this savage world more than ten thousand years ago... [then] the great calamity occurred... the mighty land... [Atlantis] had sunk into the sea... The last remnant was finally forced to take shelter within this mighty mountain fortress. Slowly we have dwindled in power, in civilization, in intellect, in numbers, until now we are no more than a small tribe of savage apes... we speak their language... only in the rituals of the temple do we... retain our mother tongue.
Tarzan... asked suddenly. "Are you going to lead me to liberty?"
"You have been chosen by The Flaming God as his own," she answered solemnly. "Not even I have the power to save you... they [the Oparian priests] would kill me did they think that I had proved false to my god."
"You must not take the risk, then," he said quickly. "I will return to the temple, and if I can fight my way to freedom there will be no suspicion thrown upon you."
What a conversation! and all conducted in the language of the great apes! It seems that the Oparians' original Atlantean survived only as the African equivalent of "Old Latin" or "Church Slavonic," used exclusively in the temple during ceremonies honoring the Flaming God. So La and Tarzan converse in "ape" and she is able to convey to him all the details quoted here. Tarzan is, by this point in the epic, a man of the world -- he's been to London to see the Queen -- and he understands fully such concepts as "the teachings of your religion," "your creed," "the Temple of the Sun," "The Flaming God," and the "suspicion" of the "priests." But how are these well-developed abstractions communicated in the very limited "vernacular of the anthropoids?" Old Burroughs expects his readers to suspend not only their incredulity, but also their innate reasoning abilities throughout this particular chapter. Either that, or Burroughs neglected to mention Mother Kala's sending her Tarmangani foster child to the ape tribe's equivalent of boarding school and catechism class.
Brushing aside for a moment these minor (?) linguistic difficulties, the more marvelous consideration here is how smoothly High Priestess La makes the transition from being chief prelate of the Flaming God, to silent co-conspirator with her would-be human sacrifice -- then back to being the highest religious authority in Opar. There is perhaps some method in her man-crazy madness, however. As La herself says:
"It is the duty of a high priestess to instruct, to interpret -- according to the creed that others, wiser than herself, have laid down; but there is nothing in the creed which says that she must believe. The more one knows of one's religion the less one believes -- no one living knows more of mine than I."
Tarzan is such a gentleman that he
puts his own life at serious risk, so that La can continue to follow "the
teachings" of her "religion," even after the two of them have implicitly
agreed that it is a false faith! La has grown up in the Oparian faith,
but she admits she has slowly discarded the beliefs, until nothing substantial
remains. The Atlantean "Flaming God" is, quite obviously, either non-existent
or unfathomably forgiving! Tarzan is equally forgiving, in this instance.
The More You Know, the Less You Believe?
I'm sure that more than one reader
has been shocked by the cynicism expressed in La's disclosure to Tarzan:
"The more one knows of one's religion, the less one believes." Coming as
this does from the Pontiffess of the Flaming God, it implies that her priestcraft
is a bloodthirsty delusion from top to bottom. Her disclosure might even
go so far as to imply that all human religious experience is hoax and delusion.
If this is what the author means to say, the question naturally arises
-- is it not best to leave one's "creed" entirely unexamined? Does Mr.
Burroughs here seriously argue, that the honest study of religious beliefs
inevitably leads to despairing unbelief? Or, does that developing unbelief
mark the road to personal and social freedom? And, if to freedom, what
is there in the human experience to replace the faith thus lost? In the
case of La of Opar, the enlightened priestess of the false faith appears
ready to abandon all and follow after Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.
Her religious cynicism and romantic fixation upon the heroic intruder fits
in well with the epic, mythic element in the Tarzan saga -- demigods generally
don't put up with much divine competition. A similar playing out of the
hopeful/hopeless male/female relationship may be found in the meeting of
John Carter and Phaidor, daughter of the Holy Hekkador, in ERB's The
Gods of Mars. After learning that a great deal of her own religion
is a bloodthirsty sham, the daughter of the thern prelate is practically
ready to replace her beliefs with a libidinous devotion to the blasphemous
outsider. She begs John Carter: "Save me and your every wish shall be granted...
Phaidor already is yours."
Back on earth, Burroughs' high-minded John Clayton seemingly has no problem in allowing the false and bloody religion to continue on in Opar under La's guiding hand, beating down all the human females, the half-ape males, and their pure ape co-inhabitants. Perhaps he leaves La in churchly office, so as not to encourage her crush on him -- she appears ready to run off to Mombasa (or to Marlborough or Manchester, for that matter) with the forest Adonis at the drop of a hat, even if it must be her own high priestly headdress. Among classical priestesses this sort of thing was tantamount to celestial adultery, since they were generally virgins, pledged to their God for all (or most all) of their earthly lives. In such cases the priestesses also served the God's mother, of course, since priestesses' usual primary ties were with female deities. Who the Sun God's mother is, ERB does not disclose.
As with Phaidor and her condescending attraction to John Carter, La's fascination with Tarzan is a holy "no-no." Phaidor is the self-proclaimed goddess who later raises her knife of death over the bosom of Dejah Thoris; while the Priestess of Opar subsequently puts Tarzan's dearest sweetheart, Jane, under the sacrificial blade. In both ERB stories the beautiful "other woman" plays the temptress who sets aside her sacred precepts and pride (as well as her flesh-penetrating weapon) for the passion of the more potent masculine outsider, but neither enchantress secures his manhood's lust, much less his manly love. The intrusion of the dominant temptress into an escapist romance is a standard plot device in pulp fiction -- see the Lady Electra in Edwin L. Arnold's Phra the Phoenician for just one memorable example. Burroughs takes this worn-out female-as-seducer theme and enlivens it with the dissolution of the religion of the crestfallen dominatrix. He gives his readers not just the fall of a false religion, but the impending fall of its highest female devotee, the temptress who raises the dangerous dagger -- like Queen Xaxa in the Temple of Great Tur -- over the exposed vitals of the fair heroine. This is an intoxicating blend of adulterous enticement, subtle role-reversal phallicism, religion-betraying sexual surrender, anti-establishment conspiracy, brutal bloodletting, horrific death, and depravity played out in diabolical ritual. No wonder that ERB's spellbound readers are ever eager to turn the next page and to buy the next sequel!
John Carter eventually brings the false goddess Issus to a gory demise in Gods of Mars. The gallant but irreligious Swordsman of Ares triumphs over the bewitching Mother Kali of Barsoom, along with all her cannibal thugs and dupes. What that fictional scene reveals of Edgar Rice Burroughs innermost thoughts about women, temptation, deception and religion I cannot even begin to guess. Perhaps Burroughs was at once intrigued and frightened at the thought of exploring religion to its uttermost ends. Perhaps he both desired and feared the experience of seeing a strong-willed lady seduced away from the morality of her ancestors. Or, perhaps it is all just story-telling and signifies nothing.
Whatever might be said in the way of speculation, the fictional scenes remain to captivate the modern mind. Tarzan rises aloof from La's false religion, as does John Carter from Phaidor's world-encompassing holy fraud. But Tarzan exercises a forgiving toleration of the Oparian faith and his inexplicable toleration sustains a continuing threat to him and his family. Stripped of its external trappings and false doctrines, even the most pernicious belief system serves to protect and preserve its followers. And those followers, no matter how deluded and degraded, hold within them the spark of human genius, passion and compassion. Burroughs does not dwell upon this latter fact in his stories, but, here and there, he implies that some religionists have within them an innate goodness -- a natural goodness that might include a sort of spirituality of its own creation. Does not this inborn human righteousness merit some measure of religious forbearance and optimism, even in the case of the most deluded of devotees?
Savor the ironic outcome of both religious forbearance and unwitting optimism about religious ministers, in Edgar Rice Burroughs' sardonic scene, where naive Jane is ceremoniously treated by her Oparian hostesses:
Her captors now watched her with increasing interest... Presently... a young woman whom Jane Porter had not seen before came with several others to her dungeon. Here some sort of ceremony was performed -- that it was of a religious nature the girl was sure, and so she took new heart, and rejoiced that she had fallen among people upon whom the refining and softening influences of religion evidently had fallen... she went [with the Oparians] willingly, even gladly -- for was she not among the servants of God? It might be, of course, that their interpretation of the supreme being differed from her own, but that they owned a god was sufficient evidence to her that they were kind and good.
... she saw a stone altar in the center of the courtyard, and dark-brown stains upon it and the nearby concrete of the floor... as she was lifted and placed supine across the altar's top, hope left her entirely, and she trembled in an agony of fright... nor did she require the sight of the thin blade in the hands of the high priestess as it rose slowly above her to enlighten her further as to her doom.
Of course Jane is saved, ere the wicked knife can strike -- after all, this is an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, folks.
In this case Burroughs' plot "works" ok, despite the several loose ends and practical absurdities it involves. La is just as hypocritical as is Khamis the witch doctor of the village of Obebe, but she does something the witch doctor is not inclined to do, and that is admit the falsity of her age-old religion. La of Opar is not H. Rider Haggard's semi-divine high priestess, Ayesha of Kor, ready to retain and share her sacred position with a lover from the outside world, nor is she Ayesha's faded Barsoomian shadow, Phaidor the Holy Thern. Rather, La has "ignored the mandates of her religion," and is ever ready to abandon her faithless authority for a life with Tarzan -- perhaps because she senses his mythic stature even more than their literary creator does. Such are the fantastic products of the human subconscious, I suppose.
The reader does not learn a whole lot about La's religion, but its sun worship, with established teachings, inviolate ritual and organized priesthood, all set it at a higher level of complexity than the devil superstitions prevalent in the village of Obebe. It has a more complicated, more evolved theology and ecclesiology but offers no greater truth than does the villagers' devil reverence. That is, unless Tarzan's toleration of the Oparian system acknowledges that it serves some positive purpose for its adherents.
I raised this possibility for the Atlantean religion, when I made my comments regarding "innate goodness." Is this the proverbial case of the ends justifying the means? Does the false Oparian system gain some credibility in having helped preserve the last, lingering remnant of Atlantean civilization through the ages? Does Tarzan sense some natural goodness, buried deep within the sordid souls of this last outpost of a once glorious civilization? Or, does he simply not care to waste his time and energy in destroying an already doomed and dying remnant of the forgotten past? I cannot quite picture a John Carter leaving an Oparian hierophant seated upon her bloody throne at the end of the book. But for some strange reason Lord Greystoke makes just that decision in The Return of Tarzan. Exactly why, I do not know. Probably Burroughs himself did not know -- but that decision allowed ERB to revisit (and re-sell) La and her Oparian religion in subsequent stories of the Dark Continent.
Back to Nature
Although the religious system created for The Return of Tarzan is more evolved than the one practiced in the village of Obebe, in Tarzan and the Ant Men, it has the retrograde anomaly of holding open a place for the great gray apes. Or, at a minimum, the Oparian society presided over by The Flaming God has made a place for a sub-culture of those manlike "anthropoids." I get the feeling that the Oparian apes have a greater grasp of language and perhaps of theology than do the members of the tribe in which Tarzan was raised. They may have even helped to alter and develop the Oparian religion in imperceptible ways, down through the centuries. How much of High Priestess La's received theology is traceable back to misty Atlantis, and how many of its barbarisms are attributable to her people's intermixture with the apes?
A considerable distance away (in space, time and culture) the tribe that adopted baby John Clayton knows nothing of Opar's liturgies. Maybe Kerchak's bunch simply are not so well schooled as to "understand such matters as souls and Flaming Gods." In their own beastly way, though, they do occasionally "go to church." Following Burroughs' intimations in Tarzan of the Apes, I might even say that their human descendants now devoutly ape the apes. Allow ERB to clarify this seeming paradox:
Many travelers have seen the drums of the great apes, and some have heard the sounds of their beating and the noise of the wild, weird revelry of these first lords of the jungle, but Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, is, doubtless, the only human being who ever joined in the fierce, mad, intoxicating revel of the Dum-Dum.
From this primitive function has arisen, unquestionably, all the forms and ceremonials of modern church and state, for through all the countless ages, back beyond the last, uttermost ramparts of a dawning humanity our fierce, hairy forebears danced out the rites of the Dum-Dum to the sound of their earthen drums, beneath the bright light of a tropical moon in the depth of a mighty jungle...
The rites of the Dum-Dum marked important events in the life of the tribe -- a victory, the capture of a prisoner, the killing of some large fierce denizen of the jungle... Today it was the killing of a giant ape, a member of another tribe, and as the people of Kerchak entered the arena two mighty bulls were seen bearing the body of the vanquished between them.... The din of the drum was now increased, as well as the frequency of the blows, and the warriors, as each approached the victim of the hunt and delivered his bludgeon blow, joined in the mad whirl of the Death Dance...
Flesh seldom came to their jaws in satisfying quantities, so a fit finale to their wild revel was a taste of fresh killed meat... Great fangs sunk into the carcass tearing away huge hunks, the mightiest of the apes obtaining the choicest morsels... Tarzan, more than the apes, craved and needed flesh....
Well, well, well! From this come "all the forms and ceremonials of modern church and state?" I'm tempted to say that Ed Burroughs is here pulling the reader's leg -- but that particular expression ill comports with the author's subsequent account of Tarzan pulling an arm from the bludgeoned gorilla's corpse and ambling off for a meaty repast among the trees. The author here spares his readers a description of the cannibal meal -- or is it really cannibalism? The jungle boy consumes the uncooked flesh of another primate species altogether, though he might not have viewed his own apish table manners from that enlightened perspective. As though to assuage his audience's offended sensibilities, Burroughs quickly has Tarzan killing his bully ape foster father, whose corpse is left unmolested -- "for the people of Kerchak do not eat their own dead." That's mighty nice! I feel better already.
By the way, this jungle patricide was an almost obligatory element in the mythological underpinnings of the Tarzan epic. I wonder if ERB realized that when he composed the bloody scene? However, the mythic flow of events has been split into three distinct streams in the Tarzan story, first with the savage murder of his true father, and then with Tarzan's defeat and killing of Tublat and Kerchak. Since neither of the male great apes he deposes is Tarzan's true father, the mythological divine patricide element remains only an uncomfortable allusion in Tarzan of the Apes.
Ritual Dismemberment, Dum Dums and Consubstantiation
Getting back to "the forms and ceremonials" of human society, for a moment -- in presenting the Tublat death scene Mr. Burroughs awkwardly ignores what was perhaps the earliest proto-human religious act, the ritual of burying one's dead relatives and companions. The Bard of Tarzana was never much of a supporter of funerals in real life and he obviously carried that disdain over into his works of fiction: William Cecil Clayton's burial merits a couple of sentences and that's about it. So unfortunate Tublat lies upon the forest floor, uncared-for and uneaten. How would this literary tableau be rearranged, if the author had Mother Kala die at this point in the novel? The piling of any rocks over her cold body would have been left unrecorded, just as in the actual event, later on in Tarzan of the Apes.
Modern observation of chimps in the wild has shown that the big males occasionally band together to kill another ape, and then eat its flesh. Their actions in this primitive murder differ from those exhibited when the same group members kill and eat a lesser animal. They evidently realize that they are performing a unique act in dismembering and consuming their own kind. If the mother of the murdered victim (youngsters are easiest to kill, of course) is present, there will be hell to pay. ERB did not enjoy (?) the luxury of viewing such chilling scenes on video tape, but he did his best to re-create something similar in his fictional world. His instincts were on track, even if his fictional accounts' particulars were not. There is a solid link between the experience of death and the formation of religion -- and that link is made and remembered at the tribal level. Somewhere in all of this, amidst the communal grief at burials, guilt at murder scenes, and frenzy at stressful moments, the seeds of religious ceremony were first planted. Notice, however, that I did not say the seeds of "religious experience." There is a difference between these two inter-related precepts -- at least for some people.
Besides the curious absence of primal funeral rites in ERB's stories of savages, I detect another significant absence. Where do the conductors of "the forms and ceremonials" come from? In Tarzan of the Apes the alpha male Kerchak more or less supervises the Dum Dum ritual. But his role is not that of the shaman or witch doctor. What evolution in humanity's past separates Kerchak the ape chief from Khamis the witch doctor? For that matter, what developments in human history separate Khamis the male religious leader from La the female religious leader? The cultural anthropologist might here invoke speculations concerning proto-human midwifery, sympathetic magic in preparation for the big game hunt, and the unexpected effects experienced when ingesting psychotropic plants. Burroughs did not have time, in his fast-paced romantic fiction, to plot out the rise of shamanship. Priests and priestesses spring forth from his active mind, fully developed, like beings born of the ocean foam. Once they are summoned to their duties within his pages, they usually turn out to be hypocrites and petty tyrants. I'm not sure Edgar Rice Burroughs quite knew how to depict a compassionate, well-meaning minister of divinity within his tales. Perhaps I'll have to read The Outlaw of Torn once again, in order to locate a trifling example.
Another missing connection, between the days of the Dum Dum and the time of La of Opar, is an explanation of how the scene of apes dancing around a murdered primate transmutes into priestesses offering bloody living sacrifices to the Sun God. Again, this is not a link that Burroughs cared to detail, but the discerning mind can piece together the connection. I suspect that the unvoiced ERB idea goes something like this: As apes turned into ape-men and later true men, they carried with them the idea of celebrating around a dead foeman. This became an especially significant activity -- it strengthened tribal bonds, gave vent to turbulent emotions and promoted the preeminent position of the tribal leader(s). At some point in the slow progress of social advancement, certain leaders (perhaps war chiefs) began to stage combat episodes with the express purpose of obtaining victims to kill, dismember and eat. Then those persons who pretended to control magical powers began to specialize in conducting the ritual murders. This led to the belief that the spilling of magically potent human blood strengthened the marvelous powers of Nature and man: ritual killing became a perceived necessity for tribal survival. At this point the role of shaman, medicine man or witch doctor began to be concentrated in a single person, who was not always the main tribal leader, etc. etc.
Implicit in the above supposed explanation would be the growing belief that ritual consumption of sacrificial flesh and blood was a duty demanded by the increasingly personified "magical powers" of Nature. At some point the unseen "powers" became spirit "gods," who magically partook of the same sacrificial flesh and blood as did their devotees. Whether or not Edgar Rice Burroughs would have extended this explanation to dying and resurrecting gods, communal suppers centered on consuming such a god's flesh and blood, etc., I do not know. Probably his better judgment would prevail and the whole matter would be left unstated -- and such, I think, was how he handled it.
In the real world, the element of animal sacrifice ritual in primitive religion carries with it the implied sacrifice of a person. The person is spared, so long as he (or she, or the community) follows certain rules and abides by certain agreements. This is the model for covenant-sealing sacrificial meals in the ancient Near East. In other cultures there were other understandings of why bloody sacrifice was sometimes necessary. The Aztecs, a well-remembered human-sacrificing people, no doubt had somewhat different reasons for their sanguine ceremonies than did the adherents of Abraham, Moses and Ezra, on the opposite side of the world.
Burroughs, being merely a fiction writer,
did not have to understand and explain these sorts of things. His victims,
squirming under the upraised blade, appear along with their would-be sacrificers,
right at the point in the story where a dreadful scene is called for. And
then they disappear back into their dark temples until the needs of imaginative
fiction summon them forth again. Burroughs hints that they came from ape
ancestors, but he does not care to connect all the dots in his word picture.
The reader is left to either accept this sort of story-telling, or to close
the book and look elsewhere for entertainment. That's all good and well.
It isn't literature, but then again, it does not pretend to be literature.
Sometimes -- just sometimes -- the Burroughs narrative rises to the level
of post-Darwinian myth. Then the spilling of human blood and the struggle
to survive and triumph, against all odds and all powers, takes on a whole
new world of meaning. Luckily, for the armchair literary critic, Mr. Burroughs
did not do this in his writing very often and most observers can ignore
it altogether -- that is, until a 1948 Burne Hogarth depiction of ERB's
mythic creation reaches out and grabs them by the eyeballs. But that, as
they say, is a tale for another day.
The Exploring Fictional Religion
by Dale R. Broadhurst
The Religions of ERB Fiction
Spectres of the Supernatural
Beyond the Farthest Stars
John Carter Beginnings?
Lupoff of Mars
The Search for Ultimate Answers