Title illustration ©1952 by E. R. B. Inc. -- Footer images ©1929 by E. R. B. Inc.
Spectres of the
Than are Dreamt of in Your Philosophy
In a previous on-line article I noted that the author Edgar Rice Burroughs "never uses true magic in the Mars series." I believe that remark, with a few exceptions, could be extended to the entire canon of Burroughs' fiction. One possible appearance of magic in the ERB stories is in the scene in chapter 26 of Tarzan and the Foreign Legion where Tarzan speaks of having once partaken of a strange concoction and blood transfusion that rendered him an immortal. Then again, I think that particular episode (along with its parallel thematic sequence in chapter 31 of Tarzan's Quest) probably falls into the "impossible pseudo-science" category of Burroughsian story-telling. As I said before, ERB is ever ready to expropriate fantastic explanations from "junk science," from the occultists' "mind over matter manipulations" or from the claims of "quasi-mysticism," but he avoids any reliance upon truly supernatural elements in his fiction. Why this so, I've yet to fathom. Perhaps his evasion of the ethereal goes hand-in-hand with his reluctance to dwell for long upon any of the positive aspects of religious experience.
I imagine there are already a few hands being held up in protest to what I just said. Alert readers must be asking, "But wasn't John Carter's astral projection, in the first Mars story, something supernatural?" An illustrated British periodical from 1958 describes Captain Carter's mysterious transportation (teleportation?) to Barsoom in these words: "Mars the God of War and the patron of all fighting men, was calling to John Carter -- He was being gathered to the bosom of his second world!" These words, however, are not the words of Mr. Burroughs; they are the embellishment of the English writer who adapted the chapters of ERB's first Mars tale to graphic story format. Burroughs does not specify that the Greco-Roman God is summoning the soul of John Carter, nor that any dying person is being "gathered to the bosom" of a supernatural being or Olympian realm. My reading of the "astral projection" passages in A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars, is that they are examples of Burroughsian hyperbole and metaphor and not specimens of supernatural events.
Here are the relevant quotes:
My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star... I felt a spell of overpowering fascination -- it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void... My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space. (A Princess of Mars, chp. 2.)
As I stood upon the bluff... I felt again the strange, compelling influence of the mighty god of war, my beloved Mars, which for ten long and lonesome years I had implored with outstretched arms to carry me back... Not since that other March night... in which my still and lifeless body lay wrapped in the similitude of earthly death had I felt the irresistible attraction of the god of my profession. With arms outstretched toward the red eye of the great star I stood praying for a return of that strange power which twice had drawn me through the immensity of space, praying as I had prayed on a thousand nights before... (Gods of Mars, intro.)
"Why attempt to explain the inexplicable?" he [John Carter] replied. "... I have discussed the question with a noted Martian scientist, a friend of mine; but his theories are still only theories... As you know I have long possessed the power to cross the void in spirit, but never before have I been able to impart to inanimate things a similar power. Now, however, you see me for the first time precisely as my Martian fellows see me..." (Chessmen of Mars, intro.)
The "strange power" that propels John Carter back and forth between Mars and Earth does not appear to be typical "astral projection" or "out-of-the-body experience." True, Burroughs here imparts some words which might be used in describing those sorts of mysterious happenings, but his subsequent depictions of personal space travel by John Carter (and by Carter's fellow earthlings, Ulysses Paxton and Betty Callwell) place the fictional phenomenon more into the provenance of science than of the supernatural. Despite ERB's initial use of Spiritualist or Theosophical language in portraying this mode of interplanetary journeying, what he evidently had in mind was a previously undiscovered mode of teleportation. In later episodes Captain Carter is able to travel between planets as he wills, taking with him his entire physical self, his clothing and other material objects. The manifestations of the "strange power" chronicled in Princess and Gods must be merely imperfect applications of this unusual transporting phenomenon. A portion of his physical self is twice left behind on Earth, but it is not a material body, minus an immaterial "spirit." As I see it, Carter's "astral projection" looks more like an example of pseudo-science than of metaphysical spirituality -- it is "inexplicable" and paranormal, but it is not truly supernatural.
Edgar Rice Burroughs employs quasi-religious language to represent John Carter's state of mind during the time just prior to his first two teleportations to the Red Planet. Carter twice is made to say that he had been "praying" to "the god of war." Later on his author has him relecting that he can "cross the void in spirit." What does this mean? I think Old Burroughs was using metaphorical language in these instances. Just as a sailor stranded on a desert isle might supplicate the personified Ocean to send a rescue ship his way, so too John Carter supplicates "the strange, compelling influence" he associates with the Red Planet -- "wishing upon a star" that he might be carried off to Mars. Just as soldiers marching off to war tell their families they will remain with them "in spirit," so Captain Carter speaks of his essential self. The language I'm speaking of doesn't have to be 100% rhetorical, of course. John Carter is a warrior of great antiquity whose origin is lost to his own memory. He may well have once served as a Greek hoplite, whose companions prayed to the god Ares -- or as a Roman legionnaire, who offered sacrifice to Mars. Vestiges of ancient notions and language may yet linger in the subconscious of the martial Virginian. Even so, there is nothing disclosed in Burroughs' writings to indicate that John Carter believed in and worshipped the classical divinities -- and nothing to show that he believed his "spirit" to be a supernatural entity.
A good example of ERB's metaphorical
phraseology appears in chapter 25 of his A Princess of Mars: "And
thus... did Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, true daughter of Mars, the
God of War, promise herself in marriage..." Burroughs' Barsoom is a combative
place and its denizens are warlike beings. It is a planet with a once great
civilization which has, for centuries, been devolving back into barbarism
-- where theft is rare but assassination is a nightly affair. When the
author calls the Princess of Helium a "true daughter" of the Olympian Ares,
he is only saying that she is the noble offspring of a fierce race. Neither
she nor her otherworldly consort actually believe in Mars as a divine being.
Furthermore, Carter's pre-transport rhetoric in Gods must be measured
against the remainder of the story, in which he battles those same false
"gods," the Holy Therns. When, in the sequel, the last vestiges of those
"gods" are defeated and deposed, Warlord Carter offers no hint of an earthly
classical religion to take their place in the temples of Barsoom. And (perhaps
significantly) John Carter no longer offers supplication to Mars, once
he has arrived on the Red Planet.
You Don't Have to be a Rocket Scientist
The dictionary says that paranormal means "beyond the scope of normal objective investigation or explanation." Fiery meteorites falling from the skies were once classed with paranormal events -- until the application of science showed them to be atmosphere-heated stones from outer space. On the other hand, the dictionary defines supernatural as something "transcending the natural" world of living things. I'm guessing that Edgar Rice Burroughs did not place much stock in those metaphysical concepts and explanations which go beyond Nature. He rarely made use of such devices, and when he did it was usually in providing examples of human ignorance and folly.
It was not the supernatural,
but, rather, the paranormal that truly captured Burroughs' attention
-- those things now inexplicable, which one day might well be explained
by reason and science. Of course the pulp fiction writer could always hurry
along the gradual process of reasoned explanation, by offering his own
semi-rational and ersatz-scientific interpretations to an undiscriminating
readership. So long as his bizarre (but non-religious) story elements preserved
some bare tatters of verisimilitude, they were good enough for the penny-a-word
fiction market. The earth might be hollow; space travelers might
increase or decrease in mass, depending upon the size of the planet they
approach; death might be just the movement of one's consciousness
to an unseen dimension; "thoughts and visualizations" might be transmitted
"to the mind of another," human brains might be exchanged from one
person to another; teleportation of living beings across vast reaches of
space might be possible, etc., etc.
If my guess is correct, it may serve to explain how Edgar Rice Burroughs managed to address and make use of numerous religious topics in his stories, without having to dwell very much upon the transcendental aspects of human faith and experience. For the most part, he could simply deal with religion in his fictional prose as though it were a hoax or a delusion. In this model the founders and sustainers of religions are generally manipulative, hypocritical charlatans, and their followers are unthinking, superstitious dupes. In his stories Mr. Burroughs could explain most supposedly supernatural phenomena as being nothing but nefarious deception -- whatever strange things remained (life after death, psychic powers, holy manifestations, etc.) he could relegate to the realm of the paranormal. For example, ERB has his Padwar Tan Hadron say: "There are occasions in the life of every man when he becomes impressed by the evidence of the existence of an extraneous power which guides his acts." Certainly such an "extraneous power" does not fall within the provenance of known science -- it is a phenomenon for the parapsychologist to study. Hadron acknowledges the typical theological explanation; that the "extraneous power... is sometimes described as the hand of providence;" but he utilizes his author's method in attributing the supposed supernatural to the ponderable paranormal, by adding: "or [it] is again explained on the hypothesis of a sixth sense which transports to the part of our brain that controls our actions, perceptions of which we are not objectively aware."
By practicing this methodology in his story-telling, Mr. Burroughs could fabricate and elucidate all kinds of "religious" themes, and still avoid having to discuss "deep" theological topics -- except in those few instances where he consciously chose to do so. Since his creative product was generally marketed as pulp fiction of the "adventure" type, ERB's method suited the expectations of his editors and readers. It also absolved him from having to face and reflect very often upon the universal, timeless questions which flow deep within the hearts, poetry and literature of the human race: What is the purpose of life? Where did it begin? What is love? What lies beyond death? Is God a being? or, perhaps the self-existent basis of being? or, maybe just an empty abstraction?
Edgar Rice Burroughs only tackled those sorts of subjects when he felt compelled to communicate on a level above the plane of popular fiction -- and he didn't do that very often.
Getting from There to Here
I have a stack of fictional stories
on my desk, beside me, as I write these comments. Although they got piled
up here more or less by chance, their order turns out to be anything but
random. The first text is a photocopy of manuscript romance written in
America during the early 19th century and it includes some trailblazing
descriptions of travel through space to other planets. Its title is Romance
of Celes and its unpublished contents are attributed to a would-be
author named Solomon Spalding. The story is not exactly science fiction
-- it is a religious romance, complete with Christian angels, celestialized
souls, and a cameo appearance of the biblical Jehovah, seated upon the
heavenly throne of glory. This is precisely not the kind of story
that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have ever dreamed of writing. The second
book is a metrical epic, published in two volumes, by the British Poet
Laureate, Robert Southey. He titled this offering to the muses Madoc.
Among other things, it relates the fictional mass Christianization of a
nation of pre-Columbian Meso-Americans by Welsh knights. This is another
romantic creation with sub-plots that Mr. Burroughs would have naturally
avoided. When ERB does take a brief, backward look at old Christendom,
in Tarzan Lord of the Jungle, he preserves little more of that society's
religion than a great stone cross, already an antique in the British Isles
of medieval times.
Atop these two first two texts lies my bound internet print-out of H. Rider Haggard's She and Ayesha, the Return of She. Probably I do not need to describe these two volumes to most of my readers, except to say that they are both permeated with exotic religious themes, as well as repetitive representations of their British protagonists as being God-fearing Christians (well, at least in profession, if not always in their actions). While ERB might have written just such stories as these, I'm sure he would have deleted or changed 99% of their erudite theologizing, spiritual speculation and mystic dreams, ere he ever mailed off such submissions to his editors. Finally, perched precariously upon the stack is an old edition of Edwin L. Arnold's Phra the Phoenician, wherein the sword-wielding hero not only lives and "dies" numerous times, he also converses at length with a disembodied spirit, imploring her to tell him what things are like on "the other side." Again, while Old Burroughs might have found much in the way of raw story-telling material in this improbable novel, there are certain extraordinary portions he would have eliminated before he could have been satisfied in authoring such a tale.
Spalding, Southey and Haggard were
all professing Christians and that fact is well evidenced in their writings,
albeit it in lessening proportions as I read from the bottom of the bookish
pile upwards. By the time I get to Arnold, the overt religious evangelizing
has disappeared and I'm left reading what sounds like Spiritualism mixed
with traces of Protestantism and a hint of respect for Eastern philosophies.
The latter religious element is also present, dished out in heaping measures,
in the second of my Haggard books. I've lived in the foothills of the Himalayas
and frequented the fringes of the Tibetan Plateau, and it seems to me that
the adventurous British author did a nice job in capturing at least the
general flavor of Central Asian Buddhism. Burroughs does a much less convincing
job portraying some pretentious aspects of Hindu mysticism in his Carson
of Venus tales. While on the subject of Carson Napier, I perceive that
I'd probably tip over my tower of tomes, were I to add to it an ERB Amtorian
romance or two -- but their presence, as the final addition in my set,
would complete the thematic evolution I've here been alluding to.
Divinity, Darwin and DNA
Recall the first conversation that La of Opar had with Tarzan of the Apes, when they were hiding out from her people in The Return of Tarzan. They spoke of her religion (well, I guess that La mostly spoke and Tarzan mostly listened) in the Mangani language. In a few short sentences the high priestess is able to tell the jungle champion pretty much all he needs to know concerning the Atlantean Flaming God and her religion's doctrines. Taciturn Tarzan does not take the trouble to tell La how, in his youth, he shot arrows into the heavens to save Goro the Moon, or how he struggled to comprehend the word G-o-d in his child's primer. A recitation of these childhood episodes lies beyond the dignity of the adult Lord of the Jungle. The mature Tarzan is the kind of noble, but non-religious, fellow whom Christian novelists Spalding, Southey and Haggard would have never written into their stories. Edwin L. Arnold might have found a place for the apeman in one of his strange tales, but only if John Clayton first professed a belief in ghosts and magic carpets.
With La and Tarzan's theological conversation in mind, consider, for a moment, a few passages from Haggard's She, where the immortal High Priestess of Kor shares some interesting thoughts with Professor L. Horace Holly:
"So," she went on, "now... tell me of the philosophy of that Hebrew Messiah, who came after me..."
I did my best to expound to her the doctrines of Christianity, to which, however, with the single exception of our conception of Heaven and Hell, I found that she paid but scant attention, her interest being all directed towards the Man who taught them. Also I told her that among her own people, the Arabs, another prophet, one Mohammed, had arisen and preached a new faith...
"Ah!" she said; "I see -- two new religions!... Mankind asks ever of the skies to vision out what lies behind them. It is terror for the end, and but a subtler form of selfishness -- this it is that breeds religions... The religions come and the religions pass, and the civilisations come and pass, and naught endures but the world and human nature. Ah! if man would but see that hope is from within and not from without -- that he himself must work out his own salvation!..."
I did not care
to try and discuss the question with her... How little chance, then, should
I have against one whose brain was supernaturally sharpened, and who had
two thousand years of experience, besides all manner of knowledge of the
secrets of Nature at her command! Feeling that she would be more likely
to convert me than I should to convert her, I thought it best to leave
the matter alone
There are at least a couple of sentiments expressed by She Who Must be Obeyed, in this discussion, which Edgar Rice Burroughs might have happily endorsed, but he could have never placed such a train of words into the mouth of La of Opar. For that matter, I think that very few of his characters could have been made to utter such things. In her own self-centered way, Ayesha of Kor is wise -- not all-wise, but more ingenious than the learned Professor Holly, and infinitely more experienced than Ras Thavas and ERB's other masterminds. By penning alternating dialog for both Ayesha and Holly, their author is able to propound some weighty theological topics, not the least of which is one hinting that the personhood of Jesus might be more important than the dogmas attributed to him. H. Rider Haggard probably wasn't much more intelligent or imaginative than was Edgar Rice Burroughs, but Haggard wrote for a more literate audience and he could address "deeper" themes than ERB typically worked with. Haggard also wrote for a more religious audience than Burroughs did, and that allowed him to employ and develop spiritual sub-themes which would have only gotten in the way of the fast-paced action in an ERB tale.
Both Edwin L. Arnold and H. Rider Haggard lived and wrote during the Darwinian revolution in scientific thought. Both authors deal, in one way or another, with the idea of human social development over time, but neither man exploits the new idea of human evolution with even an iota of the energy and focus Edgar Rice Burroughs brings to the subject. Burroughs' dedication to Darwinian thought, coupled with his disinterest in spiritual experience, helps make him a child of the modern era. He writes for 20th and 21st century audiences. Despite their attempts at writing fantastic fiction for a contemporary readership, Arnold and Haggard belong back in the 19th century with Spalding and Southey. Burroughs' imaginative fiction has grown beyond the limits previously imposed by those earlier, more religious writers. In the process, the ERB-style story unfolded its wings under the sun of a new day in human thought. It gained the new life necessary to engage new generations of readers and to inspire new generations of fantasy and science fiction writers. In its development the fresh-minted brand of story-telling lost something. To the reverent follower of the biblical faith, the hyper-religious products of writers like Spalding and Southey read as flagrant fabrication, much of which verges upon sacrilege. Authors of Haggard's and Arnold's ilk abandoned this antique, Miltonesque technique well before the end of the 19th century. In doing so, they cut back on the trivialization of the biblical faith, but they also diminished biblical elements in their supernatural fiction. Perhaps that was a necessary trade-off in their quest for literary modernity, but much Judeo-Christian tradition and wisdom was necessarily left behind.
These are the conclusions I've distilled
from reading the odd stack of writings sitting at my elbow. Had I perused
a different set of old novels, perhaps my examples would be different,
but I suppose I'd still be left with Edgar Rice Burroughs as the quintessential
bridge between the old viewpoint, in which human beings were classed by
scripture, phrenology or physiognomy, and the contemporary perspective,
in which they are grouped by statistics, blood type and details of their
DNA. Edgar Rice Burroughs grew up and did his adolescent reading in the
final years of the Victorian era, but his adamant interest in Darwin, Edison,
and human progress propelled his imagination into eras far beyond his life-span.
Here, There and Everywhere?
I keep going back to Bob Zeuschner's recent on-line article, to look for representations of Edgar Rice Burroughs making use of religious themes in his stories. Bob doesn't supply many examples, but he does say some interesting things:
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... So, religion in Burroughs implies an intense subjective feeling of awe and amazement at the wonder and power of Nature....
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. ("Religious
Themes in the Novels of ERB," ERBzine
1120 Jan., 2004)
If these comments are correct, then ERB had no use for the personhood of God in his concept of authentic "religion." Does that mean that the author substituted, in his own philosophy, "the raw impersonal power of Mother Nature" for the personal God so many people believe in? Perhaps so -- I'm not well enough informed on the matter to come to any firm conclusions. I only recall one ERB statement that might shed some light upon his opinion: "It really does not make much difference what... [people think] about evolution... They cannot change it... It is an immutable law of Nature; and when we say that, it is just the same as saying that it is an immutable law of God -- that is, for those who believe in God -- for one cannot think of God and Nature as separate and distinct agencies."
What sort of "religion" might arise among the devotees of the "impersonal power" which disallows "God and Nature as separate and distinct agencies"? This premise seems to me to hold something more substantial than the predilections of the guy who says that he is going golfing or fishing on Sunday morning -- because that is his "nature worship." At the same time, the "impersonal power" appears to be something less specialized than the old native American veneration for the unspoiled out-of-doors, mysterious events and totem spirits. I picture the "impersonal power" Bob speaks of as being something like "The Force" of the Jedi Knights in the Star Wars cycle. Probably Burroughs would have approved of that sort of thing in escapist entertainment -- and he probably would have been intrigued with the tenet that "It" also had a "dark side."
There is another possibility in defining the "wonder and power of Nature... that we were all part of," and that possibility is pantheism. This is a theological concept not very well understood in the western world -- most monotheists tend to confuse it either with biblical omnipresence or with a pagan worship of innumerable spirits. But neither of these notions fits well with idea of the Divine being an "impersonal power." The concept of pantheism better fits with the non-rational, transcendental experience of being "one with Nature," or of being "one with the Universe." Some knowledgeable folks say that, once the "doors of perception" are opened, practically any person can arrive at the ecstatic realization that all things constitute a sentient Unity. Such a realization does not come from intellectual or emotional assent to others' doctrines; it comes with a human being's total abandonment of personal will and rational thought. If that sounds like craziness to some readers, they should not feel too alone -- I think that Edgar Rice Burroughs himself would have taken a very skeptical view of this "full-blown" portrayal of divinity-in-everything.
Still, Mr. Burroughs once published some remarks which border upon a lesser, more sensible sort of pantheism. Here are the thoughts he put into the head and heart of the adolescent Tarzan of the Apes:
[After killing the great serpent] Tarzan drank his fill... His mind reverted to the battle with Histah, the snake. It seemed strange to him that Teeka should have placed herself within the folds of the horrid monster. Why had she done it? Why, indeed, had he?...
What made him do such things? Somebody more powerful than he must force him to act at times. "All-powerful," thought Tarzan. "The little bugs say that God is all-powerful. It must be that God made me do these things, for I never did them by myself. It was God who made Teeka rush upon Histah. Teeka would never go near Histah of her own volition. It was God who held my knife from the throat of the old Gomangani. God accomplishes strange things for he is 'all-powerful.' I cannot see Him; but I know that it must be God who does these things.... And the flowers -- who made them grow? Ah, now it was all explained--the flowers, the trees, the moon, the sun, himself, every living creature in the jungle -- they were all made by God out of nothing.
And what was God? What did God look like? Of that he had no conception; but he was sure that everything that was good came from God... Yes, Tarzan had found God, and he spent the whole day in attributing to Him all of the good and beautiful things of nature (Jungle Tales of Tarzan, ch. 4)
When the comic-book team of Pat Masulli and Sam Glanzman adapted ERB's "The God of Tarzan" to the medium of sequential art, in 1965, Masulli edited the original author's words in a manner that kept his abridgment true to Burroughs' primary message. In one panel he wrote "God is everywhere," and that is a fair summary of Burroughs' story. There is a reservation to be made in that statement, though -- "God is everywhere, so long as the things in that place are good." Radical pantheism finds the impersonal God even in the things that the human mind classifies as being "bad," but Tarzan's juvenile philosophy was not that far advanced.
In his Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs is not trying to impose some personal variety of nature reverence or partial pantheism upon his accepting readers. Instead, I think he is using Tarzan as an Everyman, whose fictional experience condenses into a single short story the drawn-out experience of early humankind in fathoming a few aspects of the Divine. This is an ultra-rare example of positive theologizing in a canon of fantastic fiction wherein the author generally relegates religious thinking to the dustbin of fraud, manipulation and superstition. Imaginative fiction and human prehistory both find a requisite basis in conflict, struggle, defeat and triumph. In this struggle for success, some creatures and circumstances must necessarily be labeled "good" and others "bad."
Tarzan exercises heroic courage in saving the hapless apes from the great serpent. True heroism is essentially synonymous with successful (though sometimes heedless and tragic) self-sacrifice. But Tarzan (evolving humankind) also exercises loathing, hatred and brutality in struggling with the snake, a monster which he cannot concede being part of God's good creation. This example is not a pantheistic one -- not quite -- but it metaphorically reiterates the understanding that "one cannot think of God and Nature as separate and distinct agencies," and it records a pregnant moment in man's evolving consciousness of the Divine presence in all things. Young John Clayton achieves both a material and a spiritual triumph -- and that is more than enough for one Edgar Rice Burroughs story.
Burroughs jungle character puts together his limited experience with his limited studies to come up with his own definition of God. This God does not yet have a name, but "he" is an all-powerful, masculine-like being that is only partially separable from his creation. Along the way to his making this wonderful discovery, the apeboy discards a number of incorrect or incomplete concepts of what God might be. God is not the Moon, God is not a witch doctor, etc. I cannot help but be reminded of the biblical story of Elijah, in which the Israelite seeker discovers that the Lord is not the great wind, nor the terrible earthquake, nor the all-consuming fire; but, rather, an almost imperceptible revelation within Elijah's own consciousness.
Tarzan's God provides the apeboy with no special revelation -- other than his growing capacity for (and heightened perception of) pity and empathy. This heightened perception is almost the same as a "still, small voice," I imagine. If I read Burroughs correctly, he is equating God's revelation with creation as a whole and also with the triumph of Tarzan's new mental reflection upon that good creation. The apeboy's brain has arrived at the point of postulating an invisible, masculine, personal divine being; but in thinking such thoughts Tarzan is also abstracting, qualifying and limiting the "impersonal power" of Nature. The human mind evidently seeks to put a recognizable face upon the Ineffable. The omnipresent, faceless (but personal) God of the Yahwist and the Muslim is a concept still beyond the thoughts of Tarzan and his author, I believe. Burroughs no doubt knew of this sort of theology, but the most evolved idea he chose to place into the apeboy's cogitation, is that the creator God is invisible. The spirituality of the loftier realms occupied by eastern philosophy was unthinkable to ERB, and thus his fictional Tarzan does not make the mental connection between nature reverence and true pantheism. I'd like to believe that eventually he did come to that realization -- if not in his mind, then perhaps in his heart.
Then Sings My Soul
In his Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs says "Tarzan had found God." What is the outcome of the epiphany? Well, in his arriving at this bush enlightenment Tarzan demonstrates his first inklings of a compassion that is more than just blood-relative loyalty. Once he had his spiritual awakening concerning God, "he spent the whole day in attributing to Him all of the good and beautiful things of nature." There is no hint in Burroughs' stories that Viscount Greystoke advanced his religious activities to anything beyond occasional awestruck appreciation of natural world about him. Tarzan's frequent, self-sacrificing heroism is evidently not a conscious response to his having "found God." In fact, I have the impression that none of ERB's more admirable characters, outside of a few in his Lunar stories, participate in any particular forms of personal piety, worship, charity, or faithful communion with others. Nor do his "good" characters engage in teaching divine philosophy, sacred discipline, or holy morality. Other than Captain Carter's supplication of the Red Planet and Carson's Napier's reflexive exclamations of thankfulness, ERB offers no memorable instances of prayerful communication between his heroes and the Divine. Even Tarzan, who once harangued the Moon and who reached a life-changing appreciation of God, makes no attempts at prayer. It appears that the experience of being "born again," in the ERB cosmos, carries with it few consequences.
Here are some possibly relevant comments on prayer, from Mr. Burroughs' biographer, Irwin Porges:
His [ERB's] next story, "Pellucidar," revealed elements of Burroughs' philosophies. His... dubious view of religion is illustrated through Perry's fears and what follows:
Perry was almost overcome by the hopelessness of our situation. He flopped down on his knees and began to pray. It was the first time I had heard him at his old habit since my return to Pellucidar, and I had thought that he had given up his little idiosyncrasy; but he hadn't. Far from it."
Beyond this lies the characterization of Innes and, for that matter, of all of ERB's heroes who face dangers and seemingly hopeless situations undauntedly and with a refusal to yield to discouragement. With these men the solution always is found in action, not in "flopping down" to pray. This rejection of passivity -- a resignation to fate or quietism -- was part of Burroughs' practical view of life, that when a difficult situation arises, a man must do something to solve it on his own.... (Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan, p. 216)
Pray Without Ceasing?
Edgar Rice Burroughs, in his inner world tales, contrasts the erudite, elderly and pious Abner Perry with the intractable, youthful and irreligious David Innes. Speaking through David, Mr. Burroughs casts considerable aspersion upon Abner's "little idiosyncrasy" of praying to the biblical God. Perry prays for help when circumstances dictate that he should try save himself. Perry prays in thanksgiving just as he is about to fall into great danger, etc., etc. Perhaps the sort of ostentatious invocations exhibited by Abner Perry deserve a bit of spoofing, but I can only conjecture what David's reaction might have been to Abner's offering a pious thank-you for a beautiful day or for the safe return of a beloved friend. These are not the kind of incidents that move along the plot of fast-paced fiction and ERB naturally avoided writing them into his stories. His occasional references to a prayer of thanksgiving, on the lips of Carson Napier, are better explained as the remnants of childhood conditioning, than as true praise to a listening deity. Probably Burroughs thought that the only "prayer" worth his contemplating was a pledge of sacred honor, or a rare, awe-struck admiration of Mother Nature's enigmatic endurance, despite all tribulations.
ERB once shared with a correspondent these brusque words: "Because I am not religious don't think that I couldn't write a religious story. It's just a matter of imagination, and I can easily imagine myself a religious bigot; and anyway I wouldn't make it too damn religious." Perhaps as good an example as any, of a "religious story" that's not "too damn religious" is the episode Burroughs places in the Temple of the Great Tur, in Master Mind of Mars.
Here are some more useful comments from Mr. Porges, on Burroughs' writing of fantastic fiction:
As in The Gods of Mars, Burroughs [in Master Mind of Mars] cannot resist ridiculing a blind, superstitious belief in religion. The people of Phundahl worshipped the god Tur, and at the temple followed a ritual which they never presumed to question. Before various idols they might lie prone or bump their heads on the floor, or, on occasion, crawl madly in a circle. In all cases money was dropped in a receptacle.
Burroughs presents a significant aspect of his philosophy in the scene that follows. Paxton, upon hearing the worshippers recite "Tur is Tur, Tur is Tur" before two different idols, remarks that in both cases the sounds are identical. Dar Tarus corrects him, insisting that at first they said, "Tur is Tur," while at the second idol they reversed it. Dar Tarus asks, "Do you not see? They turned it right around backwards, which makes a very great difference."... Burroughs' invention of the word "Tur" for the Phundahlian God is deliberate. The worshippers are really saying, "Rut is Rut. " In this scene Burroughs is commenting upon the follies of all blind religious custom... he is emphasizing a danger. Through years of ritualistic behavior and unquestioning conformity, one may lose the power of seeing things rationally... the Phundahlians' particular rut... (Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan, pp. 415-16)
Perhaps Mr. Porges is correct in his postulating a little word-joke on Burroughs' part. If so, the "rut" here mentioned may be more than just the repetitive confines of religious ritual. The Phundahlians attribute all procreative activity to their god, and "rut" also means "a condition or period of mammalian sexual activity."
The Phundahlian religion is a sham of the worst sort and Burroughs must have been greatly amused while writing about all the superstitious nonsense that particular mass-deception entails. Ulysses Paxton eventually preempts the power of the Jeddra of Phundahl and the operation of her priests' temple confidence game with an eagerness reminiscent of John Carter's overthrow of the world-wide cult of Issus, years before. However, only a handful of the leaders are aware of the exposure and, presumably, they thereafter continue to make use of the Tur delusion for the common good.
All of this is good fun, no doubt,
but the anti-religious theme in Master Mind is not well counter-balanced
by the good guys' selective bravery and their presumed future manipulation
of the established priestly artifices for positive results. Had he been
so inclined, Burroughs might have made a few small admissions that faith
and prayer can serve positive purposes. As ridiculous as the Phundahlians'
holy rituals may be, from the view of an outsider they might not appear
all that different from the temple activities of the upright, faithful
Tibetan Buddhist. The measure of any religious teaching or practice comes
with the fruit it bears -- and if that fruit is sweetened by compassion,
gentleness, and good neighborliness, it cannot be all bad. What are prayer
and devotion anyway? Are they not (in their best manifestations) but a
milder form of the same self-denial that marks sincere heroism? Herman
Melville puts it this way: "what is worship? ... to do to my fellow man
what I would have my fellow man to do to me." My guess is that Burroughs,
the hopeful man of action, would rather save people's lives in his stories,
than save their souls. His many heroic characters inevitably stick to the
former road; and probably do that simply because they do not care to try
and understand the latter path. Too bad that Edgar Rice Burroughs never
got around to creating a venerable martial monk of the Shaolin Temple variety
-- now that might have made for an interesting story!
We'll Always Have Amtor
Remember the demented magician, Morgas, in ERB's The Wizard of Venus? The local yokels on Venus thought he was turning people into cattle. As the story turned out, this Venerian Circe wasn't much of a wizard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' protagonist (I hesitate to call Carson Napier a "hero") predictably exposes Amtorian magic as being little more than the Svengalian power of suggestion. So much for wizardry on the beclouded planet.
Burroughs' Venus has none of hoary history of his dying Mars. It has no river of death, no cannibal therns, no planet-encompassing goddess cult and no gigantic idols set up for public worship -- or, at least none that the author ever got around to describing. If ERB created Amtor as an undeveloped paradise, it is a celestial elysium without deities or religion. As Carson Napier says, "None of the various peoples of Amtor with whom I had come in contact had any religion." The last two statements are not entirely correct: Amtor has its share of troubles and thus it is a less than perfect paradise. Also, in "the ancient empire of Vepaja" there is a royal family who are treated like "the gods and goddesses of the religions" of Earth. The machinations of the "Wizard of Venus" show that some Venusians are ready to believe in the supernatural, if not exactly in deities. And -- oh yes -- there was the short-lived religion of Loto-El-Ho-Ganja, the "Goddess of Fire" (a.k.a. "Betty Callwell"), in Escape on Venus; but she wasn't really a goddess and her successor, King Duma, evidently wasn't loved and cared for nearly so well as the afore-mentioned, semi-deified Vepajan royal family.
If I'm not mistaken, it is Mr. Napier himself who is primarily responsible for the residents of the Morning Star knowing something about religion. He frequently tells the people he meets on Venus about earthly creeds, but he doesn't take his non-sectarian evangelizing very seriously and it produces no remarkable effects -- except temporarily (using his quasi-religious powers) in The Wizard of Venus.. Carson may even betray a little of his author's iconoclastic philosophy, when he speaks of the futility of relating spiritual experiences, if there are no sympathetic auditors to receive the second-hand revelation:
Were I to see God, himself, even that would mean nothing. It became apparent that the value of what we see is measurable only by the size of our prospective audience. Whatever I saw, who might never have an audience, was without value. (Pirates of Venus, chp. 3)
Where are those learned, querulous Jesuits when you most need them? Oh well, perhaps Carson's sentiments are ultimately correct. What good would it be to me, if immediately after his enlightenment under the bodhi tree, Gautama Siddhartha had died from a stroke? Or, if Socrates had slipped into a hemlock-induced coma before he ever spoke a word to Plato? Or, if the apostolic followers had never written down Jesus' gospel nor established any congregations of the faithful? On second thought, maybe I'm letting Burroughs and his planet-hopping Napier off the transcendental hook a bit too easily with my concurrence. If Moses is to be credited, personal theophanies are best not ignored, no matter how small or pharonically close-minded the initial "audience" may be.
The Religions of ERB Fiction
Spectres of the Supernatural
Beyond the Farthest Stars
John Carter Beginnings?
Lupoff of Mars
The Search for Ultimate Answers
Visit our thousands of other sites at:
BILL & SUE-ON HILLMAN ECLECTIC STUDIO
ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2004/2010 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners
No part of this web site may be reproduced without permission from the respective owners.