Thursday, October 20, 2005


Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mormonism

Phillip R. Burger in his article, "Mesa, Mormons and Martians: The Possible Origins of Barsoomian History," speculates that Barsoom, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars as described in his work A Princess of Mars, may have been influenced by Mormon beliefs. Burger notes that the similarities between the Book of Mormon and Barsoom include, among other things, an advanced but extinct white race and a dwindling and war-like red race. Dale R. Broadhurst, in "Does it Really Matter, Fantasy and Truth," ridicules this theory of "Brother" Burger's because the red and other violent Barsoomian races did not revert to a white and peaceful state upon John Carter's destruction of the false Barsoomian religion. Broadhurst also states that if Burroughs had been using LDS beliefs as source material, he could have stayed in the comforts of Chicago perusing the Book of Mormon for plots rather than traveling to the parched desert of Arizon for his novel about an Apache warchief. Finally, Broadhurst hammers what he seems to believe is the last coffin nail in the theory that Burroughs borrowed from features of Latter-Day Saint beliefs with the assertion that if ERB had been "sympathetic towards Mormon society and religion, he probably would not have used an overview of Salt Lake City to illustrate his protagonist's opinion of the dismal morgor metropolis." ERB's character describes a fictional city as "quite as depressing in appearance as is Salt Lake City from the air on an overcast February day."

In my opinion, Mr. Burger's theory has considerable merit. ERB's stay in Salt Lake City and Southern Idaho where he had the opportunity to learn about the Book of Mormon and LDS beliefs is well documented. Broadhurst himself speculates that ERB took the opportunity to view Salt Lake City from the nearby mountains and used the disappointing view in his work. Broadhurst's assertion that ERB did not borrow from LDS beliefs because he did not have his Barsoomians become white and peaceful with the fall of the false religion is amusing but irrelevant--not to mention being a real downer for writing further exciting adventures on Barsoom. Put another way, Broadhurst argues that because ERB did not adopt the complete story line of the Book of Mormon, he could not have been using LDS source material at all. Broadhurst implies that ERB wasn't bright enough to borrow an idea and work with it creatively; he had to purloin the story in toto or not at all. The same is true for his statement that ERB could have remained in Chicago, recycling plots from the Book of Mormon; he insinuates that ERB would have been incapable of receiving other ideas, influences or even self-motivation after being tainted by the Book of Mormon. Burger did not attribute ERB's entire storyline to Mormon influence, he merely suggested that it was one influence. Broadhurst seems to dismiss the theory on the basis that ERB simply lacked the intellectual capacity to escape from the Book of Mormon, a tar baby that would have held fast ERB's imagination to the exclusion of all other influences. Burger himself preempted the very argument that Broadhurst attempts. Burger specifically noted that he thought that LDS beliefs could have influenced ERB and that like a good fiction writer, ERB borrowed and adapted that which struck his fancy, and did not blatantly plagiarize. Broadhurst even quotes the very paragraph in which Burger preempts this argument, but Broadhurst omits that significant sentence from his piece, stringing the rest of the paragraph together with elipses.

Broadhurst's final but ineffectual nail in Burger's theory is particularly twisted. Broadhurst changes the argument. He leaps from Burger's premise that LDS beliefs may have influenced ERB to a completely new assertion, that ERB could not have been sympathetic to the LDS or their beliefs because he has a character make an unflattering comparison to Salt Lake City from the air an overcast day . (One might be prompted to ask, "What city does offer a flattering scene when viewed from above obscuring clouds on a winter day?") Broadhurst's reasoning seems to be that ERB was not sympathetic to LDS beliefs and therefore he could not have been influenced by them. Once again Broadhurst would place limitations upon ERB, requiring that any influence be reflected in a positive light. The ERB quote about Salt Lake City really is ineffectual in refuting Burger's original assertion. On the contrary, the quote is actually evidence which supports Burger's claim of an LDS influence. Surely, Broadhurst can see this. I suspect that Broadhurst's true reason in using the quote is to conjure the image of ERB disdainfully pouring out the distasteful wine (make that water) of Mormonism.

Let us go beyond Burger's fairly timid assertion that LDS beliefs may have influenced ERB's Martian Tales to some more interesting details. There are specific references in A Princess of Mars (PoM) and The Gods of Mars (GoM) that may bear the mark of LDS doctrine or of ERB's experiences in Salt Lake. Consider that ERB's tale comes from the manuscript of one who has lived, died, and come back; a parallel to the Book of Mormon translated from plates made known to Joseph Smith by a resurrected being. ERB says there is much in the story that he left out and much that he dared not include; again this is mirrored in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon plates which were not translated and also by those places in the translation that speak of things which words could not utter. Notable parallels also exist between Joseph Smith's seizure by an evil force prior to The First Vision, and John Carter's experience in the Arizona Cave prior to his ascent to Mars in PoM, and his prayer, nausea and rememberance of the cave experience in the first chapter of GoM.

The Tree of Life, is also an important symbol in the Book of Mormon and figures prominently in the Barsoomian history and religion.

Is it possible that ERB's Valley Dor is modeled on some of his memories of the Salt Lake Valley? Is the peaceful river flowing into a quiet sea suggestive of the Great Salt Lake? Could the well-manicured grass and trees be an image of Temple Square and/or the uniform nature of the Salt Lake Valley? Is it possible that the perpendicular cliffs of the Valley Dor are taken from the image of the temple walls, or the Wasatch Mountains? Does ERB's description of the plant men reflect his encounters with the missionary efforts of the Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City? This latter possibility is indeed a stretch, and by no means flattering. However, consider for instance that the blue plant men have but a single eye, just as the missionaries are to have an eye single to the glory of God. ERB also has John Carter observe that the fastest flier in the home fleet could not have carried him quickly enough from the hideous creatures--a feeling no doubt experienced by some when they encounter LDS missionaries. Consider also that the plant men are directed by a man upon the cliff, as if by a church leader whom they obey. At one point Carter goes down beneath the blue men, almost in mock baptism. Did he have a narrow escape from the waters of baptism in Salt Lake City?

When John Carter ascends the great tree to get into a cave in the cliff, he must walk along a branch, not unlike the straight and narrow upon which one must stay after baptism. After this "baptism" and walking of the straight and narrow, ERB entitles the chapter where John Carter enters the cliff, "The Chamber of Mystery." If there was some relationship in ERB's mind between the cliffs and the Salt Lake City Temple, Chamber of Mystery would be an appropriate term for what might lie behind the temple doors that ERB could never enter.

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