Mesa, Mormons, and Martians:
The Possible Origins of Barsoomian
Phillip R. Burger
has been a habit of writers ever since pen was first put to paper -- or
papyrus. The test of a good writer is if he can take previously used materials
and make something new with them. Edgar Rice Burroughs could do this with
great skill and ease. Such borrowing is evident in Burroughs' first book,
A Princess of Mars. Not only do the novel's contents suggest this, but
as a first-time writer who seems to have done little formal planning before
setting down the tale, Burroughs would naturally adapt that which he had
read or experienced for his own literary needs.
felt that Burroughs was influenced by the fantasies of Edwin Lester Arnold;
Fritz Leiber felt that Burroughs was inspired by the Theosophical writings
of Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891). And every science fiction history reveals
two or three more pre-Burroughs Martian novels so that, if we are to assume
that he read and absorbed them all, Burroughs must have been the most well-read
individual of the twentieth century. Now to add Burger's Theory to this
literary stew: as Burroughs worked out the millennia-long history of Barsoom,
he patterned it upon what he knew of Southwestern archaeology and Mormon
popular theories of Martian life have often been attributed as the inspiration
for Barsoom, but at best Lowell served as a springboard for Burroughs'
imagination rather than a blueprint. Lowell's Mars was old and dried up
(as was Burroughs'); Lowell's Martians were capable of great engineering
feats (as were Burroughs'); but Lowell felt that any people capable of
building a planet-wide canal network would be peaceful and benevolent.
This was hardly the setting for an action-adventure series. (This is not
meant to discount Lowell's influence, however; for instance, one Martian
canal received from Lowell the intriguing name "Illisus.")
a writer with a pack-rat mentality, so odd bits filed away in his mind
re-emerged in A Princess of Mars. John Carter's sojourn among the Tharks
reads like an exotic Indian captivity narrative (Barsoom itself smacks
of the American West.) Red Martian society echoes imperial Rome crossed
with the European intrigue of George Barr McCutcheon's "Graustark" novels.
And the epochal history that Burroughs outlined for Barsoom -- the drying
up of the seas, the blending of the early Martian races, the chipping away
of a high civilization by hordes of marauding green men -- has its earthly
equivalent in the stories of the "Cliff Dwellers" as well as in the Mormon
belief in pre-Columbian migrations and high civilizations in North America.
of such an influence is not as farfetched as it at first sounds. Burroughs
could have boned up on archaeology and Mormonism prior to 1911 (he did
own a copy of Alfred Vincent Kidder's classic 1924 study An Introduction
to the Study of Southwestern Archaeology, which shows a later interest,
as well as a biography of Brigham Young), but he may also have had personal
experience with both topics. I shall tackle the more incongruous idea first.
Burroughs lived for a time in Salt Lake City, had regular contact with
Mormon neighbors, and in later years would express his admiration for Mormon
settlers and their descendants. Also, Burroughs spent the summer of 1891
punching cattle in Cassia County, Idaho, which had originally been settled
by Mormons; if he had been told then of what the Mormons felt had occurred
in prehistoric America, of the great migrations and the epic wars, this
would have had a strong impact upon an impressionable fifteen-year-old.
The Book of Mormon
deals with the possible origins of the North American Indian, as well as
potential pre-Columbian New and Old World contacts. The artificial mounds
found throughout the Ohio Valley, and the later discovery of Southwestern
pueblos and cliff cities, were considered evidence that a people more advanced
than the Indian had at one time inhabited the North American continent,
perhaps influenced by either the great Central and South American civilizations
or some ancient western civilization. The nineteenth century "Moundbuilder"
myth pictured a highly developed but indolent race, set upon and overcome
by invading barbarians (the Indians); the survivors of this mighty people
were either enslaved, assimilated into the victorious tribes, or simply
degenerated into savagery. John Wesley Powell made it clear in an 1894
governmental report that the mounds were the result of Indian activity
and not some mythical race, but the mindset that created the Moundbuilders,
and the theories of social progress that fed it, could not accept the idea
of savages building permanent monuments. This thinking can be seen in the
many lost race novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Book of Mormon connects the mounds and other ancient ruins with early Old
World contacts; the major migration was that of Lehi and his followers.
Ordered by God to flee Jerusalem sometime around 600 B.C.E., the Hebrew
prophet Lehi and his band crossed the desert to the sea, built a fleet
of ships and set sail for North America. Upon their arrival the Lehites
proceeded to set up an urban-centered agricultural-based society. But as
with the Biblical account of Noah, there was division among these pioneers.
Lehi's sons, Nephi and Laman, argued and parted company, taking with them
their respective followers. The Nephites remained civilized while the Lamanites
adopted a nomadic, warlike lifestyle. Abandoning their religion and waging
perpetual war upon the Nephites, the Lamanites were cursed by God with
dark skin. Thus according to Mormon belief, the North American Indians
are descendants of the Lamanites and consequently of the House of Israel.
Nephites adapt to these changed conditions, building walled cities to protect
themselves from attack and continuing their civilized existence. The status
quo is maintained for many centuries until the Nephites, grown soft and
lazy due to their excessive wealth, let down their guard. The Lamanites
seize this opportunity and storm across the Nephite defenses, blotting
out this high civilization and leaving only heaps of earth -- the mounds
-- as a reminder of the Nephites' existence.
Echoes of this
fantastic history can be found throughout Burroughs' equally fantastic
Martian series. The Nephites have their Barsoomian equivalents in the Orovars,
the dominant fair-skinned race of a million years past, "the most glorious
race of human beings a world has ever known," according to the Jeddak of
Horz in Llana of Gathol. Burroughs provides a further parallel in Thuvia,
Maid of Mars, when the Lotharians describe their ancestors as hating war,
"and so we trained not our youth in warlike ways. Thus followed our undoing,
for when the seas dried and the green hordes encroached upon us we could
do naught but flee." Like the Nephites, the Lotharians became soft due
to their peaceful ways, while they "remained in their walled cities wasting
their time in play." Once again Burroughs trumpets his long-held belief
that through conflict and struggle a nation can remain strong. Others can
argue if that is one of the messages of The Book of Mormon.
If this seems
to be merely a literary coincidence, then a comparison of Barsoomian history
and American archaeology will provide a plethora of coincidences dear to
the Burroughs reader.
flourished in the late nineteenth century with the discovery in the Southwest
of scattered ruins, cliff cities, and elaborate systems of irrigating canals,
all of which hinted that at one time the desert states had sufficient moisture
to support an advanced civilization. Much written about the "Cliff Dwellers"
is spurious, as an overriding concern of many scholars (and the reading
public) was to discover an American past that could lay claim to a greater
sense of antiquity than anything discovered in Europe. "This craving for
antiquity is not confined to the travelling public," wrote Alfred Kidder
in 1936, one of the deans of the field. "Archaeologists have it too ...
and all of us, I think, have a sneaking sense of disappointment as the
pitiless progress of tree ring dating hauls the Cliff Dwellers ... farther
and farther away from the cherished B.C.s." But as inaccurate as much of
this early archaeology was, it did capture the American public's imagination.
At the turn of
the century, writers on this topic were limited by little more than their
imaginations. In speculating when man first came to the Southwest, one
text somewhat romantically stated that "some would place it as far back
in a geological age as the time when this great air continent [desert plateau]
was ... surrounded by water, and raised but little above it. At that time
the valleys, which are now so wide, were filled with seas which have long
since disappeared." The picture emerged of a time when the desert Southwest
was naturally moist and fertile. Small groups of people entered the region
and settled in the valleys and on the mesas, either colonists from one
of the great Southern civilizations, or else nomads who were driven from
the north by warlike savages, or both. "Here the great tribes who constituted
the primeval races met and blended their civilizations," blared one Arizona
newspaper. "The stone axes of the mound builder and the knives of obsidian
of the Aztec are found together in our ruins." Europe couldn't boast of
a prehistory like this.
Adopting a sedentary
lifestyle meant the development of agriculture, and thus these primitive
peoples raised themselves above the surrounding tribes. (Nomadic hunters,
since they supposedly didn't produce anything, were seen as an inferior
breed.) Slowly the climate changed, became drier, and this resulted in
the development of a vast irrigating canal system. Burroughs himself may
have seen some of these canals while out on patrol with the Seventh Cavalry
in Arizona (there were some ruins in the mountains near Fort Grant) and
may have speculated about their origin, as another cavalry writer had done:
"These canals were of great size and length, branching out in various directions,
and evidently had, at some long distant period of time, enabled the people
who constructed them to cultivate thousands of acres of land now justly
characterized as desert." Thus we have a people living in isolated urban
areas, surviving in a harsh land by building an extensive canal network.
But nomadic savages
continued to migrate from the north, possibly the ancestors of the Apache
or Navajo, and played havoc with the peaceful agriculturalists. They abandoned
their cities, building retreats high up in the cliffs. Farming continued
but so did the attacks, and eventually these people were either forced
to abandon the land or were wiped out in a final conflict. This great mystery
intrigued Burroughs, and, with a fine sense of foreshadowing, he placed
this enigma before his readers in Swords of Mars, which opens with Burroughs
on an Arizona camping trip, searching for traces of this vanished race.
"I had been seeking in their ruined cities for the secret of their genesis
and the even stranger secret of their extinction. How I wished that those
crumbling lava cliffs might speak and tell me of all that they had witnessed
since they poured out in a molten stream from the cold and silent cones
that dot the mesa land beyond the canyon." As with the first Barsoomian
tale, Mars and Arizona are symbolically linked; in this setting Burroughs
would again meet John Carter.
There is, of course,
no direct evidence that Burroughs adopted Mormon theology and American
archaeology for his own fictional needs; as with Lupoff's and Leiber's
theories, my speculations are based upon my own knowledge -- not extensive,
to be sure -- of the topics in question and my personal impressions of
reading Burroughs. Nor am I suggesting that Burroughs was an unimaginative
hack who plagiarized without mercy. Like any fiction writer, Burroughs
borrowed and adapted that which struck his fancy (for example, writing
Jungle Girl immediately upon reading Casey's Four Faces of Siva). We know
that Burroughs was an omnivorous reader, particularly of travelogues, anthropology,
history and astronomy. And as a young geology instructor at the Michigan
Military Academy, Burroughs became acquainted early on with paleontology
and archaeology. Seeking for fictional inspiration in non-fiction is not
a rarity; it is the norm. Borrowing for the purpose of literary creation
does not make Burroughs less unique. I'm rather grateful he could do it
Burger received his bachelor's degree from the University of Oregon and
his graduate degree from Utah State University, where he served as the
S. George Ellesworth Editorial Fellow on The Western Historical Quarterly.
He is the Associate Editor of The Burroughs Bulletin.