Michael Vaughan on Edgar Rice Burroughs and The Gods of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs

by Michael Vaughan via Weird Genesis
Edgar Rice Burroughs was not a fan of organized religion. He recognized it for what it all too often is: a tool by those in power to manipulate others. He knew that those in charge were just men, men with no more knowledge of the divine than he had himself. False religions were common in his fiction, but never more so than in The Gods of Mars.

It was only a matter of time before John Carter returned to Mars. A Princess of Mars was a great success and Burroughs’ readers demanded more. Fortunately Burroughs had a lot more to say about Carter and the red planet. Unlike some of his other series, the Martian tales never declined in quality and The Gods of Mars is the best of the series. Here John Carter faced his greatest challenges and faced the deadliest dangers of his career. By this point Burroughs had mastered his profession and with Gods he delivered one of his most inventive and action-packed novels.

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One thought on “Michael Vaughan on Edgar Rice Burroughs and The Gods of Mars

  • I agree with Michael Vaughan that “Gods of Mars” is the best book in the Barsoom series. It is ERB at his finest, and is among my favorite books. It’s tough to think of any book that is as entertaining. The characters, locations, cultures and events together form a singular experience of imaginative adventure.

    An interesting thing about “The Gods of Mars” is that one person could read it and say “cool, John Carter took down an evil cult, kind of like Indy in ‘Temple of Doom’,” while someone else could read it and say “ERB is really raking organized religion over the coals.” I have to wonder, if Burroughs was in fact writing a Phillip Pullman type excoriation, would his story support those two vastly different interpretations? Is the “evil cult” perspective too naïve? Is the “denouncement of organized religion” perspective an over-interpretation? It may help to take a broader look at ERB’s beliefs and how he treated religion across his 70-book career.

    Back in February a very similar topic came up (http://thejohncarterfiles.com/2013/02/interview-talking-john-carter-and-the-gods-of-hollywood-with-the-sci-fi-christian-podcast/) and I made the following comments, which are worth re-posting here:

    “One thing to note about ERB’s religious beliefs, as far as they are evident in his works, is that he seemed to bear no more resentment toward religious institutions which were corrupt (Cult of Issus, Cult of Tur, Cult of La) than he bore toward other societal institutions which were corrupt (communist Thark culture, various totalitarian governments, out of control science – see “Synthetic Men” and others). It seems that he viewed religion as merely another man-made institution, an object of equal-opportunity satire and criticism.

    “I suspect that ERB’s skeptical views were influenced by the western cultural imposition practiced by some of the named-religion missionaries of his era, as evident in the tone and content of his poem “The Black Man’s Burden”, and in his references to missionaries as peddlers of “mother hubbards”. ERB would be relieved, though perhaps not converted, ha ha, by the intentional cultural sensitivity practiced by a much larger proportion of today’s missionaries.

    “Ironically, the idea that any man could know that all religions are false, manipulative constructions, untrue in their ultimate claims, is itself a religious notion. Perhaps that fact, or a general sense along those lines, was what lingered in the back of ERB’s mind and had something to do with his greater interest in spiritual issues later in life and his final words, which according to his grandson John Ralston Burroughs, were ‘Thank God for everything.’

    “The (1) strong Victorian morality evident throughout ERB’s works, rooted heavily in heritage Christianity, (2) distinctly spiritual/supernatural moments like John Carter’s translation to Mars, and (3) clear undertones of religious skepticism, make ERB an intriguing figure to anyone interested in these issues.”

    Making conclusions about ERB’s motives in “The Gods of Mars” depends a lot on the individual reader and how that reader is predisposed to view stories about religion. If we take ERB at his word, he wrote solely for entertainment and had no interest in putting forth heavy social messages. His works definitely had some things to say, but he didn’t write with an axe to grind. I tend to believe Burroughs’ “entertainment first” mission statement, as I’ve never sensed any kind of mean-spirited agenda from him. He poked fun at how people can be fooled into false religious beliefs by unscrupulous, manipulative tyrants, but he never poked fun at the idea of religious belief itself. Many of his characters are deeply principled proponents of many religiously derived moral ideals. There is respect for religious beliefs elsewhere in his books. Jane’s father is a minister, and in the reverential ancestor worship of the Barsoomians.

    ERB wasn’t out to get anyone, nor did he have any problem poking fun or putting false religions in the repertoire of his villains. ERB never claims to know that there is no such thing as true religion, but he didn’t mind implying that there are false ones.

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