Tangor Responds

ERB and Gulliver of Mars

David Bruce Bozarth


Frank Frazetta, Ace Books, circa 1964

Richard Lupoff, in his Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure offered a chapter exploring possible antecedents for various heroic characters found in the books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs between 1911 and 1948. Among the authors presented was an Englishman named Edwin L. Arnold (1857-1935). His three best known novels deal with reincarnation Phra the Phonecian (1891), Lepidus the Centurion (1901) and Lieut. Gulliver Jones: His Vacation (1905). These tales pre-date ERB's "Under the Moons of Mars" (1911), later titled in book form as A Princess of Mars (1912). Lupoff's theory is that the similarities between the major character in Phra, an immortal warrior via reincarnation, and the similarities of plot and strange lands and people on the planet Mars as found in Gulliver seem to indicate that ERB may have read these stories and been influenced by them.

There seems to be a slight problem, however. Gulliver remained unpublished in the United States until several decades after it appeared in British bookstores. Many fans and researchers of Edgar Rice Burroughs' works point to that fact and express their disbelief that ERB could have seen either book before he penned his two most famous creations: John Carter's Barsoom and Tarzan of the Apes.

Four years after this article was written, Danton Burroughs was able to provide proof that his grandfather did, indeed, own copies of both Phra and Gulliver with early British copyrights. What is still unknown is when those copies were obtained, or whether Ed Burroughs had read them prior to writing A Princess of Mars.

I am not here to say yea or nay to whether ERB did read Phra or Gulliver, but to remark upon other possibilities which may answer the question. First, there is a tenet in copyright law that addresses the issue. It is called "simultaneous and spontaneous development." ERB was interested in (at the time) a relatively narrow writing genre and, having read oodles of these fantastic tales while proofing ads, decided he could write equally as badly. The genre itself may have suggested many of the elements that eventually appeared in his stories. The river of death goes back to Gilgamesh at the very least, and is a repeated theme in Greek and Roman mythologies and, if I am not mistaken, also appears in dozens of religions and folk tales from around the world. In addition, a princess in distress or nations/worlds on the brink of disaster are not exclusive to ERB, nor are tales of foreign places, beast men, strange animals, or even unusual races and cultures. Simultaneous development of a theme based upon a narrow field of work (or study) by different authors in different locales at approximately the same time is not unusual. ERB might have come up with his worlds and characters all by himself–based upon a general exposure to the genre in which he wrote.

However, what intrigued Lupoff (and me) is the similarity of character introduction, locales and the order they were presented, and the general thematic of the plot-line of the Gulliver tale. I will not rehash that here as this article is not about the similarities of the works, but speculates whether ERB might legitimately have had access to, and to have read, the books of Edwin L. Arnold. The question cannot be solved by direct evidence since no comment from the author or any of his family has ever embraced this subject, but for fans and scholars to categorically state the books could not have been on this side of the Big Pond before 1911 is over-reaching.

Books, in those days, traveled far and wide and were passed from one reader to another in exchange for what the other might have to trade. Books were usually not easy to come by for the average person or family. Many books were passed down through the generations, though that aspect is not applicable in the instant case (1905 book and the production of a fantastic tale in 1911). Books were often traded with friends and strangers alike and traveled by less obvious paths. In my personal library are books that were printed in Australia in 1888 and 1894 that have been in my family since that time--brought back by one of my more footloose ancestors. These books have never been published in the United States.

The American West was a lending library of the largest kind (in square miles) as riders and cowhands passed Blackstones, Ivanhoes, Shakespeare, Plato, etc. as well as the lurid dime novels that presaged the glory years of the pulp magazines. I read somewhere (and so long ago that I have forgotten the source) that the American book publishing industry had calculated three readers existed for each book printed--or conversely–only one-third of the readers purchased books and then passed them on to those who did not purchase books.

At the turn of the 20th Century there was a great demand for British novels in America. Booksellers who wanted to supply the reading public therefore ordered and shipped many titles from Great Britain. It is more than possible that the two possible "antecedents" of ERB's famous tales suggested by Richard Lupoff might have been on a bookseller's shelf or found in the Chicago Library, an institution that was then known to be a very well-stocked lending library! Either Arnold novel could very easily have come into the States via tourists or immigrants aboard the many steamships that plied the Atlantic.

The statement that ERB could not have read a book that was not published in the United States until the 1930s, and been influenced by it, is over-reaching. There are too many possibilities that could place such a volume in his hands; however, whether Edgar Rice Burroughs actually read a book by Edwin L. Arnold has yet to be proved.