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Nkima Speaks

This article by Davids A&B (Nkima and Tangor) is not a review of Minidoka but is an examination of where this little fantasy fits in the scope of ERB's growth as a writer.

Minidoka, 937th Earl of One Mile Series M:
An Hysterical Fairy Tale by Edgar Rice Burroughs

David A. Adams
David Bruce Bozarth

Minidoka is one of ERB's most fascinating books. Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) is the famous American author who created Tarzan and Barsoom. Minidoka, 937th Earl of One Mile M reveals Burroughs in his earliest lengthy narrative and speaks with a voice that is strangely familiar—raw and unpolished—though speaks greatly of the promise of better things to come!

EVERY WRITER has a first work. These first works explore the subconscious mind, mining a wealth of images lurking there, and if the writer can put those thoughts and images down on paper in an interesting way he, or she, may become an author. It is this early exploration and struggle with primal images and themes that often form or suggest the body of work for the rest of the author's life.

Anyone can write, pick up a pen and sign your name. You are a writer. On the other hand, not everyone can write creatively. Creative writing is the ability to put on paper something that does not exist, or something that does exist but is viewed from a new and unique viewpoint. Of those who can write creatively only a few can write convincingly! It is the latter category of creative writing that provides the theme for this essay.

Authors have to start some place. At some time they take pen in hand (these days a computer keyboard) and string words together. The words become paragraphs, the paragraphs become chapters, the chapters become a finished work. That first story. The Beginning. The Cherry. Something finished. The author puts down the pen and leans back. Looking at the stack of sheets (printouts these days) with a sense of satisfaction the author then picks up those pages and reads them. It is as that moment the writer discovers whether they are creative—or authors.

First works often go unpublished. The author might consider the work to be less than sterling, perhaps even an embarrassment, but in the process of writing they discovered their "voice." Sometimes early works are destroyed by the author and nobody knows they ever existed. The dedicated author looks over their early scribbles from a later perspective, seeing the roots of their skills, or the manuscript is flipped over and the next work was written on the back of the old work! (I have done this back in typewriter days—Bruce.)

Other authors keep every scrap of thought jotted down, never knowing when a review of that saved scrap or scribble might lead to an inspiration. For example: (David) I recall a single line that I wrote when I was 18 years of age that later became a poem of 30 or more pages. (Bruce) My first story, a handwritten piece of 29 pages, is hidden away, though I keep it always. Only three people have read that story. My mother, my brother, and Mr. Floeck, my 5th grade history teacher who scribbled wonderfully encouraging notes in the margins, but told me the story sucked. It did/does.

Many an author cannot part with anything they write—but will do everything they can to keep the earliest scribbles out of the public view. Burroughs falls into the latter category. He never threw anything away but he did bury manuscripts weak or not prime time or, in some cases, manuscripts rejected by editors. In the case of Minidoka ERB buried the tale so deeply that the manuscript was not found until 14 years after his death, one of many that did not see the light of day during his lifetime. Whether ERB buried Minidoka because the story was weak, or because there was no market, we cannot truly say; however, the story appears to be one of his earliest serious attempts at writing and the spark of imagination found within illustrates the rich promise of better things to come.

Minidoka: An Early Catalogue of ERB's Themes

Minidoka is a story Burroughsian scholars might explore line-by-line should one have the time and inclination. Many of the themes found in ERB's later novels are present in embryonic form, awaiting a birth that will begin to take place in 1911's A Princess of Mars.

Some themes in Minidoka appeared years later in Burroughs' career but this little tale remains a treasure that is an example of Burroughs' "gift of gab" and reveals his ability to tell a story and his command of language, plotting, humor, heart, and characterization. The author fully understood at the outset what needed to be done but the results were rough, a little undisciplined, and incomplete in presentation. In other words: ERB suffered teething pains.

On the surface Minidoka is a clever little fantasy, mildly entertaining, not badly written. When compared to the rest of his work, however, Minidoka does not rise to the same level of even his worst later works. However, Minidoka looms large when the story is read from the perspective of where and when this author got started. We find in clear evidence his trademarks of plotting, coincidence, humor, penchant for reversals (Heaven=Nevaeh, for example), names of animals that eventually appeared in Tarzan's jungle, environmentalism, social interaction, government, war, conflict, good vs. evil, and imagination.

One of the themes found again and again in the writings of ERB is two countries or cities forever at war—sometimes separated by bodies of water but generally separated by ideologies or culture. In fact, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable informs us that the word rivals comes from the Latin rivalis: "persons dwelling on opposite sides of a river," or "one who shares the same river." It so happens that one of the themes in Minidoka is indeed two rival cities at war: the Bradydom of Smith vs. the Connerdom of Bil. These entities also happen to be on two sides of a river. Some of the rival cities in ERB's later works include:

It would be an interesting project to complete the above list of cities in rivalry and to consider the geographical divisions that separate them. Yet, it must also be stated that Burroughs embraced the paradigm of rivals on many other levels. Such as the differences between Civilized and Feral, Races (inter-racial), Politics (ideological differences), and Good vs. Evil, the list of contrasts is much larger and deserves a separate article, meanwhile, Minidoka suggests all of these themes in rudimentary form—an indication the old boy was headed in the right direction!

Why Minidoka is Important

Minidoka is ERB's first lucid (fairy) tale. Prior to that he wrote about bunnies, worked as editor for school newspapers, jotted down verse, cartooned, and wrote creative letters to family and friends. Minidoka, however, is the earliest known attempt by Burroughs to put his imagination and storytelling skills in concrete form. Eighty-two handwritten pages, the first few pages showing some uncertainty then finished with few or no second thoughts and apparently written in a rush of passion. This story contains elements of satire which Burroughs would use to good effect in his later writing. He often skewered the follies and frailties of human nature and human organizations, whether persons, cultures, traditions, government or religion.

Minidoka was also ERB's first attempt to define what must be written to advance a story. He already had experience in this regard because his children, for years, had come to expect bedtime stories Burroughs spontaneously created. These stories entertained them to the point that waiting for the next installment the night following was almost painful. Yet, once Minidoka was committed to paper the manuscript was probably an embarrassment to his creative mind. The overall result was amusing, though weak. It was good enough for his kids as a bedtime story, but Burroughs knew he could do better.

Real life got in the way and the need to work to support his family was immense. Burroughs moved from one state to another into new jobs, of which he had many over the years. Bibliographers note there is some speculation that ERB wrote Minidoka in Chicago on the back of old letterheads he had saved and brought from Idaho rather than writing the story while in Idaho. If this is correct, then Minidoka might have been written later than 1901-04. There is, however, no doubt that Minidoka was the first serious work authored by ERB and was written prior to 1911's "Under the Moons of Mars."

ERB's first Barsoom tale was a bit of fantasy—half-completed—that caught the eye of a pulp publisher who sent a check and asked for the rest. Barsoom defined where ERB would go in the future and it was a different, more serious and gritty story than the one found in his little fairy tale. Minidoka was not a wasted effort for Ed Burroughs because the experience of writing the piece refined his burgeoning storytelling skills on paper and also revealed weaknesses of presentation as well as illustrating his strengths.

After 1911 there should be no wonder or amazement that Minidoka was tucked away in the company safe after his successes with Barsoom and a year later with Tarzan. Almost instantly following Barsoom and Tarzan nearly a dozen novels such as Pellucidar, Cave Girl, Eternal Lover, Mad King, etc. sprang forth from the pen of Burroughs, all demonstrating his formidable powers as an author seeking his prime.

Minidoka was ERB's initial proving ground. Like the Bell X-1 and Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier ERB's literary vehicle had assumed a new dimension. Minidoka was ERB's bi-plane days. Who remembers Jennys and Sopwith Camels after the refined Mustangs, Spitfires and F-16s? The resulting firestorm of creation and sales which followed pushed Minidoka into the background—literally the manuscript was hidden away and forgotten by the author!

At some point, however, ERB recalled the fairy tale. He must have looked at it with some amusement in retrospect to the success of Barsoom, Tarzan, Pellucidar, et al. "Clever," he might have said to himself. "Amusing," he might have allowed. "Garbage," he might have determined because it is obvious that Burroughs never intended this fairy tale be published during his lifetime. He kept Minidoka safe, putting the manuscript in the safe when he had offices and a vault in which to keep things. There can be no doubt that the passing of years and the intense necessity of pounding out the next novel in his successful series works pushed Minidoka, 937th Earl of One Mile M completely out of his mind. (Bruce) I recently found one of my early works, probably written when I was 14. Even now when I read it—it is a tad dreadful—I do not recall having written the piece, but the handwriting is mine and I signed it.

Burroughs also, as stated before, never threw anything he wrote into the dust bin. We know, for a fact, that he recycled much of what he had written and was rejected into new stories, for example: The Moon Series. He could not sell Under the Red Flag so he wrote a prequel called The Moon Maid, revised Red Flag as The Moon Men, and finished later with The Red Hawk. Ed Burroughs never discarded anything he wrote. But there was no market then or later that he could sell Minidoka, 937th Earl of One Mile M. His previously published works had already defined his audience and they had expectations that the charming Minidoka fairy tale could not accommodate. Bury it! He did.

What ERB could not have known is that Minidoka would have such tremendous value years after his death for scholars, fans, and those folks who drive slow by accidents on the highway to see what they can see. He could not have known that any insight into his creative mind could never diminish his body of work by one wit. We should be glad that Ed Burroughs was a collector of his own writing, all of which, from Minidoka on, educated his writing voice as he discovered what sold and what did not. The knowledge gained from each writing was used to create the next manuscript. The checks received dictated his direction for the next manuscript. Minidoka first, a blood-letting in creation, then Barsoom next, Tarzan after...the author learned quickly!

Other Thoughts on Minidoka

Irwin Porges has written a rather complete summary of Minidoka in his Notes to Chapter 5: page 712-715 of his definitive biography of Burroughs Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan. Here he comments:

In developing the story, Ed uses all the familiar elements of the fairy tale: magic and magical spells, a beautiful damsel to be rescued, and terrifying monsters to be destroyed. The Earl of Minidoka is given the power to speak to the animals and to understand them.

"This reference to digging for gold in the Snake River could date the fairy tale within the 1903-04 period when ERB was in Idaho and involved in his brothers' gold mining enterprises. The title "Minidoka" and the use of letterheads from the Yale Dredging Company further reinforce the choice of this period. However, Ed may have saved the old letterheads and written the story later in Chicago.

Minidoka Bibliography

The first edition of this charming fairy tale was by Dark Horse Comics, Inc., September, 1998. There is an Introduction by Robert R. Barrett and profuse illustrations by Michael Wm. Kaluta. The cover is by J. Allen St. John executed in an unusual mixed media of oil, pen and ink, pencil, chalk, charcoal, and water color.

The St. John image was not created for, nor was a specific commission for Minidoka, 937th Earl of One Mile M. The St. John image that was created for a different project is, by happy coincidence, a perfect fit! Perhaps, yet again, happy coincidence as found in Minidoka and nearly every story that ERB wrote, is reaffirmed.