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Nkima Speaks

A Psychology of Pellucidar

David A. Adams


"From whatever place I write you will expect that part of my "Travels" will consist of excursions in my own mind."

—Coleridge


The Inner Journey

After producing five novels with success over a two year period, Edgar Rice Burroughs turned his mind in 1913 to write about a journey beneath the earth. At The Earth’s Core was a story like so many of his others without a certain conclusion at its final pages. Burroughs therefore expanded the tale with another novel, Pellucidar, which he wrote the following year. These two novels were the first of a series of seven which were set in the strange and marvelous land of Pellucidar that he envisioned beneath the crust of the earth.

Perhaps Pellucidar owes something to Jules Verne. Verne's characters entered "The Center of the Earth" through a volcano, Mount Sneffels" in Iceland, a place where "the sun never sets" in the months of June and July. There they discovered a great sea of "pellucid waters "illuminated by a kind of aurora borealis phenomenon. (Verne, 150)]

Stories of journeys into the interior of the earth are a rich inheritance of the human mind that delights in turning upon itself to seek what lies within. For it is indeed mysteries of the human psyche we are reading about when we follow these myths and fairy tales of our planet’s interior. At least this is true for the devotees of the writings of Carl Jung.

"...the motif of the descent into the earth acquires in the symbolic language of the adepts the parallel meaning of an act of regression into the maternal depths of the psyche. thus the alchemists’ arduous mining becomes a symbol for their penetration of the ‘crust’ of consciousness and for their discovery of the treasure hidden beneath it in the darkness of the unconscious" (Fabricius, 21.)

Burroughs, the Greek and Latin scholar that he was in his youth, knew these stories well: Demeter and Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice, indeed it is from these tales that sprang the most holy and most secret of the Greek mystery religions, the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were abolished by the Emperor Theodosius about the end of the 4th. century A.D. Yet, the lure of the underworld has never been absent from the human quest, for the inward journey continued in Christianity, which itself is a mystery religion that probably borrowed aspects of the ancient Greek rites, and especially in The Divine Comedy of Dante of which many echoes can be heard in Burroughs’ Mars trilogy.

The descent into the bowels of the Earth has always meant for Western man a descent into a kind of Hell, a Hades (Greek) or Sheol (Hebrew) where the dead departed to reside in a place of gloom, although it was not always a place of punishment. Even as dead bodies are placed into the earth, so too the souls or spirits of these dead descend into the very ground from which they were made. Thus, beginning in the cave of the womb, humans return to the tomb-caves of Mother Earth herself.

In his religious views Burroughs was probably closer to an ancient Spartan hoplite with his practical considerations of living or dying upon a single day of battle than he was to an American Calvinist when thinking about heaven or hell. In chapter 1 of AT THE EARTH’S CORE, Perry is shown to be drowned in "an orgy of prayer," while David is calm and collected during their rapid descent into the earth. But even Perry says that he "might believe that we were indeed come to the country beyond the Styx," referring to the Greek designation of the underworld river, when David asks if they are in heaven.

In MINIDOKA, the earliest complete work of Burroughs, many of his views are revealed in their seedling form, and here heaven is called "nevaeh," a reversal of letters and indeed a reversal of forms as well, for it is a place of punishment rather than reward.

In MINIDOKA too Burroughs looks "just over the Edge of the Earth" and sees "The Castle in the Air builded by Ab" (which I won’t say is an early form of Abner, but who knows?) Here his hero, Minidoka, gains the "clear title to the Power of Ab, the First Son of Ioo, God of Things What Is." But this admittedly takes place in the outside world. When Minidoka does go into a yawning abyss in the Earth (into nevaeh) he falls "almost to the center of the Earth" and finds a land of reversals.

Morpheus in Pellucidar

The hidden country of the mind that we visit nightly in our dreams is but another land we ever-seeking descendants of hunter-gatherers visit with interest. Whether we sleep or wake, we travel downward (inward) for the wisdom that the earth holds like a treasure deep within its hidden bowels. The earth is our mother, and to penetrate her secrets with an "iron mole" as Abner & David did might seem like a kind of incestuous violation, yet at the same time the journey offered them the chance for a spiritual rebirth. However, Burroughs was not a writer given to mystical transports, so his heroes just bashed around with cave people and dinosaurs, and they began to recapitulate a modern world of scientific inventions that upset the societies that received the benefits of a superior technical knowledge.

To a writer with more religious imagination we might have entered the egg of the earth to see a central sun unmoving like the eye of God, a burning sphere at the center that sees everything in the eternal noon of knowing. To Burroughs, his characters were just confused and disoriented men from the surface, who aspired to nothing more than a rough sort of empire building that leaves some readers exasperated at their short-sighted plodding.

Yet, the writings of Burroughs seem to have a strange hallucinatory effect upon many of his readers so that they are completely drawn into his worlds. Readers often express the feeling that they have actually become the characters as they read his novels. This may be partly explained by the fact that Burroughs habitually wrote from deep unconscious states even though he was very mundanely methodical in his authorial practice of writing according to set schedules and reaching certain numbers of words every day. Because the stories welled-up from his deepest imagination, he often touched upon what Jung calls "the archetypes of the unconscious." As such, Burroughs can be said to be a writer of classic fairy tales (the ground of all mythology) in that he caught these unconscious images as easily as fish in a net. It is this magical quality in his writing that so captivates his readers that they come away from his stories "knowing" they are somehow "true."

Pellucidar is the dream-world par excellence in the writings of ERB. In this timeless world, the characters are loosed from the normal routines of day and night and fall into unusual sleep patterns which seems to place them in a world of dreams even when they are awake. In Pellucidar everything takes on a dream-like quality, perhaps because of this very disruption of sleep. Losing sleep on such a constant basis caused a break-down of judgment in his visitors from the surface, as one would expect from a loss of REM sleep (rapid-eye-movement sleep that denotes dreaming.) His characters from the surface often remark upon this disorientation and often question their own senses.

In such a land of dreams all events take on symbolic meanings, which I believe they do -- even though the practical old Burroughs would have thought this way of thinking to be complete nonsense. However, writers are nearly always the worst judges of their own work. Even though Burroughs was not a writer of psychological novels, it does not mean that they are not filled with the most subtle psychological touches that can be uncovered by critical investigation.

Burroughsian Centering

First and foremost, Pellucidar lies at the center of the earth, or rather, it is a world within the world, a place one can enter either by plunging directly through 500 miles of rock or through an opening at the North pole. Symbolically, it is a direct penetration of the core of the human head into the hidden realms of mind beyond our everyday consciousness. Here, in the deep unconscious all time stops as it does in dreams. However, it is also true that all time is continuous here. The various ages in the development of man and many prehistoric creatures exist in a timeless, fantastic continuum. Dinosaurs and other beasts from later ages exist together upon an Edenic plane, even though they do follow the Darwinian survival of the fittest. It is a topsy-turvy world where pseudo-scientific explanations (which ERB is fond of presenting) really do not seem to mean much more than stage directions for a play of unbridled fantasy. However, the mixing of the archaic with the modern is exactly what happens in dreams and (according to Jung) in writers who are touching upon archetypes of the unconscious.

One might imagine the dinosaurs entering Pellucidar through the polar opening and surviving quite well there under the heat of the eternal sun and lush vegetation on the great land masses. Later, humans of the stone age came through the same opening, perhaps hunting hairy mammoths, followed by the Korars in more recent times. Whatever the case may be, monsters of the deep swim in our deepest psychic core, and these are the beasts that Burroughs saw as he wrote his stories.

Pellucidar is a kind of mirror image of Earth in that the land masses here correspond to the oceans above. It has been noted many times before that Burroughs was fond of reversals, and Pellucidar is another example of this penchant. Thus, with so much land, Pellucidar, even though it is a somewhat smaller world within a larger one, actually contains more land than our ocean planet above. Of course, this is true of human nature because much more lies beneath our surface than what is shown in the common light of day.

Somehow a sun hangs motionless in the sky, creating a perpetual day. There is also a moon that casts a constant shadow over a single spot of land. Thus, our moving world above is mirrored by a relatively motionless (and timeless) world below. Yet, even with all the possibilities of uncanny strangeness this world could produce, the men and women found within this dreamland are the basic gorilla men and cave-men found in so many of his novels. Burroughs always provides this human touch to his work. It never becomes totally alien even in the scope of deep space, so he is always able to provide a human love interest between his races, an interest that we can recognize and understand.

The Pendent World

The stationary moon over Pellucidar casts a perpetual shadow over a single area of the surface. It is not a moon subject to phases, thus the cycles of birth and death that we know on the surface of the planet are strangely elongated. The timeless nature of Pellucidar is of course only psychological because things do live and die there but always under the eternal sun of noonday. In a way Pellucidar is ERB’s version of "heaven IN earth," but one that is in reality totally mundane (that is, earthly from L. "mundus" the world.) The Thurians who live under the moon’s perpetual shadow in "The Land of the Awful Shadow" believe that upon death souls are taken up to the moon if the bodies are placed in the trees for the birds, which act as transporting angels. Thus, the moon is a land for the dead, acting in a perpetual "dark moon" phase.

It might be mentioned in passing that in his Mars Series Thuria is also the name Burroughs gave to the larger, nearer moon of Mars, called Phobos the Earth men. "A peculiar relationship exits between Thuria and Barsoom; any spaceship traveling from Barsoom to Thuria will somehow shrink until that moon seems a whole world" (Brady, 336). Evidently, the name "Thuria" held some relationship in Burroughs’ mind with moons.

The Thurians are an historic people, and Greek to boot. The colony, Thurii was formed in 443 B.C. in Lucania under the direction of Pericles as a Panhellenic experiment. The first historian, Herodotus, was among the colonists, and it became a prosperous center of Athenian culture. Later during the Peloponnesian War, the Thurii showed ingratitude and hostility to Athens. The name was probably one that floated around in Burroughs’ mind and came up when he was thinking of names for places in his writing.

Since the humans in Pellucidar are in the Stone Age of development, we do not learn much about their intellectual or religious thoughts, but without moon phases, one must imagine greater physical and psychological effects than ERB presents. Not only time, but the seasons of growth and indeed the tides and the menstrual cycles of animals on the surface of the planet are affected by the phases of the moon.

Being a poet rather than a scientist, I can only speculate that a fixed moon would have radically effected the birth cycles of the animals on Pellucidar. Burroughs did not seem to be greatly concerned with the scientific aspects of his creation, rather, it was a timeless place that reflected his desire to live fixed forever as a strong, young man of about 30-years-of age. Pellucidar seemed like heaven to him, as it did to Tarzan when he landed there in chapter 2 of TARZAN AT THE EARTH’S CORE.

Mountains and vegetation can be seen on the surface of the pendant world, so presumably it is a tiny planet with life unlike our dead moon of the outer world. That there is only one moon reflects the model of our outer world, which must have suited ERB’s sense of balance - - what is within reflects what is without - - the microcosmos reflecting the macrocosmos. If one of his characters had gone to this planet, he might have found that it developed a whole world of plant and animal life of its own since presumably it is a world as old as the planet itself. Maybe it would have reflected the Galapagos Islands or Australia with its strange creatures found no where else on earth.

ERB presents Pellucidarians as war-like, given to eternal wrangling and disputes, but this is to create a story with interest to his readers. It seems more likely that humans in a state of perpetual light and even temperature would have developed sunglass corneas and lie on the beach all day with nothing better to to do but pick fruit from the trees and sleep.

Yet, there is a serpent at the core of the earth, or rather a race of serpents called the Mahars. These female creatures are depicted as the crown of creation in the underworld who enjoy playing with human beings in pools of water until it is time to eat them alive. One might project a certain misogyny upon Burroughs over these Mahars, yet the ultimate secrets of the pendent world (the inner moon, which is an ultimate feminine symbol, along with the sea) was unexplored by Burroughs in his writing.

Perhaps it is enough that this moon is there casting its eternal shadow over a land of eternal light. It is the spot of difference found in the Yang and Yin image -- an equally eternal night cast upon our little day of life. It is the darkness of death that shades even the great sun of Pellucidar.


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