Theosophy and the Thurian Age Revisited — Part One: The Little Blue Book

This essay is a follow up to my article, “Theosophy and the Thurian Age: Robert E. Howard and the Works of William Scott-Elliot,” that was published in the November 2011 issue of The Dark Man journal (Shanks). In that article I argued that the principle source for the theosophical elements identified by Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet (350) in Howard’s 1926 story “Men of the Shadows” and his 1928 “Atlantis” letter to Harold Preece was the book The Story of Atlantis by William Scott-Elliot. This is important because “Men of the Shadows” is the first story in which we see Howard beginning to creat his fictional prehistoric world that would later evolve into the Thurian Age of Kull and the Hyborian Age of Conan.

I argued further that Scott-Elliot’s influence could be seen in other stories, particularly “The Shadow Kingdom,” “Moon of Skulls,” “Skull-Face,” “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth,” and “The Hyborian Age.” I also identified several specific themes that Howard seems to have taken from The Story of Atlantis, including the idea of a “deep time” antediluvian civilization existing hundreds of thousands of years ago, a later maritime Atlantean empire, a series of multiple geological cataclysms, and a sequence of races of mankind.

Not long after submitting that article I came across an item, which I had not realized existed, but that I now feel adds more information to our understanding of Howard’s interest in theosophical ideas about prehistory and human evolution. It also helps answer some of the lingering questions that I still had after my previous research. This item is Little Blue Book No. 477, Theosophy in Outline by Frederick Milton Willis, first published in 1923.

Willis was a theosophist and author of several books on reincarnation, Christian mysticism, and the like. His Theosophy in Outline is exactly what the title implies—a concise summary of the Theosophy movement and its principle ideas and beliefs. This includes a section discussing and summarizing Scott-Elliot’s version of antediluvian prehistory from The Story of Atlantis.

The Little Blue Books (or LBBs) were a series of small chapbooks published by editor, author, and social reformer E. Haldeman-Julius beginning in 1919 (Gibbs, “Dating”). They were designed as inexpensive, concise, popular works on a variety of topics such as politics, literature, history, science, philosophy, religion, and self-help. Howard seems to have been a fan of the LBBs and he mentions them and Haldeman-Julius in his letters on several occasions (Burke, “Bookshelf”). In Howard’s semi-autobiographical novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, the narrator Steve (meant to represent Howard) calls the Little Blue Books “a godsend” (76). So it’s not at all unreasonable to suggest that the LBB Theosophy in Outline might have been one of Howard’s sources for the theosophical elements that we find in some of his stories.

The section that concerns us is located near the end of Willis’s booklet under the heading “Root Races and Sub-Races” and is worth quoting at length:

Seven root-types of men evolve on our Earth during this stage of its life. Theosophists call these types Root-Races, and each has its own special “Continent,” or configuration of land. The first two Root-Races have disappeared. Of the third, the Lemurian, which flourished on the continent of Lemuria, now beneath the Pacific Ocean for the most part, hardly a pure specimen remains; the negroes are its descendents from mixed marriages. The fourth, the Atlantean, spread over the Earth from the continent of Atlantis, which united western Europe and Africa with eastern America. It built some of the mightiest civilizations the world has known, and the greater part of the world’s inhabitants still belong to it. The fifth, the Aryan, leads humanity today. The sixth is in the womb of the future, but its continent is beginning its formation and will occupy, roughly, the Lemurian site; the islands now being thrown up in the northern Pacific are indications of the commencement of a work which will demand hundreds of thousands of years for its accomplishment. The seventh lies far, far ahead. (88)

Here we find represented many of the theosophical elements that appear in “Men of the Shadows,” such as the idea that the islands of the Pacific are the peaks of sunken Lemurian mountains. More significant is the discussion of the progression of Root Races. In the oft-quoted 1928 letter to Harold Preece discussing Atlantis, Howard summarizes the theosophical Root Race concept, but describes the first two Root Races as “unknown and unnamed”:

The occultists say that we are the fifth—I believe—great sub-race. Two unknown and unnamed races came, then the Lemurians, then the Atlanteans, then we. They say the Atlanteans were highly developed. I doubt it. (Collected Letters i:237)

In the sequence of the Races of Man in “Men of the Shadows,” he replaces the first two races with his own prehistoric Picts. As I noted previously, however, the first and second Root Races are not “unnamed,” but are referred to in a number of theosophical works as the Polarians and Hyperboreans respectively (Shanks 57–58). The fact that Theosophy in Outline gives no names or details on these two early races, lends credence to the idea that this may been one of Howard’s sources for the Root Race concept.

Willis continues his synopsis of Scott-Elliot’s ideas with a description of the sub-races of the Atlantean Root Race:

Each Root-Race divides into seven sub-races. We have the fourth Root-Race [i.e. the Atlanteans] divided into the Rmoahal, Tlavatli, Toltec, Turanian, Semitic, Akkadian and Mongolian sub-races. (89)

When I came across this passage it occurred to me that it may help resolve one of the nagging problems regarding Howard and his concept of Atlantis. A curious August 24, 1923 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith contains Howard’s earliest known mention of Atlantis. The letter is a little odd in that Howard, in a matter-of-fact way, discusses a past life as a Philistine soldier and goes into great detail about a number of civilizations and events from the Bronze Age Near East and Mediterranean (Collected Letters i:20-21). Almost in passing he mentions that Atlantis existed at that time and was a contemporary of the Mesopotamian civilization of Accad (an alternate spelling of Akkad).

This placing of Atlantis in the historical past is completely incongruous with the “deep time” Atlantis that we see later in his stories. Unlike Scott-Elliot, who places the lost continent far back in prehistoric times, Willis does not give any dates for Atlantis in Theosophy in Outline. If you didn’t know that Scott-Elliot uses the names of historic cultures (Toltec, Semitic, Turanian, Akkadian, etc.) as stand-ins for their supposed prehistoric antecedents, you might easily assume that Willis was making Atlantis contemporaneous with the historic versions of those cultures. If Howard was basing his comments in the Smith letter solely on the content of Theosophy in Outline it would explain this placement of Atlantis in the Bronze Age.

Another interesting point to consider is that earlier in Theosophy in Outline there is a section on reincarnation and how one can sometimes remember their past lives (51-57). Whether or not Howard truly believed the past life information that he was detailing in the letter to Smith or was simply having a bit of fun with his friend is impossible to say, but in either case it seemed reasonable that Howard’s reading of Outline might have inspired this letter.

Upon sharing a copy of this Little Blue Book with Patrice Louinet, he noticed similarities not only with the letter to Smith, but also the untitled Bran Mak Morn story that was discovered in 2001 (Howard, “Untitled”; Louinet). The story, which is essentially a sequence of past lives, contains the line “The Wheel turns and the cycles revolve forever. The Wheel turns and the souls of all things are bound to the spokes through all Eternity” (291). Patrice noted the similarity of that passage and the line from Outline referring to reincarnation: “Looking at this long-turning wheel of births and deaths” (54).

Howard’s story also mentions a drug called Taduka, which when smoked allows the user to experience his past lives (291). Charles Rutledge has noted that Howard’s source for this is likely the “Taduki” plant in H. Rider Haggard’s The Ancient Allan, which has a similar effect (“Ancient Allison“), but it is worth noting that Outline also suggests that various drugs such as hashish, bhang, and opium can allow glimpses of the astral world (16).

Initially then, it seemed as though Willis’s LBB Theosophy in Outline might have been a source of inspiration for not only the theosophical material in “Men of the Shadows,” but also both the reincarnation story and the August 24 letter to Smith. But then, Patrice realized there was a problem—more on that in Part Two.

 

Bibliography

Burke, Rusty. “The Robert E. Howard Bookshelf. [http://www.rehupa.com/OLDWEB/bookshelf.htm]” REHupa.com. Robert E. Howard United Press Association. 1998. Web. November 2011.

Burke, Rusty, and Patrice Louinet. “Robert E. Howard, Bran Mak Morn, and the Picts.” Bran Mak Morn: The Last King. New York: Del Rey, 2005. 343-360. Print.

Gibbs, Jake. “Dating Little Blue Books. [http://www.haldeman-julius.org/haldeman-julius-resources/dating-little-blue-books/]” haldeman-julius.org. Haldeman-Julius: Pocket Series and The Little Blue Books. March 2009. Web. November 2011.

Howard, Robert E. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard. 3 Vols.. Ed. Rob Roehm. Plano, TX: The REH Foundation Press, 2007. Print.

———. “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.” The Black Stranger and Other American Tales. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. 110-145. Print.

———. “The Hyborian Age.” The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. Eds. Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet. New York: Del Rey, 2003. 381-398. Print.

———. “Men of the Shadows.” Bran Mak Morn: The Last King. New York: Del Rey, 2005. 1-30. Print.

———. “The Moon of Skulls.” The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. New York: Del Rey, 2004. 99-170. Print.

———. Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant Publishers, 1990. Print.

———. “The Shadow Kingdom.”  Kull: Exile of Atlantis. New York: Del Rey, 2006. 13-51. Print.

———. “Skull-Face.” Tales of Weird Menace. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2010. 3-94. Print.

———. “Untitled.” Bran Mak Morn: The Last King. New York: Del Rey, 2005. 289-320. Print.

Louinet, Patrice. Personal communication. November 2011. Email.

Rutledge, Charles R. “The Ancient Allison. [http://singular–points.blogspot.com/2011/01/ancient-allison.html]” singular–points.blogspot.com Singular Points. January 2011. Web. November 2012.

Scott-Elliot, William. The Story of Atlantis. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1896. Print.

Shanks, Jeffrey. “Theosophy and the Thurian Age: Robert E. Howard and the Works of W. Scott-Elliot.” The Dark Man 6:1-2 (2011). Print.

Spence, Lewis. Atlantis in America. London: Ernest Benn. 1925. Print.

———. The Problem of Atlantis. London: William Rider and Son. 1924. Print.

Willis, Frederick Milton. Theosophy in Outline. Little Blue Book No. 477. Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius Company, 1923. Print.