Talbot Mundy and the Theosophical Society, by Brian Taves

At the beginning of the 1920s, when literary  representations of the Far East were more often epitomized by the  menace of Fu-Manchu than the grace of Shangri-La, the Theosophical Society played a vital role in bringing about a change in those conventions.  They provided an intellectual base for an alteration toward recognizing the Orient as a possible source of wisdom rather than merely a colorful background.  Theosophy's link to this tradition of popular literature was through Talbot Mundy, an adventurer and writer who was attracted to Point Loma and Katherine Tingley's teaching.  He joined the society in 1923 and for the next five years wrote and lived on or adjacent to the community, of which he was a prominent and leading member.
          During the previous ten years, Mundy had gained an  enviable reputation as one of the most popular, prolific and  original authors of tales of contemporary adventure in the Far East.  Not only was this one of the most widely-read genres of the time, but Mundy had a personal following that enabled him to sell virtually anything he wrote with minimal editorial interference.
          While sharing certain similarities in background and literary style with Rudyard Kipling, Sax Rohmer and H. Rider  Haggard, spiritually and structurally Mundy was more akin to Joseph Conrad.  From the beginning
Mundy was a seeker, a man who ran away at age sixteen rather than conform to the expectations of a high-church family.  During years of wandering through India, Africa and elsewhere, he acquired an interest and sympathy for such ideas as Karma and Reincarnation, observing native magic and occult teachings firsthand.
          This early proclivity made him an almost instant convert when he happened to encountered theosophy on a trip to the western United States in the late fall of 1922.  "The magic of Blavatsky's pen," he said, "stirred in me something deeper and more challenging than I had known was there . . ."  He was inspired by the teachings of Katherine Tingley and Gottfried de Purucker, and study of THE SECRET DOCTRINE and especially ISIS UNVEILED, to write a long series of articles for THE THEOSOPHICAL PATH. Simultaneously, he continued to turn out the fiction that  was his source of income.
          This encounter with theosophy added a new depth to  Mundy's fiction, providing a door to a broader, more intellectual  dimension than was evident in his earlier books.  Whereas  previously he had explored the physical and material mysteries of India and the Far East, his writing would now expand to encompass its metaphysical and spiritual realms.  During the ensuing years  his novels pioneered a new direction in the genre by infusing a strong philosophical bent, one clearly in sympathy with the teachings of Eastern religion and, by extension, the concepts propounded by the Theosophical Society.
          During the 1920s Mundy came of age as a writer, with the decade seeing his greatest fiction both in terms of quantity and quality.  However, it was not the Theosophical Society alone which was responsible for this seriousness of purpose.  Mystical themes had appeared sporadically in his books of the previous years, with KING--OF THE KHYBER RIFLES his most famous to date.  The type of stories for which Mundy became best known at Point Loma had in fact already begun to be written before he ever knew anything of theosophy.  For instance, in mid-1922 he wrote CAVES OF TERROR, the first novel to fully reveal his incorporation of fantasy to facilitate the presentation of Oriental philosophy.  The story told of an Englishman investigating the supernatural in India, encountering a wise "Mahatma" who reveals to him secrets of the Indian religious philosophy, both its possibilities and pitfalls.  Surprisingly, this earnest exploration of Eastern religion was a
favorite of readers at the time.     
          Theosophy's influence was greatest on Mundy's OM:  THE  SECRET OF AHBOR VALLEY, written at the end of 1923 after almost a year in contact with the organization.  OM was his most literary work to date, one that exhibited a maturing skill with plot  structure, theme and depth of character. Using the prototype of the wise old sage who had appeared in CAVES OF TERROR, OM concerned a Lama and his caravan who travel toward Tibet, performing small plays wherever they go to teach philosophical  lessons in the form of parables.  Not only was this a reflexive analogy on Mundy's part for the role of his own tales as parables, but it was the most successful form he ever devised to convey abstract ideas in a comprehensible, practical manner. More effectively than in any of his other works, Mundy struck a  delicate, unique balance between the descriptive, the narrative  and the didactic, while still retaining the guise of the storyteller.
          The nature of the philosophy in OM was remarkable.  Mundy used the generic universe of Indian adventure as a vehicle  to advance a personal assimilation of Eastern teachings, as understood through theosophy but also by his own experience and study of the Orient.  This background gave him a
talent for making the fantastic seem plausible, so that in his stories East and West synthesized without clash or disharmony.
          In this way OM revitalized a cycle in fantasy-adventure  literature, crystallizing the archetype of the Westerner who quits the dissatisfying life of colonial service to disguise himself as a native and search for the wisdom of the East.  Other writers had used this structure previously, but with a crucial difference:  Mundy had a profound and abiding respect for Eastern thought, enriched by what was clearly both a scholarly and a first-hand knowledge of the regions whereof he wrote.  For instance, a comparison with Kipling's KIM is revealing.  Mundy, unlike his predecessor, thrust Indians, along with their religious and cultural traditions, into the foreground, consciously denying Western assumptions of superiority.  These qualities have continued to distinguish Mundy from his many imitators and successors in the genre.
          Expecting OM to be heavily criticized for its favorable  portrayal of Eastern ideas, Mundy was surprised to see it become a best-seller; within months it was also placed on the "Book List  of Standard Theosophical
Literature" alongside the description, "profound truths in the guise of vivid and fascinating fiction."   Theosophists readily took the book to heart as a perfect expression of their beliefs in the form of a novel.
          Mundy's next story of India, written in 1926, was entitled THE DEVIL'S GUARD and embodied an attempt to repeat the combination of philosophy and adventure in a context much less literary and meditative.
Instead he sought to convey Eastern concepts through the depiction of a dream-like realm of nightmarish quest, where souls are governed by psychic forces.  THE DEVIL'S GUARD was actually part of a tetralogy that had begun with CAVES OF TERROR, continuing with THE NINE UNKNOWN in 1923 and finally ending in 1930 with JIMGRIM.  In these four novels Mundy asserts his strong belief in reincarnation, building on the theosophical and Oriental belief in the "Masters," highly evolved adepts who have acquired a knowledge of the wisdom of the ages--a dangerous possession in the wrong hands, which must accordingly be entrusted only incrementally to selected individuals, lest it be abused.  When asked about the "Masters," Mundy replied that he believed
that he had once met such an individual, who, however, naturally would not admit to that identity; Katherine Tingley  also maintained that she had encountered one of these beings.
          In another, completely different type of story, Mundy  again reconciled the popular appeal of an adventure story with  teachings of a theosophical variety.  This was in a series of massive historical novels dealing with the
ancient world, begun in 1925, entitled TROS OF SAMOTHRACE, CAESAR DIES, QUEEN CLEOPATRA, PURPLE PIRATE, and ROMAN HOLIDAY. The saga was first conceived as an original interpretation of Cleopatra, in opposition to the portraits of her put forth by Shakespeare and Shaw; Mundy was intrigued by the political and social forces surrounding a woman who, like Katherine Tingley, was in a position of leadership.  But the stories grew to encompass an even broader realm, portraying--in terms of theosophy's belief in the tides and cycles of history--the period as one in which a tired world turned away from spiritual values.  These contending forces were etched into the conflict between Cleopatra and Rome, as personified by Julius Caesar, with the
latter representing militarism and the attempt of a few to impose their will on the many.
          Although these interpretations may not seem so remarkable today, Mundy's anti-classical views evoked a storm of protest when the first of his Roman novels appeared.  Recall that he was writing eight years before Robert Graves' series on the Emperor Claudius; not until the 1930s would Mundy's pioneering efforts toward revising popular conceptions of the ancient world receive widespread praise.
          Mundy's historical novels reflected theosophical thinking in other ways as well.  In TROS OF SAMOTHRACE he suggested that the Samothracians and the Druids had their foundation in the same source, in line with the Theosophical belief in one very ancient, essential mother religion from which all others are derived.  However, this has had the unfortunate  side-effect of causing some critics to mis-read these stories as fantasy rather than historical fiction.
          After this concentrated writing of theosophical novels--CAVES OF TERROR, THE NINE UNKNOWN, OM, TROS OF SAMOTHRACE, THE DEVIL'S GUARD, CAESAR DIES, QUEEN CLEOPATRA--during the mid
1920s, a series of factors caused Mundy to fade very rapidly from the scene of Point Loma.  The most immediate cause of his leaving San Diego in 1928 was a series of business difficulties that befell him.  By nature Mundy seldom spent long in a single place with the same individuals before leaving to partake of
new experiences.  As his widow, Dawn Mundy, told me:  "I think he sort of went through things, and then looked for something else."
      Shortly after Gottfried de Purucker's succession to Tingley's  post, Mundy's last article in THE THEOSOPHICAL PATH appeared, and his books OM and QUEEN CLEOPATRA were eliminated from the Standard Reading List of Theosophical Literature; he and Purucker did not share the close fellowship that had preserved Mundy's esteem for Tingley.  While retaining a life-long sympathy for theosophy, and despite the continued affection members had, and continue to have, for him and his works, Mundy gradually drifted
away from its influence, both personally and in terms of the  theosophical impact on his fiction. 
          Mundy was clearly more than a mere writer of diverting adventure tales; through his literature he was engaged in a lifelong discourse on philosophy and religion.  He wrote stories that could be simultaneously read on two levels:  as he said of OM, "It is soaked with sound philosophy and stirring mystery, plus dangerous adventure."  Unlike such otherwise similar writers as Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard, Mundy utilized exotic locales for the treatment of metaphysical subjects in the context of Eastern thinking--as well
as adventure.  With his own personal experience in the far-flung corners of the world and the aid of the theosophical influence, Mundy was able to effectively translate Oriental ideas into a western idiom.  Yet this avoidance of the simple escapism some readers would have preferred is one of the factors that has
allowed him to remain overshadowed.  At the same time, his foundation as an author whose writings clearly belonged to the fantasy-adventure genres rendered him suspect to conventional literary critics.  Nonetheless, his
popularity was deep and has proved lasting, with sixteen of his novels having been republished on thirty-nine separate occasions in the forty-five years since his death. 
          In retrospect, the time Mundy became involved with theosophy was fortuitous, allowing the movement, through him, to have an enormous impact on the genre of Oriental fantasy.  Under the leadership of Katherine Tingley, the Theosophical Society  utilized popular appeals to spread their views, for instance in the plays presented in the Greek Theater.  Already the society had in Kenneth Morris one historian and novelist who had won theosophical praise and modest outside acclaim, and in previous years Blavatsky had provided a
recognized influence on such figures as George Russell and W.B. Yeats.  But in Mundy the society found an author who could reach out to as wide an audience as possible, through both mass-readership and literary types of books. Fortunately, Mundy had arrived at Point Loma at the height of its glory in the Tingley era; after her passing, Purucker moved the organization in a more esoteric direction which placed a lower priority on Mundy's contribution.
          With Mundy's departure from Point Loma, the Theosophical Society lost its best opportunity to disperse its concepts to a wide public with any hope of ready acceptance.  Within his novels, the Eastern notions that were the basis of theosophical beliefs had the best chance to be favorably received without the rejection that would likely result from an unconcealed presentation to a largely Judeo-Christian audience.  Mundy proved that it was possible to palatably integrate the offbeat philosophy of a minority, avant-garde group into popular
works of fiction, and still retain a wide readership.  He won the enthusiasm of already-converted theosophists as well as the public at large, and was unique for achieving both these goals, the philosophy melding persuasively into his fiction.  Yet, while promoting many of theosophy's specific ideas, Mundy's tales were never mere propaganda, since he expressed Oriental concepts through the filter of his own experience and Occidental consciousness, without regard to any specific theosophical doctrine.  This was the secret of his wide
popularity and durability, the reason he was heralded not only by theosophists but acquired a personal following that has persisted and regenerated to this day, spreading theosophical notions in a subtle and often unrealized way to hundreds of thousands of readers.

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COMPILED BY BRIAN TAVES