Talbot Mundy, the First Anti-imperial Writer of Empire Adventure Stories, by Brian Taves

Empire adventure is conventionally viewed as a genre that celebrates the hegemony of white imperialists and Western culture, at best with a minor, patronizing glimpse of Eastern "exoticism." Countless studies have relied on the example of Rudyard Kipling as the model of such literature during the late 19th and early 20th century. 

However, there was a significant counter-example, largely overlooked: an Anglo-American writer who also achieved wide popularity. While writing for the same readers and within a similar framework, he was not only overtly anti-colonial but one who also championed Eastern philosophy and culture.

Talbot Mundy (1879-1940) spanned the interval between Victorian classicism and the modernist era. Utilizing the genres of adventure and fantasy in 45 novels, set in the contemporary colonial locales of Africa, the Middle East, and especially India and Tibet. Mundy's writing reflected his own youthful years roaming these regions, and his firsthand observations of occult teachings. His spiritual interests led him to explore a wide variety of faiths, becoming especially involved in theosophy.

Mundy flourished, despite defying all the "rules" supposedly dictated by the genre and publishers at the time. Yet these deliberate decisions also kept Mundy from the bestseller status achieved by authors such as Sax Rohmer, who framed the East as an "other" and menace to the West. Joseph Conrad provides the closest parallel to Mundy of a major adventure author, sharing philosophical concerns, but without the religious overtones so vital to Mundy. This sensibility, and Mundy’s hopeful conclusions, also placed him outside the realm of the bleaker currents of literary modernism represented by Conrad's "heart of darkness."

Through his literature, Mundy was engaged in a lifelong discourse on philosophy and religion. Long before Eastern religious ideas became diluted and mainstream under the label "New Age," he effectively translated such ideas as karma and reincarnation into Western idioms. He became one of the first prominent genre writer to chronicle such teachings from a sympathetic, understanding viewpoint. Mundy's books continue to find new readers; 30 titles, including two published for the first time posthumously, have been issued over 50 times in the 65 years since his death.

Talbot Mundy was born in London in 1879 as William Lancaster Gribbon and raised according to Victorian standards. The harsh environment of such schools as Rugby could not constrain his free-thinking and non-conformism, and he ran away at age 16. Two years later, he was in India, where he aided famine relief and traveled the country’s northern frontiers on horseback. Soaking up the impressions of the people who knew India best, both white and native, it began to dawn on him, as he latter noted, “that virtue is neither racial, national, nor even international, but universal; and that possibly lots of Western theories are wrong."

He spent four years in east Africa, alternating jobs for the government with such outlaw trades as poaching. He created his own fresh identity and adopted the surname of distant cousins as his own to become Talbot Mundy.

While guiding the safari of a member of the nobility and his wife, a noted beauty, Mundy became romantically involved. They were eventually married, returning to England in 1909. The scandal and his new wife’s drinking compelled them to emigrate to the United States.

Within hours of landing at New York, Mundy was mugged and robbed of the few hundred dollars with which he had hoped to begin a new life. Hungry and homeless, one of the journalists who had reported his beating offered Mundy lodgings so he could pursue his lifelong dream of writing.

Within months, Mundy was selling stories and articles to magazines, many of them winning acclaim, such as “The Soul of a Regiment.” He became prominently associated with Adventure, the most respected and literary of the “pulps.” His first novel, Rung Ho!, published in 1914, was a historical tale of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

Mundy’s second book, King–of the Khyber Rifles (1917), told of a fabulous character, Yasmini, who tried to conquer India, and quickly became a classic for its combination of fantastic elements with adventure. (The film versions have not been faithful to the novel). King–of the Khyber Rifles won Mundy a reputation as the successor to H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling–a comparison he found odious, since Mundy opposed Kipling’s jingoistic attitude toward colonialism. Native figures, especially those of the Indian sub-continent, often dominated Mundy’s novels, placed in the position of imparting Eastern wisdom to Western characters.

Equally apparent was Mundy’s feminism; a believer in full equality between the sexes, his female characterizations were vivid and proactive. This is perhaps most evident in his "prequel" to King–of the Khyber Rifles, entitled Guns of the Gods (1921) recounting Yasmini's youth. He remarried, a painter of whom he said was fond of saying her talent far exceeded his own. Under her influence, he became a Christian Scientist, which remained influential even after he left the faith.

Rejected for service in World War I due to bad eyesight, Mundy actively organized agricultural efforts in his adopted village of Norway, Maine, and wrote of Indian bravery at the frontline in Hira Singh (1918). In The Ivory Trail (1919), Mundy told a semi-autobiographical account of his search for the buried treasure of elephant tusks of the legendary Tippoo Tib. The Eye of Zeitoon (1920) was an account of Armenian persecution written to support a proposed United States mandate for the area from the League of Nations.

Mundy’s next great adventure began with a trip to Jerusalem in 1920, witnessing the tumult of the time first hand, performing a diplomatic mission to reconcile the Grand Mufti for England, and traveling to Damascus to meet Feisul and his government. Back in the United States, Mundy wrote a series of novels about contemporary Arabia that advocated independence from British and French colonial rule.

He spent several months in Hollywood writing at the Thomas H. Ince studio, then settled in San Diego, California, where in 1923 he joined the Theosophical Society centered there. He wrote dozens of articles for the society’s journal, The Theosophical Path.

Although occult themes had appeared in such novels as Caves of Terror (1922) and The Nine Unknown (1923), H.P. Blavatsky’s rendering of Eastern teachings combined with Mundy’s own experiences in India and Africa as the fantastic increasingly dominated his fiction. While residing at the society, Mundy wrote the novels Om–The Secret of Ahbor Valley (1924), The Devil’s Guard (1926), and The Red Flame of Erinpura (1927) about the teachings of the “Masters” in India, especially karma and reincarnation.

Theosophical influence was also evident as Mundy tried a new genre, historical novels, producing the classic series, Tros of Samothrace (1925-26), Queen Cleopatra (1929), and Purple Pirate (1935), books that raised a furor at the time for their critical interpretation of the Roman empire. He departed from conventional portraits of Caesar and Cleopatra to offer a feminist, anti-imperial critique of the foundations of Western thinking.

After going bankrupt with an oil-drilling venture in Mexico, Mundy moved to New York, residing for a time at another theosophical center, the Nicholas Roerich institute. There Mundy wrote Black Light (1931), simultaneously investigating spirtualism. He successfully tried a new genre, science fiction, with Jimgrim (1931).

The anatomy of political influence and a coup d'etat was a central theme in many of his works, most prominently "C.I.D." (1932) and The Gunga Sahib (1934), two novels that were part of a series centering on the climb to power of a wily and amusing "babu" in India. For a year, Mundy lived on Mallorca, writing his only non-fiction book, explaining the philosophical underpinnings of his stories. Rejected by publishers, he rewrote it in 1934, but with no more success, and set it aside; not until 1947 would it be posthumously published as I Say Sunrise. Returning to the United States, Mundy authored a chilling account of the fourth dimension, Full Moon (1935).

From 1936 until his death, he addressed a new audience when he was hired to compose the daily radio serial JACK ARMSTRONG, THE ALL-AMERICAN BOY. Under Mundy’s scripting, his novels were rewritten and heard by millions of children, who absorbed the accounts of mystics, ancient artifacts, and visits to the lamas of Tibet--with all the occult implications of such motifs intact. Simultaneously, Mundy continued to write philosophical novels for an adult audience, most notably an epic of Tibet in turmoil and the infant Dalai Lama, (1940).

He died suddenly at his home in Florida in 1940 from complications related to diabetes. However, his writing has continuously found new readers among succeeding generations, with over fifty reprints of his novels in the years since his death.

Brian Taves, Talbot Mundy, Philosopher of Adventure (McFarland, 2005)
Brian Taves, editor, Winds From the East: Anthology by Talbot Mundy (Ariel Press, 2006)

Both of these books include a new, complete bibliography of all of Mundy’s writings.

TalbotMundy.com is a website devoted to Talbot Mundy, mystical adventure, epics, books, essays, Theosophy, British Foreign Service, India, Australia, Africa, Robert E. Howard, Dorje the Daring, thunderbolts, Gobi desert, Atlantis, Nepal, Jimgrim, King of the Khyber Rifles, Gray Mahatma, Om the Secret of Ahbor Valley, Queen Cleopatra, Lud of Lunden, Helma, Praetor's Dungeon, Tros of Samothrace, Full Moon, Purple Pirate, Caves of Terror, Rung Ho!, Black Light, Bubble Reputation, Caesar Dies, Caves of Terror, C.I.D., Cock of the North, Devil's Guard, Diamonds See in the Dark, East and West, Eye of Zeitoon, Full Moon, Gunga Sahib, Guns of the Gods, Gup-bahadur, Her Reputation, Hira Singh's Tale, Hundred Days, Woman Ayisha, I Say Sunrise, Ivory Trail, Allah's Peace, Jungle Jest, King in Check, Lion of Petra, Lost Trooper, Marriage of Meldrum Strange, Mystery of Khufu's Tomb, Nine Unknown, Old Ugly Face, Purple Pirate, Ramsden, Red Flame of Erinpura, Romances of India, Rung Ho, Seventeen Thieves of El Kalil, Soul of a Regiment, There Was a Door, Thunder Dragon Gate, Told East, Valient View, When Trails Were New, Winds of the World, Pigsticking in India, Single-handed Yachting, Phantom Battery, Blooding of the Ninth Queen's Own, For Valour, Chaplain of the Mullingars, and many other things related.