Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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Secret Doors and False Religions in The Gods of Mars

While you’re probably not going to get anything more famous than the “back door” to Lonely Mountain, there’s certainly no shortage of potential antecedents for the ubiquitous secret doors of Dungeons & Dragons. Among my favorite would be the ones that Velma finds by accident whenever she loses her glasses on episodes of Scooby Doo.

I don’t recall coming across too many when I did my survey of Appendix N, so I was struck tonight as I read chapter four of The Gods of Mars to my son. Oh, there’s plenty in that chapter that’s striking, all right. There is the completely naked warrior babe that shoots her captor/tormentor without even thinking about it, for instance. If you thought the fainting of the women immediately following episodes of violence was just plain too much in Tarzan of the Apes, well… it’s plenty clear that Edgar Rice Burroughs was capable of imagining it working out in a different fashion!

But about those secret doors:

With a cry of encouragement I threw my weight against the secret door, but as well have assayed the down-hurling of the cliffs themselves. Then I sought feverishly for the secret of the revolving panel, but my search was fruitless, and I was about to raise my longsword against the sullen gold when the young woman prisoner called out to me.

“Save thy sword, O Mighty Warrior, for thou shalt need it more where it will avail to some purpose—shatter it not against senseless metal which yields better to the lightest finger touch of one who knows its secret.”

I have to say that they are used to good effect in a crazy all out combat scenario. But it’s the term itself I really wonder about. Is it possible that the phrase “secret door” was lifted from this book in order to be immortalized in a weird game invented in the seventies…? I don’t think that’s too outlandish an idea given that the original D&D term “fighting man” is without question a reference and/or an homage to John Carter. Similarly, the “thief” is not called burglar or rogue because of Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows, which also explains why thieves have a “hide in shadows” skill and not stealth!

I checked the Google Ngram viewer— which again, is not conclusive proof of anything, really– but I find it interesting that the incidence of the phrase “secret door” peaks at the turn of the twentieth century and then begins climbing back into more frequent usage again starting with the advent of D&D. There’s maybe nothing to this, but there it is.

The other big thing from the same chapter is its treatment of both cosmology and religion:

“The therns are mortal,” she replied. “They die from the same causes as you or I might: those who do not live their allotted span of life, one thousand years, when by the authority of custom they may take their way in happiness through the long tunnel that leads to Issus.

“Those who die before are supposed to spend the balance of their allotted time in the image of a plant man, and it is for this reason that the plant men are held sacred by the therns, since they believe that each of these hideous creatures was formerly a thern.”

“And should a plant man die?” I asked.

“Should he die before the expiration of the thousand years from the birth of the thern whose immortality abides within him then the soul passes into a great white ape, but should the ape die short of the exact hour that terminates the thousand years the soul is for ever lost and passes for all eternity into the carcass of the slimy and fearsome silians whose wriggling thousands seethe the silent sea beneath the hurtling moons when the sun has gone and strange shapes walk through the Valley Dor.”

Okay, that’s just… wild to me. Is it really that crazy…? I think it is. There’s just an unbounded creativity to it.

Of course, it’s side by side with Plant Men that somehow sprang from the Tree of Life. (Straight outta Genesis, yo!) The whole scenario, too, is for the adventurers to escape from a sham afterlife in order to return to society and let them know that their religion is basically false.

And let me just say that “the religion that is totally false” is definitely the norm for science fiction and fantasy in general. Though, yeah, the “old folk superstition that actually turns out to be true” is a fairly common trope as well, yeah. But take something huge like the Lovecraft Mythos: if it’s real, then it annihilates pretty much all human religions. Or look at Robert E. Howard’s Conan where religion is integral to culture. Or take that crazy original series Star Trek episode “The Apple”, the one with the snake temple and the natives that end up discovering how awesome kissing is. Or consider the over the top handling of idolatry, blasphemy, and megalomaniac godling-priests in Lin Carter’s The Warrior of World’s End. Or consider the ludicrous idols of Lord Dunsany’s short stories. Or the depiction of druids engaging in human sacrifice in A. Merritt’s Creep, Shadow!

Look at all of that! And then look at religion in recent editions of D&D. Do you get the impression that you’re dealing with something multi-faceted? Nuanced? Dangerous? Something that’s of deadly importance…? Or do you– like the image there I came across on Twitter– have something that’s more innocuous, safe, and inoffensive than anything else?

I’m just asking….

16 responses to “Secret Doors and False Religions in The Gods of Mars

  1. emperorponders June 10, 2016 at 3:02 am

    In D&D clerics are (or have become) basically walking ambulances with healing spells on-demand. Add to that the level inflation of level creeps, and you end up with an aberration that works somewhat well in video games, but it’s nonsense in a book.

    The rule system is simply not well adapted to simulate the weirdness of being the chosen one of a fickle, mostly pagan deity that see mortals as their toys. The aspect of rituals, sacrifices, the worthiness of the cause, the dangers of asking the gods too much, and all that is lost when clerics become mystical bacta dispensers.

    However, I remember an old Dragon magazine article about clerics that explained how they should be played and some optional rules that, although small, basically transformed the experience of playing a cleric (it involved rituals, asking for miracles, and so on.) Another example of the culture gap between D&D’s designers and players, I guess, although in this case I also believe it’s not just that because the rule system is somewhat limited.

    • jeffro June 10, 2016 at 10:01 am

      There was also a concerted effort to tone done religion in games in the eighties in an effort to not be offensive. In the seventies, the pictures of clerics were explicitly Catholic crusader types. The spells were shout outs to Sunday school bible stories in any case….

      But yeah… something about the rules is a factor as well.

  2. Bob June 10, 2016 at 6:01 am

    I’m about half way through The gods of Mars now. I bought an anthology of the first five John Carter novels recently. They are great fun. I’m trying to get my boys (12 & 16) to read them as well – because of lines like this from chapter two:

    (Tars Tarkas speaking) “If you fall, John Carter,” he said, “know that the cruel and heartless Thark, to whom you taught the meaning of friendship, will come out to die beside you.”

    Wow. Name me a Hugo-winning SFF protagonist who could say something like that.

    • pcbushi June 10, 2016 at 8:16 am

      I’m reading probably the same collection right now, which a friend bought me a few months ago. I’m also becoming a big Tars Tarkas fan.

      What timing on this post! I just read this chapter last night.

    • jeffro June 10, 2016 at 10:04 am

      Not one iota of snark or irony. The closest thing I read to that recently was the actual order to storm Normandy Beach.

  3. ashley858 June 10, 2016 at 7:53 am

    It may well be a British thing, but secret doors abound in mysteries, and when I used to play Call of Cthulhu we, the adventurers, would always have a bout of knocking on the walls of rooms looking for secret doors. Those were the days.

    • jeffro June 10, 2016 at 12:03 pm

      When I toured the Bilmore House in North Carolina– which is our counterpart to Downton Abbey, I suppose– we could see the secret doors that were built to allow people to “go get a book” late at night if need be. There was much winking and elbowing during that part of the tour. My favorite part was the curious paintings on the walls of the basement from when they had a costume party. It was just like something you’d put in a D&D game!

      • ashley858 June 11, 2016 at 2:14 pm

        In Britain we have so many old houses with secret doors, though mostly they were for the servants to move around without disturbing their betters.

  4. ckubasik June 10, 2016 at 9:23 am

    Gygax specifically calls out John Carter, among others, in the Forward to OD&D, specifically referencing him in the following context:

    “These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits…”

    My best guess to the answer to your question is, “Yes.”

  5. John E. Boyle June 10, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    OK, this is going to sound dumb, but my first reaction to reading this article and its comments was:

    They read the stories of John Carter to their children? THEN ALL IS NOT LOST!!!

    My father introduced me to Barsoom when I was 5, and I have never regretted it for an instant. There are far worse things that you could teach your children than Friendship, Courage, Honor and Love. (of course, at five, my favorite character was Woola…)

    In regards to False Religions, I come from a Runequest background, and I am not really familiar with D&D at all. Runequest goes to the other end of the spectrum and has a multitude of gods grouped in different pantheons for humans and non-humans. Healing of some sort can be learned by almost everyone, which means that the priests tend to specialize in the area of interest of their deity. Healing gods give magic to regrow limbs, cure disease and might even be able to resurrect. The gods of war are just as nasty as you might expect. If you want religions that are multi-faceted, nuanced, dangerous and/or tied to a deadly purpose, Runequest’s cults will definitely deliver.

    The flip side of the coin is that there is no analog to Christianity; Runequest worlds can get very dark in some ways.

  6. BobtheCertifiedIdiot. June 10, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    I think I’ve said this before, read Ric Locke’s bit on John Carter and the Fighting Man. The Fighting Man was well established in literature of his time, and later references are not necessarily specific to John Carter. Also, I think again, the change from ‘Fighting Man’ to ‘Fighter’ was a travesty.

    I’ll chime in on lots of RW and late 19th century fiction secret passage or door references. The Anglican-Catholic matter in England meant a lot of concealed hiding places in buildings for priests and religious materials.

    Re: Religion. We have map-is-the-territory magical thinkers in our society. They use words as symbols in their spells to change human nature. Their spells never work, they insist that they would if only they could force us, the entire public, to participate in their rituals. I say they will never remove the religious impulse from human.

  7. Brooser Bear June 10, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    I consider the religion in D&D to be the fantasy equivalent of the Political Machine politics. Gods die, if nobody believes in them. Clerics perform miracles to keep the faith alive and in defense of and to the betterment of the believers. Another concept is that humans are Children of Christ, have immortal souls and an opportunity for Christian salvation as we know it. Other man-like beings, Elves, Halflings, Dwarves and others have ascended to compete with Mankind by other routes. I have pig-faced orcs and bugbears, who evolved naturally from Bears. Elves, Dwarves and Halflings are creations, Children, of Gods other than Christian Trinity. Unlike puny humans, they have no free whilst under protection of their creators. If those other Demi-Humans want eternal life, they must do an act of rebellion to break away from their Creator, and only then accept Christ. The Acts of Rebellion are acts so uncharacteristic of the Demi-Human races, that they leave their creators behind. I have specific deities and lines of behavior, bud I don’t want to spoil it for my players.

  8. Cambias June 11, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    I suspect Clerics have always been the odd men out in D&D and related games because in modern American fantasy there’s an inherent tension in any depictions of religion.
    The trouble is that as modern Americans we pride ourselves on tolerance, and our country is founded on (among other things) absolute freedom of religion. It is literally immoral in America to assert that one religion is better or more true than another.
    This is a problem in fantasy because of course the existence of “real” gods who are active in the world, in a verifiable — indeed, in D&D, in a scientifically predictable and experimentally valid way — runs completely counter to that American impulse. If Thor can give you spells but worshipping your revered ancestors doesn’t, then it’s absolutely accurate to say that the cult of Thor is better and more true than ancestor-worship in that D&D world.
    As Americans we don’t like this, so a generation of game writers have tried to square the circle by making all religions true in their game worlds. You can have Thor and ancestor-worship clerics, and they both get spells. Runequest even (delightfully) had mutually contradictory cosmologies and creation myths, yet all the gods were still verifiably real. Probably the most difficult version of that to pull off was in the explicitly Christian (or at least Abrahamic) game In Nomine, where we still had to pretend that non-Abrahamic religions might be valid even though your PCs can talk to Archangels who have personally met the Holy Trinity.
    Anyway. The “all religions are true” dodge kind of works if you think of it as a version of the old Greek “Interpretatio Graecae” — in which they simply identified Celtic, Egyptian, Persian, and other non-Hellenic gods with the familiar Olympian pantheon. So if Indra and Thor and Set and Zeus and Chac are all names for the same lighting-throwing being, your clerics can worship it under various names an everything’s cool.
    Where problems crop up is when Thor and Indra and Set and Zeus and Chac are all storm gods, all real, but somehow have limited territorial jurisdiction. It’s a problem because it reduces the gods — embodiments of cosmic power, and the universal moral order — into, essentially, mafia gangs of supervillains, each with their own “turf” and their own captive population of worshippers. (And if the gods actually need something from their worshippers, it gets even more Mafia-like.)
    I think game creators need to bite the bullet: make a metaphysical choice and stick with it. If you write a game informed by Christianity, then don’t pussyfoot around trying to pretend that Zeus-worship is still valid.

  9. Atlemar June 24, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    You call out “recent editions of D&D,” but when has D&D ever had the kind of attention to religion you describe as coming from these books? In my first D&D set, the blue box, the gods were, just as they are now, basically sources for clerics’ powers, unless the DM makes them more. According to this story, clerics came about largely because of the influence of Hammer Horror movies:

    In my opinion, religion is not a big deal in D&D because that would largely make it about NPCs, and in any game the PCs are the stars. I’ve thrown some wrinkles at clerics (higher priests being disappointed with the PC’s actions, and a sentient holy symbol attempting to convert the PC) but aside from forces-of-good-versus-evil-cultists, religion is largely peripheral to most games, unless the players and DM explicitly choose to make it so.

    • jeffro June 24, 2016 at 9:37 pm

      Well, if you follow the chain of development from Lord Dunsany to Poul Anderson and on to original D&D, certainly the Christian elements of the game were muted. Nevertheless AD&D has crosses on the cleric’s shield and so forth. Also, the Deities & Demigods supplement brings in an approach to pantheons that is along the lines of what you see in The Roaring Trumpet and The Broken Sword. All of that goes away with Forgotten Realms style deities and the Cleric-construction-kit of AD&D 2e.

      A divorce of some sort did in fact occur. I believe this sort watering down of the cosmology to be the touchstone of pink slime fantasy.

  10. Pingback: Tarzan the Cimmerian And Conan of the Apes – Hooc Ott

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