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BOOK REVIEW: "Talbot Mundy, Philosopher of Adventure" by Brian Taves

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BOOK REVIEW: Talbot Mundy, Philosopher of Adventure: A Critical Biography by Brian Taves (McFarland Publishers) 2005

While the second season of Twin Peaks has been criticized, I feel it was because there were simply too many subplots and not enough involvement by co-creator David Lynch.

However, I learned a lot in those episodes during the fall of 1990 and the spring of 1991, up until the final episode that June, concluding in the grim Black Lodge.

One of my favorite characters was Special Agent Dale Cooper’s former partner, Windom Earle. Earle went over the edge after Cooper had an affair with Earle’s wife and Earle, in turn, killed his wife and critically injured Cooper before disappearing – until re-emerging in Twin Peaks, Washington during Cooper’s investigation into the death of high school prom queen Laura Palmer.

Audiences soon learned that like Cooper, Earle (played by actor Kenneth Welsh, who has a near-Shakespearian delivery) had a fascination into Tibetan Buddhism and mysticism, but while Cooper sought to tap into the positive, “white magic” of that belief system and use it in his investigative deductive techniques, Earle’s interest was diametrically different … referring to his embrace of the evil Tibetan dugpas, human devils who deify evil.

Twin Peaks' Windom Earle finally makes his way into the Black Lodge. (Lynch/Frost Productions)

These evil sorcerers, dugpas, they call them, cultivate evil for the sake of evil and nothing else. They express themselves in darkness for darkness, without leavening motive. This ardent purity has allowed them to access a secret place of great power, where the cultivation of evil proceeds in exponential fashion. And with it, the furtherance of evil's resulting power. These are not fairy tales, or myths. This place of power is tangible, and as such, can be found, entered, and perhaps, utilized in some fashion. The dugpas have many names for it, but chief among them is the Black Lodge...

So, were these dugpas real? I was previously unfamiliar with them and over the years would research Tibetan Buddhism and a name that came up consistently was Talbot Mundy, the author of The Devil’s Guard, where

The name alone sounded made up to me. And I soon found out that this “Talbot Mundy” was actually born William Lancaster Gribbon in April 1879 in London and as Brian Taves, who wrote the fantastic biography of this exceedingly talented and creative man – Talbot Mundy, Philsopher of Adventure – “chose his own name.”

The adoption of a new name allowed him to create a fresh persona that liberated him from the constraints of the past and the class into which he was born,” writes Taves in the first chapter. “He chose, created, and lived by this identity for over half his life, selecting the surname of distant cousins over that of his parents.”

During the first decades of the 20th century, this Englishman who would eventually call the United States his adopted home, would travel around the world, spending lots of time in Africa and Asia, in the final years of overt colonialism by Britain and other European powers, and would be inspired by his exciting, almost Indiana Jones-esque adventures that would get his writings compared to that of Rudyard Kipling and others of his era.

The only difference between Mundy and contemporaries like colony-approving Kipling, Joseph Conrad and others is that Mundy actually admired Eastern philosophy and spiritual practices and would embrace the occult teachings of The Theosophical Society, founded by Madame H.P. Blavatsky. He was also against colonialism, something reflected in his many adventure stories that appeared in books and pulp magazines, particularly in the 1920’s and 30’s, at the height of his popularity.

“The Devil’s Guard is a literary achievement that is both a powerful fantasy and a revelation of occult teaching,” Taves writes. “The Devil’s Guard actually goes further into the specific mysteries at which (previous story) Om concluded, as befits a product of the time of Mundy’s deepest involvement in the Theosophical movement.”

And because of Theosophy’s roots in Tibet and India, Mundy saw a setting for his heroes – Ramsden and Jim Grim – to be involved in a battle between good and evil, the monks of both the Black Lodge and the White Lodge, fighting amongst themselves, with the philosophy essentially being that “The Devil’s Guard becomes a meditation on evil’s palpable presence, which demands it be recognized as a separate force in order to be understood.”

As for the dugpas, Taves writes that Mundy, using his knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, “demonstrates in the narrative , that dugpas are often able to superimpose their will, and such transferences account for the sudden criminal outbursts of apparently sane people.”

It is now clearer that Twin Peaks’ evil, dugpa-emulating villain Windom Earle likely sprang from Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost’s reading of Talbot Mundy’s work and other research into the White and Black Lodges as understood by Tibetan Buddhists.

And what is interesting is that Talbot Mundy helped bring his progressive ideas (he featured powerful female figures like Yasmini of India and King - Of the Khyber Rifles, which would later be made into a film) into pulp magazines like Adventure, which were serialized and exposed readers, and also radio listeners (with the Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy adventures) and moviegoers in later years, to esoteric ideas and themes, which Mundy would work his way into his writings, even when facing censorious outlets featuring his gripping stories, including this Tibetan-themed Jack Armstrong advertisement on the back of a box of Wheaties cereal. 

As Mundy told a friend: "When writing, the plot and adventure are to me mere pegs on which to hang my preachment." Indeed.

Or, as Taves tells us: "(Mundy) sought to translate Eastern ideas into a Western idiom through his own experience in the far-flung corners of the world, and the aid of the theosophical influence." 

Taves clearly has a love of his much-admired author. A man who was married multiple times and was clearly a seeker while having an exceedingly broad imagination, one that helped him think beyond the everyday and promote stories with morals and the longings of the human heart. His characters were multi-dimensional and he was visionary in his approach to writing in a world where a paint-by-numbers approach to popular fiction was expected. Mundy tended to defy expectations in the button-down world he inhabited.

Yes, Mundy rejected the mainstream Christianity of his bourgeois upbringing and finding solace in Christian Science, which was popular at the time and, later, of course, Theosophy. Mundy would later say that while Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science and Blavatsky's Theosophy were on opposite ends of the spectrum, he saw ways that they could work well together. And while Mundy would dabble in Spiritualism, something frowned upon by Theosophists, he would remain true to the belief system of Theosophy until the day he died in August 1940, after his body was ravaged by diabetes.

As someone who loves the esoteric adventure stories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Talbot Mundy clearly takes the lead as one of the most fascinating, talented and engaging writers of his era. Had he lived longer, there is no doubt he would have continued to write remarkable stories with flair, depth and style. Taves's biography of Mundy is a must-read.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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