Growing Up with Tékumel: Early Writings of M.A.R. Barker

Many people daydream but few can imagine detailed and extensive worlds that stay internally consistent over long periods of time. M.A.R. Barker had that gift.

I do not want to exaggerate. Barker’s Tékumel did change  over time. And much of Barker’s Tékumel clearly drew from experiences later in life studying Klamath, Indian, Mayan, and other cultures, as well as his advanced study of linguistics. However, Barker’s early writings and other evidence show that lasting elements of Tékumel developed very early, as early as high school.  Barker wrote that his youthful fascination with science fiction, Hollywood adventures of the 40s and 50s, and pulp magazines partly shaped his fantasy world.

Barker was reticent about his personal life and only occasionally shared details of his younger years. Based on documentary evidence, his father Loris Barker was a vagabond, perhaps driven from place to place by the Great Depression. Born in Florida, Loris Barker moved at age 8 to what is now Bellingham, Washington.  In 1914, when he married Phil Barker’s mother, Gertrude Barnhardt (a Washington native), Loris was working with his father as a florist in Bellingham. WW I Draft records list Loris’s profession as carpenter at a shipyard in North Bend Oregon in 1918. The 1920 census places the Barkers in Ketchikan, Alaska where Loris worked on a boat as a “gas engineer.” In 1930, he was a principal at a school in Moscow, Idaho, and in 1940 he was superintendent of the small St. Maries, Idaho school district. A 1942 draft card lists Loris as self-employed in Tacoma, Washington.  M.A.R. Barker later wrote that he moved about in Idaho and Washington and had never left those two states until he went to Berkeley for graduate school. 

There’s no direct evidence, but it seems plausible that stories told around the Barker dinner table may have have partly inspired Phil’s love of esoteric cultures.  For example, Ketchikan, Alaska, where Loris and Gertrude Barker lived before Phil was born, boasted totem poles and the Barkers’ neighbors included Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Swedes, and other foreigners. Less remarkable in 2017, for an American child at that time the stories may have sounded as fantastic as science fiction.

Phil was also an only child with relatively old parents (for the time): Loris was 37 and Gertrude 38 years old when Phil was born.  (A death certificate indicates the Barkers had previously lost an unnamed daughter just a day old in 1918.)  It’s easy to imagine young Phil, who was constantly moving and had no siblings (and was apparently unhealthy or unfit enough that he later escaped the draft during the Korean War), withdrawing into his own fantasy worlds and, increasingly, his one world of Tékumel.  Language always especially fascinated Phil Barker.  He himself recalled that he had been intrigued by the “secret language” of his Basque neighbors at one of his homes in Idaho.

Whatever the biographical reasons, Phil became interested in science fiction, ancient non-Western history, and languages.  What remains of his correspondence and his published writings shows that Barker had formed the outlines of the world of Tékumel by the time he was in college.

The official Tékumel website includes what is described as the oldest Tékumel story at this link. This story of the origins of the Petal Throne was found in Barker’s correspondence and had never been previously published. Barker said he wrote this story at the end of high school but whether this recollection is accurate is unknown. Similar unpublished correspondence includes Barker’s letters to science fiction author Lin Carter dated in the Duke collection of Carter’s papers as “1949-1950.” These letters reportedly include descriptions of Tékumel.

The preamble to the story linked above (and Barker’s wikipedia entry) say that Barker published “several” other stories in small science fiction fanzines around 1950.  I have so far found six published items by Barker from that time in the fanzines Fanscient, Sinisterra, and Fantastic Amazing Mysteries, but not all are stories or Tékumel-related. In addition, I have found two published items from this time that refer to Barker.

Fanscient.

Barker wrote three pieces for Fanscient, a science fiction fanzine published in Portland, Oregon by Donald Day from 1947-1951.  Day was a member of the Portland Science Fiction Society and it seems that internal warfare in the group eventually ended the fanzine. (In groups like these internal warfare is inevitable and it would later plague the Tékumel hobby too.) Each issue of the magazine profiled a famous science fiction author and included an exhaustive bibliography of that author’s writing.  Day also published gossip and mediocre fiction, though occasionally pieces appeared by authors who would later become famous, like Poul Anderson and Lin Carter.

Barker’s non-fiction piece, “Egyptian Mythology in Fantastic Literature,” appeared in Fanscient #9 (Volume 3, Number 3) dated Fall 1949.  Barker argues that most science fiction and fantasy authors “misuse” Egyptian mythology and calls for more accurate description of Egyptian gods.  This plants Barker squarely in the camp of authors who believe that science fiction and fantasy should strive for as much consistency with the known universe as possible.

Summary:

  • Author: Phillip Barker
  • Published in Fanscient #9 (Volume 3 #3) edited by Donald Day
  • Date: Fall 1949
  • Artists: (Barker’s article is illustrated by Ralph Rayburn Phillips)
  • Stock number: NA
  • Size: 5.5″ x 8.5″ – 64 pages
  • Original Price: 25 cents
  • Number published. Unknown.
  • Rarity: Rare
  • Value: Sold on ebay in January 2017 for $14.00
  • Collecting Note: This is a relatively rare item in original.  Many people sell reprints on ebay.  Be careful, the reprints are not always clearly described as such. PDF versions of all the issues are available on line here.

Barker’s second non-fiction piece, “The Language Problem,” appeared in Fanscient #11 (Volume 4, Number 1) dated Spring 1950. “The Language Problem” describes the thorny difficulty that language poses for science fiction authors. How can authors realistically describe communication between humans and aliens when mutual incomprehensibility is virtually guaranteed? Barker also discusses how telepathy and “beamed thought” are not satisfactory solutions to this problem. Barker does not come up with a solution to “the language problem,” and, interestingly, never let it worry him too much later.  EPT’s  “Eye of Incomparable Understanding” is the type of facile solution that Barker scorns in the article.

Summary

  • Author: Phillip Barker
  • Published in Fanscient #11 (Volume 4 #1) edited by Donald Day
  • Date: Spring 1950
  • Artists: (Barker article is illustrated by Donald Day)
  • Stock number: NA
  • Size: 5.5″ x 8.5″ — 32 pages.
  • Original Price: 25 cents
  • Number published. Unknown.
  • Rarity: Rare
  • Value: Not recently sold but based on other issues sold value is $12-$15.
  • Collecting Note: This is a relatively rare item in original.  Many people sell reprints on ebay.  Be careful, the reprints are not always clearly described as such. PDF versions of all the issues are available on line here.

Barker’s only (discovered) published piece of short fiction from around 1950, “– And the Strong Shall Inherit,” appeared in Fanscient #12 (Volume 4, Number 2) dated Summer 1950.  The piece is only partly Barker’s work.  In the foreword, the editor says he replaced Barker’s unsatisfactory ending with a new one.  Day writes “If you like the story, thank Phil — if you don’t like the ending, blame me.”  Most notably, however, a piece of Barker’s artwork accompanies this story — as discussed in this post.  This story has no direct link to Tékumel but includes the place name “Malchairan,” which appears later in Barker’s Tékumel writings as the original location of the Petal Throne. The artwork bears a definite resemblance to later art Barker drew for EPT.  It’s also interesting to note how Barker’s heroines resemble June Duprez in the Thief of Baghdad.

Summary

  • Author: Phillip Barker
  • Published in Fanscient #12 (Volume 4 #2) edited by Donald Day
  • Date: Summer 1950
  • Artists: (Barker article is illustrated by Donald Day)
  • Stock number: NA
  • Size: 5.5″ x 8.5″ — 32 pages.
  • Original Price: 25 cents
  • Number published. Unknown.
  • Rarity: Rare
  • Value: Not recently sold but based on other issues sold value is $12-$15. This issue is more valuable to a Tékumel collector but I don’t think that affects price overall.
  • Collecting Note: This is a relatively rare item in original.  Many people sell reprints on ebay.  Be careful, the reprints are not always clearly described as such. PDF versions of all the issues are available on line here.

Fanscient #13-14 does not include anything authored by Barker, but mentions Phil Barker’s having attended the science fiction convention Norwescon 8 with other members of the “Nameless Ones” club from Seattle.  The account of the auction at Norwescon notes how Barker paid $34 for the original art of the “Dear Devil” cover of the May 1950 issue of the science fiction magazine Other Worlds.  A foreshadowing of Harsan’s adoption by the Pe Choi?

It’s a mystery to me how Phil Barker could afford, as a student from a not rich family, to pay the 2017 equivalent of 350 dollars for a piece of artwork.

Summary

  • Editor: Donald Day
  • Fanscient #13-14 Double issue
  • Date: Spring 1951
  • Artists:
  • Stock number: NA
  • Size: 5.5″ x 8.5″ — 64 pages.
  • Original Price: 25 cents
  • Number published. Unknown.
  • Rarity: Rare
  • Value: Not recently sold but based on other issues sold value is $12-$15.
  • Collecting Note: This is a relatively rare item in original.  Many people sell reprints on ebay.  Be careful, the reprints are not always clearly described as such. PDF versions of all the issues are available on line here.

Sinisterra

I have so far found two pieces by Barker in the fanzine Sinisterra published by Frank and Gertrude Carr of The Nameless Ones science fiction club in Seattle. Sinisterra is not well documented but it appears to have been a true home brew with, for example, cover illustrations scotch-taped to the front page.  The name later changed to “Cry of the Nameless” published by F.M. Busby and later just “Cry” published by Wally Weber until 1964, when it ceased publication.

Barker wrote a book review of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth in issue #4 (dated Winter 1950).  Several sources have noted how the trope of a Terran civilization in decline was later used in the Tékumel universe.  I have no further details.

Summary.

  • Author: Phillip Barker
  • Published in Sinisterra Volume 1 #4 edited by Frank and Gertrude Carr
  • Date: Winter 1950
  • Artists: Unknown
  • Stock number: NA
  • Size: unknown
  • Original Price: 25 cents
  • Number published. Unknown.
  • Rarity: Very rare
  • Value: Not recently sold but a copy is on offer for $150.
  • Collecting Note: This item is very rare and almost never seen for sale.

Barker received a Fulbright scholarship and departed for India in 1951.  Sinisterra Volume 2 Number 1 (dated 1951) includes “A Letter from Phil Barker/’India Barks.'”  I have no further details.

Summary.

  • Author: Phillip Barker
  • Published in Sinisterra Volume 2 #1 edited by Frank and Gertrude Carr
  • Date: Spring 1951
  • Artists: Unknown
  • Stock number: NA
  • Size: unknown
  • Original Price: 25 cents
  • Number published. Unknown.
  • Rarity: Very rare
  • Value: Not recently sold..
  • Collecting Note: This item is very rare and I have not ever seen one for sale.

Picture 9 is Phil Barker and an unindentified woman. Picture 13 features Gertrude Carr wearing a “Soliani Perfume Girl” costume made by Barker. Picture 15 again shows Barker.

Sinisterra Volume 1 #3 (Fall 1950) did not include any writings of Barker’s but did include photographs of costumes at the masquerade ball of Norwescon (Worldcon 8) held in 1950.  Phil’s first place costume, which resembled a Salarvyáni outfit, graces the cover. The costume of Gertrude Carr is described as a “Soliani perfume girl,” a clear reference to Tékumel’s Tsolyani Empire.

Summary.

  • Editors: Frank and Gertrude Carr
  • Volume 1 #3
  • Date: Fall 1950
  • Artists: Unknown
  • Stock number: NA
  • Size: unknown
  • Original Price: 25 cents
  • Number published. Unknown.
  • Rarity: Very rare
  • Value: Not recently sold..
  • Collecting Note: This item is very rare and I have only ever seen one for sale.

Famous Fantastic Mysteries

The pulp magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries was published from 1939 until 1953.   The content is generally what you might expect: swashbuckling adventures, conventional spacemen, and drawings of tight bodices.  A letter from Phil Barker appeared in the August 1949 issue.  In the letter he says how much he enjoyed a caveman story in a previous issue but criticizes how Cro-Magnon speech is described.

Summary.

  • Author: Phillip Barker
  • Published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries Volume 10 #6 edited by Mary Gnaedinger
  • Date: August 1949
  • Artists: (Barker’s letter is not illustrated)
  • Stock number: NA
  • Size: 8.5″ x 11″ — 132 pages.
  • Original Price: 25 cents
  • Number published. Unknown.
  • Rarity: Not that rare.
  • Value: These were published in larger numbers than the fanzines above but they also  have more fans.  Generally they go for $12-$20 on ebay and vintage bookshops.
  • Collecting Note: The link to Barker is tenuous (a single letter to the editor) and there is no relation to Tékumel.

The question of the Bey Sü Map.

The Bey Sü Map on the cover of the original EPT bears a date Fesru/27 2328AS, which per an algorithm Barker shared in the Blue Room mailing list correlates to June 28, 1949.  I do not believe that this is really the date of the drawing, however. I do not believe that Barker had developed the Tsolyani language extensively enough to write the inscription on the painting.  The various parts of the map (city of the dead etc.) also correspond to the “1975 Tékumel” pretty well.  This is just my guess, though.

More?

I am fairly sure that we will not discover any more published games by M.A.R. Barker.  I have no such confidence about his early writings.  The fanzines and fantasy magazines of this era are poorly documented,  It’s quite possible there’s more out there.  If anyone has more information, please comment below.

One thought on “Growing Up with Tékumel: Early Writings of M.A.R. Barker

  1. amazing work, thank you for your work in compiling this. i hope someday to get a complete view of the world of tekumel, but it is hard to get a grip of something with this much history. barker world building deserves the attention that henry darger or tolkeins simirilian receive.

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