In Paperback: A Princess of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Fall River Press, 2011
The first appearance of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the long-lost All-Story Magazine in 1912 was not as a by-line for his most famous creation, Tarzan of the Apes, but rather for “Under the Moons of Mars,” the serial that later become A Princess of Mars, the first of Burroughs’ series of novel-length adventures featuring John Carter, gentleman adventurer late of 19th century Virginia who suddenly wakes up to find himself naked and alone on the planet Mars, known to its many exotic inhabitants as Barsoom.
“Under the Moons of Mars” was an immediate hit with readers, as was A Princess of Mars with a book-buying public growing more and more thirsty for sci-fi adventures and pulp excesses, both of which Burroughs provides by the caravan. The Mars of his conception was two-thirds Percival Lowell and one-third Bulfinch’s tales of chivalry, an ancient world in the late afternoon of its life, where the soaring towers of the Barsoomian cities (inhabited by red-skinned human-looking men) were accessed by flashing air-cars, and where the planet’s vast now-arid ocean floors were roamed by savage bands of huge, green-skinned warriors called tharks. It was a beguiling mixture of the primitive (the cities are vaguely feudal, and personal combat is ubiquitous) and the advanced (no coal or gas or electricity; those air-cars are powered by anti-gravity bladders, and in addition to swords, everybody carries radium pistols), the ultimate in exotic settings, where pony-tailed red-skinned warriors fought four-armed white-furred apes for the approval of beautiful, naked maidens, a place where lovers recited poetry in fragrant gardens under Mars’ two swift-flying little moons.
Into this world comes John Carter, who immediately finds that his Earth-conditioned muscles give him fantastic physical powers in the far weaker gravity of Mars (two young boys from Ohio would avidly absorb this particular detail and re-use it when creating a certain other planetary exile, this one hailing from Krypton, not Virginia). That increased strength and agility, in addition to his already-prodigious abilities as a swordsman and tactician, enable him to make a name for himself in this strange new world – that, and the singular lengths he goes to in order to rescue his Martian beloved, the incomparable Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, from the clutches of a madman with the full Burroughsian flair for the melodramatic:
“Princess of Helium, I might wring a mighty ransom from your people would I but return you to them unharmed, but a thousand times rather would I watch that beautiful face writhe in the agony of torture; it shall be long drawn out, that I promise you; ten days of pleasure were all too short to show the love I harbor for your race. The terrors of your death shall haunt the slumbers of the red men through all the ages to come; they will shudder in the shadows of the night as their fathers tell them of the awful vengeance of the green men; of the power and might and hate and cruelty of Tal Hajus. But before the torture you shall be mine for one short hour, and word of that too shall go forth to Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium, your grandfatheer, that he may grovel upon the ground in the agony of his sorrow. Tomorrow the torture will commence; tonight thou art Tal Hajus'; come!”
In his quest to rescue Dejah Thoris (who is portrayed as both proud and spirited), John Carter is aided by a band of valiant red men, several bands of tharks under the command of his gigantic thark friend Tars Tarkas, and by his faithful Martian ‘dog’ Woola, who hides a valiant heart under an unprepossessing exterior:
I had at least two friends on Mars; a young woman who watched over me with motherly solicitude, and a dumb brute which, as I later came to know, held in its poor ugly carcass more love, more loyalty, more gratitude than could have been found in the entire five million green Martians who rove the deserted cities and dead sea bottoms of Mars.
Right after Burroughs gave the world John Carter of Mars, he also gave it Tarzan of the Apes, and that latter creation threw everything else he did into permanent shadow. Tarzan immediately joined Dracula and Sherlock Holmes as one of the most iconic fictional characters of the last century – the scion of English nobility raised by apes in the African jungle, who goes on to have many adventures both in the wild and in the lands of men.
The key difference between the two characters – the key dramatic superiority of John Carter – is that Tarzan is entirely what his unusual upbringing makes him, and he wants nothing more than to eradicate that difference and live as other men do (and he does – in most of the later novels, he displays neither animal strength nor animal cunning and can’t really start his day without strong coffee). Whereas even if he’d never been transported to Mars, John Carter would have been an enigma worthy of stories – he’s an ageless, timeless warrior long before he sets foot on Barsoom:
I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty.
As already hinted, John Carter of Mars struck an imaginative chord in many, many readers, mainly due to the fact that Burroughs’ vitality and creativity were never more consistent or fired-up as they are in these novels. Celebrated fantasy artist Frank Frazetta did template-defining series of magnificent paintings, movie-makers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg long dreamed of bringing the stories to the big screen, and 2012 will see a multi-million dollar movie at last, starring smirking TV himbo (and Canadian) Taylor Kitsch as John Carter. Hollywood special effects can do anything nowadays, so all the aerial leaping and the flashing sword-fights and the Cecile B. DeMille battle-scenes at the climax will no doubt look stunning in 3-D (or whatever the current fad happens to be), although it’s an open question whether any of the free-wheeling adventurous spirit of the books is deemed necessary by its new curators. In the meantime, thanks to the good graces of Fall River Press, we now have an attractive, low-priced paperback of that marvellous first novel, with the promise of more such volumes to come. In terms of pure escapism, these century-old novels haven’t lost a single inch of their game. Read one on the grass in the summer sunlight – and prepare to be transported.