When one thinks of Edgar Rice Burroughs the character of Tarzan readily leaps to mind, but everyone’s favorite ape man was not the first creation of Burroughs, that would be the legendary adventurer John Carter and his awesome stories of Barsoom (Mars to the uninitiated). A Princess of Mars was first serialized in the pulp magazine All-Story Magazine from February–July, 1912, originally titled Under the Moons of Mars, and written under the pseudonym Normal Bean. He chose to adopt a pen name because he had at the time still hopes of finding success in business world and he didn’t want fantastical stories, that he considered a little childish, to hamper that success. Lucky for us he never found that “success” and instead the world gained one of the most imaginative minds in science fiction.
Of all the creation of Burroughs I’d say John Carter is most interesting as we really don’t know much about him, and what we do learn just raises more questions. The first chapter begins with Carter describing himself, “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 my childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty.” How is that for a great opening hook? Even before our hero is whisked off to Mars he’s revealed to be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and one we never find the answer to.
This lack of information could certainly bother some people, but because neither the character nor us the reader have the answers so were both on equal footing. It’s a mystery that doesn’t need solving as it just adds to the strange mystique of the character. Mystery aside John Carter is about the most actiony action hero ever put to paper as he is adept at strategy, horsemanship, and all weapons, including firearms and swords. He is a man of honor and justice who will not hesitate to kill when needed, and with his 6’2″ physique and steel gray eyes he’s the embodiment of the Nietzsche’s superman. This all before he set on foot on Mars; once on the Red Planet the lesser gravity allows him to leap buildings in a single bound just like Superman, and that’s 26 years before Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster would create their iconic superhero. Once again Burroughs was their first.
As this was released in serialized form the story is very episodic, it begins with a forward by author Edgar Rice Burroughs who talks about his mysterious favorite uncle and how one day his body was found lying dead outside on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. In his uncle’s will was a strange request about having his body interred, unembalmed, inside a well ventilated tomb that could be only unlocked for the inside. Along with these instructions was a manuscript that he is told not to reveal to the public until 21 years after his death, and in this manuscript is the startling story of his adventures under the moons of Mars.
The rest of the book is narrated by John Carter as he tells how while escaping a band of Apaches, after they killed his mining partner, he found a cave and hid inside it in the hopes of escaping a nasty scalping. A strange vapor knocked him out and when he awoke he found himself paralyzed on the floor of the cave, and when struggled to break free of the paralysis he snapped out of his body. Finding yourself naked and looking down on body would freak most people out but Carter handles it rather well, but being immortal probably puts a different light on strange events. He walks out of the cave, stares up into the heavens, and spots the red orb that is Mars. The planet, named after the god of war, drew upon him “as a lodestone attracts iron” and suddenly he was drawn through the vastness of space to wake up on the desert landscape of Mars itself.
He quickly learns that the denser atmosphere on Earth has given him greater musculature than the residents of Mars which allows him to leap great distances, and to fight for great periods of time without tiring. This comes in handy as he gets into many many fights. Carter is quick to realize where he is and wastes no time pondering the why or the wherefores of his situation, and soon he is learning how to navigate across the Martian landscape. He first encounters an incubator containing a rather large collection of eggs, and just as little green Martian young start hatching twenty mounted and armed adults arrive. Thinking this naked pink skinned creature is a threat to their young these Martians attack, but are greatly surprised by his ability to jump backwards 100 feet. Thus John Carter encounters the nomadic tribe of Green Martians who over the course of this book he will battle and battle alongside. The leader of this band is the great warrior Tars Tarkas, who will eventually become one of Carter’s greatest friends, and who himself is rare among this race, for the Green Martians are notorious for being as great a fighters as they are for being cruel and unfeeling, and Tars Tarkas we learn is anything but cruel or unfeeling.
Carter becomes a prisoner of a special sort among the Green Martians of Thark, his talent for jumping impresses them but it’s the fact that he kills one of the belligerent Martians with one punch that gains him respect. He later learns, after killing a second green Martians, that you take the property and status of any Thark you kill. It’s this special status that serves him well when the Green Martians shoot down a flier containing Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, and he is able to help her escape. Dejah Thoris is of course this books main love interest for our hero; she is a red skinned Martian who like many of the races on Mars is at war with almost everybody. When Carter learns that her fate will most likely to be tortured to death he begins plans to rescue her. Lucky for Carter he makes friends easily; when he first entered the Thark community he was given over to Sola, a green Martian female who would provide for his needs and teach him the language, but like Tars Tarkas she isn’t a cruel and ruthless being, and she quickly learns to care deeply for this strange visitor.
Barsoom Science Moment: The Green Martians of Barsoom exist without the concept of familial love; mates are chosen by what physical attributes could lead to stronger young and then after the eggs are laid they are taken out and placed in a Martian incubator where they will grow over the next five years. Then the Green Martians males will ride out and claim the young that have hatched while leaving the ones that haven’t hatched in time to die. Back home the young are then given to the females to raise, but no one knows who the mothers or fathers are. No Martian child is raised in a loving home, but we later learn that Sola was born of love and unbeknownst to Tars Tarkas she is his daughter. This is what leads her to become fond of John Carter and to join him and Dejah Thoris in escaping the Thark city.
The road to love is of course never smooth in an Edgar Rice Burroughs book. Due to Carter’s lack of understanding of the Martian culture he offends Dejah Thoris on several occasions, but luckily he is able to repeatedly save her life and that makes up for their rocky start. Though their eventual declaration of mutual love doesn’t end their problems, because at one point during their escape from the Green Martians they are separated and Dejah Thoris believes Carter to be dead. To make matters worse she agrees to marry a prince from a warring city that is currently besieging her home of Helium. Even though her own people would rather die than see their beloved Princess marry for anything but love she agrees to the marriage to save the lives her subjects. John Carter of course shows up just as she’s announced her engagement but unfortunately Martian honor does not allow her to renege on the betrothal. Carter is all for straight up murdering her fiancé but he is told that Martian culture would forbid her to marry the man who killed her betrothed. Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed let alone venture to other planets.
A Princess of Mars is a fantastic example of pure unadulterated science fiction/fantasy fun. The heroes are brave and strong, the women are wholesome and noble, and the action is balls to the wall awesome. And what Burroughs gives us in this series is not just pulp adventurous fun, though it has all the earmarks of such, but he has also created an intricate world with not just one culture but a multitude of them. Carter leaps from one frying pan to another while exploring this beautiful but stark world, and the detail that Burroughs goes into his creation is staggering.
• Martians communicate both vocally and telepathically.
• John Carter learns to do this but is able to read unintended thoughts while no one can read his.
• Barsoom is completely aware of Earth civilization due to their advanced science, but they find our wearing of clothes and silly hats to be rather strange.
• The humanoid Red Martians also reproduce by laying eggs; this makes John Carter’s ability to have a child with Dejah Thoris quite impressive.
• The projectiles the Barsoomian weapons fire explode on contact with light. Thus night battles are avoided as that could result in a messy morning.
• Massive airships defy gravity with the use of the Eighth Ray
• A massive atmosphere processor uses the Ninth Ray to provide breathable air on Barsoom.
• The dangerous white apes of Barsoom would even give Tarzan pause.
• Barsoomians ride eight leg creatures called Thoats, a nasty and volatile steed.
• John Carter’s kindness to animals is unusual on Barsoom and his ability to befriend and tame the violent thoats earns him great respect among the Green Martians.
John Carter’s treatment of animals also resulted in him getting the most loyal animal in the universe as a faithful companion. When Carter was first taken “prisoner” by the Green Martians he was put under the watchful eye of the Martian’s version of a domesticated dog called a calot. They are about the size of Shetland ponies, with ten short legs and a frog-like head. They are the fastest creatures on Mars and are excellent at hunting game or guarding property. Woola is the calot given WatchGuard duty over John Carter, but when Woola saves Carter from a couple of Martian white apes and then Carter risks his life to save Woola’s, the beast becomes absolutely devoted to him, “As I later came to know, held in its 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.”
The book does end on a bit of a cliff-hanger; A Princess of Mars and the two following books The Gods of Mars and the Warlord of Mars work as a trilogy, with the first book ending with John Carter racing to somehow get the atmosphere plant functioning after the keeper of the plant has gone incommunicado and the assistant keeper is assassinated. With the denizens of Mars dropping dead as the breathable air is exhausted Carter must uses his telepathic abilities to open the impregnable door and turn on the air processor back on before all are doomed. He is able to use the telepathic code to open the massive door, that he learned earlier during his long search for Dejah Thoris, he passes out but a Red Martian crawls into the facility to turn it all back on, hopefully in time.
Carter then wakes up and finds himself back in the old cave in Arizona . John Carter then spends the next ten years trying to figure out how to get back to Barsoom. Did the Martian manage to get the air processor on in time? Did the air reach the rest of Barsoom in time to save Dejah Thoris and his friends? Would John Carter make it back to the place he now considers home? Readers had to wait until January of the next year to get answers to those question, and it was more than worth the wait as The Gods of Mars is considered by many to be the best of the Barsoom stories. Myself included.
For a first novel Edgar Rice Burroughs hit it right out of the park and into the stratosphere; A Princess of Mars delivers ideas and ideologies not often seen in the pages of pulp magazines, and with a hero of unfathomable grit, courage and honor. I dare anyone to read this first installment and not want to read the further adventures of one of the greatest adventurers off all time.
Note: Most will now know of this book because of the big budget 2012 movie John Carter that sadly underperformed at the box office despite it being rather good. Most blame the terrible marketing decisions such as naming it John Carter instead of A Princess of Mars. You’d think of anybody in the world to understand the power of marketing “Princesses” it would be Disney. If you’d like you can check out my article John Carter: Book vs Movie as I breakdown many of the similarities and differences between the book and the movie.