The Gods of Mars is considered by most to be the best of the Barsoom series; it fleshes out the hero, introduces new races and gives us more history of the planet, all that and it’s also one of the best attacks on organized religion I’ve ever come across. Published in 1913 in the pages of All-Story magazine this book is basically the second of what is really an introductory trilogy to the Barsoom series; A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars both end with cliffhangers and not properly concluded until The Warlord of Mars was released. Lucky for readers at the time Burroughs was a pretty fast writer with no five year wait between installments, I’m looking at you George R.R. Martin. The first serialized chapter for A Princess of Mars came out in July 1912 and the last chapter of The Warlord of Mars hit stands in March of 1914, all that while also working on Tarzan of the Apes.
When we last left John Carter he had raced to the atmosphere processing plant in the hopes of turning it back on before the entire population of the planet asphyxiated, but just as he succeeded in opening the massive door to the plant he was whisked back to Earth. He then spent years trying to figure how to get back to his Mars and his beloved Dejah Thoris, until one day while standing atop a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, and with outstretched hands he once again finds the strange power that draws him to the wonderful world of Barsoom. Only one small problem, when he arrives he’s not at a location that he is familiar with. The surroundings are so lush with vegetation he at first wonders if he’s been transported to a different planet all together. The good news is that he is in fact on Mars/Barsoom, the bad news is that he is in the Valley of Dor which is considered to be the Martian afterlife, and to return from Dor is considered sacrilegious and is punishable by torture and death.
While taking in these strange surroundings he spots a boat coming down the River Iss, onboard are a group of Green Martians on their assumed pilgrimage to paradise. You see upon reaching 1,000 years of age almost all Martians undertake a pilgrimage along the River Iss expecting to find a valley of paradise; but instead they find in a veritable deathtrap, populated by bloodsucking plant creatures and the giant white apes of mars waiting for them. This is all overseen by a race called the Therns, a cruel cannibalistic society of priests who perpetuate the Martian religion through a network of spies across the planet. Those that aren’t immediately killed by the ferocious monsters are either enslaved by the “Holy” Therns or eaten by them. Being this is a Burroughs story it should surprise no one that this particular pilgrim party contains someone John Carter knows, the mighty Green Martian warlord Tars Tarkas. With Carter at his side the two are able to fight their way through the horde of plant men and apes until they stumble upon a secret passageway into the Thern city. While there our two heroes rescue Thuvia of Ptarth, a Red Martian who has been a slave to the Holy Therns for years because of her unique ability to control the great cats Martian cats called banths.
The Therns are white skinned, bald, but wear blonde wigs to appear as they once did generations ago, and this allows Carter to easily impersonate one of them by killing him and stealing his wig. With an army of Thuvia controlled banths at their side Carter and Tars Tarkas make for their escape, but things get complicated when the city is attacked by the Black Pirates of Barsoom. Calling themselves the “First Born” this race of Martians considers themselves a unique creation among Martian races, and worship the living goddess Issus. They raid the White Martian Therns carrying off girls as slaves just as the Therns took Red and Green Martians to be their slaves. Strangely enough the Therns consider the Temple of Issus to be their Heaven but it is in fact a scam perpetrated by the Black Martians. So the Therns perpetrate a fake religion to lure Red and Green Martians into their clutches, but they don’t know that their own religion is also a hoax which was created by the Black Martians. Basically it’s a pyramid scheme of religions.
I’ve read that Edgar Rice Burroughs was not considered to be anti-religious; he was more concerned by the abuse and exploitation of religious beliefs by leaders of the various sects, but after reading this book, and some of the nice subtle jabs at religion in the Tarzan stories, I’m betting that if he wasn’t a closet atheist he was at least a solid agnostic.
Here is a nice quote from John Carter as he explain the importance of exposing this hoax to the world, even if it costs them their lives, “Only thus may we carry the truth to those without, and though the likelihood of our narrative given credence is, I grant you, remote, so wedded are mortals to their stupid infatuation for impossible superstitions, we should be crave cowards indeed were we to shirk the plain duty that confronts us.” Yeah, that sounds like a guy with a serious beef against religion. This not so subtle commentary is even more impressive when you consider he was writing for an audience that were primarily religious.
Aside from religion the factors of race is also a key element in this book; in A Princess of Mars we were introduced to Red Martians and the Green Martians who are both shown containing good and bad people. Now in The Gods of Mars we meet the White Martians and the Black Martians and though both are first introduced as villainous races Carter does befriend one of the Princes of “The First Men” by the name of Xodar, and when Carter exposes that the Black Martian religion to be just as fake as the ones the Red, Green and White Martians all believed in he quickly joins forces with him. Some people have accused Burroughs of fostering racist stereotypes but that idea would be dashed if such people had read this book; here is how Carter describes the Black Martians, “Only in the colour of their skins did they differ materially from us; this is of the appearance of polished ebony, and as odd as it may seem for a Southerner to say, it adds rather than detracts from their marvelous beauty.” Carter later describes the Black Martian Xodar as, “He was a handsome fellow, clean limbed and powerful, with an intelligent face and features of such exquisite chiselling that Adonis himself might have envied him.” So to recap the Red Martians and Green Martians are Carter’s dearest allies, and even the cruel Black Martians are not wholly a race of evil, but the White Martians are shown as having no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Carter even rescues Phaidor, daughter of Matai Shang, Holy Hekkador of the Holy Therns, Father of Therns, Master of Life and Death upon Barsoon, Brother of Issus, Princess of Life Eternal, and then when he spurns her love because his heart belongs to Dejah Thoris she becomes enraged and eventually tries to kill Carter’s wife. Even the women of the White Martian race are despicable. I think we can put to bed any idea that Burroughs was racist.
Of course The Gods of Mars isn’t a treatise on religion and race relations, well not just that, but it’s also a rousing science fiction adventure with John Carter bringing death and destruction to all who stand between him and his beloved. We get a glimpse into his morality as he kills a crew of Black Martians as they sleep, it’s the only way he can take their ship as is badly outnumbered, but later he spares the lives of several of the Black Martian soldiers because killing them at the particular point is unnecessary. And Carter is constantly leaping into combat against overwhelming odds if he sees a woman in danger. At one point in the book, during Carter’s time as a prisoner of the Black Martians, he is about to witness a group of Red Martian maidens about to be slaughtered and eaten by some of Barsoomian white apes in the arena, and without a second thought he charges in and ends up sparking a Spartacus like rebellion among the cities slaves.
You don’t get better swashbuckling space adventure than this. The Gods of Mars will have you rifling through the pages as you can to discover if John Carter and his friends will escape the Black Martian city, wondering what other dangers could lie within the subterranean Sea of Omean. Will John Carter and company make it back to Helium only to be killed as heretics? Who is that young Red Martian captive with the lighter red skin who bears such a startling resemblance to John Carter? Does Dejah Thoris still live and if so how many times will John Carter have to rescue her? Seriously, she’s a worse damsel in distress than Tarzan’s Jane. The Gods of Mars is my favorite of the Barsoom series, and one I heartily recommend.