What do you get when you mix a Civil War hero with barbaric Green Martians, ferocious beasts, and a breathtakingly-beautiful Red Martian Princess? A novel of interplanetary romance and an action-packed adventure called A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB). Our first stop on our journey to Mars, Word by Word.
Written in 1911, this story had several working titles: “My First Adventure on Mars,” “The Green Martians,” and “Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess.” Re-titled “Under the Moons of Mars” it was published under the byline Norman Bean as a monthly serial from February to July 1912 in All Story Magazine. Norman, aka ERB, was paid the extravagant sum of $400.
When I sat down to read A Princess of Mars, I made a conscious decision to overlook certain things. Societal views of the roles of men and women were quite different in 1911 from what we think of today. Some word choices that were perfectly acceptable then, have considerably different usage today. To present-day readers, turn-of-the-century writing traditions of asides, addressing the reader, and explicit foreshadowing seem archaic and heavy-handed. ERB, a writer of his time, used all of those traditions. He also used the device that the story was a manuscript written by the hero, Captain John Carter. This made the asides, etc. much less intrusive to me as a reader. Overall, I found that the tale still holds the charms of a wish fulfillment story where the hero is all the things a man could wish to be and the princess is alluring and in need of rescue.
At the end of the Civil War Captain John Carter of Virginia had a handful of worthless Confederate dollars. Broke, he and a friend went to seek their fortune in Arizona. After savages kill his friend, he attempts to save his friend’s body from mutilation by hiding in a sacred cave. There he is overcome by a ‘delicious sense of dreaminess.’ When he wakens, Carter is in a strange, exotic land he knows at once to be Mars.
Before Carter can explore much of this new land, he is captured by fearsome, twelve-foot tall Green Martians. Over time he earns the respect of Tars Tarkus, a warlord of one of the Green Martian clans. But when the beautiful Red Martian, Dejah Thoris Princess of Helium, is taken captive by the Green Martians, John Carter falls in love.
Carter battles Green Martians, warring factions of Red Martians, and ultimately saves not only his beloved Red Martian Princess, but also unites the Green Martians, frees the besieged city of Helium, and ultimately saves the entire planet. And loses his love.
The planet Mars that Burroughs created for his story has little relation to what was known of the real planet even in 1911. In reality, gravity on Mars is about 1/3rd that of Earth so John Carter would be about three times as strong as the inhabitants of Mars. In the story, John Carter can launch himself thirty feet into the air and a hundred feet from his point of origin. Who doesn’t want to do that?
ERB’s brief descriptions of Mars include some attempts to explain the variances from reality. There is a massive radium powered plant that manufactures the breathable atmosphere. Water from the melting polar caps is piped below ground to water a narrow strip of vegetation and crops. The moss-like vegetation that covers most of the planet is mostly water and sustains the various native beasts that wander the planet’s surface.
Throughout the book, there are glimpses of exotic people, animals, and customs. The barbaric culture of the Green Martians is in stark contrast to the ancient buildings they inhabit. Constructed of ‘gleaming white marble inlaid with gold and brilliant stones’ and filled with ‘evidences of extreme antiquity’ the buildings and their furnishings were proportionately small for the Green Martians.
The Red Martians are smaller, more human in appearance. Those from Helium are responsible for the scientific knowledge that maintains the water and atmosphere of the planet. But they, like the Green Martians, produce offspring by laying eggs.
There are airships and power in the eighth and ninth ‘rays’ of the sun. There are monstrous wild and domesticated beasts. These bits of background information create layers that invite your imagination to play.
The Rest of the Story
Burroughs did not sit idle while waiting for A Princess of Mars to be published. He wrote a number of poems, short stories, and articles during 1911 and 1912. He had rejections and he had sales. By June of 1912, he’d sold the novel, Tarzan, to be serialized in All Story Magazine. In July he began the first of what would be eleven novels in what we call the John Carter of Mars series. But it wasn’t until 1917 that A Princess of Mars came out as a book.
For more information about ERB’s life see the Later Bloomer post written by Debra Eve titled “Edgar Rice Burrows from Pencil Sharpener to Media Mogul.” or go to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ official website.
Critics say that Burroughs was inconsistent in style and eschewed research. But I think there is something that’s overlooked in those critiques.
Even though ERB’s Mars isn’t real, it entices the reader with hope. Tonight may be the night I fall asleep and awaken in a strange, exotic land. I could awaken tomorrow to epic adventures, thrilling sword fights, and daring rescues. Dreams can come true.
Isn’t that what we all wish for?
Next stop: C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith
The Going to Mars, Word by Word series will be posted the first Monday of the month. You can see the first post in this series here.
The latest update from NASA’s rover, Curiosity.