Old political pulp that still has its charms (Thanks, Edgar Rice Burroughs.)

By Corissa Poley

A Princess of MarsWhen I saw the book cover of The Princess of Mars (1912), it was in another book about its illustrator, Frank Frazetta. I didn’t expect to be so engrossed by the cover of the book on first sight, nor did I expect to read that the book’s author was the one and only Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan series. I knew Burroughs had been a pulp-fiction writer in the early 20th century, but I had never heard of this space series. As a scifi nerd I was immediately intrigued, and so I borrowed the first book from the library.

Though these books were surely well known, and have been around for about a hundred years, I had never seen or heard of them before. The premise is that John Carter, a red-blooded fightin’ Virginian, also of the grey-coated Southern boys, ends up on Mars after a brief out-of-body space travel experience. He finds that his earthly body mass behaves much differently, and then discovers an alien race; thus the story begins.

The various societies on Mars (called Barsoom by the people that inhabit its distant, dusty lands) and the way that John Carter, war, and romance are perceived is very different from other books. The author here tackles an interesting dilemma: the idea that Mars, like Earth, has many different races and societies. Burroughs’ world is one of honor and duty, but one that possesses the flaws of humanity. Carter encounters all manner of strange peoples, from the red men of Barsoom, who die for honor rather than be disgraced, to the white-faced therns and ebony black First Born who claim to be gods on Barsoom in The Gods of Mars (1914). There are non-humanoid entities as well, of a more hideous nature. The races all treat their morals in very different ways, though the whole of the planet seems to “believe” in the same religion.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting is the way that women are treated. They are fragile things, meant to be protected and cared for. Yet they are strong, and they are the leaders that their armies worship and live for. Women play a huge role in the Barsoom Series, primarily the Princess Dejah Thoris. She is the Princess of the red men, and the woman with whom John Carter falls deeply in love on sight. He speaks of her through the various volumes as “incomparable,” “divine,” and adds that she is his driving motivation for all that he does. He wants simply to protect and keep the princess from her enemies.

In 2012, we perceive that if a man is protecting a woman, that makes her somehow helpless. But I don’t think Burroughs treats women as people who must be protected for this reason. Dejah Thoris is far from helpless, but often the situation involves many enemies attempting to extinguish her life in order to pain Carter. She is captured, hunted, imprisoned, etc. all because Carter loves her and wants to be with her. He chases after her, across vast distances sometimes, and cannot himself rest while she is separated from him.

John Carter of Mars Illustrations

By Frank Frazetta

I don’t think this kind of protection and devotion is bad. I don’t see a lot of it today, because we are women are encouraged to be on an equal playing field with men. In the Barsoom series, Dejah Thoris is held far above men, far above those who would engage in bloody battle and those who engage in petty crimes and cruelties. She is the picture of beauty, grace, and class. Her whole people worship her. Never does a wrong word escape her lips. She is wise and kind to all. Yet she must be rescued, because she cannot save her own life.

Dejah Thoris and John Carter’s love is definitely one that I enjoyed. It’s the driving force for most of Carter’s actions. Though he sees it as his role to protect and serve her, she is revered in his mind rather than degraded. I wish that in 2012, we could bring some of that chivalry back to our society.

Another part of the book I thoroughly enjoyed was the language. Burroughs uses words that spin the Barsoomian tales into an intricate tapestry. Every scene, every conversation, no matter how detailed, matters. What the reader may pass idly by, Burroughs does not. It is bound to be brought up later, or a conversation that was briefly overheard remembered for a key piece of information. The web of Barsoom has many threads, but Burroughs manages to cover them all in a few hundred pages per book. The detail of the story and the characters make them so much more real for me – to the point where I don’t think I can imagine waiting 4 years for the third book, Warlord of Mars (1918), to come out. I could barely wait the two weeks at the library that another patron had it!

Lastly, I found Burroughs’ elements of religiosity very intriguing. Religion on Barsoom is ultimately based upon a farce, and many of the humanoids believe that they themselves are gods. A dig at his modern culture? Probably not, but it’s relevant today nonetheless.

If you’re looking for excellent classic scifi, the Barsoom Series is it. No one writes like Burroughs, who has an ability to use a rich language in a “pulp fiction” story in a way that draws you into a detailed and wonderful fabricated world, without intimidating.

PS: The movie is barely like the book.