John Carter, a seemingly-ageless soldier and most recently a veteran of the American Civil War, has gone west to seek his fortune mining gold. When his partner is killed by Apaches, Carter takes refuge in a strange cave, high in the Arizona hills. A strange gas overcomes him, and he awakens on the planet Mars.
Here, he finds himself amidst the barbaric splendor of a dying civilization; he's immediately captured by the Tharks, a tribe of savage Green Men - towering, four-armed creatures with bulging eyes and razor sharp tusks. The increase of strength he experiences on the lower-gravity Mars (or Barsoom, as its known to its inhabitants) earns him their respect. A Tharkian raid on a foreign airship brings Carter into contact with the Red Martian princess, Dejah Thoris, with whom he falls in love.
His devotion to Dejah Thoris brings him into conflict with the Tharks, and he makes a daring escape with Dejah Thoris and Sola, a Green Martian woman capable of the softer sentiments. Carter braves horrible beasts and worse men to see Dejah Thoris safely returned to her city of Helium, and earn her hand in marriage.
I would be lying if I said there was any one book on this Earth that had a more profound effect on me than A Princess of Mars. I first read it when I was in the 5th grade, which would have been 1997. So it's been almost twenty years now since I was first introduced to Barsoom and its inhabitants. John Carter is the standard of manhood, integrity and honor that I aspire to every day, and Dejah Thoris was my first crush. I've given copies of this book to every girl I've ever dated, because I think it's the key to understanding what makes me tick as a person.
I chose the Michael Whelan 1979 cover painting to accompany this post because that's what adorned the copy I read in 1997 and it's what adorned the copy I read this past week. It's the image that defines the look of Barsoom to me - Whelan's spindly, mantis-like Tharks match the description in the book better than any of the beefier versions we tend to see today, John Carter is built like a warrior without looking like he's competing in Mr. Universe, and Dejah...she is nude, yes, as described in the books, but she's not presented as jerk-off material. It breaks my heart to see my first love as she's so often depicted this days, splayed out like a centerfold or drawn with cartoonishly over-inflated breasts. She's a scientist and a statesman, in addition to being a princess. She's not a porn star. Whelan gives her an elegance and an innocence missing from so many modern depictions.
I've read this novel probably eight to ten times since 1997, but let's face it, as a ten year old there was a lot I didn't "get" that first time or glossed over because it wasn't moving fast enough, and many of those revisits since then were light read-throughs, a brief and pleasant diversion. This past week was the first time I really sat down and read the book deeply, chewing over every word of Burroughs' prose. A couple points:
- I had forgotten just how big the portion of the book detailing Carter's life among the Tharks is. The first chapter is set in Arizona, but Carter's then with the Tharks from Chapter 2 through Chapter 17, for sixteen out of twenty eight total chapters. It makes sense that this would be the case, because we the readers are being introduced to this world along with Carter - without showing him learning about the world a step at a time, the reader would be totally lost. I also never noticed the passage where it's mentioned that Tal Hajus, the Jeddak (high chieftain) of Thark is a slave to his sexual passions, whereas in most of the Green Race the libido is reduced and sex is solely a matter of reproduction to strengthen the tribe. Between that and his bulk, I wonder to what extent Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars was inspired by Tal Hajus? The influence of Barsoom on the Star Wars saga, especially RETURN OF THE JEDI, is well-documented, but I've never seen this point raised before.
- I also forgot the extent to which Tal Hajus is the "central" villain of Princess. Than Kosis, Jeddak of the city of Zodanga, is waging a war against Helium that will only end if Dejah Thoris agrees to marry his son, but the way it's paced it feels almost like an afterthought; the conflict between John Carter (and even moreso, his Green Martian friend, Tars Tarkas) and Tal Hajus feels so much more personal and visceral. And I say that with full recognition of the fact that the final battle wherein Tars Tarkas overthrows Tal Hajus to become Jeddak of Thark takes place between two paragraphs.
- Red Martian houses are built atop a piston that can be raised or lowered at will; rather than locking their doors at night, Red Martians simply raise their house up to deny anyone entry. I don't think Burroughs revisits this idea at all anywhere else in the series, but it's certainly an intriguing way of showcasing the differences between Martians and Earthlings.
- There's a nine year period after the defeat of Zodanga and the marriage of John Carter to Dejah Thoris that is glossed over. Burroughs writes simply, in Chapter 27, "For nine years I served in the councils and fought in the armies of Helium as a prince of the house of Tardos Mor." I can't be alone in wanting to know what happened during that time. Sounds like a perfect opportunity to write some continuation stories to fill that nine year gap.
Rereading Princess and revisiting Barsoom...it's like going home, in a sense. Reading it as an adult, I can recognize issues - Burroughs was essentially self-taught at writing, though I believe he had an innate sense for storytelling - but they don't matter. What matters is, in these pages, I can feel the same swelling sense of adventure and wonder that drove Bradbury to his typewriter and Sagan to his telescope. Nineteen years after my first trip to Barsoom, I still feel the fire in my belly that I felt as a science fiction-loving ten year old picking up the book for the first time. I still want to look up at Mars in the night sky, feel the click like a taut wire snapping, and take off through a moment of darkness and cold to find my way, across millions of karads of empty space, to the moss-carpeted sea bottoms, dotted with the ruins of long dead cities.
And still, and I suspect forever, the words are burned into the fibers of my heart: "I do not believe I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes..."
Kaor, Uncle Jack. It's a joy to see you again.
Kaor, Uncle Jack. It's a joy to see you again.