Wednesday, January 20, 2016
The Gods of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1913)
Awakening once more on another world, John Carter at first believes he's somehow missed Barsoom - he finds himself in what appears to be a well-manicured park, and a lake or sea is visible in the distance. He's relieved to discover he has found Barsoom when he encounters his old friend Tars Tarkas - but learns that he has arrived in the Valley Dor, where Martians not slain in battle go to die, and from which, by ancient law, no man may return.
Dor is no paradise, however, being home to the vampiric Plant Men and savage White Apes. Worse still, however, are the men John Carter meets - the Holy Therns, a race of white-skinned men who perpetuate the myth of heavenly Dor to lure in Red and Green Men, helping themselves to the arms and jewelry of the victims and eating their flesh. John Carter makes it his mission to alert the world at large of the Therns' deception, regardless of personal cost to himself.
But escape from the Therns echoes Milton's Paradise Lost: "and in the lowest deep a lower deep, still threat'ning to devour me opens wide, to which the Hell I suffered seems a Heaven." John Carter falls first among the black-skinned First Born, who prey on the Therns as the Therns prey on the rest of Barsoom, and then into the hands of Zat Arrras, an old enemy from Zodanga who seeks to rule over the twin cities of Helium. With Dejah Thoris in the hands of the First Born, John Carter embarks on a mad race to build a new fleet of warships to destroy the power of the Therns and the First Born forever, before Dejah Thoris is eaten and Zat Arrras claims the throne of Helium.
In this first sequel to A Princess of Mars, Burroughs cranks the adventure up to 11 and tears the knob off. There are no "slow" scenes here; even when Carter is languishing in a completely lightless dungeon for months on end, it's written with a breathless intensity that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.
Here we get an interesting take on religion that prefigures probably a half-dozen or more crafty, fraudulent witch doctors in the Tarzan series. I don't know what Burroughs' personal beliefs on religion or spirituality were, but the venomous contempt he shows for "false" religions such as that promulgated by the Therns and the First Born is fascinating and feels very contemporary to the 21st century. It takes very little imagination to translate the self-servicing, vain corruption of the Therns to the real world of today - Matai Shang, ruler of the Therns, would not be out of place in a modern megachurch. And having the First Born dupe the Therns the same way the Therns dupe everyone else was a delicious bit of irony.
Also a little startling given the 1913 copyright date is how the different races of Barsoom are treated. The Red Men are the dominant human ethnicity on Mars, with a skin color comparable to Native Americans. John Carter meets good people and bad people among them; the Red Martians run the gamut of morality and ethics, and are judged strictly based on their behavior towards their fellow men. In Gods of Mars, John Carter encounters the First Born, who are black-skinned. While initially described to him as bloodthirsty pirates, they're not described in any way, shape or form resembling how an African-American would be described in literature of 1913. And while many of the First Born are arrayed against Carter, he just as quickly finds allies among them - through treating them as fellow human beings. Burroughs even lampshades this a bit by having Carter, a Confederate veteran you recall, comment along the lines of, "this may seem odd for a Virginian to say, but these black warriors were some of the handsomest and most skilled I've ever seen."
The only Barsoomian ethnic group that is depicted as wholly and irredeemably evil are the white-skinned Therns.
Finally, I'd like to look at the three women in this book who love John Carter. Total macho man power fantasy, of course, to have beautiful women falling all over you. But the interesting thing is in how these three women - Dejah Thoris, his wife; Princess Thuvia of Ptarth, a slave to the Therns until Carter frees her; and Phaidor, daughter of Matai Shang - interact with him. Carter is no testosterone-fueled beast; he is very strictly monogamous to Dejah Thoris, even when he believes her to be dead he remains faithful to her memory rather than so much as hug another beautiful woman who is throwing herself at his feet.
Thuvia falls in love with Carter when he frees her from the Therns. When Carter says, "sorry, I'm married," Thuvia accepts this, and devotes herself, heart and soul, to both John Carter and Dejah Thoris, sublimating her romantic love into a sense of honor and service. She goes on to save Carter's life multiple times in the books to come, while also having adventures of her own, as we'll see later.
Phaidor falls in love with Carter when she sees that he's handsome and skilled with a blade. When Carter says, "sorry, I'm married," Phaidor's response is to tell him he'll regret ever turning her away, that nobody ever tells Phaidor "no", and that by refusing her love he has signed Dejah Thoris' death warrant, because Phaidor will torture her to death to punish Carter for his refusal.
Quite the difference, and I'm sure Burroughs brought these two together in these pages as an intentional contrast. Indeed, one of the most powerful scenes in the book happens at the climax, as Phaidor lunges at Dejah Thoris with a dagger and Thuvia trying to interpose herself - to stop the dagger with her own heart, if nothing else.
The book ends on one of the most gripping and heart-clenching cliffhangers I've ever read - at the command of Issus, the false goddess of Mars, Dejah Thoris, Phaidor and Thuvia are placed in the Temple of the Sun, a prison whose doorway opens only one day every year. John Carter is tearing through the palaces of the First Born to try and reach them before the door closes, and arrives just in time to see the door seal shut, his last glimpse of the three women the scene described in the previous paragraph. We're left to wonder if Carter will ever see Dejah Thoris alive again, or if Phaidor's dagger found its mark.
While Carter must wait a year to find out what has happened to his beloved, Burroughs' readers had a much shorter wait - The Warlord of Mars began its serialized run in All-Story seven months after the serialization of The Gods of Mars concluded.