Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read.
I picked this book because I’ve always enjoyed it so much, and because I’ve felt increasingly guilty about that as the years go by. A book whose themes are so easy to point out and criticize, and whose virtues are so tough to explain. Because I’m so embarrassed to mention that I’ve read it, and find it so easy to go back and read again.
And then I saw the movie of this favorite book of mine, and I realized, I
don’t have to be (as) ashamed as I’ve been. This tale is just my “type”. It’s chock full of racism, and sexism, and ageism if it comes to that. But the line between a stereotype and an archetype is razor-thin, as you can see from ERB’s classic fantasy A Princess of Mars.
Man of Letters- in Bulk!
Edgar Rice Burroughs was of course one of the most prolific writers of his or any other age. At a time when most pulp authors got paid a penny a word (that is, whenever the publisher didn’t welch on the agreement), ERB cranked out millions of words in his spare time from other jobs (just like me, except for the millions part). He collected hundreds of rejection letters (as I’m sure I could, if I was man enough to try). He wrote almost 80 novels (same here, I’ve almost written 80 novels too), and it all got started because he perceived back in the early 20th century something the rest of us have heard every day:
…if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, I could write stories just as rotten.
So the “tsunami of crap” was around long before the Kindle. I picture the paper whishing off his typewriter like those mimeo-machines on steroids. How could he maintain that volume?
And he was all over the place quite literally. Sure, the English lord’s son abandoned in the jungle, everyone knows, but how about a whole world in the hollow earth beneath our feet. Carson of Venus, men in the moon… and where did he do better, I ask you, than with the incredible John Carter, the Warlord of Mars.
You can’t say, can you, because you’ve never read them. So take my word for it.
Speed to Target
This book I would call heroic fantasy because it combines epic fantasy stakes with a blazing-fast speed normally seen only in sword and sorcery. Less than 10% of the way through this short novel, you’ve found:
- that the MC is a well-developed, honor-driven warrior who cannot explain his own immortality
- that he’s gotten himself into an inextricable trap
- that he’s escaped it anyway
- and has found himself transported to a distant world
I dare you to develop a plot so quickly. Yet the descriptions are vivid, reflections about mortal peril and hated enemies surprisingly deep. There are lots of themes here I could draw to your attention, like the marvelous way he builds a world by showing his hero acclimating to its gravity, meeting its inhabitants and more.
But let’s cut to the chase. It’s a racist, sexist novel. And I love it.
Man of His Time?
Once given the much-worse title Under the Moons of Mars, ERB’s first novel-length tale was published in 1917 as A Princess of Mars, and you have to consider the era when you evaluate. Not to excuse it, in my opinion, because great writing does not require an excuse, but really to increase your wonder at the accomplishment.
Racism aimed at blacks and Indians in America was not just tolerated, but endemic. Membership in the KKK was growing toward its peak in the mid-twenties. Jim Crow was having children and grandchildren. And John Carter is chased by vengeful Indians as he prospects for gold in the southwest. Meanwhile on Mars… green men, black men, yellows, whites and reds, all in different nations and fighting to the death. A gorgeous woman wearing nothing but metal, taken prisoner and threatened with that classic choice of punishments, death or worse. Dude’s gotta rescue her, you know.
On Barsoom, the GOOD guys are red. The whites, who you don’t meet until later books, are that lowest rank of being, even worse than the blacks of Mars. Yes, the pale-white Therns are… gaspity-gasp- religious! Sort of. We’ll stop there.
Race to the Top
So people are utterly defined by their race on Barsoom, and some of them look human. It’s really nothing new to fantasy. But John Carter falls in love with a
red princess, born from an egg by the way. And his best friend? Green skin, long tusks, four arms and about thirteen feet tall. The red men of Helium, clearly the most civilized, intelligent and sophisticated nation on the planet, are actually the result of admixture between the older races. Nothing most folks in our country were ready to tolerate in 1917.
In fantasy, racial views are usually quite simple and stark, you use them like a prop to make a point about the hero’s struggle. Tolkien’s Orcs were evil, full stop- you didn’t have to hold back when you fought them, and you couldn’t expect mercy if you lost. But the green men of Mars, similarly ruthless and barbaric, are also honorable and honest, capable of so much more. Aragorn never converted the Uruk-hai.
All I’m saying– there’s a bit more than meets the eye here, it’s racist but not exactly so.
A Woman’s Place… is Saving the World
As for “the matchless Dejah Thoris” who quite rightly is the title character… guess what? Same business.
Look, this is everything we’re supposed to hate today, us modern guys. John Carter first sees Dejah Thoris from a mile off when she is captured by the green men who also hold him prisoner.
Needless to say, he soon catches a closer view of her and aye-chihuahua:
And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life… Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice (2009-10-04). A Princess of Mars (p. 21). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
So he sets out to keep her safe, but he can’t say he loves her because they’re both prisoners which means her answers wouldn’t be free from duress, and cue the violins.
I used to rehearse the reasons why this was OK.
- She’s not just a hot woman, but the only other human-looking being he’s seen
- When she makes this noble speech to the green men, it shows she’s intelligent (actually the women on Barsoom make the weapons and handle most of the thought-leadership)
- When a green warrior tries to shut her up by striking her, Carter leaps in and tears the guy apart. But after all the green guy IS twice as tall as Dejah. And he’s armed.
- The princess says she’s trying to save the planet and it turns out to be true
Dejah Thoris falls in love with John Carter right away too, but again, duh-
- Dude can vertical leap thirty feet on Barsoom, running jump about two
hundred. Kills Tharks with a single punch when he’s worked up.
- White skin but black hair, so not a Thern (whew)
- Fights like a demon, talks like a movie-hero with a Shakespeare script
Didn’t matter, I knew none of that mattered. He was the brave meat sculpture of testosterone, and she was the soft-skinned hourglass of feminine need.
Hold that Door for Me One More Time
So I wrestled with this, harder and longer than I did with anything ERB said about race. Because I arrived at college in the mid-seventies, when the storm-front of razor blades camouflaged as some of my female classmates hit the campus like soldiers on the beach at Normandy. Early feminism was high on passion and low on patience for high-spirited, thoughtless dopes from rural public schools who never got the memo. I was not drafted into the army, but got plenty of experience ducking for cover at school. John Carter fights across the length and breadth of Barsoom for the better part of three books, either protecting Dejah Thoris from harm or pursuing bad guys who have captured her. And I wasn’t SUPPOSED to be thrilled, because she wasn’t supposed to be helpless. Women–like everyone else in the human race– shouldn’t be treated as sex objects. But unlike the Y-chromosome set, it’s even worse if they’re not. John Carter is doing the whole medieval, up-on-pedestal adoration kind of thing. So, feeling guilty for years.
I saw the movie, and suddenly felt a lot better.
The John Carter movie came out in 2012, and I was pleasantly surprised to see both Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, both of whom I had liked in supporting roles during the oft-maligned Wolverine flick three years earlier. The script took all the elements of the early books and rolled them like dice. This Carter did NOT want to fight (new backstory), Dejah Thoris doesn’t believe him right away; she can fight (as ERB always says women could), but tries to maneuver him into helping her (you do remember about the leaping, right?). Those damn Therns are everywhere right from the start, on and on.
But the planet is still in peril. And these two feel the heat right away, and come to love each other. Just like in the book, it’s the love that not only saves them, but Mars too.
He is the warrior. She is the princess. Stereotype? Archetype? Hell yes, both.
I said it before, great writing requires no excuse. And the prose of these books is incredibly good. Just one nice exchange, from early in his captivity, Carter talks to Tars Tarkas, green warrior chieftain and his captor. Carter has just discovered someone chained Dejah Thoris to her chariot.
I … sought out Tars Tarkas, to whom I vehemently objected to the unnecessary humiliations and cruelties, as they seemed to my lover’s eyes, that were being heaped upon Dejah Thoris.
“John Carter,” he answered, “if ever you and Dejah Thoris escape the Tharks it will be upon this journey. We know that you will not go without her. You have shown yourself a mighty fighter, and we do not wish to manacle you, so we hold you both in the easiest way that will yet ensure security. I have spoken.”
I saw the strength of his reasoning at a flash, and knew that it were futile to appeal from his decision, but I asked that the key be taken from Sarkoja and that she be directed to leave the prisoner alone in future. “This much, Tars Tarkas, you may do for me in return for the friendship that, I must confess, I feel for you.”
“Friendship?” he replied. “There is no such thing, John Carter; but have your will. I shall direct that Sarkoja cease to annoy the girl, and I myself will take the custody of the key.”
“Unless you wish me to assume the responsibility,” I said, smiling.
He looked at me long and earnestly before he spoke. “Were you to give me your word that neither you nor Dejah Thoris would attempt to escape until after we have safely reached the court of Tal Hajus you might have the key and throw the chains into the river Iss.”
“It were better that you held the key, Tars Tarkas,” I replied.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice (2009-10-04). A Princess of Mars (p. 37). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
So the racist view has cracks, and the sexist one as well. Dejah Thoris (in both book and movie) expresses horror at the thought of an arranged marriage, and risks her life to save her chieftain just as he does to save his princess. Both characters spend time helpless and chained, each one thinks the other dead for long dreadful periods, and teeters near despair. I finally realized, with the help of the video which showed me how much you could change without changing the tale, that ERB set a trap for me. And I fell in head-first.
He dares you to be racist or sexist, he double-dog dares you to think he is.
His ideal society, indicated on Mars (no lawyers!), is one in which the nations have pride in their separate accomplishments, but come together to achieve peace (and the death of communism). The alleged real world in 1917? Not so much. Men and women, likewise, are equal but not equivalent, though here I grant it’s touchier because “customs” are strong. But customs are made to be broken: in the Barsoom series you see women fighting, and leading, as well as plotting and scheming (the bad ones anyway). Even some of the worst villains have touching deaths, able to feel one good sentiment before the end to weigh against their many faults. A Princess of Mars beat women’s suffrage in the U.S. by three years: it would be reckless to conclude about his thoughts in the absence of such context. Guy knew what he was doing.
A Quick Read Worth the Time
The prose is strong, the world-building comes off to me as painless, and ERB’s use of archetypes is marvelous. A world unites in peace (through victory in war, admittedly) to use science and save the planet. And yes, turns out there IS
water on Mars: a hundred years ago that was science fiction.
I have sometimes described my Lands of Hope as passively chauvinist. Nearly every knight who ever lived was male, but women are not forbidden the job (and every single female knight is famous). Barriers fall when someone pushes them down, not from a frown of disapproval. And those adventurers in the Lands, the disrespected few who are trying to actually DO something in a quiet time of assumed peace… why, there’s women all over those groups. Because adventurers, as everyone knows, don’t care about traditions and have no respect for religion. They only want results.
Same for me, frankly. I read these books over and over because I love the result. I’m thrilled, amused, and made more thoughtful while reading about a guy who sword-fights from one pole to the other leaving mounds of bodies behind him.
Guilty pleasures, I guess. But John Carter is just my type.
P.S.: I’ve never run across a site dedicated to a storybook character in my researches before. But Dejah Thoris is evidently an exception: there is a cosplay photo there that arrested my breathing, and if you ask me whether that’s good or bad for the cause of gender equity I have no answer for you.
P.P.S.: When I love something I go in whole hog. I said to myself “wow, the guy playing Kantos Kan is terrific, he got it exactly right”. And James Purefoy had already starred as… guess what, Solomon Kane. Where he proceeded to get it exactly right again. And if you don’t know why I would be gaga about Kane, you haven’t seen much of Judgement’s Tale.
Thanks for your interest in Classic works of the Alleged Real World. Let me know your thoughts if you’ve read the book or seen the movie.