Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

When I asked author friends and fans of the old masterworks of fantasy and science fiction–that’s the Pulp Rev crew to you–who to start with if I’m interested in digging back into the forgotten classics of yore, two names came up consistently: Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Howard, as you might know, was most famous for creating Conan the Barbarian, and wrote several stories featuring the Cimmerian warrior in the 1930s. Burroughs might sound a little more familiar to the layman, being the creator of one of pop culture’s most enduring characters: Tarzan, King of the Apes. But he also wrote another long-running series focusing on former Confederate soldier John Carter and his adventures on Mars.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

This is where I decided to start, with Burroughs’ very first entry in his Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars.

(Barsoom, just so you know, is how the Martians refer to their home planet.)

First published in 1912, A Princess of Mars details the adventures of John Carter among the warring tribes of Martians and his marriage to the titular princess, Dejah Thoris.

The framing story is unique. The narrator (the author himself?), whose family is friends with Carter, comes across the manuscript after Carter’s funeral, with instructions to publish them some years after his death. Carter’s exploits are presented as a memoir, and while there’s no central “plot” per se, there is a through-line, and that is Carter’s pursuit of the beautiful, brave, and strong-willed Dejah Thoris, Princess of the Red Martians of Helium, one of Barsoom’s great civilizations.

I see why Burroughs was popular both in his day and now: this is adventure and escapism at is finest. Swashbuckling, romance, danger, monsters, violence, and a hero with an unwavering dedication to doing what is right. Carter’s tale begins after the Civil War. He and a friend decide to try their hand at gold mining out west, and find themselves traveling across the Arizona desert. At some point they are separated and waylaid by a tribe of hostile Indians. Carter manages to escape to a cave up on a mountain, but something comes over him and he falls down as though unconscious. The next thing he realizes he is standing naked, looking down at his own body. In a flash, he is drawn towards Mars, and this is where his adventure begins.

I really don’t want to spoil the adventure, but let’s say it involves the war-like fifteen-foot, tusked, four-armed Green Martians, the humanoid Red Martians, gigantic white ape-like things hell-bent on destruction, and a hideous ten-legged frog-faced, death-dealing creature Carter names Woola who becomes his loyal companion.

There are sword-fights, explosions, aerial combat, giant hovering battleships, and Carter’s feats of derring-do, aided by his increased strength and agility (he can leap like 50 feet!) thanks to being an Earthman subjected to Mars’s lower gravity (don’t ask).

It’s awesome.

Some might find the writing style a bit cumbersome, but you have to remember that it was the early 20th century, so a lot of late 19th century holdovers remain–think lots and lots of semi-colons.

Burroughs’ prose is also slightly dry. It tends to make the fantastical–and there is a lot of the fantastical–sound a little bit like a recitation of the facts. But the action is nearly constant, and once you figure out the various factions and what is going on, you’ll be thrilled at Carter’s exploits as he tries to unite the Red and Green Martians against their common enemies, bring peace to Barsoom, and win the heart of his beloved Princess.

I am amazed that the 2012 movie version of this was reportedly so bad. How could you screw this up?!

But Burroughs’s language is effective, and there are some profoundly powerful passages.

Carter is an archetypical hero, and in today’s world of moral ambiguity, anti-heroes, and “shades of gray,” it is refreshing to see a hero that doesn’t have some crippling flaw that prevents him from being any better than his enemies. And Carter’s enemies are flawed, but here’s the kicker: they are able to overcome their flaws and become better people (or Martians, really) thanks to Carter’s example.

Another thing I appreciate is the romance angle. There’s nothing snarky or “subversive” here, just genuine romantic attraction. Burroughs does an excellent job of making you feel Carter’s desire for Dejah Thoris. She is a special woman, not just because of her beauty (though that cannot be denied), and it’s completely understandable how John Carter would cut through all the horrors of Barsoom for her.

“Was there ever such a man!” she exclaimed. “I know that Barsoom has never before seen your like. Can it be that all Earth men are as you? Alone, a stranger, hunted, threatened, persecuted, you have done in a few short months what in all the past ages of Barsoom no man has ever done: jointed together the wild hordes of the sea bottoms and brought them to fight as allies of a red Martian people.”

“The answer is easy, Dejah Thoris,” I replied smiling. “It was not I who did it, it was love, love for Dejah Thoris, a power that would work greater miracles than this you have seen.”

Give A Princess of Mars a shot and stick with it. When you get to that ending, you won’t be sorry. I’m getting chills just thinking about it. Is so poignant, easily on the level of the finale to The Lord of the Rings. It’s available for free at Gutenberg.org, but I want to buy a hard copy of this for myself.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

  1. Constantin says:

    Coincidentally, I read this book 2 days ago and came to the same conclusion as you; a real page-turner. An adventure story with a heart, and for a writer who saw no purpose in fiction beyond mindless entertainment it was surprisingly deep in certain regards, particularly the Green martians and their purpose in life. The same way I felt for Tarzan of the Apes(which I recommend as well).

    More importantly, it’s just good to read fiction that feels… clean. No nihilism, no SJWism, no political message hidden somewhere between the lines; just good old-fashioned storytelling.

    And agreed on the ending; I’m almost tempted not to read the sequels because of the beautiful way it ends.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A Princess of Mars is absolutely deeper than many may give it credit for, even Burroughs himself. I found the change in the Green Martians rather profound.

      “Clean” is a great word to describe the book. Burroughs could have shoehorned contemporary issues into the narrative very easily, but he didn’t. He used the historical backdrop of the post-Civil War wild west as a way to get John Carter to Mars, and that’s it. No social commentary, no politics, no nothing. It was nice to experience.

      Honestly, I find myself wondering how Burroughs even wrote sequels after that ending.

      Like

  2. “it is refreshing to see a hero that doesn’t have some crippling flaw”

    With the movie, this was the grit in the shoe. They gave him a traumatic backstory and made him unwilling to do the decent thing until he’d gone through the typical hero’s journey moping and whinging. John Carter doesn’t need to be turned into a hero because he already is one!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The MSM literally have no concept of heroism or doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. In one way, I blame George Lucas and Joseph Campbell. In another way, it’s evidence of the limited and/or juvenile nature of the people in the MSM, at least those employed by the bigwigs to infotain us. Temper tantrums all round, everyone!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I mostly agree. To be fair, in the original Star Wars, Luke was pretty heroic from the get-go—no reluctance on his part, you know? All he wanted was get off of Tatooine, join the rebellion, and become to be a Jedi. Or do you mean because of the reliance the “hero’s journey” story cycle?

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  3. Even Luke had his ‘Refusal’ or whatever it’s called in the Hero’s Journey, when he insisted on going back to the family enclosure, then saw his family dead. At least George Lucas was the first in MSM Hollywood to do this. Since then it’s become a dreadful cliche.

    Liked by 1 person

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