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.
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).
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. It’s so poignant, easily on the level of the finale to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s available for free at Gutenberg.org, but I want to buy a hard copy of this for myself.