I saw the John Carter movie (1/3 awesome, 2/3 slow,sappy,dumb/hard-to-follow) and wanted to revisit the original novel, mostly to see if there was quite as much time spent on the Earth backstory (answer: not by a long shot). But after reading A Princess of Mars I realized the John Carter film incorporated several major plot elements from The Gods of Mars, so I read that as well, and then, once I hit The Gods of Mars‘ killer cliff-hanger* I had to barrel through The Warlord of Mars, too. (You can score all of these, and way more ERB besides, via Project Gutenberg if you’re so inclined.)
Things I noticed this time around:
- Holy crap, I knew sort of vaguely that the Mars books were an acknowledged influence on George Lucas, but I didn’t realize how many near-thefts there are in the nomenclature of the Star Wars universe. The green men of Mars (Thark) sound kinda like “Darth”. “Jed” and “Jeddak” are ranks with no overt similarity to “Jedi” knights, but “padwar” is a junior rank not wholly unlike “padawan.” The Martian lion is called a “banth” (although Star Wars‘s “banthas” more closely resemble Burroughs’ thoats). Carter’s trusty non-human sidekick “Woola” is a l’il bit like “wookie,” and in the third novel, Carter actually encounters a “sith.” It’s a giant flying wasp, basically, so it’s pretty evil, although Burroughs is vague on whether it channels the dark side of the Force.
- Somebody I follow on Twitter was wondering recently how the racism of H.P. Lovecraft compares to his contemporaries in the pulps, and I would very cautiously advance Burroughs’ Mars stories as significantly less steeped in racism than Howard P’s tales. Although Mars is marked by conflict along racial lines, Carter is happy to ultimately number green, red, black, white, and yellow Martians among his good friends, and near the end there’s even some “like to give the world a Coke”-type feel-good stuff about everyone living in harmony**. However, there’s still a lot that a modern reader may find cringe-worthy, “the black” did this and “the blacks” did that, and in one horrible instance the awful phrase “identical with the more god-like races of Earth” is used (in Swords of Mars) to describe people who look Caucasian. So I wouldn’t zackly call it “politically correct.” Likewise, for books written when most of the world’s women were not entitled to vote, they’re, well, not as sexist as they could be. John Carter does a lot of women-rescuing, but, he himself is rescued by women and men. Still, you wouldn’t mistake these tales for feminist tracts.
- Ye gods, John Carter is dumb. How dumb is John Carter? Let’s put it this way: if John Carter walks into a chamber with a freaking blinking neon sign labeled “obvious belabored clue!” he’ll stumble about for minutes, hours, or days bemoaning the lack of a clue before wondering if the sign might provide one.
- When JC starts describing how he directs the movements of troop columns on the ground, and, even more so, aerial combat stratagems, I kind of zone out a bit. I lack the patience to sketch these things out, which is what I think it would take for me to visualize them. Still, I have the distinct impression they wouldn’t work well against competent foes. In general, in fact, JC benefits hugely from his opponents’ lack of sentries, inability to penetrate specious disguises, inattention to detail, &c.
- It was interesting what I did and didn’t remember. The first and second novels seemed mostly familiar throughout, although I’d forgotten the specifics of the plant-men and much of the mucking-about-in-caves of The Gods of Mars. But I might have almost believed I hadn’t actually read The Warlord of Mars before, except that I vividly remember the final throneroom confrontation (John Carter is so, so dumb) and could have quoted the final sentence almost verbatim.
* Way back when I was a tween, one Christmas I received copies of the first, second, and fifth novels in the Barsoom series. In those days trips to bookstores happened at my parents’ pleasure, not mine, and it seemed like a long time before I got my hands on that third, cliff-hanger resolving volume.
needs more demons? No, but the modern reader will need some patience and historical perspective.
One thought on “Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Mars Trilogy”
OK, this is too weird not to share. Joan Carter of Mars by “Edna Rice Burroughs” is a version of the trilogy that reverses the gender of every single character.