With Disney’s trailers and announced March release of the movie John Carter, readers of the books that inspired the movie are at once hopeful and fearful: hopeful that the movie will actually capture the imagination as well as the initial reading of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series did; fearful that the movie will be an unfaithful adaptation, or, at worst a lemon in the tradition of pulp movie adaptations like the Doc Savage movie.
Though never a large Tarzan fan, I, like many readers my age, tore through the other worlds created by ERB. But Barsoom was always the cornerstone. Here, then, is a Primer on John Carter and the Barsoom series of novels.
SPOILER ALERTS – for those readers who have not read the books and would like to be surprised at the movie plot (which hopefully doesn’t stray to far from the book plot line), this primer is written with the potential spoiler pieces at the end. Feel free to read the Author section. The John Carter section contains a bit of preview, but stay away from the sections below that if you want to go into the movie fresh.
Born September 1, 1875, Edgar Rice Burroughs held numerous non-writing jobs before breaking into the world of print in 1912 (at the tender age of 37). He is better know as the creator of Tarzan, but he also created many other worlds and characters. And the very first one he created was called “Under the Moons of Mars,” the original name of the story that would be known as A Princess of Mars, the first novel in the Barsoom/John Carter series.
The legend of ERB says that he held a job checking the advertisements in the pulp magazines of the day, and dreamed that he could write on better. This first attempt was one crazy daydream, and contained a fairly fully conceived world within it.
When initially submitting the story to The All Story magazine for publication, he was concerned that its plot was so fantastic that publishers and the public of 1912 would think him quite mad. So he submitted it under the pen name “Normal Bean”. The publisher presumably thought this was a typo and changed the author’s name to Norman Bean. Thus Barsoom and John Carter were born.
ERB created many more worlds and characters than just Tarzan and the Barsoom of John Carter. He imagined the adventures of David Innes in Pellucidar At the Earth’s Core; Carson (Napier) of Venus; The Land That Time Forgot trilogy; the Moon Maid and others. And the success he had with these inspired the pulp writers of Doc Savage and The Spider, who themselves inspired the science fiction writers that we all know and love.
In all, through 1967 with the release of I Am A Barbarian, ERB published almost 70 books of these worlds and others.
In his later years, ERB spent time in Hawaii, and was living in Honolulu during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He volunteered to be a war correspondent, and was the oldest one in the Pacific Theater. He died in 1950.
Captain John Carter is a Civil War veteran and a gentleman of the South. He is also portrayed as a friend of ERB’s father, as a friend of the family called “Captain Jack.” in this manner, through letters and conversations to ERB from Uncle Jack, the stories are related.
Carter is a warrior and a gentleman, driven by a strict morale compass, a compulsive sense of honor and loyalty. He is rash in his actions, taking the fight to others when threatened. These characteristics are common and respected on Barsoom; their war-like nature gives high status to skilled warriors, and their culture respects honor, courage and loyalty (well, all except the villains, of course). On Barsoom, honor extends to the bonds of men and women, such that a woman promised to a man is off limits. Most of ERB’s worlds are like this; very black and white.
As an Earthling on Mars, Carter’s physical prowess is multiplied under the lesser gravity, giving him strength, stamina and leaping abilities unknown to the native population. This combined with his existing fighting prowess, namely with swords, gives him the ability to fight multiple opponents at once and opponents twice his size. His white skin makes him standout against the rainbow of Barsoom natives that ERB imagines for his world.
Vast is the catalog of worlds built by authors, but rare is one that is so fully developed in so few pages. Entire books and maps have been devoted to it; here is a summary of some of the more interesting characteristics:
People: the rainbow of races outlined by ERB in the first book, and expounded upon in others, is striking for a first novel. Carter first meets the warlike green Tharks, then the red men of Helium (and other cities). Next comes the white Therns, the black men of Xandor, and the yellow men at the polar ice caps. The majority of them reproduce by eggs, and myth says they are all inter-related species.
Technology: the society of Barsoom is described in many guides as “decaying”. The warriors fight with swords not only because of their code of honor but because their pistols and rifles are unpredictable and dangerous. But the technology and inventions of ERB in the early 1900s are quite staggering. The most interesting concept is that of the eighth and ninth “rays.” The eighth ray provides propulsion for their ships, the ninth ray provides atmosphere for the planet.
The building in which I found myself contained the machinery which produces that artificial atmosphere which sustains life on Mars. The secret of the entire process hinges on the use of the ninth ray, one of the beautiful scintillations which I had noted emanating from the great stone in my host’s diadem. This ray is separated from the other rays of the sun by means of finely adjusted instruments placed upon the roof of the huge building, three-quarters of which is used for reservoirs in which the ninth ray is stored. This product is then treated electrically, or rather certain proportions of refined electric vibrations are incorporated with it, and the result is then pumped to the five principal air centers of the planet where, as it is released, contact with the ether of space transforms it into atmosphere. There is always sufficient reserve of the ninth ray stored in the great building to maintain the present Martian atmosphere for a thousand years, and the only fear, as my new friend told me, was that some accident might befall the pumping apparatus. He led me to an inner chamber where I beheld a battery of twenty radium pumps any one of which was equal to the task of furnishing all Mars with the atmosphere compound. For eight hundred years, he told me, he had watched these pumps which are used alternately a day each at a stretch, or a little over twenty-four and one-half Earth hours. He has one assistant who divides the watch with him. Half a Martian year, about three hundred and forty-four of our days, each of these men spend alone in this huge, isolated plant. Every red Martian is taught during earliest childhood the principles of the manufacture of atmosphere, but only two at one time ever hold the secret of ingress to the great building, which, built as it is with walls a hundred and fifty feet thick, is absolutely unassailable, even the roof being guarded from assault by air craft by a glass covering five feet thick.
Religion: ERB created a religion in the second two books of the opening trilogy that was a cult and a scam, based on a pilgrimage down the river Iss to a supposed promised land. In actuality, the pilgrims were set upon by creatures controlled by the Holy Therns, who in turn had their own “scam” religion, perpetrated by the First Born, whom the Therns thought were from a moon of Mars known as Xandor, but were in fact the First Born from an underground sea. Several in-depth articles on the religions of Barsoom have been written, particularly at ERBzine.
The Barsoom books consist of the original trilogy detailing the adventures of John Carter and Dejah Thoris, and several novels which follow their children and grandchildren, other Earthmen who end up on Mars, and other related characters. John Carter is also the main protagonist of Swords of Mars and the last story (whose authenticity has been debated). But the first three deal with the story arc of John Carter and Dejah Thoris and are a standalone trilogy.
A Princess of Mars (originally published: 1912)
John Carter, jobless after a stint in the Confederate Army, makes his way to the Arizona desert to search for gold. Running from Apaches, he hides in a mysterious cave, where he has an out of body experience that inexplicably pulls him to Mars. He finds that due to the weaker Martian gravity, he is stronger, faster and able to leap tall beasts in a single bound.
He encounters the green Tharks, who initially take him prisoner, but Carter rises up in the ranks of their warlike society. He makes friends with Tars Tarkas, a great warrior of the Tharks. He encounters Dejah Thoris, a red princess captured by the Tharks, and escapes with her. In between multiple battles with foes and beasts (and stumbles by Carter to learn Martian customs, especially where it comes to romancing Dejah), they are recaptured in Warhoon, escape to Zodanga, have a chance encounter with the Atmosphere Factory (which makes certain that Mars has a breathable atmosphere) and ends up reunited and married to Dejah Thoris.
Years later, the Atmosphere Factory breaks; it takes John Carter a while to realize he knows how to get in and fix it. He passes out with the effort and finds himself back on Earth, not knowing if his wife, son and Martian friends lived or died (cliff hanger #1).
(See also: John’s review of A Princess of Mars.)
The Gods of Mars (1913)
Martians not killed in battle live to 1,000 years. After that, they make the pilgrimage down the River Iss to the supposedly lovely Valley Dor and the afterlife. This pilgrimage is ingrained in Martian culture, and anyone who speaks ill of it is executed as a blasphemer.
Ten years after returning to Earth, John Carter is able to will himself (?) back to Mars, and, lucky him, he ends up in the Valley Dor. He quickly finds that anyone there gets killed and eaten by weird plant creatures and big white Martian apes (cool, huh?). He save once such party to find his friend Tars Tarkas.
The Valley is overseen by the Holy Therns (bald white guys who wear golden wigs). They have been upholding this myth of the pilgrimage for eons. They have there own myth, and after fighting with them, Carter and friends encounter the black men of the First Born. The Therns think they are from a Martian Moon, but they are actually from an underground sea and worship an ugly creature named Issus.
Carter overthrows both cultures (with the help of his son whom he finds in the dungeons of Xandor/Iss), returns to Helium to be named a blasphemer only to find that Dejah Thoris has been captured by the black men of the First Born. A secret invasion is planned and launched, where they fight and defeat the Therns and Xandorians. But Dejah Thoris is put into a strange dungeon with her friend Thuvia and Phaidor, an enemy (the daughter of the head of the Holy Therns). Carter cannot save them before their strange revolving dungeon closes for a martian year, uncertain who is alive (cliff hanger #2).
Warlord of Mars (1914)
Carter follows one of the black men of the First Born, an enemy, who he suspects of treachery. He finds him meeting with the deposed leader of the Holy Therns, and they believe they know a secret way into the revolving dungeon. They break in, grab the three women inside (including Dejah Thoris, Thuvia and Phaidor, daughter of the leader of the Holy Therns).
Once again, John Carter gives chase, all over the planet. He eventually finds the hidden civilization of the yellow men of Mars, hiding at the polar ice caps and capturing all ships that come their way via a huge magnetic lightning rod-like thing. He rescues everyone, unites all of the colors in to one rainbow, and is proclaimed Warlord of Mars…and he gets the girl.
- Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1920): Features Carthoris, John Carter and Dejah Thoris’ son, and Thuvia from Gods and Warlord, pursuing their own romance and adventure.
- Chessmen of Mars (1922): Features Tara, Carthoris younger sister, in an adventure and romance of her own. The game of Jetan, a Barsoomian version of chess played by real people, reminds me of the Harry Potter version where Ron Weasley rides the Knight on a chessboard. Coincidence?
- The Mastermind of Mars (1930): The first to feature a character unrelated to John Carter and Dejah Thoris: Ulysses Paxton, using a similar “astral projection”/”wormhole” technique to get to Barsoom as John Carter, encounters the Mastermind, who is working to perfect the movement of his brain into a younger subject, thus prolonging his life. Another romance, this time between Ulysses and one of the victims, ensures.
- A Fighting Man of Mars (1931): In a slight change, this story centers around a Barsoomian, not someone from Earth or descended from Earth. It again features the rescue of a beautiful woman, but in the end, she is not the one who Tan Hadron, the Barsoomian, thinks she is.
- Swords of Mars (1936): John Carter returns as the feature character to disband a group of assassins
- Synthetic Men of Mars (1940): Told from the perspective of one of John Carter’s personal bodyguards, this story again features the “Mastermind of Mars”. It is at once panned and loved by different critics
- Liana of Gathol (1948): Features the granddaughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris (remember, on Baroom they live for 1,000 years) in her own adventure and romance.
- Skeleton Men of Jupiter (1942) / John Carter and the Giant of Mars (1940), published as John Carter of Mars (1964): roundly known as the “least liked and worst regarded of the Barsoom stories“, the second story was originally written as a children’s book.
ERB, his worlds and his books are among the most researched and dissected of all time. If you want to take a deep dive, there are two resources I would recommend:
- ERBzine: Where can you find articles with titles such as Geographers Of Mars I: Matching Mars And Barsoom A New Approach (actually the first in a series of three articles)? Or notes for 530 important questions when reading A Princess of Mars? At Bill and Sue-On Hillman’s ERBzine.com, of course. Started in 1996, these articles cover all things ERB, not just the Barsoom series.
- Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure by Richard A. Lupoff: an in-depth book that follows each of the novels of ERBs career, including some speculation as to the influences and origins of the John Carter character (and other characters). It is telling that most of the potential influences are names one never or rarely hears from, yet ERB and his creations are known world-wide.