In the second installment of our "Reading Barsoom" series, we delve into the swashbuckling wonders of Edgar Rice Burroughs' first three Mars novels, A Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars, and Warlord of Mars.
The first book of Edgar Rice Burroughs's famous Mars series, A Princess of Mars, gets off to a creaky start. A clunky framing sequence explains how Burroughs got the story and John Carter's transition from an eerie Arizona cave to Mars is downright clumsy. But once Carter finds himself on the bottom of a dried-up Martian sea, things begin to cook nicely - especially for a 99-year old book by a first-time novelist.
Carter is almost immediately captured by a band of green men, Mars's 15-foot, 4-armed answer to the Mongolian hordes. But he finds his lesser size is more than offset by his increased strength and agility in Mars's lesser gravity. Carter's skill with fist and sword quickly earn him rank and respect.
Romance enters the picture when the green men capture Dejah Thoris, a humanoid red-skinned Martian. Not only is she a princess of Helium, one of the major red Martian city-states, she's totally hot, and, like all Martians, prone to running around naked. Carter falls like a stone.
They make good their escape, but are separated. Dejah Thoris falls into the hands of Zodanga, a red Martian city at war with Helium. A Zodangan prince demands her hand in marriage as the price of peace. But the ceremony ends in a bloodbath as John Carter leads an unprecedented alliance of green Martians and red Martians to sack the city.
Of course, Carter and Dejah Thoris aren't destined to live happily ever after-yet. As they await the hatching of their first egg (Martians being oviparous), the atmosphere plant that keeps Mars's thinning air breathable stops. Crews are unable to force their way into the impregnable building. As oxygen runs out, John Carter realizes he alone has the mental key to plant. He races to the plant and unlocks the doors. The last thing he sees before collapsing are gasping workers desperately crawling across the threshold. The novel ends with Carter regaining consciousness…in an eerie Arizona cave.
Burroughs was the master of the cliff hanger.
By the time Burroughs wrote Gods of Mars the following year, he'd learned a thing or two. No shilly-shallying around this time. A few pages of introduction and Bang! John Carter's back on Mars. Before he can even think, "Looks like they fixed the atmosphere plant," he finds himself sword in hand battling hordes of giant Martian apes and bizarre "plant men" at the side of Tars Tarkas, his beloved green Martian comrade-in-arms.
Carter soon finds out he's in the Valley Dor, the Shangri-La of the Martian religion. Martians performing an end-of-life pilgrimage to the valley expect to find a land of eternal "love and peace and rest." In fact, those that aren't killed and devoured by the valley's voracious fauna are enslaved by the therns, a race of white-skinned Martian priests. But ultimately, the joke's on the therns. The destination of the thern's pilgrimage, the Temple of Issus, is equally overrated. Thern pilgrims themselves wind up enslaved by the First Born, a race of black-skinned Martians. And Issus, the goddess they hold so holy, is just an extremely old, ill-tempered First Born woman.
John Carter manages to escape both the therns and the First Born, the latter after triggering a memorable slave rebellion in the gladiator-style arena. But his return to Helium is far from triumphant. Not only is he imprisoned for the sin of returning from the Valley Dor, he discovers that his beloved Dejah Thoris has been taken prisoner by the First Born!
Naturally, Carter escapes, raises an army, and returns to the Valley Dor with an aerial armada of some 10,000 ships along augmented with his trademark hordes of green Martians for an extremely cool Armageddon-Martian aerial combat involves boarding parties and swords! It ends with the therns and the First Born routed, the Temple of Issus running ankle-deep in blood, and Issus herself torn limb-from limb by her erstwhile worshippers. But Issus has the last laugh. She has Dejah Thoris imprisoned with two other women in the Temple of the Sun, a massive revolving chamber whose door only opens once a year. Just before the door closes for the year, Carter sees one woman lunge at Dejah Thoris with a knife, while another throws herself between. And Burroughs artfully leaves John Carter-and his readers-dangling once more.
Warlord of Mars brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. Several months after the end of Gods, Carter gets on the tail of a dissident thern who knows a secret entrance into the Temple of the Sun. Alas, he is delayed by a series of Indiana Jones style hazards, including a bottomless pit, a Chamber of Reptiles, and the inevitable master swordsmen. The thern makes good his escape with Dejah Thoris as Carter tries to crash his way through a glass labyrinth.
Carter pursues the thern and Dejah Thoris to the north pole. He traverses the impenetrable ice barrier through the legendary (and odiferous) Carrion Caves to find himself in Okar, the land of a forgotten race of yellow Martians. In a bit of déjà vu, the emperor of Okar is trying to force Dejah Thoris to marry him. As Carter is captured and dragged off to an imaginative fate in something called "The Pit of Plenty," Dejah Thoris lets her captors know the game is far from over. "Lives there another man who could fight his way back and forth across a warlike planet, facing savage beasts and hordes of savage men for the love of a woman?"
No pit can be deep enough to hold such a man. Carter escapes and triggers yet another slave rebellion that coincides with the Helium navy arriving in a nick of time. The novel ends with John Carter back in Helium, reunited with Dejah Thoris and his son Carthoris (get it?) and proclaimed by the greatest leaders of Mars to be the "the Warlord of Mars." Burroughs only leaves one question unanswered: what can John Carter do for an encore?
The answer came in less than two years later in Thuvia, Maid of Mars. Tune in for further installments in the Reading Barsoom series!
John Marr is the editor and janitor of the zine Murder Can Be Fun. He blogs at the Murder Can Be Fun Library.
Top illustration by Frank Frazetta.