RETROSPECTIVE: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Monday , 4, August 2014 14 Comments

Even as a kid I always understood that there was something portentous about the Barsoom series paperbacks on the shelf at the library. Nevertheless, I’d always passed them over for books by authors that got more credit as being “grandmasters” of science fiction. I just couldn’t take Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books seriously at the time. That’s a shame, really, because without at least some familiarity with his work, it’s hard to truly grasp what’s happened in the past hundred years of science fiction.

He casts an imposing shadow. Not only did he originate the “sword and planet” genre, but he was also a direct influence on creators ranging from Ray Bradbury to  James Cameron. And though the way John Carter jumps around might be somewhat underwhelming by today’s standards, it was serious business back when Jerry Siegel was developing a character that could leap tall buildings with a single bound

There is a similar connection to that iconic Star Wars movie poster by Tom Jung. I’m sure you recall it. Luke is raising his light saber in an exquisite combination of triumph and rage, his robes spilling open to reveal a perfectly chiseled chest, his left foot on the top of a hill of some alien Iwo Jima, a maelstrom of space battle erupting in the sky above him. The two robots practically cower behind him. Leia cocks her chest to one side affording a more pronounced view of her cleavage, one hand on her hip and with a slit going up her dress that will not quit. There is a brazenness to her pose, to be sure, but also something else. I think every great gangster knows this on some level, but by her standing with Luke, aligning herself with him with him like that, and being as alluring and provocative as she is, she multiplies Luke’s intimidation factor even as she subtly upstages him. It is a dynamite combination that positively sizzles.

Unfortunately, it presents a forceful, epic tone that is not at all to be found in the movie itself. You see, it wasn’t until George Lucas realized that he couldn’t do Flash Gordon that he even cast his gaze upon Burroughs’s influential Mars series. When he finally came across them, he was so smitten with the Frank Frazetta covers that he actually wanted to hire him to make the poster. The resemblance is no accident and it invites comparison. In a sense, Star Wars comes in the exact same packaging as the John Carter series, but it’s clear that Lucas was unable to fully translate the content of those books into cinematic form.

Consider this:

And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life. She did not see me at first, but just as she was disappearing through the portal of the building which was to be her prison she turned, and her eyes met mine. Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure. (Chapter VIII)

Star Wars fans got to see Princess Leia in a “slave girl” costume for a grand total of 150 seconds in Return of the Jedi. The absence of that sort of thing in the first two films was a glaring ommission and the outfit inspired by Frank Frazetta’s depictions of Dejah Thoris was perhaps an inevitable development.² It so captured the imagination of fandom that it has made a mark on every major comic book and gaming convention since. But why settle for a fleeting glimpse of space princess majesty when you can have Dejah Thoris in an even skimpier outfit for a dozen book-length adventures? The battered old paperbacks are a much better deal….

Then there’s the fact that Leia is sort of a princess in name only. We find out later that she’s must of been adopted when she is retconned into being Luke’s sister. Eh, she was always more of the sassy space senator type to begin with, but Dejah Thoris is no counterfeit: she’s “the daughter of ten thousand jeddaks” and can trace her “ancestry straight back without a break to the builder of the first great waterway.” (Chapter XIII)

Consider how the hero and heroine first encounter each other in A Princess of Mars:

As her gaze rested on me her eyes opened wide in astonishment, and she made a little sign with her free hand; a sign which I did not, of course, understand. Just a moment we gazed upon each other, and then the look of hope and renewed courage which had glorified her face as she discovered me, faded into one iof utter dejection, mingled with loathing and contempt. I realized I had not answered her signal, and ignorant as I was of Martian customs, I intuitively felt that she had made an appeal for succor and protection which my unfortunate ignorance had prevented me from answering. And then she was dragged out of my sight into the depths of the deserted edifice. (Chapter IX)

I call this the “Darcy effect” after the leading man of Pride and Prejudice. When that icon of vintage romance novels first enters the scene, it is with an incredible insult to the effect that none of the local girls are worth dancing with. While this makes him look like an arrogant jerk to everyone in earshot, it all too predictably rockets him into Elizabeth’s attention. Its yet another testament to the fact that nice guys finish last, but it’s nevertheless a classic opening gambit. Burroughs takes a similar tack in his tale, but ups the ante by putting Dejah Thoris in a significant amount of danger as a direct consequence of John Carter’s initial snub. And unlike Mr. Darcy, John Carter retains his likability as a character because all of this is accidental, a consequence of his unfamiliarity with Barsoom’s cultures.

Compare that to Luke and Leia. Luke is smitten with a pint sized hologram of Leia. It’s kind of sappy for him to want to play her message over and over just so he can keep on ogling her. He’s almost as bad as Lionel Richie in his music video for Hello. When Luke risks incomprehensible levels danger to save her from her scheduled execution, her first words to him are sarcastic put down: Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper? This is not the sort of situation that any young man would seriously aspire to be in. I’ve always identified with Luke and even wanted to be Luke when I was a kid, but he retains his “best buddy” status for the duration of the film franchise and never truly graduates to anything resembling a true leading man. Maybe I could never quite put my finger on the problem back in the day, but this is as frustrating as it is disappointing.

Granted, Lucas put together a fantastic cast that had great chemistry together and whoever did the editing made sure everything ended up punchy and entertaining, but Burroughs knew how much more credible a romantic arc can be if it’s established early on that the hero has passed over plenty of chances to settle down:

So this was love! I had escaped it for all the years I had roamed the five continents and their encircling seas; in spite of beautiful women and urging opportunity; in spite of a half-desire for love and a constant search for my ideal, it had remained for me to fall furiously and hopelessly in love with a creature from another world, of a species similar possibly, yet not identical with mine. A woman who was hatched from an egg, and whose span of life might cover a thousand years; whose people had strange customs and ideas; a woman whose hopes, whose pleasures, whose standards of virtue and of right and wrong might vary as greatly from mine as did those of the green Martians. (Chapter XIV)

While it’s perfectly reasonable for a farm boy on a backwater world to be smitten with the first space princess to come along, the whole scenario in the film decidedly less awe inspiring than what’s implied by the movie posters. Edgar Rice Burroughs again provides the better deal. He doesn’t drop the ball as the romantic stakes grow ever higher, either. After John Carter’s close shave with death, the space princess inadvertently reveals her true feelings for him:

“Is she injured?” I asked of sola, indicating Dejah Thoris by an inclination of my head.

“No,” she answered, “she thinks that you are dead.”

“And that her grandmother’s cat may now have no one to polish its teeth?” I queried, smiling.

“I think you wrong her, John Carter,” said Sola. “I do not understand either her ways or yours, but I am sure the granddaughter of ten thousand jeddaks would never grieve like this over any who held but the highest claim upon her affections. They are a proud race, but they are just, as are all Barsoomians, and you must have hurt or wronged her grievously that she will not admit your existence living, though she mourns you dead. (Chapter XV)

As Robert E. Lee famously said, it is “the forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.” With the sure knowledge that he has Dejah Thoris’s heart in the palm of his hand, John Carter demonstrates the kind of forbearance that fully establishes his character as the quintessential gentleman of Virgina. You can respect these characters and their relationship in a way that just doesn’t seem to happen very often in more recent space opera.

But the story was just getting warmed up at that point. There were desperate treks across the wilderness to fulfill, deadly arena combats to fight, an epic air war in the martian skies that rival The Battle of Yavin, sieges to break, and disastrously arranged marriages that had to be foiled at the last second. There’s plenty for movie makers to plunder and it happens to this day, but there is one thing that this book does that highlights the most glaring deficiency in the Star Wars franchise. There just really isn’t that big of a payoff in comparison to this:

“I have done many strange things in my life, many things that wiser men would not have dared, but never in my wildest fancies have I dreamed of winning a Dejah Thoris for myself–for never had I dreamed that in all the universe dwelt such a woman as the Princess of Helium. That you are a princess does not abash me, but that you are you is enough to make me doubt my sanity as I ask you, my princess, to be mine.”
“He does not need to be abashed who so well knew the answer to his plea before the plea were made,” she replied, rising and placing her dear hands upon my shoulders, and so I took her in my arms and kissed her. (Chapter XXV)

I admit, I do wonder if the “Princess of Helium” talks in a high pitched cartoon voice. And I’m completely at a loss to explain how a human and a Red Martian can procreate when the women on Mars all lay eggs…. But it’s clear that John Carter’s military and diplomatic accomplishments rival those of Tolkien’s Aragorn: Never before had an armed body of green warriors entered the gates of Helium, and that they came now as friends and allies filled the red men with rejoicing.  (Chapter XXVI) That really nails down why Star Wars pales in comparison to this science fiction classic. Edgar Rice Burroughs not only gives us a space princess of unsurpassed quality, but he also shows us a man that is worthy of her. Lucas either fails to grasp the concept or else doesn’t even try.

Now I love Star Wars, I really do. I grew up with the movies and treasured my Kenner action figures and their Darth Vader carrying case as much as any other boy my age. But I would have been much better served had some kindhearted adult known to introduce me to the John Carter series at some point. But I have to confess I’d probably feel somewhat more kindly towards the massively popular film franchise if not for the appropriation of Frank Frazetta’s style and the many people making strongly worded claims of its mythic potency.

Seriously, though: what kind of epic myth is it where the guy doesn’t get the girl in the end? Much better, in my opinion, is The Lord of The Rings, in which not only does Arwen Evenstar give up her immortality for a man of renown, but even the humble Samwise Hamfast can settle down in Hobbiton as mayor-for-life with Rosie to keep him company and Elanor to sit on his knee. Edgar Rice Burroughs is practically on the same page as J. R. R. Tolkien here and as far as happy endings go, they’re light years ahead of a big party with the ewoks. Honestly, I don’t know what my expectations were going in here, but I’m fairly certain that Star Wars has lost more than a little of its luster for me as a result of my having read A Princess of Mars.

¹ Jerry Siegel Cites Both Tarzan and John Carter as Key Influences in Creating Superman

² Frank Frazetta: Fantasy Legend, by Charles Moffat

14 Comments
  • Jill says:

    I’m not a huge Burroughs’ fan, but I think he tells a good adventure story. He delivers on happy endings, too. I enjoyed A Princess of Mars and was altogether less thrilled about the Tarzan books. That’s about the extent of my Burroughs’ reading. 🙂 And I understand what you mean about the disappointment regarding Star Wars. It’s not just in those original films (I read one book when I was a child, and that was it, so have to go off of films). The later films also disappointed me. Who wants to see the young Anakin turn evil? So evil becomes good and Leia is Luke’s sister?! So all that time when I was pretending to be Leia I had a crush on my brother? Wrong.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be a big fan of Burroughs, but I understand better why he was so popular. He delivered on fun and romance (unlike the other Burroughs).

    • Jeffro says:

      Modern scifi epics end on a weak half-cadence in comparison. Burroughs is the real deal.

      I have not seen the John Carter movie, but this bit from a review just kills me given what I describe above:

      “They also added a dead wife of John Carter, causing Dejah Thoris to have to win his love. He just wanted to go back home the whole time. John Carter only fell in love with her in the end.”

      Why would they chance that? Just… why? Has the modern mind simply lost the capacity to imagine a credible romance?

      • The CronoLink says:

        Why is this not credible romance? (and for the record, the movie’s execution of it was pretty lazy)

        • Jeffro says:

          “They also added a dead wife of John Carter” — I point out above that it is important for a high value hero to have specifically passed over previous options to settle down in order to avoid having him look like an over eager chump that is falling for the first one to come along. Why muddy the waters of what amounts to a fairy tale by adding in the dead wife???

          “He just wanted to go back home the whole time.” — Dejah Thoris is the hottest thing in the universe. I simply do not believe this premise. At all. Of course, in the book it’s all about wanting to get back to Mars badly.

          “John Carter only fell in love with her in the end.” Nope. That’s not the book anyway. You fall in love early on, then you do what it takes to seal the deal with honor. I presume that the movie version does not end with a marriage and the consummation of the same?

          • The CronoLink says:

            Well, I suppose you don’t mind being spoiled.

            -I can see your point, though I don’t recall if the movie mentioned how much time had passed since his wife’s (and little daughter’s!) death. In any case, I agree.

            -Well, this Dejah was pretty but definitely not the hottest thing in the universe, hahahaha.

            -They did married but I’m not sure if they did consummated it or not before that bad guy thern send Carter back to Earth. Carter then spends the next 15 or so years desperately looking for a way to get back to Mars.

      • Daniel says:

        They made a few mistakes with John Carter of Mars, but not as many as you would think. Basically, they thought it necessary to make three framing devices, when the fact is, the final one (that closed the movie) would have been excellent.

        John Carter himself needed to be a bit more Indiana Jones/Han Solo and less confused and uncertain. Deja Thoris was excellent on all–er–fronts. Obviously they had to keep the movie PG, so adherence to the text in that regard was impossible.

        And yeah, they needed to fall in love sooner (but it was more in the middle of the movie, not the end like the review says. In any case, it was too late.)

        Those three simple fixes would have made it a classic.

        Of course, I’m the one who thinks three simple fixes would have solved The Phantom Menace (1. Open with Darth Maul entering a blockaded vessel in search of info on a slave boy shuttled thru Naboo, 2. Make the movie about an impetuous young Obi Wan shocked by this “bad Jedi” who wants to hunt/turn/kill Anakin. 3. Make the Jedi counsel the “last” of the Jedis, a tired old order rendered irrelevant and bureucratic by Republican modernization. )…so take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

  • Cirsova says:

    I’m always on the lookout for various copies of the John Carter books without the ridiculous Frank Frazetta artwork, if only because my girlfriend disapproves (and they’re kind of embarrassing to be seen with reading in public), though have only found a few compilations of the much later books.

    One of the best parts of the John Carter books are the fight scenes and the monsters. I can’t remember what it was called, but I loved his weird little monster dog/worm pet thing.

    • Jeffro says:

      Haha. I would totally dig getting a complete set with the Frazetta covers. Our civilization is suffering a critical space princess shortage and I have to do my part by reading these books in public!

      And yeah, Woola the calot rocks. The book is like A Princess Bride and Old Yellar and Gladiator all at once!

  • Cirsova says:

    Y’know, I think that one of the many problems with our culture today is that the “Adventures For Boys” genre/style of fiction is either dead or dormant.

    Unless you count the Harry Potter books, there really hasn’t been anything going on in this field of writing in my lifetime.

    I mean, sure we’ll never have another RL Stevenson or CS Forester, but we need at least an Edward Stratemeyer to step up to the plate!

    • Jeffro says:

      There seems to be a trend toward weakening male leads in order to give the impression of “strong females characters.” That’s incompatible with making fiction that will inspire boys….

      • The CronoLink says:

        And it never dawns on them that weakening the male characters doesn’t really speak well of the female ones.

        (And on that thought, does Sonja count as a strong female character?)

    • Jill says:

      The Ranger’s Apprentice series are pretty good adventures with strong male characters, though I don’t think they’re strictly for boys. My kids have read them all; I’ve read the first three.

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