By Michael Dirda
March 9, 2012
In 1911 Edgar Rice Burroughs, having failed at everything else, decided to write a novel. He was then in his mid-thirties, married with two children, barely supporting his family as the agent for a pencil-sharpener business. In earlier years he'd served in the Seventh Cavalry, worked as a rancher and gold miner, started an advertising agency, sold light bulbs and candy and uplifting books door-to-door, and not really made a go of anything.
For occasional entertainment Burroughs read the early pulp magazines, especially All-Story. Named after the cheap newsprint upon which they were printed, the pulps supplied adventure and romantic fiction to the masses for half a century. By the 1920s and '30s newsstands around the country would display the lurid and spicy covers of Weird Tales, The Shadow, Amazing Stories, True Confessions, Dime Detective, Astounding, and Black Mask. Pulp writers would include such important literary figures as H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert A. Heinlein, and scores of others.
But in 1911 most of the writers weren't of this caliber, and Burroughs was convinced he could write better adventure stories and maybe even make a living at it.
In fact he rather underestimated himself.
One hundred years ago, in the February 1912 issue of All-Story, there appeared the first installment of Under the Moons of Mars (retitled A Princess of Mars for its 1917 book publication). It starts, as all good adventure stories should, with a strange manuscript, this one a memoir penned by Captain John Carter and bequeathed to his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs. The reader is hooked from the very first sentence: "I am a very old man now; how old I do not know." Over the next several months purchasers of All-Story would learn of the fantastic adventures of this former Confederate soldier. Mysteriously transported to Mars, called Barsoom by its inhabitants, John Carter there battled monstrous beasts and warlike peoples, soon falling in love with the copper-skinned Deja Thoris, Princess of Helium.
The serial, needless to say, was a hit, though no one yet knew that ERB would soon become a phenomenon. His editor at All-Story quickly asked him to write a historical novel, which the obliging author produced in a few weeks, only to have the chivalric romance rejected. Eventually, it would be revised and rejected again. Putting The Outlaw of Torn aside, Burroughs took up his own new idea, its action set largely in Africa (where he had never been). Drawing on the classical legends of the heroic Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a wolf, and adding a touch of Mowgli from Kipling's The Jungle Books, Burroughs created one of the most famous fictional characters of modern times. In the November, 1912 issue of All-Story -- only a few months after the conclusion of John Carter's adventures on Mars -- there appeared, published in its entirety, Tarzan of the Apes.
Readers went crazy.
They wanted more Tarzan, more John Carter, more Edgar Rice Burroughs. In part, this was because both A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes close with dramatic cliff-hangers. At the end of A Princess of Mars John Carter seems to be dead on Earth. Or is he? What of that strange injunction in his will that the massive door of his tomb be "equipped with a single huge gold-plated spring lock which can be opened only from the inside?" At the end of Tarzan, the ape-man learns that he is the true Lord Greystoke, but he keeps the knowledge to himself, even though a word would gain him a title and the woman he loves. When asked how he came to be in the jungle, Tarzan says simply: "I was born there. My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn't tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was." The end.
People couldn't believe it. The selfless hero didn't get the girl. While there was precedent for such noble sacrifice -- think of The Prisoner of Zenda -- it didn't hurt that it also left open the possibility of a sequel. Readers pleaded for more tales of Tarzan and Barsoom.
And over the next thirty-five years they would get them. In 1913, Burroughs would produce The Return of Tarzan, in which the ape-man explores the lost kingdom of Opar and eventually marries his beloved Jane Porter. In The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars, published in 1913 and 1914, John Carter would again face impossible odds to save his alien friends and himself from certain death and to rescue Dejah Thoris from lustful enemies. As if this weren't enough, in 1914 Burroughs would inaugurate a third series with At the Earth's Core, in which David Innes discovers that the center of our planet is hollow -- and inhabited. In Pellucidar, as it is known, Innes will encounter prehistoric beasts, cavemen, and Dian the Beautiful. A few years later, in 1917 and 1918, Burroughs would produce what some critics regard as his best single work, the trilogy about evolution consisting of The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and Out of Time's Abyss.
Burroughs was clearly on an unbelievable tear, turning out some thirty books in seven years, demanding and receiving top pay rates, and quickly amassing a fortune that would allow him to create a vast estate in what is now Tarzana, California. Soon the ape-man had become a media franchise, with Tarzan movies, toys, and comic strips. In 1923 Burroughs even established his own publishing company, which sold only his books, thus cutting out agents and editors. He died in 1950, aged seventy-four, having written seventy novels.
When I was a boy in the late 1950s, the public library refused to stock books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. They were regarded as vulgar, ill-written potboilers. One could, however, find Tarzan reprints in department stores; I found them and read them all. But somehow I missed the John Carter series entirely. By the time the Mars books were republished in the 1960s, with covers by Roy Krenkel and Frank Frazetta, my attention had turned to contemporary science fiction, and I had no time for ancient "planetary romance." Thus, while most readers discover A Princess of Mars at the age of ten or twelve, I only first read it -- and its two companion volumes -- this anniversary year. What with the new film, John Carter, about to open, it seemed the right time to fill in this gap in my literary education.
Martian trilogy? Was I disappointed? A little of both, but more the former than the latter. Burroughs's plotting is fairly perfunctory, consisting mainly of a series of fights, imprisonments, and escapes, most undergone in the course of various suicidal attempts to save Dejah Thoris from a fate worse than death. In some ways, the three books clearly serve as a travelogue to Barsoom, a world consisting of largely antagonistic civilizations of red, black, white, and yellow men. The blacks, surprisingly enough for the time, are described as the most beautiful and nobly featured of Mars's people; the whites are depicted as cold-hearted, repulsive, and evil. What's more, except for jewelry, weapons, and occasional ceremonial robes, the men and women go about unadorned, essentially naked.
Throughout the novels, the chivalric Virginian leaps impetuously to the defense of underdogs, no matter what their race or how monstrous their appearance. At times Carter seems remarkably naive and almost stupid, as he falls into one trap after another or fails to remember some obvious bit of information that would save a desperate situation. As with James T. Kirk in Star Trek, every beautiful female falls in love with Carter, and most are princesses, too, but he remains unswervingly faithful to the incomparable Dejah Thoris. Above all, though, John Carter lives for his honor as a fighting man. His closest comrades are all superb soldiers and swordsmen, almost but not quite his equal, even if some are fifteen feet tall with green skin, bulbous eyes, six limbs, and curved tusks.
Along with racial tolerance and human nudity, the books take up several other controversial topics. A Princess of Mars includes a fairly overt critique of socialism, i.e., "the horrible community idea." Carter tells one of those green-skinned Tharks, "Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common." As a consequence, he adds, the Tharks have become "a strange, cruel, loveless, unhappy people." (But they are indomitable warriors. According to the old saying, "Leave to a Thark his head and one hand and he may yet conquer.") Still, all Burroughs's heroes -- like versions of Huck Finn -- shy away from civilization and its constraints.
The Gods of Mars addresses the ticklish subject of religion and fanatical religious belief, ultimately revealing that the Martian faith is based on a lie. Martians can live up to a thousand years, but at whatever age they feel ready to die they travel by boat up the river Iss, supposedly to a land of peace and plenty ruled over by the Holy Therns. No one ever returns. In fact, the weary pilgrims serve as the food of smugly refined cannibals and their pets, the Plant Men and the White Apes.
While most writers might assume that one false religion is enough, Burroughs figures that two will be even better. So he has the supercilious Therns believe in their own afterlife paradise, which turns out to be even more horrible than the supposedly celestial Valley of Dor. This is typical. Far too often Burroughs works the same situations and themes over and over in his books -- in later novels much to their detriment. Some of his other effects are, similarly, too broad, too obvious: All but the most naive readers will immediately guess the identity of a mysterious, handsome, and particularly fearless young warrior, even though the final revelation is repeatedly deferred and can come as a surprise to no one but John Carter himself.
Nonetheless, Burroughs does possess considerable poetic, virtually cinematic power. He's a master at keeping the action moving along at a lightning pace and expert in describing fight scenes. While his prose is generally only serviceable, he can sometimes impress with old-fashioned eloquence --"the Chamber of Mystery in the Golden Cliffs beneath the gardens of the Holy Therns" -- and he can produce strong paragraphs, as when one of the First Born, as the black Martians call themselves, describes the daily life of their women: "The women do nothing, absolutely nothing. Slaves wash them, slaves dress them, slaves feed them. There are some, even, who have slaves that talk for them, and I saw one who sat during the rites with closed eyes while a slave narrated to her the events that were transpiring within the arena."
Burroughs also possesses a real gift for creating memorable, almost archetypal pictures in our minds. Many readers never forget the image of John Carter standing high on a lonely cliff stretching out his arms toward Mars. On Barsoom itself we encounter a veritable alien menagerie: the tigerish banths, the mastodonian zitidars, the equine thoats, the giant hornet-like siths, the Yeti-like apts. But there are also technologically advanced solar panels, oxygen-producing factories, telepathy, radium rifles, and gigantic airborne battleships. Not least, John Carter -- note those initials -- gradually emerges as the savior of Mars, destroying a false religion and ushering in a new era of harmony and peace. Until, of course, the next volume in the series.
Still, to my mind, Burroughs's greatest stroke of genius, albeit one based on contemporary speculation about Mars, lies in making Barsoom an old planet, a dying world, ravined with dried-up canals and dotted with the crumbling cities of earlier, forgotten cultures. Exploring a deserted building, John Carter and Dejah Thoris discover "real sleeping apartments with ancient beds of highly wrought metal swinging from enormous gold chains depending from the marble ceilings. The decoration of the walls was most elaborate, and, unlike the frescoes in the other buildings I had examined, portrayed many human figures in the compositions. These were of people like myself and of a much lighter color than Dejah Thoris. They were clad in graceful, flowing robes, highly ornamented with metal and jewels, and their luxuriant hair was of a beautiful golden and reddish bronze. The men were beardless and only a few wore arms. The scenes depicted for the most part, a fair-skinned, fair-haired people at play."
One feels like a visitor to the ruins of Pompeii, glimpsing the grandeur that was Rome.
Burroughs is, in short, a master of world building, of imagining colorful dreamlike landscapes, labyrinthine underground cities, armadas of a thousand flying battleships and massed armies of millions. Yet for all this gorgeous panoply, we never quite forget that Barsoom is a world on the wane, once delicate and beautiful and now largely populated by nomadic brutes and given over to constant warfare and the fight for survival.
While A Princess of Mars remains a terrific planetary romance on its own merits, the novel and its sequels also lie behind many later examples of "flashing swords" fantasy and science fiction. Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian owes much to John Carter, while George Lucas's initial Star Wars trilogy can sometimes feel like a set of variations on Barsoomian themes. (But then Leigh Brackett -- one of the series' scriptwriters -- also wrote The Sword of Rhiannon, which transports the reader to an ancient Mars much like that of Burroughs.) Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, Michael Moorcock's sword-and-sorcery novels, and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun further transform aspects of the Mars books.
Perhaps Burroughs's final triumph lies in leaving us with a sense that his stories are still going on, that his heroes -- whether Tarzan or John Carter or David Innes or Carson Napier or Carthoris -- are fighting other battles even as we ourselves grow old and older. They are thus truly immortal. Burroughs scholar and collector Robert Zeuschner makes this point in an article in Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Second Century, a collection of essays and pastiches ("Biker Babes of Mars") published by the National Capital Area Panthans. A Washington, D.C., chapter of the Burroughs Bibliophiles, the Panthans take their name from Barsoom's samurai-like wandering soldiers of fortune. While neither so famous as the Baker Street Irregulars nor as thick with members as science fiction fandom, the Burroughs Bibliophiles nonetheless meet regularly as part of ECOF, the acronym for the Edgar Rice Burroughs Chain of Friendship.
Many authors of "genre" fiction write excellent prose -- Conan Doyle, for instance, or Lord Dunsany or Georgette Heyer -- but Burroughs is hardly on their level as a stylist. Yet despite his stilted or sometimes corny language, he does possess the one gift that really matters for a storyteller: the ability to enchant. One hundred years ago, he emerged, full-blown, as a pulp fictioneer of genius, a mesmerizing chronicler of derring-do and over-the-top comicbook action. Demean not such gifts: They are as rare as the verbal magic of a Nabokov. To this day, Edgar Rice Burroughs remains, as he was during his lifetime, one of the great masters of adventure.