A Princess of Mars

Dejah Thoris

A Princess of Mars (1917) is a science fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the first of his Barsoom series. Full of swordplay and daring feats, the novel is considered a classic example of 20th century pulp fiction. It is also a seminal instance of the planetary romance, a sub-genre of science fantasy that became highly popular in the decades following its publication. Its early chapters also contain elements of the Western. The story is set on Mars, imagined as a dying planet with a harsh desert environment. This vision of Mars was based on the work of the astronomer Percival Lowell, whose ideas were widely popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Barsoom series inspired a number of well-known 20th century science fiction writers, including Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and John Norman, and was also inspirational for many scientists in the fields of space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life, including Carl Sagan, who read ‘A Princess of Mars’ when he was a child.

John Carter, a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War, goes prospecting in Arizona immediately after the war’s end. Having struck a rich vein of gold, he runs afoul of the Apaches. While attempting to evade pursuit by hiding in a sacred cave, he is mysteriously transported to Mars, called ‘Barsoom’ by its inhabitants. Carter finds that he has great strength and superhuman agility in this new environment as a result of its lesser gravity. He soon falls in with a nomadic tribe of Green Martians, or Tharks, as the planet’s warlike, six-limbed, green-skinned inhabitants are known. Thanks to his strength and martial prowess, Carter rises to a high position in the tribe and earns the respect and eventually the friendship of Tars Tarkas, one of the Thark chiefs.

The Tharks subsequently capture Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, a member of the humanoid red Martian race. The red Martians inhabit a loose network of city-states and control the desert planet’s canals, along which its agriculture is concentrated. Carter rescues Dejah Thoris from the green men in a bid to return her to her people.

Subsequently Carter becomes embroiled in the political affairs of both the red and green Martians in his efforts to safeguard Dejah Thoris, eventually leading a horde of Tharks against the city-state of Zodanga, the historic enemy of Helium. Winning Dejah Thoris’ hand, he becomes Prince of Helium, and the two live happily together for nine years. However, the sudden breakdown of the Atmosphere Plant that sustains the planet’s waning air supply endangers all life on Barsoom. In a desperate attempt to save the planet’s inhabitants, Carter uses a secret telepathic code to enter the factory, bringing an engineer along who can restore its functionality. Carter then succumbs to asphyxiation, only to awaken back on Earth, left to wonder what has become of Barsoom and his beloved.

The novel was illustrated by Frank E. Schoonover, who carefully read the descriptive passages on the costumes and weapons of Barsoom and developed an overall concept for the artwork, even ensuring that John’s Carter’s pistol and belt in his cover illustration reflected their origins in Green Martian craftsmanship.

While the novel is often classed as science fantasy, it also belongs to the sub-genre of planetary romance, which has affinities with fantasy and sword and sorcery; it is distinguished by its inclusion of scientific (or pseudo-scientific) elements. Planetary romances take place primarily on the surface of an alien world, and they often include sword-fighting and swashbuckling; monsters; supernatural elements such as telepathic abilities (as opposed to magic); and cultures that echo those of Earth in pre-industrial eras, especially with dynastic or theocratic social structures. Spacecraft may appear, but are usually not central to the story; this is a key difference from space opera, in which spacecraft are usually key to the narrative. While there are earlier examples of this genre, ‘A Princess of Mars’ and its sequels are the best known, and they were a dominant influence on subsequent authors. Initially published in magazines with general readership, by the 1930s the planetary romance had become very popular in the emerging science fiction pulp magazines. The novel also shares a number of elements of Westerns, such as desert settings, women taken captive, and a climactic life-or-death confrontation with the antagonist.

Burroughs employs a literary device for ‘A Princess of Mars’ to which he returned to in several sequels—introducing the novel as though it were a factual account passed on to him personally. In this case he frames John Carter as an avuncular figure known to his family who has given him the manuscript earlier, and instructed him not to publish it for 21 years. ‘A Princess of Mars’ is similar to many of Burroughs’ tales: it is characterized by copious violent action. It is basically a travelogue, a tale of a journey and various encounters on that journey, which does not necessarily have a defined plot. It is also a captivity narrative – involving a civilized hero being captured by an uncivilized culture and being forced to adapt to the primitive nature of the captors to survive.

As is the case with the majority of the Barsoom novels to follow, it portrays a hero facing impossible odds and forced to fight a range of lurid creatures in order to win the love of the heroine. Burrough’s Barsoom is also morally unambiguous; there is no sense of moral relativity and characters are either good or evil. The tale portrays a hero with a sense of honor transcending race or politics. Compassion, loyalty and bravery are celebrated, and callousness, deception, and cowardice are frowned upon.

The novel’s vision of Mars was inspired by astronomical speculations of the time, especially those of Percival Lowell, who saw the planet as a formerly Earth-like world now becoming inhospitable to life because of its advanced age. According to the Barsoomians themselves, Mars was a lush world with global oceans just one million years before the present day. As the oceans evaporated and the atmosphere thinned, the planet devolved into partial barbarism. Living on a dying planet, with dwindling resources, the inhabitants of Barsoom have become hardened and warlike, constantly fighting one another to survive.

Barsoomians distribute scarce water via a worldwide system of canals, controlled by quarreling city-states. The thinning Martian atmosphere is artificially replenished by an ‘atmosphere plant’ on which all life on the planet depends. The days are warm and the nights are cold, and climate varies little across the planet, except at the poles.

In 1895 Percival Lowell published a book entitled ‘Mars’ which speculated about an arid, dying landscape, whose inhabitants had been forced to build canals thousands of miles long to bring water from the polar caps to irrigate the remaining arable land. Lowell built upon ideas introduced by Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, who in 1877, observed geological features on Mars which he called canali (Italian for ‘channels’). This was mistranslated into the English as ‘canals’ which, being artificial watercourses, fueled the belief that there was some sort of intelligent extraterrestrial life on the planet.

In the early 20th century Lowell published two more books, further developing the concept of a dying Mars. Burroughs was aware of these theories and appears to have consciously followed them. However, Burroughs does not seem to have based his vision of Mars on precise reading of Lowell’s theories, as there are a number of errors in his interpretation which suggest he may have got most of his information from reading newspaper articles and other popular accounts of Lowell’s Mars.

The ideas of canals with flowing water and an inhabited, if dying world, were later disproved by more accurate observation of the planet, and fly bys and landings by Russian and American probes such as the two Viking missions which found a dead, frozen world where water could not exist in a liquid state.

‘A Princess of Mars’ and its sequels are noted as early inspiration by many later science fiction authors including Robert A. Heinlein. Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Bradbury admired Burroughs’ stimulating romantic tales, and they were an inspiration for his ‘The Martian Chronicles’ (1950), which used some similar conceptions of a dying Mars. Burroughs’ Barsoom novels have also been cited as a model for H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.’ Others influenced by Burroughs and his John Carter books include James Cameron, who mentioned the influence on his science-fiction epic ‘Avatar,’ and George Lucas, whose ‘Star Wars’ movies were influenced by ‘Flash Gordon,’ which in turn was influenced by Burroughs. Scientist Carl Sagan read the books as a young boy, and they continued to affect his imagination into his adult years; he remembered Barsoom as a ‘world of ruined cities, planet girding canals, immense pumping stations—a feudal technological society.’ For two decades a map of the planet, as imagined by Burroughs, hung in the hallway outside of Sagan’s office in Cornell University.

A Princess of Mars has many similarities to Westerns, including a desert setting, a heroine taken captive, and a showdown with the antagonist. Burroughs worked as a soldier at Fort Grant, Arizona, where he patrolled the desert to protect white settlers. During this time he gained a great respect for American Indians and their warriors, such as Geronimo. Barsoom resembles a kind of Martian Wild West. Indeed, John Carter is an adventuring frontiersman who is cornered by Apache warriors in the Arizona desert before his transition to Mars. When he arrives there, he discovers a savage, frontier world with scarce resources, where strength is respected, and where the civilized Red Martians maintain their racial vigor by repelling the constant attacks of the Green Martians. The latter are a barbaric, nomadic, tribal culture with many parallels to stereotypes of American Indians.

A nostalgic desire to return to the frontier became a common theme in the U.S. during the early twentieth century. As the nation become more urbanized, the 19th century frontier was romanticized as a lost world of freedom and noble savagery. Similar ideas may be reflected in the fate of the ancient white race of Mars, which is mentioned in ‘A Princess of Mars’ and reintroduced in a later Martian novel, ‘Llana of Gathol’; they are described as having become weak and degenerate through their dependence on the trappings and comforts of civilization.

Race is a constant theme in the Barsoom novels, as Barsoom is distinctly divided along racial lines. White, Yellow, Black, Red, and Green races appear in various novels of the series, each with ethnic qualities that often seem to define their individual representatives. Although John Carter is able to befriend the Green Martian Tars Tarkas, who shows noble qualities, Tarkas is called an exception to the rule, and remains a noble savage. John Carter himself is white-skinned, so that Barsoomians sometimes identify him with their own surviving White race, known as the Holy Therns. Carter’s unusual appearance and un-Barsoomian strength and agility make him a kind of mythic figure, capable of achievements that no Barsoomian could manage.


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