Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

As I begin this review, I am reminded of GK Chesterton's defence of pulp fiction--or as he called it, the "penny dreadful":
The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just as there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists.
It is in this vein that I invite you to contemplate the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs, that prince among hacks. And when I say "hack", I mean it in the most complimentary of terms, as referring to a man who, despite catering to the most unsophisticated desires in humanity to go chopping up enemy hordes into little pieces, does it all while lauding the very basic and very Christian virtues of courage, fidelity, chivalry, and mercy.

Welcome to A Princess of Mars: John Carter, fighting man of Virginia, finds himself drawn through the trackless wastes of space with the speed of thought to the planet of his vocation. On Mars--or Barsoom as its inhabitants call it--he quickly wins the respect of the four-armed, warlike Tharks with his courage and incredible strength (fresh from Earth's more weighty gravity). The Tharks know neither love nor mercy, and when an airship falls from the heavens and the sole survivor is captured--a beautiful red princess, the incomparable Dejah Thoris of Helium--John Carter knows that his duty is clear. The princess must be rescued and returned to her family in Helium. And so begins an incredible adventure across Martian deserts, through duels to the death, gladiatorial arenas, and corrupt courts...

In some ways this book was just as I remembered it--a penny dreadful if ever there was one, complete with monsters, buckets of gore, not a lot of clothing, and The Love of All Time between John Carter (Warlord of Mars) and the incomparable Dejah Thoris (Space Princess).

And yet...and yet it wasn't that bad. Let's begin with ERB's philosophy. The man was not a believer by any stretch, and (in this book at least) substitutes romantic love for the glory of the Lord and God of creation as the chief end of man. John Carter for one is quite clear on the fact that his chief end is to serve Dejah Thoris and slaughter her enemies forever. So far, so bad.

But ERB was writing during a time that was still imbued with the morals of Christendom, and he himself retained her standards. And thus, although the action takes place on a strange planet, filled with war from one end to another, John Carter begins to transform the society of Mars with his remarkable practices of kindness, gentleness, and mercy. And although the action takes place on an exotic planet, in the cities and wastes of Barsoom, the hero dutifully rescues and preserves the Space Princess from all perils until they can be duly and correctly married.

John Carter is, in fact, rather like an old knight of Christendom--savage to his enemies, meek to those under his protection. And ERB, though he denies the source of this ideal, still wishes to preserve the ideal itself. Thus princesses are rescued, friends are stood by in battle, beasts maddened with ill-treatment are soothed with kindness, and four-armed eight-foot-tall tusked green alien women are referred to as "my fair companion."

Additionally, A Princess of Mars is genuine science fiction--that is, it is genuinely concerned with what life on Mars might have been like going on the best scientific theories available at the time of writing. And so in addition to all the adventuring, the story is also deeply concerned with science and cultures. The Tharkian society is one with no private property, and a ruthless eugenics program in which the young are raised by harsh foster-mothers: in the words of Dejah Thoris,
A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victim of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves.
Flawed as it is, Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars remains an imaginative tour-de-force and a strong influence on subsequent science fiction. I enjoyed it this second time around, and consider it one of the best penny dreadfuls.

Gutenberg etext

Librivox recording (which I have heard and can recommend)

A movie based on this book, titled John Carter of Mars, was released in 2012. John C Wright, Space Princess aficionado, science fiction writer, and classical scholar has written an excellent review of it. The short version: "If you have not read, or do not particularly adore, the source material, the movie is a fine, if unexceptional, entry into the Space Princess genre of space opera. There is action, humor, spectacle, swordfights, gunfights, flying machines, mystery, romance, monsters, and everything a Space Princess story should have, including a space princess. The only thing it lacked was John Carter." I completely agree with him. The long version goes into more detail on both book and movie and is well worth reading.


TJC said...

Have you ever read E. Phillips Oppenheim? Probably his best book is The Great Impersonation which you can download from either Gutenberg (txt or html) or Open Library (PDF). Even though I would classify most of his works as pulp fiction, The Great Impersonation rises above that somewhat significantly. Whatever you don't read end of the story first (you loose half the suspense that way even though you may end up enjoying the story more).

The story of the princess of mars (in my opinion) is too improbably in that you notice to many absurdities which do interfere with your enjoyment of the book but Burroughs keeps enough suspense so that you can gloss over these. I didn't put it down once when I started to read it but it left with a feeling that even though it was enjoyable, it was too shallow. The book could have probably been twice as long so that you could add more detailed discriptions of mars and better dialog between the characters so that you could get to know them. Throughout most of the series the only person that you seem to know or empathize with is John Carter. This might have slowed the pace of the book down but I think that it would have only done so minorly and that slight defect would have been more than outweighed by the benefits.

Lucy P said...

Well blow me. I found your blog via a search for Ethel M Dell, and I find your most recent post about a book I only read yesterday. (Today, I begin EMD's Greatheart.) From what I have seen, dipping in frantically, I share many of your interests and opinions. Not about The Princess of Mars, which I thought was dreadful, but we needn't go there! I hope it's OK if I comment in future, I am so pleased to find someone else who reads vintage novels through the prism of Christianity.

Suzannah said...

Oh, that's strange--I thought I had read some Oppenheim, but now I think about it, that must have been Edgar Wallace. PG Wodehouse recommends Oppenheim highly.

I prefer A Princess of Mars to books which try to be profound by including navel-gazing main characters. After all, there is something very profound, to say nothing of inspiring, about a man daring death a thousand times to save the life of the one he loves. Give me a book where the characters do any day above one in which they think about doing. John Carter may not think deeply about what he is doing, but the things he does are sometimes worth thinking about, or merely appreciating as art.

Of course, the book isn't great literature. It is not, for example, as good as GK Chesterton himself. It is not even as good as GA Henty. It is pure schlock, reveling in the unsophisticated--and there are some very good things that are unsophisticated, like courage.

Suzannah said...

Comment away! I love comments! I also love hearing from people who have different views on the books I've read, because I know I often miss something--as long as those comments don't become incoherent, shrill, and personal ;).

Ethel M Dell? Of course you are free to read her as you wish, but don't get sucked in!

TJC said...

Oh as to John Carter himself I have nothing to say. Any introspection that John Carter does to himself is almost the same sort of introspection that Richard Hannay does which is great for the main character. As to the glorification of courage etc. I have nothing bad to say. One of the things I really didn't like was the lack of any depth in any of the secondary characters. I suppose why I didn't like this book in the end is it could have been so much better. The plot, although relatively usual, was good, the pace and the suspense were great. But if there had been a little work to change the absurdities of the book (most of the fighting is done with swords when they have extremely accurate firearms etc.) and giving the secondary characters a little more dephth it could have been a great book. But maybe G.A.Henty has spoiled me. Speaking of G.A.Henty you might want to have a look at some of his adult novels like Cuthbert Hartington (A tale of two seiges or a woman of the commune) or A Hidden Foe. In Cuthbert Hartington G.A.Henty has quite a good discussion about women's lib etc. which you might enjoy. It is extremely difficult and expensive to get hard copies of these editions,especially old copies but you can get them on gutenberg or open library.

Speaking of Oppenheim, if you read his wiki page some educated numbskull said that John Buchan copied his style in an inferior manner. Though it is true that in The Great Impersonator Oppenheim comes close he still didn't do nearly as well as say Mr. Standfast or Greenmantle. In spite of that the Great Impersonation is still worth a read.

Lucy P said...

No chance, I will finish 'Greatheart' because I always finish what I have started. It's akin to the sensation of eating too much chocolate.....same tone as Marie Corelli and Elinor Glyn. Tripe, and damaging tripe at that!

TJC said...

Well for a start a substantial amount of Christians were not brainwashed into religioun as children but became Christians later on in life after they had been convinced of God's existence.

Though I have to admit that I am one of those poor, deluded individuals who were brainwashed almost from the moment of my birth into believing in God and in his forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus. Just think that I would never have known the delight and security of knowing that I was God's child. I would never have known the joy of God living in me by the Holy Spirit.

And just think also of all that I have suffered being brainwashed into the Christian faith, that same faith that caused my parents to teach me about God from my earliest moments also lead them to dedicate their lives in service to God. Instead of living a quiet peaceful and quite wealthy existence in Australia, my parents decided to go over to a third world country to translate the bible into one of the native languages. We had to live in the community where they did, suffering malaria, various other tropical diseases, the heat without airconditioning or for the most part fans. We also had to suffer horrendous traveling conditions traveling in canoes in open seas and almost being drowned. We also went through the danger of a coup in the solomon islands. And yet all of these things we suffered (though not always uncomplainingly) so that the people would have the word of God in their language. So yes in a worldly sense I probably have suffered.

TJC said...

And yet, through those experiences I have been taught an unshakeable and unswervable faith in God. I have seen things that could only have happened by God's intervention. My mum had malaria and was taking malaria medication which she was allegic too (not of course that she knew it or we knew it) and because of that had an extremely swollen liver. We could not get in contact with any medical personell and her liver would have exploaded had not God told her not to touch the last malaria medication. This is just one of the many stories that we have of God showing his power through our lives. I would not have missed out on anything that happened to me during that time because of what it taught me about God.

As for the rest of my life I can't say that I have been disadvantaged or 'imprisoned' as you like to call it in any way. Educationally I am just about to Graduate from Lawschool with a JD and probably with honours. Socially I have a number of friends who would be prepared to do a whole lot more for me since all of them are Christians. Family wise, I have a great family who would not nearly be so kind, loving and thoughtful (yes inspite of all that happened in the Solomon Islands) as they would have been had we not been Christians. Mentally, I am far less confused than any of my non-Christian aquaintences.

And since we are on the subject of Christianity 'imprisoning' people, just think of all the people in the solomons that we went to work with, one hundred or so years ago they were living a truly free existence, they were definitely the noble savage that has been so glorified by the sociologists. They were canables, headhunters and bigamists. Their average life span was less than 30 (as far as we can tell and that was only the people that survived the first year of babyhood). They practiced infanticide and suffered all the hardship of clan warfare and then the poor, imprisoned missionaries came to tell them about God, many of them dying to do so. And within 20 or so years, they people gave up their freedom of headhunting and became 'imprisoned' in Christianity. The people still don't live like they should just like most of the Christians back here (they still have problems with wife beating lying etc.) but most of those problems come through ignorance in what being a Christian is all about (similar to quite a few Christians in Australia I might add), so that is why my family went over their to translate the Bible so that they might truely understand.

Not much of this will probably make sense to you because you are just as much 'imprisoned' by secularism as I am by Christianity. But I thought I would let you see how an 'imprisoned' Christian thinks of things

Suzannah said...

TJC, thanks for your comments. I deleted the original comment since it was so trollish--before I saw your comments.

Nice to get to know you a bit :).


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