Combining otherworldly adventures with elements of classical myth, fast-paced plots with cliffhanging tension, and imaginative fantasy with vivid prose, Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Martian Tales Trilogy (A Princess of Mars , The Gods of Mars , and The Warlord of Mars ) helped define a new literary genre emerging in the early twentieth century that would become known as science fiction. A Princess of Mars, which was originally published in installments in Argosy Magazine in 1912, launched Burroughs' illustrious writing career with its thrilling story of John Carter's adventures on Mars. This popular novel appeared in print only a year before Burroughs wrote the Tarzan epic that would catapult him to international fame.
Edgar Rice Burroughs had been a failure at practically everything he tried before he picked up the pen and started writing. Born in Chicago, Illinois, on September 1, 1875, Burroughs grew to maturity during the height of the Industrial Revolution and witnessed the emergence of the United States as a twentieth-century world power. Hailing from a well-to-do family, Burroughs was given an aristocratic education steeped in Latin and Greek, but he was drawn more to an itinerant life of adventure than to the desk or the boardroom. While his own life was marked by a series of frustrated business endeavors and unrealized dreams of military distinction, Burroughs filled his books with the sorts of adventures he fantasized about-journeys to distant planets, expeditions to the center of the earth, romances in the hidden frontiers of Africa.
By the time he turned to writing in his late thirties, Burroughs had beena soldier in Arizona, a mining speculator in Idaho, and a stenographer for Sears, Roebuck, in Chicago. Although he approached each venture with enthusiasm, Burroughs seemed unsuited for whatever occupation he attempted, and he grew discouraged at his repeated failures. When he began his writing career at age thirty-six, it was practically as a last resort: by 1911, as one of his biographers' reports, Burroughs had been "reduced to pawning his wife's jewelry in order to pay household bills." At the time of his death in 1950, however, with ninety-one books under his belt, Edgar Rice Burroughs had become one of the most famous and best-selling writers in history, with works translated into over thirty languages and sales estimated at over fifty million.
Along with such writers as Zane Grey, William Wallace Cook, Arthur Reeve, and Cornell Woolrich, Edgar Rice Burroughs contributed to the success of the pulp-fiction industry early in its history. The "pulps" were magazines printed on cheap paper made from pulpwood that featured page after page of rip-roaring adventure yarns offered for a dime. Their inexpensive format paved the way for both the comic book and the paperback novel. Burroughs' contribution to the pulp genre was not limited to the Mars stories-within a year of the initial success of A Princess of Mars, he had surpassed himself with the first of the immensely popular Tarzan stories, Tarzan of the Apes (1912). Nor did Burroughs confine himself to a single genre; he also wrote medieval romances (The Outlaw of Torn, 1914), westerns (The War Chief of the Apaches, 1927), and mainstream novels (The Girl from Hollywood, 1922).
Not only did Burroughs quickly achieve worldwide publishing success, but Hollywood soon adapted Tarzan to the new technological and cultural phenomenon called the motion picture. The first of many Tarzan films was made in 1918, and it turned both "Burroughs" and "Tarzan" into household words. Burroughs purchased a large ranch in California, renamed it "Tarzana," and, enjoying for the first time in his life the leisure that is afforded by wealth and success, continued his prodigious output of stories and novels.
Though marital problems plagued him later in life, Burroughs was a confirmed family man and a devoted father to his three children. He also considered himself a patriotic conservative, and immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 he joined the war effort, though at sixty-six he was too old to see active service. Burroughs served as a correspondent in the Pacific until the war ended, after which his health was too poor to resume writing his adventure tales with the zeal he had once possessed.
When The Martian Tales Trilogy was first reissued in 1964, it was criticized by Time as "a milestone in American bad taste." But critics and aficionados of science fiction in more recent years have defended Burroughs and celebrated his contribution to literature, showing particular appreciation and respect for his series of Mars and Venus stories. In spite of his immense popularity and perennial editions of his works, Burroughs has been largely ignored or dismissed by academic critics. He lacks the scientific sensibility of H.G. Wells, they charge, or the literary merit of Rudyard Kipling, both of whom were contemporaries. His defenders meet these charges obliquely. Without denying their accuracy, they counter by arguing that Burroughs delivers something lacking in other writers of fantastic adventures. As science-fiction writer Jack McDevitt puts it, "When it rains in a Burroughs novel, the reader gets wet." Perhaps what makes Burroughs' novels eternally compelling is the way he stretches the bounds of verisimilitude by narrating purely fantastic events with such nonchalant matter-of-factness that what he describes becomes believably present. The Martian Tales Trilogy, by any standard, is vividly exciting.
Burroughs' The Martian Tales Trilogy resounds with the clanging of swords, the cries of damsels in distress, and the guttural gesticulations of warriors locked in dire combat. John Carter is a hero cast in the epic mold - like Odysseus and Aeneas before him, he relies on his ingenuity and martial prowess to bring off an endless series of hair's-breadth escapes. Readers with even a passing familiarity with Greek and Roman mythology will recognize the classical influences in the imaginary world that Burroughs creates on Mars, both in terms of general plot (e.g., the search for a kidnapped queen) and specific themes (e.g., the journey to the underworld). John Carter's reunion with his son in The Gods of Mars, for instance, retains a clear echo of Odysseus meeting Telemachus for the first time near the end of Homer's Odyssey.
John Carter is far from a one-dimensional hero in spite of initial appearances. A former Confederate soldier, our hero is miraculously transported from Arizona, where he is employed as a mercenary by the U.S. government to wage war on the Apaches, to Mars. In effect, Carter dies on earth and is resurrected on Mars, which gives him a kind of quasi-immortality - he prefaces his narrative by remarking that "I am not like other men." Like most epic heroes, Carter possesses a certain degree of agelessness and an aura of the supernatural. But if a mysterious out-of-body experience transports him from earth and saves him from certain death at the hands of the Apaches, he is revived on Mars only to face immediate danger from the xenophobic Martians.
Once on Mars, Carter must constantly prove himself against foe after deadly foe in his long and sustained rise to eventual lordship over the entire planet. Along the way he fights pitched battles and wins victory at the point of a sword - winning the affections of Dejah Thoris, the "princess of Mars" who gives the first book its title, and the respect and approbation of the Martian warlords whom he befriends and aligns himself with in his march to power. Throughout the trilogy, Burroughs presents a world in which violence is the basic mode of discourse. John Carter gains the respect and loyalty of the native Martians through his systematic defeat of various chieftains in mortal combat. He is able to do this partly through his natural ability - as an earthman on Mars, he is pound for pound nearly four times as strong as the average Martian - and partly because of his natural military instincts, which had been honed in the American Civil War. Some critics have decried the fact that Carter embodies much of the character of European and American colonialism, and he exhibits many of its less admirable impulses.
In the second installment of the series, The Gods of Mars, Carter exposes the fraudulent Martian religion and leads a revolt to free the Martian races from the subjugation of a theocracy that thrives on living sacrifices. The excitement of the first novel is continued as John Carter and his allies engage the Black Pirates in tense airborne combat above the dead seas of Mars. In the third book, Warlord of Mars, Carter completes his climb to power, overcoming the forces of evil that would destroy the planet and oppress its inhabitants. The trilogy ends with the Martians all clamoring for a triumphant John Carter to be their king.
To enter the Martian world of Edgar Rice Burroughs is to adopt a whole new vocabulary and to be introduced to an entirely new cultural anthropology. Mars is called "Barsoom," and the planet teems with exotic plants and animals and brightly colored races of human-like Barsoomians. Nevertheless, Barsoom is a dying planet inhabited by an ambiguous civilization: on the one hand, the Martians possess technologies that far surpass anything on earth - computers, radium-powered aircraft, and telescopes so refined that the Barsoomians can make out individual humans on earth. On the other hand, most of the Martian races are primitive and warlike: laughter for Martians is an appropriate response to exhibitions of torture, and society consists of a tribal organization whose central legislative power is violence. Many critics have suggested that the way Burroughs presents an alien culture is merely a recycling of the myth of the "noble savage" left over from the nineteenth century, and that John Carter's awe and respect for the bravery and virtue of the native Martians is eclipsed by his contempt for their primitive culture.
Such cultural chauvinism became the standard rhetoric of European and American colonialists around the turn of the nineteenth century. Burroughs, robustly patriotic throughout his life, was especially sympathetic to the fin-de-siècle philosophy and foreign policy of Teddy Roosevelt. "I am a better warrior for the reason that I am a kind master," says John Carter in The Princess of Mars, clearly an expression of Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick" diplomatic strategy. Neither is his philosophy very far removed from the cultural arrogance espoused in Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden," though Burroughs inverts much of the racial hierarchy of his day by making "red men" the culturally dominant race on Mars, "black men" the oldest and "First Born" race, and relegating "whites" to the status of apes.
Burroughs was also heavily influenced by a combination of scientific ideas that were in popular circulation in the early twentieth century when he began writing. Darwin's Descent of Man (1871) clearly influenced the way in which Burroughs conceived the development of the various Martian races, while Darwin's general idea of evolution informs much of Burroughs' conception of how life on Mars originated and developed and eventually fell into decline. Another central influence was Percival Lowell, who published a series of books about Mars a few years before Burroughs started writing his Martian trilogy. Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908) were both written by an eminent and respected astronomer who based much of his theory of planetary development and evolution on what he mistakenly identified through his telescope as canals and waterways on Mars. Lowell made the case that Mars was a dying planet whose water sources were drying up, and that the ingenious Martians had accordingly designed a complex system of aqueducts to supply their cities. Midway through A Princess of Mars, John Carter notes: "Twice we crossed the famous Martian waterways, or canals, so-called by our earthly astronomers."
Probably the best modern-day cultural counterpart we can look to in understanding the power and impact of Burroughs' early pulp fictions are Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones films: non-stop action movies with furious and intense pacing that engage their audience and keep it on tenterhooks until the final climactic moments. It is all the more remarkable that Burroughs achieved his practically cinematic effects merely through the power of words on the printed page. The closing scenes in Burroughs' books are always ambiguous and just unresolved enough to allow for the option of a sequel. Each installment of the Martian trilogy ends with the tantalizing suggestion that John Carter is not finished with Mars.
Burroughs wrote eleven Mars novels. The first three are essentially one long narrative, best enjoyed when they are gathered together as they are in this collection. The Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs have entertained readers for nearly a century now, and they have become a veritable measuring stick for assessing the quality of the specifically Martian adventure tale. Ray Bradbury, who wrote his own Burroughs-inspired collection of stories called The Martian Chronicles (1950), admired Burroughs' Martian tales because they were romantic and moved the blood as much as the mind. Other writers who have penned Mars stories inspired by Burroughs include science-fiction authors Robert Heinlein and Michael Moorcock.
Identifying precisely what makes the novels of the Martian trilogy appealing to generation after generation of readers has eluded critics for decades, though it seems clear that part of their charm is the distinctly American spirit of adventure that pervades them. Throughout his glorious exploits on a planet some 48 million miles distant, John Carter identifies himself above all else as an American (and a Virginian, no less!). Perhaps the enduring power of Edgar Rice Burroughs may be best summed up in the words of one of his most acerbic critics, John Flautz, who admitted that, apart from whatever their deficiencies, the Martian novels "say something to the American soul."
Aaron Parrett is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Great Falls in Montana. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Georgia and is the author of The Translunar Narrative in the Western Tradition.