Anatomy of a Bad Story
First published in 1941, the same year as the
of Gathol novellas, and two years before Skeleton
Men of Jupiter in 1943, John
Carter and the Giant of Mars is the second last of the Barsoom
Without a doubt, the least liked and worst regarded
of all of the official Barsoom stories is John Carter and the Giant
of Mars. It is clumsy, awkward, the characters are drawn
broadly, the situations cliché, the resolution almost too pat.
Even its provenance is dubious. John
Carter and the Giant of Mars started off as a children's Big
Little Book. You know the sort? Story on one
page, a picture or drawing on the other, simplified text. It
explains some of the ham-fisted writing of the story.
Burroughs was confined to 15,000 words, and worse,
it had to be written so the simplified, child-accessible text (in which
more common terms like ray gun or airplane would crowd canonical terms
like radium pistol or flyer) would suit an illustration on the opposite
page. Burroughs, apparently, had trouble with the rigid format, so
he asked his son, John Coleman
Burroughs, an illustrator to collaborate with him. John
Coleman Burroughs, in addition to helping with the writing and plotting
did the illustrations.
Parts of the story make more sense given this
history. The rather more interesting geography of Helium's
surroundings, for instance, clearly is designed with an illustration in
mind. The picture was almost certainly drawn before the text
Barsoomian animals had way too many legs for simple
or easy illustrations, so a three-legged creature was both bizarre, easy
to draw (in the same way that four-fingered hands on cartoon characters
are easier to draw than five fingered hands) and simpler to reproduce.
The giant Joog, Pew Mogul, the ‘cage of death’, the rain of parachutes
are all very clearly driven by the demands for simple yet striking images
in a spare small square panel.
The restrictions of the format also drove the
writing. Having to make sure your text is something that
can be rendered into a good picture every 500 words or so forces a certain
rhythm onto the writing. There's a pace, a cadence, which becomes
awkward when you shift it to other formats. The demands to write
for and to pictures also meant that you'd lose a lot of the internal emotional
dynamic. John Carter could no longer share his hopes and dreams,
his inspirations and his concerns. He can only act. And he
has to act something interesting to look at every 500 words.
The audience was going to be children, not his
customary readers. So obviously, Burroughs and/or his son had
to shift from writing for an adult or adolescent audience down to elementary
school children. The dialogue simplifies, the descriptions and action
sequences simplify (but luckily, there will be pictures). The
language itself simplifies.
Esoteric terms like Radium Pistol or Flyer, well
established in the Barsoom stories, were to be introduced to kids who had
no background in those stories, in a format where it would be hard to explain
all the terms all over again. Instead, more accessible terms
like airplane, aircraft, atom gun, ray gun and submachine gun were introduced.
Later, Ray Palmer of Amazing Stories asked for
a new Mars story, so Burroughs and his son dusted the ‘big little book’
story off, wrote a new ending and added another five or six thousand words.
Now remember, this was long before the days of
word processors or computers. The story had been painstakingly
typed out on manual typewriters, and if you wanted to redo a passage, or
even change a word, you might well have to retype the entire page, or an
entire chapter. So it's not as if Burroughs could fire up the
old machine and just ‘adult’ the whole thing up.
Moreover, it had been so carefully structured
for its ‘Big Little Book’ format that a rewrite or polish would be tricky.
Literally, if you started tinkering with it, you could well wind up getting
suckered into spending the time and energy doing a total rewrite.
In fact, the way these things sometimes work, you could spend more time
on the rewrite working out and solving problems, than you would invest
in a new work. So, it was hardly cost effective under the circumstances.
The simplest thing to do, was to stick another
sheet of paper in, and then just keep tacking on additional pages to the
ending, or sneak in a new chapter here and there. But then, you've
sort of got to hang onto the original style, brain damaged as it is.
And look at this strategically. It
was a one shot novella. Unlike Llana of Gathol or Escape
on Venus, it wasn't a part of a continuing adventure, it wasn't
going to be assembled into a novel or a book and get republished.
There was no place to go with it. They'd sold it as a big little
book, they'd sold it to Palmer, which was basically free money.
But after that, the story had no place to go, it was fundamentally handicapped
as a dead end.
There is a single line which hints that at one
point, it might have been contemplated as a prologue to the Skeleton
Men of Jupiter. But fundamentally, this was a story that was
painted into a corner. There was no place to take it, either
commercially in terms of publishing and marketing, nor artistically in
terms of characters or adventures.
So, given that it's a dead end with no place to
go, how does Edgar Rice Burroughs, a man who makes his living as a writer,
which means writing strategically, justify throwing in a lot of extra work
to refurbish a story which is transparently weak? He can't.
Basically, he does what he can with it and then moves on. And
that's about it.
Of course, when it gets to Ray Palmer, well, he's
an Editor. He could have edited it to make it more stylistically
consistent with other Barsoom stories, weeded out the anachronistic words,
etc. But he's been begging for the story and Burroughs is a
pretty big name. Does he really want to step on Tarzan’s toes?
All he can really do is hold his nose and let it go out.
The story has officially always been credited
to Burroughs and published through his company and under the licenses of
his estate. On the other hand, Richard Lupoff, in Edgar Rice Burroughs,
Master of Adventure attributes John Coleman Burroughs as the primary
Personally, I don't have any kind of window into
John Coleman Burroughs writing style, if any. So I can't really state
that the story is more his style of writing, rather than Edgar Rice Burroughs.
And I'm not sure, really, that the limitations and flaws in the work derive
from anything but the restrictions and limitations that would arise from
its publishing history.
Whiff of Barsoom
All right. So, once we've dissed the
work, is it really Barsoom? Is this really John Carter?
In all the essentials, I think that it is.
John Carter, slightly dumbed down, is still the
same character we've always known. He's an Earthman, passionately
devoted to Dejah Thoris, unparalleled swordsman, homicidal maniac, a man
who never surrenders, and one who inspires passionate devotion.
His Dejah Thoris is much as we've seen her in other tales.
Tars Tarkas the Thark is sufficiently stoic and
Tharkish, and lord of the feudal Thark tribes. Kantos Kan is
well established as Carter's friend. The cast of characters
is all there, and basically, they come through as who they are and are
established to be.
Ras Thavas appears by reference, something which
would have puzzled eight year old readers (Who is that? The toddler asks).
Hormads and Malagors spring direct from the Synthetic
Men of Mars. The White Apes with transplanted red-man
brains are from the Master
Mind of Mars. The battle of Helium descends to us all
the way from Princess of Mars. The dead city on the sea bottom
is a staple of the entire series.
John Carter and the Giant of Mars just
can't win. When people aren't criticizing it for showing things
we haven't seen, we're condemning it for raiding the previous books.
And yet, beneath all the handicaps, the characters
ring true, and some of the situations, as when Carter makes his way among
the dried bodies of long dead Korvians, have the feel of true Barsoom.
There are worthwhile nuggets in this story, images and scenes, bits and
pieces, if you're willing to work a little harder than usual to get them.
Well look, clearly, it is a part of the Barsoom
series, and deserves to be treated as such. The roots are there and
they go deep. What we must do is examine the new branches and see
how compatible they are with the series.
Geography of Helium, Revisited
Helium seems rather more interesting than it has
been previously. On the first page, we have this remarkable
“It was the custom of Dejah Thoris, Princess
of Helium, to ride forth weekly to inspect part of her grandfather's vast
farming and industrial kingdom. Her journey to the farm lands wound
through the lonely Helium Forest where grow the huge trees that furnish
much of the lumber supply to the civilized nations of Mars. Dawn
was just breaking in the eastern Martian sky, and the jungle was dark and
Well, this is interesting. There's a
‘Helium Forest’? We haven't heard that before.
And quite a forest it is, with huge trees, described as a jungle, and a
major lumber supplier. Also, note the reference to a vast farming
and industrial kingdom, again, sort of an unfamiliar description of Helium.
But there's more, a few pages in, Pew Mogel leaves
a note wherein he says:
“I... have decided to take over the iron
works of Helium. The iron will furnish me with all the ships I need...
If you have not evacuated all your workers from the iron mines and factories...”
There's a confirming reference to ‘great iron works,’
suggesting that there Helium possesses either within its twin cities, or
perhaps in some adjacent area, an industrial complex of mines, smelters
and factories... The ‘iron works.’
The geography around Helium continues to get more
interesting in the later chapters. In chapter nine, John Carter
and Dejah Thoris, riding their Malagor come upon the besieging army.
Helium is in a spacious valley. A few breaths later, the Malagor
descends upon a mountain peak overlooking ‘the valley of Helium.’
It's apparently a very spacious valley. John Carter reports low foothills
between Helium and the mountain peak he is upon, and refers to mountains
in the plural as towering peaks. Pew Mogel's entire army is
camped out in the foothills. Tars Tarkas forces appear to be
in the mountains, and about half of them are assigned to raid and conduct
guerilla activities there.
The Helium fleet, in the next chapter, retreats
over the mountains as it cannot break the siege. Also, Tars
Tarkas green men are camped out in the mountains as well. Chapter
12 refers to the giant, Jook on the plain between the mountains and the
city. This valley appears to be pretty spacious, since there's
no reference at all to foothills or mountains on the other side of Helium.
This implies that the other side is so far off as to be strategically useless
for either the besiegers or the defenders.
So, there we have it. Helium sits
on a spacious valley, in a plain bordered by foothills and backed by mountains,
the whole area called the Helium Valley. Somewhere in the area
is the Helium forest, and somewhere else presumably, are the mines, smelters
and factories of the Helium Iron Works. The Helium forest does
not appear to be too close to Helium, since there is no reference to it
on the plains or foothills around the city where Pew Mogel lays his siege.
We can also assume that the Helium Iron Works are also located away from
the city, or Pew Mogel would have no need to make a separate demand.
Hardly the Helium we know. Or is it?
First, if we turn to the canonical sources, what
we discover is that there's very little information about Helium's geography.
Nice references to the twin cities themselves, their remarkable towers,
their spacious boulevards, the avenue of the ancestors, the gate of the
jeddaks, yadda yadda yadda.
On the other hand, there isn’t much information
as to the actual geography of the area itself. The best information
we have comes about in Princess of Mars, when John Carter, Dejah
Thoris and Sola conspire to escape the Tharks:
"The great waterway which leads to Helium
is but fifty miles to the south," murmured Sola, half to herself; "a swift
thoat might make it in three hours; and then to Helium it is five hundred
miles, most of the way through thinly settled districts. They would know
and they would follow us. We might hide among the great trees for a time,
but the chances are small indeed for escape. They would follow us to the
very gates of Helium, and they would take toll of life at every step; you
do not know them." (Chapter XVI, Princess of Mars)
Now this is interesting. Note the reference
to ‘great trees’. And not just a few of them, there must be
a forest or jungle of formidable extent if Sola can count on hiding out
in the woods for a while. Ergo, it appears that there is indeed a
‘Helium Forest’ somewhere in the region of the twin cities.
How about that?
“Taking a great diamond from her hair
she (Dejah Thoris) drew upon the marble floor the first map of Barsoomian
territory I had ever seen. It was crisscrossed in every direction with
long straight lines, sometimes running parallel and sometimes converging
toward some great circle. The lines, she said, were waterways; the circles,
cities; and one far to the northwest of us she pointed out as Helium. There
were other cities closer, but she said she feared to enter many of them,
as they were not all friendly toward Helium.”
Finally, after studying the map carefully in the
moonlight which now flooded the room, I pointed out a waterway far to the
north of us which also seemed to lead to Helium.
"Does not this pierce your grandfather's
territory?" I asked.
Overall, not terribly helpful. Hostile
cities include Zor and Zodanga, around the time of Carter's first journey
to Mars, around 1860. Neither of which are active enemies later
in the series. In fact, in Giant of Mars, which in chronological
terms probably takes place around 1940, or eighty years later, it looks
like Helium has pacified most of its neighbors. John Carter
in the Giant of Mars tells us:
"Yes," she answered, "but it is two hundred miles
north of us; it is one of the waterways we crossed on the trip to Thark."
(Chapter XVI, Princess of Mars)
“Cities for miles around Helium are now
all friendly. They would have warned us of this Pew Mogel if they
had known of him. He has probably taken over one of the deserted
cities in the dead sea bottom east or west of Helium. It means thousands
of miles to search...”
Back to Princess of Mars. Geographical
information continues to be fairly thin. John Carter describes
looking for the cities:
“Helium lies a thousand miles southwest
of Zodanga, and with my compass intact I should have made the trip, barring
accidents, in between four and five hours. As it turned out, however, morning
found me speeding over a vast expanse of dead sea bottom after nearly six
hours of continuous flight at high speed. Presently a great city showed
below me, but it was not Helium, as that alone of all Barsoomian metropolises
consists in two immense circular walled cities about seventy-five miles
apart and would have been easily distinguishable from the altitude at which
I was flying. Believing that I had come too far to the north
and west, I turned back in a southeasterly direction, passing during the
forenoon several other large cities, but none resembling the description
which Kantos Kan had given me of Helium. In addition to the twin-city formation
of Helium, another distinguishing feature is the two immense towers, one
of vivid scarlet rising nearly a mile into the air from the center of one
of the cities, while the other, of bright yellow and of the same height,
marks her sister. (Chapter XXIII, Princess of Mars)”
So, roughly southwest of Zodanga, a thousand miles,
two circular walled cities 75 miles apart with two immense towers.
Got it. Notice that there's no description of the surrounding
countryside. In Chessmen of Mars, one of the Towers falls:
“And in another instant was the Vanator
forgotten as the lofty, scarlet tower that had marked Lesser Helium for
ages crashed to ground, carrying death and demolition upon the city beneath.
Panic reigned. A fire broke out in the ruins. The city's every force seemed
crippled, and it was then that The Warlord ordered the men that were about
to set forth in search of Tara of Helium to devote their energies to the
salvation of the city, for he too had witnessed the start of the Vanator
and realized the futility of wasting men who were needed sorely if Lesser
Helium was to be saved from utter destruction. (Chapter II,
Chessmen of Mars)
So, Lesser Helium isn't doing too well.
Later on, in Llana of Gathol, Carter offers us this bit of geographical
“Upon the occasion of which I am about
to tell you I flew northwest from Helium, which lies 30 degrees south of
the Equator which I crossed about sixteen hundred miles east of Exum, the
Barsoomian Greenwich. North and west of me lay a vast, almost unexplored
region; and there I thought to find the absolute solitude for which I craved.
I had set my directional compass upon Horz, the long deserted city of ancient
Barsoomian culture, and loafed along at seventy-five miles an hour at an
altitude of five hundred to a thousand feet. I had seen some green men
northeast of Torquas and had been forced up to escape their fire, which
I did not return as I was not seeking adventure; and I had crossed two
thin ribbons of red Martian farm land bordering canals that bring the precious
waters from the annually melting ice caps at the poles. Beyond these I
saw no signs of human life in all the five thousand miles that lie between
Lesser Helium and Horz. (Chapter 1, Llana of Gathol)”
And that's about it. Roughly 30 degrees
latitude, somewhere abouts. Given that the reference point,
Exum, is never confirmed, we can't even guess at the longitude.
Recourse to John Flint Roy's Guide to Barsoom
(don't leave home without it) gives us this (abridged) information:
“Its boundaries extend from the southern
ice fields, where water is obtained for its canals, to and beyond the equator
and from the borders of Torquas in the west to an undefined frontier far
to the east.... Within the borders of the Empire are several
dry seabeds, ranges of modest mountains, miles of rolling hills and here
and there, valleys whose soil still holds enough moisture to support small
forests, the commercial value of which cannot be overestimated. Mining
is fairly extensive.... The two cities lie on a broad plain....”
This is broadly consistent with John Carter and
the Giant of Mars, significant since Roy has deliberately excluded
that story from his ‘canon’ survey. And it does hint at something
which is never alluded to, but has to naturally follow.
Helium is a major industrial and technological
power. What the hell do they make? Tupperware?
Hardly. We're clearly shown that Helium has the largest and
most advanced fleet of warships, its cities are architectural wonders.
Well, they're not buying their warships, they're building them.
Which suggests that Helium has a substantial industrial base, an industrial
complex for mining, smelting, refining and various kinds of manufacture.
In essence, if Helium doesn't have a great Iron Works in the rest of the
series, then obviously, it needs one.
There is contradictory information in the series.
At one point, Carter goes out of his way to diss Barsoom's mountains, most
of which are puny by Earth standards. However, through the
course of the book, he seems to acknowledge both the Otz and Torquas mountains
as significant ranges, and the Artolian Hills, being tall enough to be
snow capped, seem to be in a class of their own.
But overall, we aren't given any information which
contradicts the description of John Carter's Helium (one of them anyway)
being in a spacious valley, on a large plain bordered by foothills and
then mountains. In Giant of Mars, we get more detail
which seems remarkable to us, mainly because previously, we had almost
Finally, in my “Matching
Mars” articles, I attempt to locate Barsoom on Mars, using a topographic
map as my guide. My candidate is at the eastern edges of the
Hellas Basin about latitude 30. It's a rocky area surrounded by low
mountain ranges, hills, and broad valleys. In short, the Helium of
of Mars matches or adds to the geographical knowledge that we have
or can reasonably infer. It isn't necessarily contrary.
Dead City, Dead End
Pew Mogel's headquarters is Korvas.
Described as "A deserted city at the banks of the dead sea at Korvas."
Latitude and Longitude are given, but unfortunately, not given to us.
The location is mostly framed for us in negative
terms. It isn't anywhere close to Helium, and somewhere to
the east or west:
“Cities for miles around Helium are now
all friendly. They would have warned us of this Pew Mogel if they
had known of him. He has probably taken over one of the deserted
cities in the dead sea bottom east or west of Helium. It means thousands
of miles to search...”
Meanwhile, John Carter winds up travelling a vast
distance. He notes that he is over 500 miles out from Helium
in his search. He sets his aircraft on autopilot and then has
a snooze. The next morning, he's given the location of Korvas, but,
maddeningly enough, we are not.
There is only a bare bit of directional information
granted to us. As John Carter and Dejah Thoris escape Korvas
and head for the city of Helium, they stop at the city of Thark to recruit
Tars Tarkas’ green warriors. This implies that Thark may be
somewhere roughly between Helium and Korvas. This means that
Korvas is somewhere east of Helium.
Mogel, His Life and Wonderful Works
Mogul is a bizarre creature. A hideous form, he is a microcephalic
with a tiny bullet head, a hulking crooked torso, one arm longer than the
other, one foot larger than the other, yellow teeth, a thick tongue, claw
like hands and not a hair anywhere on his body. One of his
eyes has a disconcerting habit of popping out. Severing his
head from his body doesn't halt his body from attacking or his head from
screaming. He claims, with some justification, that he cannot
Well, John Carter has seen this before.
He's a Hormad, one of Ras Thavas’ synthetic men. But
Pew Mogul is arguably not just a Hormad, but the first Hormad.
This is based on a single line of dialogue:
“I am Ras Thavas’ Artificial Man.
I never die. I never die!!”
He's not ‘an’ artificial men, rather he considers
himself ‘the’ Artificial Man. Now perhaps this is simply Hormad
puffery, he rolled off the assembly line and called himself by the definite
article. But then, why wouldn't he say ‘greatest of the artificial
men’ or some such phrase, and in fact, he does claim to be Ras Thavas’
In that, he's probably not far off.
Pew Mogel's accomplishments, including duplicating Ras Thavas brain transplants
on a massive scale, recreating a comparable laboratory, constructing Joog,
breeding a gigantic flock of modified Malagors, secretly assembling and
equipping a huge army, and inserting spies and assassins into the heart
of Helium, speaks to a degree of genius which may well be in the same elevated
leagues as Ras Thavas and Phor Tak themselves. In addition, the deformed
monster does not lack for either courage or leadership. It
took remarkable resolve to flee Morbus for the wild yonder, and remarkable
persuasion to bring so many of his companions with him.
But in his moment of anguish, the way he says
it admits to no other artificial men. In short, Pew Mogul is drawing
a distinction. It's a thin argument, but one worth pursuing.
There are a couple of pieces of evidence which
suggests that Pew Mogul may well have been the original artificial man,
or certainly a very early experiment.
One of these is that Pew Mogul possesses a skill
literally unique on Mars, an ability to do neurosurgery to the level of
successfully transplanting brains from one creature to another.
Of all the beings on Mars, only Ras Thavas himself and Ulysses Paxton possess
So why does Mogul have it? It's possible
that Ras Thavas decided to teach it to the Hormad after Ulysses Paxton
shows up. But why bother? The whole point of teaching it to
Paxton in the first place is not to take the pressure of work off, but
so that Paxton can operate on Ras Thavas. And here's the thing,
Ras Thavas has been looking for a trustworthy disciple for a long time.
There seems no good reason he'd bother to educate and train the Hormad
in his most prized skill after he has obtained his own brain transplant.
What seems more likely is that Ras Thavas, dissatisfied
with the Red Men he worked with, and lacking trust in them, decided to
create his own artificial man in order to do the brain transplant that
he needed. Pew Mogel was thus, effectively a tool that Ras
Thavas intended to use, and perhaps discard.
Mogel responded by running away, and building
his own laboratory. And this is another clue to suggest that
Pew Mogel goes way back. He's been out in Korvas for a very,
very long time. He didn't move out there last week, or even
any time within the last few years.
The record shows that he's had time to create
his giant, Joog. Joog the giant, while a singular being, is
not implausible in Barsoomian terms. Sure, he's a 130
foot giant, manufactured by hybridized tissues and rendered invulnerable.
But the Synthetic Men of Mars produced a similar monstrosity, the
ameboid growth in vat 13 that devoured Morbus, and threatened all of Barsoom
Joog is merely more coherent, and perhaps because of the introduction of
hybrid tissues, perhaps more resilient. Joog himself, while
colossal, may actually be built to the scale of Zitidars, who seem to be
dinosaur sized. So he may not even be beyond the outer norms of the
Pew Mogel's had time to transplant the brains
of thousands of criminal red men into white apes. To breed
a fleet of Malagors (and apparently to imbue them with the unnatural strength
and endurance to meet mechanical flyers on nearly equal terms).
He has had the time to build and equip both a lab and an army, and speaking
of that army, he's had to devise and adapt weapons to the sizes of great
white apes, as well as tinker with his malagors and malagor mountings.
He's had to train them, prepare them, and organize battle plans.
This is not something that can be done quickly or easily.
He's been there so long, working covertly, that
‘Barsoomian rats’ have literally had time to build a culture, to erect
buildings out of the bones of his discards.
In short, Pew Mogel has been beavering away in
Korvas for centuries at least, perhaps even close to a millennia.
This puts him well before the date of Synthetic Men of Mars, and
in fact, well before John Carter's arrival on Barsoom.
Pew Mogel may reach back deep into Ras Thavas
history, to his original labs at the site Ulysses Paxton materializes (although
Mogel notes that he made his escape from Morbus, with a hundred other artificial
men and a flock of Malagors). How far back does Mogel go?
He might well date back to Thavas’ estrangement from his native city, Toonol.
He might date back to the end of Thavas’ first millennia, when age was
first creeping up on the genius.
He might have a hand in other incidents heretofore
unexplained. In this, I'm thinking of the mysterious
attack on the atmosphere plant at the end of the Princess of Mars.
Who else might wish for the death of the entire world, but for an immortal
synthetic man who believes that he will survive all else?
And then, finally, there is this remarkable line
in his ransom note:
“I... have decided to take over the iron
works of Helium. The iron will furnish me with all the ships I need
to protect Helium and the other cities of Barsoom from invasion.”
Little did we know, there actually is an invasion
of Barsoom in the offing. The Skeleton Men of Jupiter, the invaders
from Eurobus, were even then preparing their assault. Did Pew Mogel
know? If so how? We can only speculate.
Perhaps Pew Mogel's biography might well solve
a few riddles.
In the Giant of Mars, we've got some critters,
some of which we've seen before, some of which we haven't.
One of them, unfortunately, really seems to stick in people's craw.
There are, for instance, Thoats, well established
as eight legged horse-like creatures. There are Great White
Apes, which initially seem smarter than average. It turns out that
they have transplanted human or hormad brains. And then there are
Malagors, great flying birds large enough to carry a green martian, or
a couple of human sized persons.
All of the Malagors have apparently been bred
from a small flock that Pew Mogel took with him from the Toonolian Marshes
and the island of Morbus. Although it is never referred
to directly, these Malagors don't seem precisely like the nearly extinct
bird of the Marshes. For one thing, their endurance is phenomenal,
they can fly thousands of miles from Korvus to Helium, nonstop, or with
very few stops. They can carry Great White apes and heavy loads
of equipment. Indeed, a flock of them can carry Joog.
Meanwhile, in aerial combat, they are able to meet Helium's mechanical
aircraft, the speeds and capacities of which are very well established,
on very nearly even terms. In short, these Malagors have likely
been altered by Pew Mogel, modified, perhaps, by the same processes that
give the hormad its resilience.
But past that, there are creatures that we have
not seen before.... Arboks, Reptiles and most unusually, a
giant three legged rat that is definitely not an ulsio.
The Arbok is apparently, a reptilian forest creature.
A sort of poisonous tree dwelling lizard or snake which hunts by ambush
and is large enough to pose a handful to John Carter. Dejah
Thoris describes these creatures as monsters, and assures Carter that her
father and grandfather have had the species hunted out in the Helium forest.
Not quite correct. And that's all the description we have.
Well, we haven't seen the Arbok before.
But perhaps there was no reason that we should have. There are not
many forests around, and for the most part, Carter doesn't spend a lot
of time in forests and jungles. There's nothing about this creature
that would exclude it from Barsoom.
in Pew Mogel's lair John Carter and Dejah Thoris are menaced by reptiles.
We don't have much of a description of these reptiles at all.
They are semi-aquatic creatures, living in the water pit in which Mogel
has situated his fiendish death trap. Oddly enough for reptiles,
they are apparently warm blooded, since at one point, our heroes feel their
hot breath. They have reptilian jaws, but apparently flexible
forelegs with gripping paws since they reach through the bars of the cage.
Reptiles are found on Barsoom, particularly in
the Toonolian Marshes. But there is a giant lizard encountered at
Ghasta. It is unusual for reptiles, particularly large dangerous
ones to be found in a dried out, dead city.
The most likely explanation is that these reptilian
creatures may actually be failed experiments of Pew Mogel, perhaps transplanted
Toonolian reptiles, or grown from reptile tissue that was brought by Pew
Mogel and his men during his escape. It's worth noting that
on Earth, certain reptiles and amphibians have regenerative qualities,
a quality that the hormads share in extreme fashion. It's likely
that Thavas, when imbuing his hormads, incorporated reptilian tissue.
Hence, reptiles or reptilian tissue might form an important component in
Pew Mogel's stores.
big howler, of course, is a Martian Rat which is definitely not the Ulsio.
Carter has encountered the Ulsio several times, and its almost always been
a bad experience. The Ulsio is a many legged (number undefined) omnivorous
scavenger about the size of an Airedale terrier which digs and inhabits
tunnels beneath cities living and dead. It's most notable feature
is a horny face covering, a sort of bill or beak, which resembles bone
and gives the creature the appearance of a rotting face partially exposed
to the bone.
John Carter several times calls the Ulsio a Martian
Rat in previous books. We assume he's referring to the Ulsio's
tunnel crawling habits, its infestations of cities and its omnivorous scavenging
nature. But ‘Rat’ is an Earth word, and the creature's true name
The creatures that John Carter encounters, whatever
else they are, are not Ulsios. These creatures are three
legged rather than many legged. In fact, that's part of their
description. They are not just Martian Rats, but ‘Three legged
Martian Rats’, in much the same way that a a bald eagle, crested
nuthatch, white tailed deer or gray wolf are named after their distinctive
There is no mention of the Ulsio's horrific ‘rotting
face’ appearance, with these creatures. On the other hand, these
creatures, whatever they are, have long scaly rat-like tails, which they
can use like whips or clubs. Other features mentioned are yellow
teeth and gleaming green or pink eyes and whiskers. They have two
hind legs and a single foreleg, which appears to double as a hand when
they sit or walk upright. They have external ears. They
seem somewhat larger than Ulsios as well.
Where they truly differ from Ulsios is in intelligence
and behaviour. These creatures are, at the very least, semi-sentient.
When they capture John Carter, they do not immediately devour him.
Instead, they drag him to their ‘community.’ John Carter observes
them constructing huts of bone and garbage. They have a dominant
male, a king, who engages in ritualistic behaviour, constructing a circle
of skulls and then throwing them one at a time at Carter. Meanwhile,
the other ‘three legged rats’ form two circles of dancers around the pair.
Now, we don't and cannot know what this means.
But the signs are unmistakable that we are witnessing intelligent ritual
social behaviour. Aspects of this behaviour are duplicated
in animals. Beavers build lodges, and many other animals, including
bowery birds, build elaborate nests. Honeybees dance.
Excited dogs will course in circles. But the combination of features
here suggests, at the very least some sort of proto-sentient colony or
hive social structure and at least monkey or ape-like levels of intelligence.
Ulsios display neither these signs of intelligence
or social behaviour. The Ulsio's that we see are solitary,
if fierce, burrowers. There's no sign of Ulsios congregating
in social groups, engaged in anything more constructive than building more
tunnels, or exhibiting any kind of ritual behaviour.
So, perhaps this is just a situation where John
Carter ascribes ‘rat’ qualities to two different creatures, and uses the
Morphologically, the ‘three legged rat’ is a unique
creature. Burroughs Barsoom features a variety of life forms
of 16, 10, 8, 6 and 4 legs. Even Birds have four limbs, two feet
and two wings. An odd numbered limb creature is distinctive.
But perhaps not out of the question. We
know that on Earth, some animals divert from bilateral symmetry.
Crabs, for instance have two different kinds of pincers on their front,
usually a gripping claw and a cutting claw. We also know that
on Earth, some animals, such as snakes, sea mammals and certain flightless
birds lose their limbs. So, perhaps what we are seeing here
is a reductive process a four limbed animal reducing down to three?
Why or how is a mystery.
Unfortunately, the description of the creatures
is too brief and too vague to allow us to perform a more detailed analysis.
Perhaps some of the illustrations from John Coleman Burroughs would be
of assistance. But these images are not available, so far as I know.
In some ways, the ‘three legged rats’ are reminiscent
of George Pal's Martian invaders from ‘War of the Worlds,’ or perhaps Larry
Niven's Moties from the Mote in God's Eye. But any such resemblance
or suggestion is completely coincidental. This is a weak and
little known work of Burroughs, and the other affinities are decades later.
In any event, Barsoom has a strange enough assortment of flora and fauna,
including plant men and kaldanes that a three legged creature is bizarre,
but perhaps not completely out of place. Nor does Burroughs
shy away from mentioning new or additional creatures from one book to the
Whatever these creatures are though, clearly,
they are something John Carter has seen before. He recognizes them
enough to describe them. He betrays little surprise.
Like the Arbok, and perhaps unlike the pit reptiles, they are probably
a fairly widespread form of life on Barsoom.
So, why call them ‘Martian Rats’ and create all
the confusion with Ulsios? Once again, we must note that the
term ‘rat’ is an earthly terrestrial term. It is being applied
to a Barsoomian creature based on some trick of resemblance of appearance,
habitat or behaviour.
Sure to cause confusion? Perhaps.
This may be why Carter is careful to mention it's the ‘three legged’ variety.
But if the creature is relatively common, or at
least not unknown on Barsoom, why haven't we seen or heard of it before.
The most nakedly honest explanation is that they haven't bothered John
Carter before this. Remember, Carter is a fighting man, not
a naturalist. He's not all that concerned with laying out a detailed
taxonomy of Barsoomian life. He never bothers to tell us, for
example, how many legs a Zitidar has, or what exactly it looks like.
Mostly, when John Carter (or Burroughs other heroes)
are describing animals, they are most concerned with those animals that
are dangerous or helpful to them, and even then, their descriptions of
dangerous ones are sometimes confined to the dangerous parts of them.
So, if you're John Carter, skulking around a deserted
city, hiding from Green Men, watching out for White Apes, fighting Banths,
looking after Thoats and Calots, and keeping an eye out for Ulsio....
Perhaps, in a parade like that, a relatively harmless three legged rat
is just not going to make a big impression.
What makes these rats particularly distinctive
is the huge size of their colony. When hunting rats, John Carter
goes through the trouble of going to the Korvas colony. One would
expect that if there were large enough colonies closer by, he would have
gone there. Thus, if we assume that the ‘Three legged rat’ is not
a rare species, other colonies must be tiny in comparison.
Carter goes back to Korvas because that's where the numbers are.
And of course, the other thing that makes this
colony distinctive, is that they've been eating human flesh for quite some
time, and may have acquired the taste. Hardly comforting, considering
the size of the colony. This may be one of the
rare occasions when Carter would consider such creatures dangerous and
Arguably, it's a thin explanation. But hey,
we work with what we've got.
Terminology differs substantially from other Barsoom
stories. For instance, radium pistols and rifles are referred
to as atomic guns and ray guns. It appears that these additional
terms are synonyms, since the radium pistol or radium rifle is still used,
and the weapons appear to function in the same way. A reference
to ‘submachine gun’ while an incongruously Earthly term is still likely
a reference to a variety of radium weapon.
Barsoomian flyers are seldom referred to by that name, the term Aircraft
and Airplane are used instead. At least some of the flyers
have closed cabins or cargo spaces, but again not unheard of.
The language is a tricky thing. Viewed objectively,
a rose is a rose, whatever you call it. We know that atom gun or
ray gun or airplane are just other words, equally suitable, for the things
we know; radium pistols and flyers. It still rings false in
our ears. But what the heck, deal with it. Even Burroughs best
hits false notes.
Parachutes are seen and used, as is radio equipment.
Neither of these things seem to be commonly found on Barsoom, at least,
we haven't seen many previous references. But on the other hand,
there's no reason why they couldn't or shouldn't be on Barsoom.
One notable matter is that the story is told,
not from the first person singular viewpoint of John Carter, but from a
third person narrative. Thus, for a change, John Carter is
not speaking to the audience directly. He is the principle character,
and the narration follows closely. Rather, his words are being
attenuated. The change of terms and slang cheapens the work, but
doesn't invalidate it.
Some of the anomalies are not true anomalies,
but merely marks of the passage of time and circumstance. In
of Mars, Dejah Thoris describes a Helium surrounded by unfriendly states.
By the time of Giant of Mars, most of Helium's rivals have either
been conquered or pacified.
At one point, a distraught Dejah Thoris tells
Carter “Thank Issus you are alive.” Issus is the discredited
false goddess of the Iss cult, which was brought down in the Gods of
Mars. But old habits die hard, and one can imagine her
reverting to empty colloquialisms in times of stress.
Princess of Mars records the numbers of
the Thark nation as around 40,000. But in Giant of Mars, Tars
Tarkas leads 100,000 Thark in defense of Helium. An inconsistency
of numbers? Or perhaps a natural expansion? In Princess
of Mars prior to the sack of Zodanga, Tars Tarkas gives this speech
to his Tharks.
"John Carter suggests that we rescue
her and return her to Helium. The loot of Zodanga would be magnificent,
and I have often thought that had we an alliance with the people of Helium
we could obtain sufficient assurance of sustenance to permit us to increase
the size and frequency of our hatchings, and thus become unquestionably
supreme among the green men of all Barsoom. What say you?"
(Chapter XXIV, Princess of Mars)
Well, the Thark have been allied with Helium for
decades now, it's been as much as 70 years since Tars Tarkas met John Carter.
They've grown rich and powerful through that alliance. Their numbers
have increased through hatchlings and perhaps by incorporating Warhoon
tribesmen into the Thark nation. So, by this time, they are unquestionably
supreme among the green men of all Barsoom.
the End of the Day
John Carter and the Giant of Mars will
always be considered the red headed stepchild of the Barsoom canon.
Without a doubt, it is the most poorly written and awkwardly constructed.
The fine etchings of Burroughs characters and situations are reduced to
crude scrawls. And that is going to count, no matter what.
Of the nine novels and six novellas, this is the least of them.
But, like it or not, it seems that it was at least
co-written by Burroughs, and is officially a part of the series as much
as Skeleton Men of Jupiter.
The temptation is to ignore it. But
I would argue that this isn't the way to go. As inconsistent
as it seems, there is arguably nothing in John Carter and the Giant
of Mars that definitely contradicts the other Barsoom tales.
The tale of the Giant can be fit comfortably into the Barsoom canon.