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Volume 2315a
Edgar Rice Burroughs On Mars
eText Reference
J. Allen St. John: Chessmen of Mars - 8 sepia interiors - Jetan board on back cover
A Review of The Chessmen Of Mars
by
R.E. Prindle

Part II
The Dance Of Barsoom
     The twenties were a difficult financial period for ERB, indeed, as was the rest of his life to be.  The substantial sums he had made in Chicago were spent before he left.  ERB had saved nothing.  He arrived in LA with no other resources than his current income.  That income was very substantial by any measure but unequal to ERB's massive spending capabilities so that at the time he wrote Chessmen he was already strapped for cash and headed for deep debt.

     Always envious of the fabulous sums paid Zane Grey by the slick magazines ERB wanted to sell this story for ten thousand dollars to one of the big slicks.  There were no takers so that the story went to the pulps for thirty-five hundred.  Adding insult to injury he was told that the stories were too preposterous to be considered.

     Part of ERB's literary problem was that genre categories were not yet well developed.  H.G. Wells' early sci-fi efforts were labeled Fantasias, a term that could be understood by the literary arbiters, while still considered what we would call today, literary fiction.  Even George Du Maurier's  trilogy of essentially science fiction novels -- Peter Ibbetson, Trilby and The Martian have never been considered anything but literary fiction.  They are three terrific stories of psychological dissociation  while it would seem certain that Burroughs read them and was probably influenced by them.  I can heartily recommend them.  Very choice.

     So the genres were taking shape at the period but had not yet evolved as they would during the thirties, forties and fifties until today fantasy, horror and sci-fi dominate the fiction best seller lists.  If Chessmen was thought preposterous in 1920 one wonders what his critics would have thought of such movies as The Exterminator or The Predator.  God, those people were so awkward and unevolved.  Well, itís the price you pay for being an innovator.  Remember what the Pope told Galileo.

     So, ERB was stuck in the pulps.  Perhaps smarting from this rejection ERB would try to break out of his pulp rate with several realistic novels.  The first was The Girl From Hollywood, a very decent attempt at a literary novel, that ERB's long time publisher refused to publish.  Following in the burro tracks of Zane Grey ERB wrote a couple of Westerns only one of which he could get published at the time.  I read a lot of Westerns in the fifties while a kid.  I thought ERB's efforts were as good as what I read then.  They're all potboilers, even the so-called classics.

     He even attempted a couple of Indian epics that I found so-so, but I know other people who liked them a lot.  Not so critical as myself, I guess.  Oh, right, he couldn't get Marcia Of The Doorstep published either.  So he was type cast as a sci-fi/fantasy writer.  At least he knew he could do that very well.

     Zane Grey wrote some pretty strange Westerns.  He himself was quite a womanizer and his novels pander quite successfully to the distaff side.  He knew women well.  Probably that was why he was paid those great prices by the Saturday Evening Post et al.  Oh heck, ERB was just too outre for the Post.

     In Chessmen ERB gives feminine appeal his best shot.  I would imagine he was trying to reach the ladies when he describes Tara's fabulous bath.  Either that or he was trying to titillate us boys.  Worked with me.  But let's assume he was trying to broaden his appeal as the title was offered to the slicks.

     Chessmen was based on his three favorite novels as are all his books- The Viginian, Prince And The Pauper and Little Lord Fauntleroy.

     Thus Tara teases Papa John as her 'Virginian.'  We are then introduced to Gahan of far Gathol.  ERB presents him first in his princely guise as, indeed, he is a prince of Gathol.  ERB chooses to present him as a fop dressed all in diamonds and platinum.  Tara forms an ill impression of him as she thinks no real fighting man would dress in such a fashion.  Shortly Gahan will exchange his dress duds for the plain leather gear of the Martian mercenary thus changing from prince to pauper.  Of course he will resume his role of prince by novel's end.

     Fauntleroy was born to the manor in England, but spent his youth learning what it meant to be a real American boy before reassuming his English title.  Ah, American dreaming.

     Recalling his battle for Emma's favors with Frank Martin, Tara has been betrothed since at least young girlhood to Djor Kantos whose father is friends with the family.  So like ERB, Gahan has to overcome this parental resistance.  Speaking of Frank Martin Chessmen is the only novel I can recall in which the hero doesn't get bashed on the head two or three times.

     At the ball being given Djor Kantos fails to claim Tara in time for the first dance so that Gahan leads Tara in the Dance Of Barsoom.  Some sort of Grand March.  ERB explains that before Barsoomian youths can attend balls they have to first have learned three formal dances -- The Dance Of Barsoom, that of their country and that of their city.  After that they can take up stuff like the Martian equivalents of the Grizzly Bear, Bunny Hug, Charleston and Black Bottom.  Kids being kids on Barsoom the same as on Jasoom.

     While the concept is quite charming one wonders of the source.  Burroughs himself was no slouch concerning the hit parade.

     I think we can trace the rigamarole back to the patron saint of old timey music, Henry Ford.

     Amongst all his many other enterprises Henry was revolted by the music and dances of the Jazz Age as the twenties are sometimes known.  Even though his very own flivver is billed as being responsible for some new objectionable habits and traditions Henry clung stubbornly to the old.  Thus in full revolt against the Jazz Age Henry was promoting the dances and music of his youthof around, oh say, 1880 or so.

      Ford had begun his publication of the Dearborn Independent in 1920 making him a newspaper man also.  It seems clear from internal references in Marcia Of The Doorstep that ERB was following developments in the Independent.  He would then certainly have learned of the evils of the new music and the virtues of the old.

     Just as Henry Ford was trying to rivive the old dances on Jasoom, on conservative, behind the times Barsoom Jazz has never even been given a chance.  The Dance Of Barsoom is just as fresh and lovely as the first time it was danced millennia before.  Martian kids didn't mess with tradition so much so Gahan led Tara in that lovely old relic of Mars -- The Dance Of Barsoom.

     Pledging his love during the dance Gahan was sternly rebuffed by Tara.

     The preliminaries finished the story begins in earnest.

     The following day Tara is fascinated by a cloudy stormy sky which is such a rare occurrence on Mars that she had never seen one before.  As I mentioned in the intro ERB borrows the next sequence from Baum whose Dorothy was wafted to Oz on a tornado.  Tara ascends into this tornado like storm where her flier is caught by the winds and she is driven before them.  When she lands she had been driven like Dorothy to Oz to a far land that has been all but forgotten if it had ever been thought of.

     The hero and heroine of Chessmen are Tara of Helium and Gahan of far Gathol, or rather, they are the Anima and Animus of ERB.  ERB always writes Anima and Animus novels.  As dreamers will he may have recognized the X chromosome or Anima in the green pastures of his sleep or, it is quite possible that as a Latin scholar at Chicago's Harvard School he was required to read the myth of Psyche and Eros from Apuleius' The Golden Ass.  I only mention a couple of possibilities.  He may or may not have been familiar with Psyche and Eros but he was certainly familiar with the fairy tales derived from it such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

     While Apuleius is given credit for the story his version is certainly only a redaction of the tale or philosophical speculation dating much further back in history.  The Ancients were well familiar with the concept of both the male and female versions of the Anima and Animus.  In popular mythology the male chromosome is represented by the Goddess as X chromosome and the Bull as the Y.  The female is represented by the two snakes as in the pictorial representations of Crete.  It will also be remembered that the Greeks imported Cretan priests to manage the Apollonian shrine at Delphi.

     The myth is that the two aspects were once united then driven apart wandering the world in search of each other.  Duly at long last they do find each other are reconciled and allowed by the Goddess of Love to reunite.  Thus the stories of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty evolved from Psyche and Eros and who knows how many other stories besides those of Burroughs.

     The question is was Burroughs only following a plot line, a pattern he had absorbed or was he consciously aware of what he was doing?  Had he thought the problem out?  Just as Tarzan and Jane were apparently mismatched in Burroughs' dreamscapes so were ERB and Emma in real life.  In Tarzan And The Golden Lion Tarzan and Jane had no sooner returned home from Pal-ul-don than Tarzan fled to his Anima in far off dreamland Opar leaving Jane/Emma to more or less shift for herself in a very dangerous world.  Misfortune usually hit her too.

     In ERBís dream couple of John Carter and Dejah Thoris the Anima and Animus seem to be united although we see little of Dejah Thoris in the series and not at all in this novel.  Even their son who may represent ERB is not present at all.  Even with Carter and Dejah Thoris the classic separation and reuniting form a major part of the Martian Trilogy.

     In this dream tale with Tara and Gahan ERB follows the classic formula -- separation, the long pursuit and final reconciliation.  He appears to know what he is talking about but since he never discussed his ideas on the subject we can only infer that he did or doubt or deny that he did.  The psychological motifs he expresses throughout Chessmen leads me to believe he did.

     What are dreams and what is a dream story?  Freud originated the rational approach to dream interpretation.  ERB gave some thought to the problem.  Once canít be sure he had read Freud's Interpretations Of Dreams although in his short story "Tarzan's First Nightmare" ERB used elements contained in Freud's theory to explain the causes of Tarzan's nightmare.  At the very least we can say that dreams and nightmares from which ERB suffered all his life were of great interest to him.  In the thirties he would buy at least one book on scientific dream interpretation.

     What is the basis of dreams?  It can only be experiences combined with memory.  That's it.  Think about it.  You donít have to look any further.  Nothing mysterious about them.  The basic problem can be expressed in the question of what is the unconscious or subconscious.  Is it some ultra mysterious process of the mind that canít be penetrated, understood or accurately located?  Is it as Freud believed an organ independent of the body and mind yet which somehow controls the actions of the individual from outside him?  Or, once again, is it merely a combination of experience and memory, a faculty for interpeting the experiences of the day?

     Freud touched on a key concept when he realized that the mind, which never rests, processes the incidents of the previous day in the sleeping and dreaming state.  Burroughs also takes this approach in Tarzan's nightmare whether he picked it up from Freud, Sweetser or realized it himself.

      In point of fact experience happens to us so rapidly and from so many angles at the same time that it is impossible for the conscious mind to process it all as it is happening.  Canít be done.  So, it follows that the subconscious or back up mind retains, as it were, photographs of the dayís activities that it reviews in sleep for either discarding, repression or action.  How many times have you awakened with possible solutions to problems facing you?

     The problem with the subconscious mind is that analysis of situations is affected by fixations, more expecially by the central childhood fixation.  Childhood is that perilous time of life when the inexperienced mind is subject to being presented with challenges for which it has no programmed or immediately adequate response. Defeated in analysis the challenge is encrypted and encysted in the subconscious where it interprets all similar challenges through the lens of the defeated challenge and response.  Thus all those strange compulsive behaviors we have.

     As it chances we know Burroughsí central childhood fixation.  That was when he was eight or nine and he was challenged on a street corner on the way to school by a twelve year old Irish bully.  Terrified ERB broke and ran apparently thereafter branded as a coward.  Thus the central theme of his work is fight or flight and the state of cowardice.  He examines the matter endlessly throughout the entire body of his work.  These elements are all especially prominent in Chessmen.

     We know that ERB was stressed to the breaking point as he wrote in 1921.  Whenever he was stressed his personality fragmented, splitting at least once.  In Chessmen the Kaldanes are two separate entities, the physical Rykors and the mental Kaldanes.  Tara and Gahan, the ritual Burroughs' surrogates are driven apart by the terrific storm.

     This is a dream story abounding in dream images.  One can provide an analysis of the storm scene based on the incidents occurring in ERB's life at the time.

     The image presented to us is of this very rare Martian storm of very high winds as in a tornado.  Tara although warned against it takes her flier up.  Perhaps ERB was warned against buying Tarzana, I would certainly think that Emma was at the least apprehensive.  Tara navigates well beneath the clouds but wants to be in a cloud where she has never been before, i.e. Burroughs buys Tarzana.  Here she is buffeted about so to escape she rises above the cloud or storm where the winds abate.  But she has to get back down so she must reenter the storm.  She is then taken by the winds tumbled head over heels by their extreme violence arriving half dead in the land of the Kaldanes.

     Now, how does this represnet ERB's actual situation in dream images.

     ERB left Chicago under one presumes, sunny skies.  His original intent was to buy twenty acres to raise hogs.  Instead he bought over five hundred acres.  He then began a massive building and improvement program with what appears to have been a substantial payroll and a not very well thought out plan.  He overspent his income so that by 1921 his bills must have been greater than his income forcing him to borrow.  He found he had neither the skills nor the talent to be a 'Gentleman Farmer' so that he was forced to auction off most of his tools, implements and livestock in an effort to raise money and cut expenses.  Also at this time his sources of income came under attack as the movies refused to film his intellectual properties while his royalties also came under attack.

     In what I consider a purely defensive move he was forced to incorporate himself assigning all his income, copyrights and what not to the corporation in an effort to secure the means of his livelihood by putting his income beyond the reach of his creditors.  In what I consider a questionable move he subsequently transferred a portion of Tarzana to the corporation.  So, shortly after this storm broke on his head he became merely an employee of his corporation.

     At the time he wrote Chessmen then he was caught in the turbulence of this storm he had created.  Unable to get back down as with Tara he tried to rise above it in some way but was forced back into the problem where he was being blown along head over heels no longer in control of his affairs.

     In the relative calm of 1924 he wrote Marcia Of The Doorstep that chronicles and looks back at this period.

     Tara's flight then is ERB's day to day situation presented in dream images.

     The rest of the book deals with past and present in a series of dream images to which  we proceed.

~ to be continued



A Review of The Chessmen Of Mars by R.E. Prindle:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI


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