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Volume 2315b
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
Part III
by
R.E. Prindle
Nobody Gets Out Of Bantoom Alive!

     Tara descends in the land of Bantoom ruled by the Kaldanes.  I think the Kaldanes can be traced to Baum’s Emerald City Of Oz.  In that title Baum writes of a queen who when she wished to change her hair style selected one from a number of heads, removed the head she's wearing and places a new head on her shoulders.

     Unlike the queen the heads of the Kaldanes and the bodies of the Rykors are separate entities.

     The Kaldanes exist independently of the Rykors but mount their shoulders to use them essentially as slaves.  When their purpose is satisfied they abandon the Rykors or bodies that then, without directing intelligence, just lie or flop around like the proverbial chicken.

     The picture ERB presents of them through the first vision of them by Tara is fairly repulsive.  It would by itself explain why the Post and the other slicks rejected the story.

     Either I’m reading things into the story or ERB is making some very subtle examinations of certain problems troubling society.  The three issues I have noted concern labor, sex and evolution.

     To take the first.

     In the world there are many forms of disagreeable labor that people would rather not do.  Much of the industrial labor is hot, dirty and heavy with a lot of unpleasant bending and stooping.  Still the job has to get done.

     In England once the so-called Industrial Revolution ethos first took place a very large percentage of the work force was essentially bestialized to work the mines and factories, especially the women and children.  This is an unsightly and unpleasant situation.

     In the US and colonial areas African slaves were imported to do the stoop labor.  It should be noted as Michael Hoffman points out in his studies that White slavery preceded that of Black slavery.  Even at the time of the American Revolution Hoffman found many White slaves still existing the US.  A White man was sold to a Negro in Chicago in the 1840s for tweny-five cents..  Africans only gradually replaced the Whites.  Thus just preceding Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin after which African slavery exploded there were White slaves in the US.

     Slavery is inseparable from Burroughs' works.  He can't imagine a society without slaves.  Chessmen opens explaining the relationship between Tara and her personal slave girl.

     Slavery was abandoned in the US at about the same time serfdom was abolished in Europe.  The Russian serfs which you can read as slaves were liberated only as the US' own civil war was being fought.  While industrial slavery is too distant in the past for us to imagine it slavery was a very recent phenomenon to Burroughs.  He read.  He must have been aware of Russia in which the vast majority of the population were slaves as serfs, hence Russia was up to 1861 a vast slaveocracy no different than the US South.

     The question then was how to get the hard work done without slaves.  The industrial system of the time merely left the population nominally free while paying very low wages making the bulk of the population actual wage slaves.

      The hard labor was definitely nothing anyone who could avoid it wanted to do so the industrialists imported vast numbers of laborers at a liguistic disadvantage who then had no choice but to become wage slaves.  Burroughs, very sensitive to social issues then, may have thought he was only reflecting the existing situation in his stories.  After all this is the period of the horrors of the sweat shops.

     This problem preoccupied society so that in 1931 a mere ten years after Chessmen Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World that presents a different solution than ERB's.  Huxley presents a world of test tube babies in which  certain poisons are placed in tubes to create chemically altered humans.  The least intelligent of these were the Gammas who were given the least desirable jobs on that basis that they wouldn't have the brains to complain.

     Burroughs solution is somewhat different.  The Rykors are essentially slaves; as Greek mythology put it the Rykors were mere bellies with arms and legs, lacking any intelligence whatever they were unable to complain and being deaf, dumb and blind couldn't revolt.

     The slave driver was the Kaldane on their shoulder who directed the Rykor in the unpleasant tasks without consequences to himself.  When the Kaldanes came back from the fields at night they abandoned their Rykors and went about their business of thinking, fresh and without fatigue.

     Thus ERB has very cleverly solved the problem of stoop labor -- the labor the Kaldanes wouldn't do.


2.

     ERB also gives himself room to toy with the idea of sex.  He models Bantoom after a beehive which was a common device at the time.  He changes the sexual primacy by making Luud a kingbee rather than a queen bee.  All the Kaldanes have been hatched from eggs laid by King Bee Luud so Luud is truly the 'father of his country.'  The jokes are there.  Whether ERB was a sly old dog or whether he just wrote this stuff with no humor prepense is up to the reader to decide.  Either he was intending humor or else he was naturally one of the funniest men alive.

     It seems that all Kaldanes were male while the Rykors were either male or female.  Thus any Kaldane could choose to be a man or woman for the day.  This may possibly refer back to Greek mythology where Teiresias was the only person who had been both a man and a woman.  He was then called on to say who got more sexual pleasure men or women.  He thought women definitely.  Any Kaldane could have answered as well.

     ERB plays with the idea briefly but doesn’t take it too far.  As far as the slicks were probably concerned he had so many strikes against him they didn't even want to look at him.  Given their attitude it even seems remarkable that the pulps paid good money for the story.  This is really pretty strange stuff and it keeps getting stranger.  ERB just skirts the accusation of a deranged mind in this story.  Times have changed, of course.


3.

     Then there is the matter of the evolution of intelligence.  This is a perennial topic in science fiction.  At the presentt time the ultimate intellect is usually portrayed a as giant head on a spindly unathletic body incapable of much but feeding itself.

     At the time it was thought that the mind and body were two separate things.  In the fifties when I grew up wrestling with the idea Burroughs' key Martian novels were available from G&D, but I never read them.  I was scandalized that Burroughs would write anything but Tarzan novels.  It didn't seem right to me that he would write anything else.

     So, Burroughs tackles the mind/body relationship by completely separating brain and body.  These brains were anaerobic, they could exist without oxygen.  This was by design because when the oxygen plant will have failed and Mars changed from a dying planet to a dead one the Kaldanes were going to retire deep into the Mars and live out their existence thinking.  Bye bye Rykors.

     ERB explains this quite succinctly.  Evolution on Mars:

You do not understand… It is too big for you to grasp, but I will try to explain it.  Barsoom, the moons, the sun, the stars were created for a single purpose.  From the beginning of time Nature has labored arduously toward the consummation of this purpose.  At the very beginning things existed with life, but no brain.  Gradually rudimentary nervous systems and miniscule brains evolved.  Evolution proceeded.  The brains became larger and more powerful.  In us you see the highest development; but there are those of us who believe that there is yet another step -- that some time in the far future our race shall develop into the super thing -- just brain.  The incubus of legs and chelae and vital organs will be removed.  The future Kaldane will be nothing but a great brain.  Deaf, dumb and blind it will be sealed in a great, wonderful, beautiful brain with nothing to distract it from eternal thought.
          Right.  I saw the movie.  It was called "Hitler's Brain" and it was a great one.  Burroughs always seems to have figured out the entire B movie and sci-fi catalog.    If I didn't know better, and I don't, I'd think his writings have been cribbed for the movies from his day to this.  Burroughs is surely one of the most influential intellects from his time to the present.  He is a baffling phenomenon, no one wants to give him credit but they use his ideas constantly.

     The passage quoted is a fair synopsis of the course of evolution while dealing with a debating topic of his day and ours.

     It's quite clear ERB put everything he had into this effort.


4.

     Having landed in a Bantoom that might be compared to Baum's Land of the Munchkins, although a rather disquieting comparison.  Baum is actually a very strange writer. The Shaggy Man Of Oz left me very uneasy.  I remember as a child a woman lamenting the book because she thought it would make it easy for weird old men to lure little girls away.  The book was weird as was The Emeral City Of Oz.  Burroughs takes weirdness a stride or two beyond those books.  There’s always this uneasy quasi-pornographic feel behind his stories.

     Tara is baffled by the overseer Kaldanes and slave Rykors working in the field.  She waits until nightfall to go in search of food coming very close to the hive.  Burroughs will develop this image shortly in Tarzan And The Ant Men.  Night falls and the Banths come out.  Tara can’t understand why these Martian lions are so plentiful in the valley.  Shortly she will learn the reason is that the Kaldanes throw the dead and worn out Rykors into the fields for the Banths.  It's just gruesome little details like this that probably got ERB his reputation for being too far on the edge.  Doesn't bother us though, does it?

     Now, a Banth steals up on Tara but God is on her side, she’s got a head start for the ubiquitous tree.  Here we have two ambivalent images in Burroughs.  Tree and lions are symbols of both safety or danger.

     On the one hand Burroughs finds comfort and safety in trees, most conspicuously in the Tarzan stories.  There all Africa with the exception of some lands deep in the Sahara is covered by one giant forest with conviently low branches unlike the picture we see of Baobobs and whatever.  Tarzan is at home in the trees moving faster and with more ease than you and I trudging along on the ground.

     If there's danger in the lower terrace Tarzan moves up to the middle terrace or even the upper terraces where the little monkeys play.  If he has a quarrel with Jane he has favorite trees in which to spend the night.  He is sometimes treed as he was in Tarzan At The Earth’s Core.  Here Tara is treed in a close replica to the treeing of Schneider in Tarzan The Untamed.

     In that story Tarzan took Schneider to an enclosed natural bowl with a creek trickling into a cave.  In the center was lone tree and a hungry lion.  Tarzan viciously placed Schneider in the tree.  It was up to Schneider to evade the cat when thirsty finding his way back up the tree in a game of cat and mouse.

     Burroughs replicates the scene here.  Tara drinks from the stream then being chased up the tree by the Banth who keeps watch till morning before stalking away.

      So here the tree is both safety and a trap.  Perhaps as ERB's financial troubles developed he felt like Schneider so he replicated the situation with Tara as himself.

     Martian rosy fingered Dawn appears.  In trying to get back to her flier Tara is captured by the Kaldanes.  The episode of her capture is well done as she discovers the secret of the Kaldanes and Rykors.  Her captor is a Kaldane named Ghek who is to become a principal actor in the story.

     Tara's descent into the hive gives Burroughs time to philosophize and ruminate before Tara is taken up to her near brush with a fate worse than death at the hands of the Rykor of Luud.

     At the beginning of Chapter VI ERB ruminates on the rough treatment given him by the literary mavens:

What the creature had told her gave Tara of Helium food for thought.  She had been taught that every created thing fulfilled some useful purpose and she tried conscientiously to discover just what was the rightful place of the kaldanes in the universal scheme of things.  She knew it must have its place but what that place was it was beyond her to conceive.  She had to give it up.  They recalled to her mind a little group of people in Helium who had foresworn the pleasures of life in the pursuit of knowledge.  They were rather patronizing in their relations with those whom they thought not so intellectual.  They considered themselves quite superior.  She smiled at the recollections of a remark her father had once made concerning them, to the effect that if one of them ever dropped his egotism and broke it, it would take a week to fumigate Helium.
     It appears that ERB is smarting from the rejection of the literary types even though he longed for their approval.  ERB himself chose not to parade his knowledge as literary types are wont to do, not that I would ever do that myself, while ERB can claim to be well read while profound enough in his writing and observations.

     Eugenics, for instance, was under attack from its origins although widely accepted at this time.  There is something offensive about it to the human spirit since the notion would certainly be socially abused if given free rein.  ERB cleverly skirts the issue here while affirming the benefical results that could be achieved.  Following the above quote he notes the superb physical condition of the Rykors and says that they had been bred to perfection.  In other words they are the product of eugenics the same as thoroughbred horses or pedigreed cats and dogs.   Being bodies without minds, in other words not complete humans, anyone who caught it probably took no offense.  The closer you get the better ERB looks.

     In the descent into the hive Tara idly hums an air which completely charms Ghek who asks what the noise is that Tara is making.  She then sings for him which overwhelms Ghek's senses thereby definitely preserving her life.  Impervious to female beauty Ghek is transported by music.  Universal language you know.

     This will figure into the story soon.  Tara is expected to fatten up to make a good meal for the Kaldanes who fatten up certain Rykors to make a good lunch.  Thus ERB interjects the ever present theme of cannibalism.  Away from the air and sunshine Tara is pining away so she pleads to be allowed to go outside.  Luud grants this.  Tara tries to escape, is caught and taken to Luud to meet her fate which encounter follows shortly.

     Gahan in his pursuit of Tara had fallen from his flier into the arms of the storm.  This is interesting.  Always heroic he was trying to rescue a companion who was caught in mooring lines flapping beneath the flier.  In the effort the wind catches a line with a heavy buckle at the end giving Gahan/Burroughs the obligatory bash between the eyes.  He loses his hold but rather than plunging directly to mars the wind catches him like a leaf carrying him along with it.  Then after a series of ups and downs gently deposits him on the crimson sward.

     Impossible you say?  No, it is not.  ERB refers to a story he had read somewhere at sometime in which a baby caught up by tornado had been carried miles from its home and deposited gently on the ground unhurt where it was found.  These things all sound preposterous; they have happened.

    In a clever handling of time differentials while Tara was going through her travails that lasted weeks Gahan at almost the same time Tara landed in Bantoom picked himself up from the sward  hundreds of miles away and began walking in the direction he hoped was toward Gathol.  Thus weeks later he arrives in Bantoom at the precise moment to observe Tara's escape attempt.  Not bad.

     Not only that but having decided to rescue the Red Woman he didn't then recognize he discovers the flier, kills a Banth or two and drifts, no propeller, directly over the wall of Luud encountering Ghek who fretting for his life agrees to take him to Tara on condition that he can leave with them.  No problem.

     As they are making this deal Tara is struggling to preserve her …oh… integrity.  Luud has set his headless but magnificently built Rykor on her while always a voyeur, he watches.

     Luud has a  powerful mind.  He has not hypnotized Tara but is able to control his brainless Rykor while not being attached.  This means that by remote control he is able to connect to the spinal nerve ending of the Rykor.  Good stunt.

     Gahan and Ghek enter just as the Rykor is poised for the downward thrust.  ERB comes close here.

     Gahan is warned to avoid eye contact but fails to do so becoming hypnotized.  Hypnosis is a significant theme in Burroughs' work.  In this case he seems to be influenced by George Du Maurier's novel Trilby with its great character Svengali.  In that story the heroine has no musical talent but Svengali is able to hypnotize her into becoming a second Jenny Lind.  The key point is that while Trilby is singing Svengali must make eye contact from his theatre box.  When contact was broken Trilby immediately began croaking not knowing a note from a hat box.

     ERB does a reverse variation here.  It become apparent that Gahan is entranced by Luud and all is lost.  But in holding Gahan Luud had to relax his hold on his Rykor who went limp (no pun intended) releasing Tara.  The quick-minded Tara knowing the hold her singing had on Ghek immediately bursts into full-throated song trilling out that wonderful old Martian standard - "The Song Of Love."

     Thus ERB reverses the Trilby/Svengali scenario.  Tara's singing dissolves Luud's hold on Gahan and it's all over for Luud.

     An exciting chase scene and battle and the three comaradoes are drifting off to meet another fate in another freak city.  This one is called Manator.

     The Bantoom story thus becomes a preliminary tale to the main story.


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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