THE SEVEN WONDERS OF BARSOOM SERIES
THE TWIN CITIES OF HELIUM:
The Second Wonder of Barsoom
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
The Twin Cities of Helium are ERB's version of Utopia. Even the name
“Helium” itself evokes a light and airy romantic element, and its twin
Yellow and Red mile-high towers add to its charm. It is no wonder that
John Carter turned down being the Jed of Zodanga so that he could live
in Helium with his incomparable princess, Dejah Thoris.
Although Greater Helium – ruled by the great Jeddak Tardos Mors – is
described in more detail than Lesser Helium – ruled by Jed Mors Kajak,
the son of Tardos Mors and father of Dejah Thoris – a fairly accurate idea
of Lesser Helium can be gained by bits and pieces throughout the John Carter
saga. When the picture is complete there should be no argument that the
Cities of Helium merit being known as the Second Wonder of Barsoom.
The first time Helium is described is at the end of A Princess of
Mars, although the description is scanty:
“In the middle of the afternoon we sighted
the the scarlet and yellow towers of Helium, and a short time later a great
fleet of Zodangan battleships rose from the camps of the beseigers without
the city, and advanced to meet us....
Carter and his princess are married and parent an egg:
“The plain before the city became a veritable
shambles ere the last Zodangan surrendered, but finally the carnage ceased,
the prisoners were marched back to Helium, and we entered the greater city’s
gates, a huge triumphal procession of conquering heroes.
“The broad avenues were lined with women and children,
among which were the few men whose duties necessitated that they remain
within the city during the battle. We were greeted with an endless round
of applause and showered with ornaments of gold, platinum, silver, and
precious jewels. The city had gone mad with joy.
“My fierce Tharks caused the wildest excitement
and enthusiasm. Never before had an armed body of green warriors entered
the gates of Helium, and that they came now as friends and allies filled
the red men with rejoicing.
“That my poor services to Dejah Thoris had become
known to the Heliumites was evidenced by the loud crying of my name, and
by the loads of ornaments that were fastened upon me and my huge thoat
as we passed up the avenues to the palace, for even in the face of the
ferocious appearance of Woola the populace pressed close about me.
“As we approached this magnificent pile we were
met by a party of officers who greeted us warmly and requested that Tars
Tarkas and his jeds with the jeddaks and jeds of his wild allies, together
with myself, dismount and accompany them to receive from Tardos Mors an
expression of his gratitude for our services.
“At the top of the great steps leading up to the
main portals of the palace stood the royal party, and as we reached the
lower steps one of their number descended to meet us. He was an almost
perfect specimen of manhood; tall, straight as an arrow, superbly muscled
and with the carriage and bearing of a ruler of men. I did not need to
be told that he was Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium....
“We were then presented to Mors Kajak, Jed of
lesser Helium, and father of Dejah Thoris. He had followed close behind
Tardos Mors, and seemed even more affected by the meeting than had his
“He tried a dozen times to express his gratitude
to me, but his voice choked with emotion and he could not speak, and yet
he had, as I was to later learn, a reputation for ferocity and fearlessness
as a fighter that was remarkable even upon warlike Barsoom.” (PM/26.)
“In a golden incubator upon the roof
of our palace lay a snow-white egg. For nearly five years ten soldiers
of the Jeddak’s Guard had constantly stood over it, and not a day passed
when I was in the city that Dejah Thoris and I did not stand hand in hand
before our little shrine planning for the future, when the delicate shell
should break.” (PM/27.)
For nine years Carter serves in the councils and the armies of Helium as
a prince in the House of Tardos Mors. Then one day a flier approaches the
“Ten minutes after it touched at the
palace a message called me to the council chamber, which I found filling
with members of that body.
Who killed the keeper and assistant keeper of the atmosphere plant, since
all life outside of Okar depended upon it, is a mystery never solved in
the John Carter saga.
“On the raised platform of the throne was Tardos
Mors, pacing back and forth with tense-drawn face. When all were in their
seats he turned toward me.
“‘This morning,’ he said, ‘word reached the several
governments of Barsoom that the keeper of the atmosphere plant had made
no wireless report for
two days, nor had almost ceaseless calls upon
him from a source of capitals elicited a response....
“When I returned to my palace I found that the
rumor already had reached Dejah Thoris, so I told her all that I had heard....
“Dejah Thoris and I with the other members of
the royal family had collected in a sunken garden within an inner courtyard
of the palace.” (PM/27.)
We learn more details about Greater Helium in The Gods of Mars,
where Carter is taken to be judged for returning alive from Valley Dor
by Zat Arras, sitting Jed from Zodanga, for Tardos Mors and Mors Kajak
have gone missing searching for Carthoris (the astute reader will remember
that they fell victim to the Guardian of the North in Kadabra):
“It was in the forenoon that we arrived
above the mile-high scarlet tower which marks greater Helium from her twin
city. As we descended in great circles toward the navy docks a mighty multitude
could be seen surging in the streets beneath. Helium had been notified
by radio-aerogram of our approach.
Carter discovers to his dismay that all 32 judges are from Zodanga, who
owed her defeat at the hands of the green hordes to John Carter:
“From the deck of the Xavarian we four, Carthoris,
Tars Tarkas, Xodar, and I, were transferred to a lesser flier to be transported
to quarters within the Temple of Reward. It is here that Martian justice
is meted to benefactor and malefactor.... Always before I had seen prisoners
of note, or returned wanderers of eminence, paraded up the broad Avenue
of Ancestors through dense crowds of jeering or cheering citizens....
“We were lodged in a room upon the south side
of the temple, overlooking the Avenue of Ancestors down which we could
see the full length to the Gate of the Jeddaks, five miles away. The people
in the temple plaza and the streets for a distance of a full mile were
standing as close packed as it was possible for them to get.” (GM/16.)
“A few moments before the appointed time on the
following morning a strong guard of Zat Arras' officers appeared at our
quarters to conduct us the great hall of the temple.
“In twos we entered the chamber and marched down
the broad Aisle of Hope, as it is called, to the platform in the center
of the hall.” (GM/17.)
“About us the vast circular coliseum
was packed to its full capacity. All classes were represented – all ages,
and both sexes. As we entered the hall the hum of subdued conversation
ceased until we halted upon the platform, or Throne of Righteousness, the
silence of death enveloped the ten thousand spectators.
The judges sentence him to death but the audience intervenes and it is
decided that the final determination will be made when Tardos Mors returns
or a year passes. Carter returns to his palace:
“The judges were seated in a great circle about
the periphery of the of the circular platform. We were assigned seats with
our backs toward a small platform in the exact center of the larger one.
This placed us facing the judges and the audience. Upon this smaller platform
each would take his place while his case was being heard.
“Zat Arras himself sat in the golden chair of
the presiding magistrate. As we were seated and our guards retired to the
foot of the stairway leading to the platform, he arose and called my name.
“‘John Carter,’ he cried, ‘take your place upon
the Pedestal of Truth to be judged impartially according to your acts and
here to know the reward you have earned thereby.’” (GM/17.)
“In the avenues we found a press of people,
but they opened a pathway for us, and many were the swords that were flung
at my feet as I passed through the city of Helium toward my palace upon
The sombre mood is broken by the return of Sola with the good news that
Dejah Thoris has been found:
“It was a sad and sombre party that sat at the
feast of welcom in the great dining hall of the palace of the Prince of
Helium that day.” (GM/17.)
“I waited to hear no more. The great
windows of the dining hall overlooked the avenue leading to the main gate
– they were upon the opposite side of the hall from me with the table intervening.
I did not waste time in circling the great board – with a single leap I
cleared table and diners and sprang upon the balcony beyond. Thirty feet
below lay the scarlet sward of the lawn and beyond were many people crowding
about a great thoat which bore a rider headed toward the palace. I vaulted
to the ground below and ran swiftly toward the advancing party.” (GM/17.)
Dejah Thoris is found, but she has been captured by the Black Pirates and
taken to the Temple of Issus. Secretly, Carter and his friends hatch a
scheme to raise a fleet to rescue the princess without Zat Arras’ knowledge,
but before it takes shape Zat Arras' guards kidnap Carter one night in
“When they had come into the corridor
with me, they turned toward a secret panel in the wall which led to the
passage that terminated in the pits beneath the palace. That any knew of
this panel outside my own household, I was doubtful.” (GM/18.)
Carter is chained in a cell beneath the palace occupied by Zat Arras for
a full earthly year before being rescued by Carthoris. They raise the fleet,
have a glorious war with the First Born and Holy Therns, but on the brink
of victory, Dejah Thoris, Thuvia, and Phaidor are locked inside the Temple
of the Sun. As we have seen, this all ends in Kadabra with Carter being
made Warlord of Mars in the Temple of Reward.
We are given a more thorough description of Greater and Lesser Helium
in Thuvia Maid of Mars, as the spy, Vas Kor, travels through them
on a secret mission:
“Vas Kor’s destination lay in Greater
Helium, which lies some seventy-five miles across the level plain from
Lesser Helium. He had landed at the latter city because the air patrol
is less suspicious and alert than that above the larger metropolis where
lies the palace of the jeddak.
He is taken to a silk shop where the owner merchant has been instructed
to take the noble Vas Kor as a slave to the slave market:
“As he moved with the throng in the parklike canyon
of the thoroughfare the life of an awakening Martian city was in evidence
about him. Houses, raised high upon their slender metal columns for the
night were dropping gently toward the ground. Among the flowers upon the
scarlet sward which lies about the buildings children were already playing,
and comely women laughing and chatting with their neighbors as they culled
gorgeous blossoms for the vases within doors.
“The pleasant ‘kaor’ of the Barsoomian greeting
fell continually upon the ears of the stranger as friends and neighbors
took up the duties of a new day.
“The district in which he had landed was residential
– a district of merchants of the more prosperous sort. Everywhere were
evidences of luxury and wealth. Slaves appeared upon every housetop with
gorgeous silks and costly furs, laying them in the sun for airing. Jewel-encrusted
women lolled even thus early upon the carven balconies before their sleeping
apartments. Later in the day they would repair to the roofs when the slaves
had arranged couches and pitched silken canopies to shade them from the
“Strains of inspiring music broke pleasantly from
open windows, for the Martians have solved the problem of attuning the
nerves pleasantly to the sudden transition from sleep to waking that proves
so difficult a thing for most Earth folk.
“Above him raced the long, light passenger fliers,
plying, each in its proper plane, between the numerous landing-stages for
internal passenger traffic.
Landing-stages that tower high into the heavens
are for the great international passenger liners. Freighters have other
landing-stages at various lower levels, to within a couple of hundred feet
of the ground; nor dare any flier rise or drop from one plane to another
except in certain restricted districts where horizontal traffic is forbidden.
“Along the close-cropped sward which paves the
avenue ground fliers were moving in continuous lines in opposite directions.
For the greater part they skimmed along the surface of the sward, soaring
gracefully into the air at times to pass over a slower-going driver ahead,
or at intersections, where the north and south traffic has the right of
way and the east and west must rise above it.
“From private hangars upon many a roof top fliers
were darting into the line of traffic. Gay farewells and parting admonitions
mingled with the whirring of motors and subdued noises of the city.
“Yet with all the swift movement and the countless
thousands rushing hither and thither, the predominant suggestion was that
of luxurious ease and soft noiselessness.
“Martians dislike harsh, discordant clamour. The
only loud noises they can abide are the martial sounds of war, the clash
of arms, the collision of two mightly dreadnoughts of the air. To them
there is no sweeter music than this.
“At the intersection of two broad avenues Vas
Kor descended from the street level to one of the great pneumatic stations
of the city. Here he paid before a little wicket the fare to his destination
with a couple of the dull, oval coins of Helium.
“Beyond the gatekeeper he came to a slowly moving
line of what to Earthly eyes would have appeared to be conical-nosed, eight-foot
projectiles for some giant gun. In slow procession the things moved in
single file along a grooved track. A half dozen attendants assisted passengers
to enter, or directed these carriers to their proper destination.
“Vas Kor approached one that was empty. Upon its
nose was dial and a pointer. He set the pointer for a certain station in
Greater Helium, raised the arched lid of the thing, stepped in and lay
down upon the upholstered bottom. An attendant closed the lid, which locked
with a little click, and the carrier continued its slow way.
“Presently it switched itself automatically to
another track, to enter, a moment later, one of the series of dark-mouthed
“The instant that its entire length was within
the black aperture it sprang forward with the speed of a rifle ball. There
was an instant of whizzing – a soft, though sudden, stop, and slowly the
carrier emerged upon another platform, another attendant raised the lid
and Vas Kor stepped out at the station beneath the center of Greater Helium,
seventy-five miles from the point at which he had embarked.
“Here he sought the street level, stepping immediately
into a waiting ground flier. He spoke no word to the slave sitting in the
driver’s seat. It was evident that he had been expected, and that the fellow
had received his instructions before his coming.” (TMM/2.)
“Five minutes later the merchant was
leading his slave to the public market, where a great concourse of people
filled the great open space in the center of which stood the slave block.
ERB must have loved writing that part. In The Chessmen of Mars we
encounter a contradiction when Gahan of Gathol sails off in the Vanator
to rescue Tara during the greatest storm that has hit Barsoom in the annals
of recorded history. Carter does not follow him because of the storm’s
devastation in Lesser Helium:
“The crowds were enormous to-day, for Carthoris,
Prince of Helium, was to be the principal bidder.
“One by one the masters mounted the rostrum beside
the slave block upon which stood their chattels. Briefly and clearly each
recounted the virtues of his particular offering.
“When all were done, the major-domo of the Prince
of Helium recalled to the block such as had favorably impressed him. For
such he had made a fair offer.
“There was little haggling as to price, and none
at all when Vas Kor was placed upon the block. His merchant-master accepted
the first offer that was made for him, and thus a Dusarian noble entered
the household of Carthoris.” (TMM/2.)
“And in another instant was the Vanator
forgotten as the lofty, scarlet tower that had marked Lesser Helium for
ages crashed to the ground, carrying death and demolition upon the city
With all of the detail to remember, it is easy to forgive ERB for the contradiction
since he had stated in The Gods of Mars that the scarlet tower marked
Greater Helium. (See above.)
When he wrote Swords of Mars, he had it right again:
“It is a long and lonely journey from
Zodanga to Helium, and this time it seemed stretched to interminable length
because of my anxiety for the safety of my princess, but at last it was
ended, and I saw the scarlet tower of greater Helium looming before me.”
We find another one in the last John Carter story ERB wrote, "Skeleton
Men of Mars":
"Dejah Thoris, my incomparable princess,
and I were sitting upon a carved ersite bench in one of the gardens of
our palace in Lesser Helium when an officer in the leather of Tardos Mors,
Jeddak of Helium, approached and saluted." (JCM/II-1.)
The astute reader will recall that Carter’s palace was on the outskirts
of Greater Helium near the great gate. (See above.) Not much is to be learned
elsewhere. We are informed by Tan Hadron of Hastor in A Fighting Man
of Mars that Carter’s palace is made of marble (FMM/1); and that the
library in Helium is called the Temple of Knowledge. (FMM/2.) We also learn
that Helium is an empire, including the cities of Hastor, Tjanath, and
Kobol. (FMM/1-2.) We know from The Gods of Mars, that Zodanga was
eventually incorporated into the Helium Empire. (See above.)
We also know from A Princess of Mars that Dejah Thoris comes
from a long line of scientists and inventors, as she relates to the Tharks
after they shoot down her flier:
“‘What is your name?’asked Lorqual Ptomel,
addressing the prisoner.
Later, after Carter rescues her from the humiliation of a Green Martian,
he asks her if the Green Martians are treating her cruelly:
“‘Dejah Thoris, daughter of Mors Kajak of Helium.’
“‘And the nature of your expedition?’ he continued.
“‘It was a purely scientific research sent out
by my father’s father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents,
and to take atmospheric density tests,' replied the fair prisoner, in a
low, well-modulated voice.” (PM/10.)
“‘Only in little ways, John Carter,’
she answered. ‘Nothing that can harm me outside my pride. They know that
I am the daughter of ten thousand jeddaks, that I trace my ancestry straight
back without a break to the builder of the first great waterway, and they,
who do not even know their own mothers, are jealous of me.’” (PM/13.)
Carter too likes to fiddle around and has made improvements in the gearing
of Helium fliers, but that Dejah's blood seems more dominant in the area
of science – remember, Carter is a fighting man not a scientist – is borne
out in Carthoris' invention of the directional compass, which is fully
described in Thuvia Maid of Mars:
“To Thuvan Dihn he explained that he
had been but testing an invention of his own with which his flier was equipped
– a clever improvement of the ordinary Martian air compass, which, when
set for a certain destination, will remain constantly fixed thereon, making
it only necessary to keep a vessel’s prow always in the direction of the
compass needle to reach any given point upon Barsoom by the shortest route.
Should the enveloping force be interrupted in any direction a delicate
instrument immediately apprehends the irregularity, at the same time imparting
an impulse to a magnetic device which in turn actuates the steering mechanism,
diverting the bow of the flier away from the obstacle until the craft’s
radio-activity sphere is no longer in contact with the obstruction, then
she falls once more into her normal course. Should the disturbance approach
from the rear, as in case of fastermoving craft overhauling me, the mechanism
actuates the speed control as well as the steering gear, and the flier
shoots ahead and either up or down, as the
“Carthoris’ improvement upon this consisted of
an auxiliary device which steered the craft mechanically in the direction
of the compass, and upon arrival directly over the point for which the
compass was set, brought the craft to a standstill and lowered it, automatically,
to the ground....
“‘Provided,’ suggested Thuvan Dihn, ‘you do not
chance to collide with some other night wanderer in the meanwhile.’
“Carthoris smiled. ‘No danger of that,’ he replied.
‘See here,’ and he indicated a device at the right of the destination compass.
‘This is my “obstruction evader”, as I call it. This visible device is
the switch which throws the mechanism on or off. The instrument itself
is below deck, geared both to the steering aparatus and the control levers.
“‘It is quite simple, being nothing more than
a radium generator diffusing radio-activity in all directions to a distance
of a hundred yards or so from the flier.
oncoming vessel is upon a lower or higher plane than herself.
“‘In aggravated cases, that is when the
obstructions are many, or of such a nature as to deflect the bow more than
forty-five degrees in any direction, or when the craft has reached her
destination and dropped to within a hundred yards of the ground, the mechanism
brings her to a full stop, at the same time sounding a loud alarm which
will instantly awake the pilot. You see I have anticipated almost every
The spy, Vas Kor, disguised as a servant of Thuvan Dihn, sees a demonstration
of the device. This is why he is later sent to be a slave of Carthoris,
so that he can sabotage the device so that Carthoris won’t be able to find
Thuvia. But that’s another story.
It is my theory, and it is only that, that Zodanga is representative
of the Chicago of ERB's day: full of gangsters, political corruption, and
every crime imaginable. If that is the case, then the twin cities of Helium
may have been inspired by the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul,
Minnesota. Though not free of crime, they were much cleaner cities.
It seems by the time that Vas Kor entered the Twin Cities, Helium had
adopted the use of the Marentina ground fliers, for they appear to have
been a novelty to Carter when he first observed them. I can see no difference
between the ones in Helium and the ones in Okar.
Helium is also a place of marvelous scientific inventions. They invented
the canal system of Mars and the pneumatic tubes are wonderful in description.
I don’t know much about aviation history, but ERB seems to be describing
inventions that would later be associated with the automatic pilot and
radar. And of course they have the greatest fighting men and the most beautiful
women on the planet. Yes, this was ERB's Utopia.
And there you have it,
The Twin Cities of Helium: The Second Wonder of Barsoom!