E) John Carter of Mars, the X-Man:
As you may have guessed, the greatest assassin of all on the planet
of Barsoom is John Carter of Jasoom. You might recall that he chose to
fight the devil with fire and allegedly formed a secret organization of
super-assassins to take on the social-moral problem of kidnapping and assassination
plaguing Barsoom. The organization is known only by the sign it leaves
behind: an “X” carved over the victim’s heart. Thus, it could be called
the Warlord's XMen.
However, we are not told of anyone else specifically in this secret
organization other than John Carter. Not even Carthoris, Carter’s son,
appears to have been a member. He, along with his mother, try to talk Carter
out of his Zodangan crusade. We can be fairly sure of only one man allegedly
joining this secret organization: Ur Jan. And even then it is just speculation,
Ur Jan did was swear eternal fealty to the Warlord.
So, all we can be absolutely sure of is that John Carter launched a
one-man crusade against what he perceived to a be a moral evil in Zodanga.
He then proceeds to fight it in a most amoral way. This is the first thing
that attracted me to the character of John Carter: the amorality of barbaric
Barsoom. This was familiar to me since the first thing that turned me on
as a 14-year-old reader was the pagan splendor of Dr. No by Ian
Fleming. James Bond had a license to kill and was an assassin for the British
Empire. He killed, like Carter, without guilt. That’s why I hear James
Bond music whenever I read Swords of Mars. Let us now look at two
of Carter's classic assassinations as the super-assassin Vandor in the
bloody streets of Zodanga.
Rapas the Ulsio is regarded by Fal Silvas to be an excellent swordsman,
yet Carter disarms him in an instant. Carter, as Vandor, must hope that
the guild of assassins holds better swordsmen than Rapas, or his crusade
against the guild will prove be extremely boring. He gets his wish with
You will recall that Ur Jan first orders Uldak to kill Carter at the
meeting at the guild’s headquarters. Carter overhears the plan while hiding
in the cupboard in the next room and gets away just in time to take advantage
of his knowledge by staking out the eating-place ahead of schedule:
“I found a place where I could watch
the entrance in comparative safety from discovery, and there I waited.
My vigil was not of long duration, for presently I saw the two approaching.
They stopped in the intersection of two avenues a short distance from the
place; and after Rapas had pointed it out to Uldak, the two separated,
Rapas continuing on in the direction of the public house where I had first
met him, while Uldak turned back into the avenue along which they had come
from the rendezvous of the assassins.
So, the only thing that separates the immoral assassins of Barsoom from
the Warlord is a sense of honor. I couldn’t help but think of those scenes
in Inglourious Basterds – where Brad Pitt carves the Nazi symbol into the
foreheads of those he lets live – when I read the scenes where Carter carves
the cross over his victim’s hearts. Anyway, Vandor meets his next opponent
after he meets with Rapas at their favorite eating-place:
“It still lacked half a zode of the time that
I was to meet Rapas, and for the moment at least I was not concerned with
him – my business was with Uldak.
“As soon as Rapas had passed me upon the opposite
side of the street, I came out of my hiding-place and walked rapidly in
the direction that Uldak had taken.
“As I reached the intersection of the two streets,
I saw the assassin a little distance ahead of me. He was walking slowly,
evidently merely killing time until he might be certain that the hour had
arrived when I was to meet Rapas at the eating-place.
“Keeping to the opposite side of the street, I
followed the man for a considerable distance until he entered a quarter
that seemed to be deserted – I did not wish an audience for what I was
about to do.
“Crossing the avenue, I increased my gait; and
the distance between us rapidly lessened until I was but a few paces behind
him. I had moved very quietly, and he was not aware that anyone was near
him. Only a few paces separated us when I spoke.
“‘You are looking for me?’ I inquired.
“He wheeled instantly, and his right hand flew
to the hilt of his sword. He eyed me narrowly. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded.
“‘Perhaps I have made a mistake,’ I said; ‘you
are Uldak, are you not?’
“‘What of it?’ he demanded.
“I shrugged. ‘Nothing much, except that I understand
that you have been sent to kill me. My name is Vandor.’
“As I ceased speaking, I whipped out my sword.
He looked utterly astonished as I announced my identity, but there was
nothing for him to do but defend himself, and as he drew his weapon he
gave a nasty little laugh.
“‘You must be a fool,’ he said. ‘Anyone is who
is not a fool would run away and hide if he knew that Uldak was looking
“Evidently the man thought himself a great swordsman.
I might have confused him by revealing my identity to him for it might
take the heart out of any Barsoomian warrior to know that he was facing
John Carter; but I did not tell him. I merely engaged him and felt him
out for a moment to ascertain if he could make good his boast.
“He was, indeed, an excellent swordsman, and,
as I had expected, tricky and entirely unscrupulous. Most of these assassins
are entirely without honor; they are merely killers.
“At the very first he fought fairly enough because
he thought that he could easily overcome me; but when he saw that he could
not, he tried various shady expedients and finally he attempted the unpardonable
thing – with his free hand, he sought to draw his pistol.
“Knowing his kind, I had naturally expected something
of the sort; and in the instant that his fingers closed upon the butt of
the weapon I struck his sword aside and brought the point of my own heavily
upon his left wrist, nearly severing his hand.
“With a scream of rage and pain, he fell back;
and then I was upon him in earnest.
“‘He yelled for mercy now and cried that he was
not Uldak; that I had made a mistake, and begged me to let him go. Then
the coward turned to flee, and I was forced to do that which I most disliked
to do; but if I were to carry out my plan I could not let him live, and
so I leaped close and ran my sword through his heart from behind.
“Uldak lay dead upon his face.
“As I drew my sword from his body, I looked quickly
about me. No one was within sight. I turned the man over upon his back
and with the point of my sword made a cross upon his heart.” (SM/4.)
“Shortly before we finished our meal,
a customer entered the place and took a seat alone at a table across the
room. I saw him glance in our direction, and then I looked quickly at Rapas
and saw his eyes flash a message as he nodded his head very slightly; but
without that, I would have known why the man was there, for I recognized
him as one of the assassins that had sat at the council with Ur Jan....
Is there any doubt that John Carter is a sadistic, brutal killer. He would
have played at killing his victims if he would have had the time. Thank
Issus he has a code or he would decimate the whole planet to have his way.
Wait, that is precisely what he was willing to do in Princess of Mars.
“The assassin at the table across the room ordered
only a glass of wine; and when he had drunk it, he arose and left. Shortly
after his departure, Rapas got up.
“‘I must be going,’ he said; ‘I have an important
“‘Shall I see you tomorrow night?’ I asked.
“I could see him attempt to suppress a grin. ‘I
shall be here tomorrow night,’ he said.
“We went out then onto the avenue; and Rapas left
me while I turned my steps in the direction of the house of Fal Silvas.
Through the lighted districts I did not have to be particularly on my guard;
but when I entered the darker sections of the city, I was watchful; and
presently I saw a figure lurking in a dark doorway. I knew it was the assassin
waiting to kill me.
“Cluros, the farther moon, rode high in the heavens,
lighting dimly the streets of Zodanga like a dusty bulb in a huge loft;
but I needed no better light to see the shadowy form of the man awaiting
“I knew precisely what was in the man’s mind,
and I must have smiled. He thought that I was coming along in total ignorance
of his presence or the fact that anyone was planning upon murdering me
that night. He was saying to himself that after I had passed he would spring
out and run his sword through my back; it would be a very simple matter,
and then he would go back and report to Ur Jan.
“As I approached the doorway, I paused and cast
a hasty glance behind me. I wanted to make sure, if I could, that Rapas
had not followed me. If I killed this man, I did not want Rapas to know
that it was I.
“Now I resumed my way, keeping a few paces from
the building so that I would not be too close to the assassin when I came
opposite his hiding place.
“When I did come opposite it, I turned suddenly
and faced it. ‘Come out of there, you fool,’ I said in a low voice.
“For a moment the man did not move. He seemed
utterly stunned by his discovery and by my words.
“‘You and Rapas thought that you could fool me,
didn’t you?’ I inquired. ‘You and Rapas and Ur Jan! Well, I will tell you
a secret – something that Rapas and Ur Jan do not dream. Because you are
trying to kill the wrong man, you are not using the right method. You think
that you are attempting to kill Vandor, butyou are not. There is no such
person as Vandor. The man who faces you is John Carter, Warlord of Mars.’
I whipped out my sword. ‘And now if you are quite ready, you may come out
and be killed.’
“At that, he came forth slowly, his long sword
in his hand. I thought that his eyes showed a trace of astonishment and
his voice certainly did, as he whispered, ‘John Carter!’
“He did not show any fear, and I was glad of that,
for I dislike fighting with a man who is really terrified of me, as he
starts his fight with a terrible handicap that he can never overcome.
“‘So you are John Carter!’ he said, as he stepped
out into the open, and then he commenced to laugh. ‘You think that you
can frighten me, do you? You are a first-class liar, Vandor; but if you
were all the first-class liars on Barsoom rolled into one, you could not
“Evidently he did not believe me, and I was rather
glad of it, for the encounter would now afford me far richer sport as there
was gradually revealed to my antagonist the fact that he was pitted against
a master swordsman.
“As he engaged me, I saw that, while in no respect
a mean swordsman, he was not as proficient as had been Uldak. I should
have been glad to have played with him for awhile, but I could not risk
the consequences of being discovered.
“So vicious was my attack that I soon pressed
him back against the wall of the building. He had had no opportunity to
do more than defend himself, and now he was absolutely at my mercy.
“I could have run him through on the instant,
but instead I reached out quickly with the point and made a short cut upon
his breast and then I made another across it.
“I stepped back then and lowered my point. ‘Look
at your breast, Povak,’ I said. ‘What do you see there?’
“He glanced down at his breast, and I saw him
shudder. ‘The mark of the Warlord,’ he gasped, and then, ‘Have mercy upon
me; I did not know that it was you.’
“‘I told you,’ I said, ‘but you wouldn’t believe
me; and if you had believed me, you would have been all the more anxious
to kill me. Ur Jan would have rewarded you handsomely.’
“‘Let me go,’ he begged. ‘Spare my life, and I
will be your slave forever.’
“I saw then that he was a craven coward, and I
felt no pity for him but only contempt.
“‘Raise your point,’ I snapped, ‘and defend yourself,
or I shall run you through in your tracks.’
“Suddenly, with death staring him in the face,
he seemed to go mad. He rushed at me with the fury of a maniac, and the
impetuousity of his attack sent me back a few steps, and then I parried
a terrific thrust and ran him through the heart.
“At a little distance from me, I saw some people
coming, attracted by the clash of steel.
“A few steps took me to the entrance of a dark
alleyway into which I darted; and by a circuitous route, I continued on
my way the house of Fal Silvas.” (SM/7-8.)
You may recall that Carter arrives naked on Mars without a country to
fight for. He lays his sword at the feet of Dejah Thoris, making him more
than anything semi-attached to the Empire of Helium. Once he fixes on Dejah
Thoris, however, he is willing to kill anyone and topple empires to have
her as his own.
Take for instance, his enlistment as an air scout in the Navy of Zodanga,
also one of his undercover operations to get him close to his princess.
He gains access to the palace and overhears her discussing her future marriage
to the Jeddak’s son as a way of securing peace between Helium and Zodanga.
He attempts to find her chambers afterwards and gets hopelessly lost in
“Moving on a few steps I discovered another
passageway at the end of which lay lay a door. Walking boldly forward I
pushed into the room only to find myself in a small antechamber in which
were the four guards who had accompanied her. One of them instantly arose
and accosted me, asking the nature of my business.
Regardless of John Carter’s self-righteous motives for killing, it turns
out that he killed the four noble guardsmen for nothing. Because of Martian
custom, Dejah Thoris is officially betrothed and as good as married. So,
the fact is, that John Carter is only at peace with himself when he is
fighting and killing, and because of his code – vague as it may be – he
must have a righteous cause to take life; but, thank Issus, on Barsoom,
there are as many righteous causes as you can think of.
“I am from Than Kosis,’ I replied, ‘and wish to
speak privately with Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium.’
“‘And your order?’ asked the fellow.
“I did not know what he meant, but replied that
I was a member of The Guard, and without waiting for a reply from him I
strode toward the opposite door of the antechamber, behind which I could
hear Dejah Thoris conversing.
“But my entrance was not to be so easily accomplished.
The guardsman stepped before me, saying,
“‘No one comes from Than Kosis without carrying
an order or the password. You must give one or the other before you may
“‘The only order I require, my friend, to enter
where I will, hangs at my side,’ I answered, tapping my long-sword; ‘will
you let me pass in peace or no?’
“For reply he whipped out his own sword, calling
to the others to join him, and thus the four stood, with drawn weapons,
barring my further progress.
“‘You are not here by the order of Than Kosis,’
cried the one who had first addressed me, ‘and not only shall you not enter
the apartments of the Princess of Helium, but you shall go back to Than
Kosis under guard to explain this unwarranted temerity. Throw down your
sword; you cannot hope to overcome four of us,’ he added with a grim smile.
“My reply was a quick thrust which left me but
three antagonists and I can assure you that they were worthy of my metal.
They had me backed against the wall in no time, fighting for my life. Slowly
I worked my way to a corner of the room where I could force them to come
at me only one at a time, and thus we fought upward of twenty minutes;
the clanging of steel on steel producing a veritable bedlam in the little
“The noise had brought Dejah Thoris to the door
of her apartment, and there she stood throughout the conflict with Sola
at her back peering over her shoulder. Her face was set and emotionless
and I knew that she did not recognize me, nor did Sola.
“Finally a lucky cut brought down a second guardsman
and then, with only two opposing me, I changed my tactics and rushed them
down after the fashion of my fighting that had won me many a victory. The
third fell within ten seconds after the second, and the last lay dead upon
the bloody floor a few moments later. They were brave men and noble fighters,
and it grieved me that I had been forced to kill them, but I would have
willingly depopulated all Barsoom could I have reached the side of my Dejah
Thoris in no other way.
“‘Sheathing my bloodly blade I advanced toward
my Martian Princess, who still stood mutely gazing at me without sign of
“‘Who are you, Zodangan?’ she whispered. ‘Another
enemy to harass me in my misery?’
“‘I am a friend,’ I answered, ‘a once cherished
“‘No friend of Helium’s princess wears that metal,’
she replied, ‘and yet the voice! I have heard it before; it is not – it
cannot be – no, for he is dead.’
“‘It is though, my Princess, none other than John
Carter,’ I said. ‘Do you not recognize, even through paint and strange
metal, the heart of your chieftan?’
“As I came close to her she swayed toward me with
outstretched hands, but as I reached to take her in my arms she drew back
with a shudder and a little moan of misery.” (PM/22.)
As I mentioned earlier, I first read the Barsoomian Mythos at the end
of 1973 after being readmitted to Fresno State College. I read my first
Tarzan novel in the summer of 1986, after finishing my first year of law
school. One thing I grasped immediately, and that was ERB's love of espionage
and undercover adventures. We have just seen one case of this in the Zodangan
adventure Carter has in Swords of Mars (1934). An equally good adventure
is Tarzan’s as a French spy in The Return of Tarzan (1913). These
novels were penned before the first modern spy novels of the Twentieth
Century were written, notably by Eric Ambler: A Coffin for Dimitrios
(1937); Journey into Fear (1940); Passage of Arms (1960);
and The Care of Time (1981).
Sure, secret agents were nothing new in Western literature; in fact,
it can be said that Joseph Conrad kicked off the Twentieth Century with
a suspenseful anarchist bomb plot in London in The Secret Agent
(1907). But that novel moves slowly to the natural rhythms of the Nineteenth
Century. The man who captured the amoral love of fast-paced espionage and
adventure and sex and violence was Ian Fleming in his James Bond novels,
the best being, Casino Royale (1953); Live and Let Die (1954);
(1958); and his last classic, the mano-amano struggle on Cuba between Bond
and The Man with the Golden Gun (1965).
I still remember the media-whipped moral outrage in America over the
James Bond movies with Sean Connery in the mid-60s. I remember in my second
year Debate class at Fresno City College I had to write a speech taking
a position I didn’t believe in, and I chose “The Moral Threat of James
Bond on our Nation’s Youth.” I took fourth place in a state-wide competition.
Among the best Cold War spy novels, I loved reading John LeCarre’s The
Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963); and the Smiley novels, especially
People (1979) – who can forget Smiley tracking down clues in the park
under Moscow Rules? Not to mention Len Deighton's The Ipcress File
(1962); Horse Under Water (1963); Funeral in Berlin (1964);
masterful 80's novels: Berlin Game (1983); Mexico Set
(1984); and London Match (1985). The genre lives on today in the
sultry pre-WWII European novels of Alan Furst – in the tradition of Eric
Ambler – such as The Polish Officer (1995); The World at Night
(1996); and The Spies of Warsaw (2008).
What can I say? It is obvious to me that ERB was a pioneer in the spy
genre, like he was in so many other genres, which is why I have no problem
calling him the King of Pulp Fiction.
And there you have it,
ERB's Assassins of Mars:
the Tenth Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom!