“Leave to a Thark his head and one hand and he may yet conquer.”
– ancient Tharkian proverb.
So far, we've seen Tars Tarkas grasp such foreign ideas as friendship,
alliance with the Red Men, and now, finally, we see him grasping for enlightenment
– mental freedom from religion – in the next story in the Barsoomian Mythos:
Gods of Mars. As it turns out to no one's true surprise, John Carter's
second advent on Mars comes at a crisis time in Barsoomian history. In
the ten years he has gone missing on the angry red planet, many ominous
developments have occurred.
His son, Carthoris, was hatched soon after Carter saved the planet from
asphyxiation by getting the atmosphere plant running, an event which caused
his near death and inadvertent astral traveling back to the Yaqui witch’s
cave in the Arizona desert. But his son has been taken into captivity by
the Black Pirates and imprisoned on the Isle of Shador in the underground
Omean ocean, a slave gladiator for Issus. The incomparable Dejah Thoris
has gone missing because of the intrigues of the Jed of Zodanga, who has
his eyes on the prize. And the Alliance of Helium is also in danger for
the great Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark, has taken the pledge and gone on
his last voyage down the River Iss.
As the master of Martian fate and coincidence arranges it – the true
God of Barsoom – both Tars Tarkas and Carter arrive simultaneously in the
Valley Dor, the Martian paradise. Tars Tarkas arrives in a small boat with
a band of Green Men pilgrims consisting of another male and three females.
Carter incarnates naked and alone in a nearby forest of gigantic multicolored
fantasy trees, ironically, in the very place where Tars Tarkas hopes to
find him. However, Martian fate is a strange thing, for it takes the Plant
Men to bring them together.
A call from a guardian Thern high on a balcony carved in the Golden
Cliffs of the Otz Mountains stirs the Plant Men from their grazing to the
Green Men, who have assembled in defense atop a gigantic boulder. Carter
witnesses the Plant Men hopping to the boulder and follows them making
great leaps and bounds.
He is amazed by what he sees, for the Green Martians seem to be from
different hordes and not at warfare with each other, a most unusual sight.
The Plant Men make short shrift of them by leaping over them and smashing
their skulls in with a flap of their huge deadly tails.
The last Martian, a male, figures this out in time to cleave an overleaping
Plant Men in half, deciding as a last stand to charge them.
“As the green warrior saw the last of
his companions go down and at the same time perceived that the entire herd
was charging him in a body, he rushed boldly to meet them, swinging his
long-sword in the terrific manner that I had so often seen the men of his
kind wield it in their ferocious and almost continual warfare among their
Carter soon joins the Green Man and they have an epic battle with first
the Plant Men, and then, after another call from the Thern guardian, a
horde of Great White Apes joins the carnage. As they watch them approach
the battle, they exchange words for the first time:
“Cutting and hewing from right and left, he laid
an open path straight through the advancing plant men, and then commenced
a mad race for the forest, in the shelter of which he evidently hoped that
he might find a haven of refuge.
“He turned for that portion of the forest which
abutted on the cliffs, and thus the mad race was taking was the entire
party farther and farther from the boulder where I lay concealed.
“As I had watched the noble fight which the great
warrior had put up against such enormous odds my heart had swelled in admiration
for him, and acting as I am wont to do, more upon impulse than after mature
deliberation, I instantly sprang from my sheltering rock and bounded quickly
toward the bodies of the dead green Martians, a well-defined plan of action
“Half a dozen great leaps brought me to the spot,
and another instant saw me again in my stride in quick pursuit of the hideous
monsters that were rapidly gaining on the fleeing warrior, and this time
I grasped a mighty long-sword in my hand and in my heart was the old blood
lust of the fighting man, and a red mist swam before my eyes and I felt
my lips respond to my heart in the old smile that has ever marked me in
the midst of the joy of battle.” (GM/1.)
“‘It will be a great death,’ I said to
my companion. ‘Look!’ “As he shot a glance in the direction I indicated
They escape from the mad hordes through a hole at the base of one of the
massive tree trunks in the forest, but first they struggle with each other
to see who will go first down the hole:
“‘We may at least die fighting and as great warriors
should, John Carter,’ he replied.
“We had just finished the last of our immediate
antagonists as he spoke, and I turned in surprise wonderment at the sound
of my name.
“And there before my astonished eyes I beheld
the greatest of the green men of Barsoom; their shrewdest statesman, their
mightiest general, my great and good friend, Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark.”
“At length he yielded, for it seemed
the only way in which either of us might be saved from the ever-increasing
numbers of our assailants, who were still swarming upon us from all directions
across the broad valley.
Finally, Tars Tarkas reaches up and grabs Carter’s ankles, dragging him
inside the hole beneath the tree. Torn and bleeding, they take a moment
to catch their breaths as Tars Tarkas clears the opening of any invading
creature. Carter finds a ladder carved inside the trunk and they both climb
to a cave high in the cliffs above, where they have an astonishing view
of the Valley Dor:
“‘It was ever your way, John Carter, to think
last of your own life,’ he said; ‘but still more your way to command the
lives and actions of others, even to the greatest of Jeddaks who rule upon
“There was a grim smile upon his cruel, hard face,
as he, the greatest Jeddak of them all, turned to obey the dictates of
a creature of another world – of a man whose stature was less than half
“‘If you fail, John Carter,’ he said, ‘know that
the cruel and heartless Thark, to whom you taught the meaning of friendship,
will come out to die beside you.’
“‘As you will, my friend,’ I replied; ‘but quickly
now, head first, while I cover your retreat.’
“He hesitated a little at that word, for never
before in his whole life of continual strife had he turned his back upon
aught than a dead or defeated enemy.
“‘Haste, Tars Tarkas,’ I urged, ‘or we shall both
go down to profitless defeat; I cannot hold them for ever alone.’
“As he dropped to the ground to force his way
into the tree, the whole howling pack of hideous devils hurled themselves
upon me. To right and left flew my shimmering blade, now green with the
sticky juice of a plant man, now red with the crimson blood of a great
white ape; but always flying from one opponent to another, hesitating but
the barest fraction of a second to drink the lifeblood in the center of
some savage heart.” (GM/2.)
“As far as the eye could reach gorgeous
forest and crimson sward skirted a silent sea, and about all towered the
brilliant monster guardian cliffs. Once we thought we discerned a gilded
minaret gleaming in the sun amidst the waving tops of far-distant trees,
but we soon abandoned the idea in the belief that it was but a hallucination
born of our great desire to discover the haunts of civilized men in this
beautiful, yet forbidding, spot.
The cave leads into a tunnel corridor and they explore the inside of the
cliff until they are interrupted by a maniacal voice. They halt immediately,
waiting in tense and expectant silence.
“Below us upon the river's bank the great white
apes were devouring the last remnants of Tars Tarkas’ former companions,
the great herds of plant men grazed in ever-widening circles about the
sward which they kept as close clipped as the smoothest of lawns.” (GM/2.)
“At length Tars Tarkas laughed softly,
after the manner of his strange kind when in the presence of the horrible
or terrifying. It is not a hysterical laugh, but rather the genuine expression
of the pleasure they derive from the things that move Earth men to loathing
or to tears.
Carter asks his friend what he makes of everything and Tars Tarkas is shocked
that John Carter does not know where he is.
“Often and again I have seen them roll upon the
ground in mad fits of uncontrollable mirth when witnessing the death agonies
of women and little children beneath the torture of that hellish green
Martian fete – the Great Games.
“I looked up at the Thark, a smile upon my own
lips, for here in truth was greater need for a smiling face than a trembling
“‘Where have you been since you opened
the mighty portals of the atmosphere plant years ago, after the keeper
had died and the engines stopped and all Barsoom was dying, that had not
already died, of asphyxiation? Your body even was never found, though the
men of a whole world sought after it for years, though the Jeddak of Helium
and his granddaughter, your princess, offered such fabulous rewards that
even princes of royal blood joined in the search.
Carter interrupts, glad to know that his princess still lives. He then
asks again where they might be. This is hard for Tars Tarkas to grasp,
since Carter is exactly where everyone expected him to be, not knowing
that Carter had astral traveled to Earth for ten years.
“‘There was but one conclusion to reach when all
efforts to locate you had failed, and that, that you had taken the long,
last pilgrimage down the mysterious River Iss, to await in the Valley Dor
upon the shores of the Lost Sea of Korus the beautiful Dejah Thoris, your
“‘We are where I expected to find you,
John Carter – and another. Many years ago you heard the story of the woman
who taught me the thing that green Martians are reared to hate, the woman
who taught me to love. You know the cruel tortures and the awful death
her love won for her at the hands of the beast, Tal Hajus.
John Carter finally groks the situation. It is not clear if he even has
an inkling of the role that Barsoomian fate had had in arranging the strange
coincidence of their coming together precisely in the place Tars Tarkas
imagined him to be, but is there any doubt that Tars Tarkas and Carter
have indeed been brought together to bring the hideous Religion of Issus
to a bloody end on the planet? And if you can remember the name of the
woman who taught Tars Tarkas love, you have a really good memory. I would
wager that few would ever get it right in a trivia contest. Her name was
Cozava, the atavistic goddess of Tharkian love.
“‘She, I thought, awaited me by the Lost Sea of
“‘You know that it was left for a man from another
world, for yourself, John Carter, to teach this cruel Thark what friendship
is; and you, I thought, also roamed the care-free Valley Dor.
“‘Thus were the two I most longed for at the end
of the long pilgrimage I must take some day, and so as the time had elapsed
which Dejah Thoris had hoped might bring you once more to her side, for
she has always tried to believe that you had but temporarily returned to
your own planet, I at last gave way to my great yearning and a month since
I started upon the journey, the end of which you have this day witnessed.
Do you understand now where you be, John Carter?’”
Tars Tarkas takes the realization that for his whole life what he has
absolutely believed in – that the Martian afterlife is just a pleasant
delusion to deceive Barsoomians into a gruesome end – with Martian dignity
and irony. He knows that even if he were to escape and expose the horrible
truth of this twisted religion, he would not be believed and would be surely
tortured to death for blasphemy.
“‘We are between the wild thoat of certainty
and the mad zitidar of fact – we can escape neither.’
Carter then explains to him where he has been for the last ten years, and
even though Tars Tarkas finds it all hard to accept, he believes him, not
knowing why. Most people, having their delusions crushed like this would
experience some kind of nervous breakdown or a great bout of depression,
many ending with some form of mental illness. But not our resilient heroes.
“‘As Earth men say, we are between the devil and
the deep sea, Tars Tarkas,’ I replied, nor could I help but smile at our
“‘There is naught that we can do but take things
as they come, and at least have the satisfaction of knowing that whoever
slays us eventually will have far greater numbers of their own dead to
count than they will get in return. White ape or plant man, green Barsoomian
or red man, whosoever it shall be that takes the last toll of from us will
know that it is costly in lives to wipe out John Carter, Prince of the
House of Tardos Mors, and Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark, at the same time.’
“I could not help but laugh at his grim humor,
and he joined in with me in one of those rare laughs of real enjoyment
which was one of the attributes of this fierce Tharkian chief which marked
him from the others of his kind.” (GM/2.)
However, Tars Tarkas will need one final push to send him back into
the arena with something like confidence of victory again. After all, he
knows that a return to Thark after experiencing Valley Dor will mean certain
torture, death and disgrace.
They enter the Chamber of Mystery where they are constantly assaulted
by huge wild banths appearing as if out of nowhere. After slaying many
banths, Carter finally figures out they are appearing from openings in
the wall that suddenly appear and then disappear. He times the next opening
and hops inside, facing a white man with blond hair. Carter slays him,
and then is almost killed by another, saved by the yell of a slave girl
chained to the wall.
After he dispatches his opponent with a pistol, he searches frantically
for a key to open the door to save his friend. The slave girl says that
she can help him after he asks her if she knows the secret of the lock.
“‘Yes; release me and I will give you
entrance to the other horror chamber, if you wish. The keys to my fetters
are upon the first dead of thy foemen. But why would you return to face
again the fierce banth, or whatever form of destruction they have loosed
within that awful trap?’
Carter relates his narrow escape on the other side of the chamber from
the two adversaries, then they explore the wall for the secret locks in
hope of opening one of them, but in vain. Then the slave girl, Thuvia,
returns and demands to know how they can be so bold as to believe they
will escape the certainty of death for their defiance of Issus. This dialogue
centers on Thuvia, but it is easy to imagine Tars Tarkas listening intently
as his dream of Valley Dor lies shattered, bleeding in his heart, especially
after Carter announces he intends to use Tars Tarkas as his main witness
against the false religion:
“‘Because my friend fights there alone,’ I answered,
as I hastily sought and found the keys upon the carcass of the dead custodian
of this grim chamber of horrors.
“There were many keys upon the oval ring, but
the fair Martian maid quickly selected that which sprung the great lock
at her waist, and freed she hurried toward the secret panel.
“Again she sought out a key upon the ring. This
time a slender, needle like affair which she inserted in an almost invisible
hole in the wall. Instantly the door swung upon its pivot, and the contiguous
section of the floor upon which I was standing carried me with it into
the chamber where Tars Tarkas fought.
“The great Thark stood with his back against an
angle of the walls, while facing him in a semi-circle a half-dozen huge
monsters crouched waiting for an opening. Their blood-streaked heads and
shoulders testified to the cause of their wariness as well as to the swordsmanship
of the green warrior whose glossy hide bore the same mute but eloquent
witness to the ferocity of the attacks that he had so far withstood.
“Sharp talons and cruel fangs had torn his leg,
arm, and breast literally to ribbons. So weak was he from continued exertion
and loss of blood that but for the supporting wall I doubt that he even
could have stood erect. But with the tenacity and indomitable courage of
his kind he still faced his cruel and relentless foes – the personification
of that ancient proverb of his tribe: ‘Leave to a Thark his head and one
hand and he may yet conquer.’
“As he saw me enter, a grim smile touched those
grim lips of his, but whether the smile signified relief or merely amusement
at the sight of my bloody and dishevelled condition I do not know.
“As I was about to spring into the conflict with
my sharp long-sword I felt a gentle hand upon my shoulder and turning found,
to my surprise, that the young woman had followed me into the chamber.
“‘Wait,’ she whispered, ‘leave them to me,’ and
pushing me advanced, all defenceless and unarmed, upon the snarling banths.
“When quite close to them she spoke a single Martian
word in low and peremptory tones. Like lightning the great beasts wheeled
upon her, and I looked to see her torn to pieces before I could reach her
side, but instead the creatures slunk to her feet like puppies that expect
a merited whipping.
“Again she spoke to them, but in tones so low
I could not catch the words, and then she started toward the opposide side
of the chamber with the six mighty monsters trailing at her heel. One by
one she sent them through the secret panel into the room beyond, and when
the last had passed from the chamber where we stood in wide-eyed amazement
she turned and smiled at us and then herself passed through, leaving us
“For a moment neither of us spoke. Then Tars Tarkas
said: “‘I heard the fighting beyond the partition through which you passed,
but I did not fear for you, John Carter, until I heard the report of a
revolver shot. I knew that there lived no man upon all Barsoom who could
face you with naked steel and live, but the shot stripped the last vestige
of hope from me, since you I knew to be without firearms. Tell me of it.’”
“‘Who are you?’ she asked, ‘and what
your mission, that you have the temerity to attempt to escape from the
Valley Dor and the death you have chosen?’
Thuvia then relates her sad tale of being a plaything of the Holy Therns
for fifteen years, as well as the belief-system of the Holy Therns, with
a fate of possibly ending up as a slimy silian wriggling in the deeps of
the Lost Sea of Korus, which cheers up Tars Tarkas:
“‘I have chosen no death, maiden,’ I replied.
‘I am not of Barsoom, nor have I taken yet the voluntary pilgrimage upon
the River Iss. My friend here is Jeddak of all the Tharks, and though he
has not yet expressed a desire to return to the living world, I am taking
him with me from the living lie that hath lured him to this frightful place.
“I am of another world. I am John Carter, Prince
of the House of Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium. Perchance some faint rumor
of me may have leaked within the confines of your hellish abode.’” (GM/4.)
“‘We sent several Holy Therns to the
silians today, then,’ said Tars Tarkas, laughing.
If you hear the voice of ERB preaching his gospel, your ears are just fine.
It is easy to see an analogy of Jesus Christ teaching his apostles Mary
Magdalene and John Mark in this scene. It is no call to obey some imaginary
God, but a call to be true to the Truth, regardless of the cost!
“‘And so will your death be the more terrible
when it comes,’ said the maiden. ‘And come it will – you cannot escape.’
“‘One has escaped, centuries ago,’ I reminded
her, ‘and what has been done may be done again.’
“‘It is useless even to try,’ she answered hopelessly.
“‘But try we shall,’ I cried, ‘and you shall go
with us, if you wish.’
“‘To be put to death by mine own people, and render
my memory a disgrace to my family and my nation? A Prince of the House
of Tardos Mors should know better than to suggest a thing.’
“Tars Tarkas listened in silence, but I could
feel his eyes riveted upon me and I knew that he awaited my answer as one
might listen to the reading of his sentence by the foreman of a jury.
“What I advised the girl to do would seal our
fate as well, since, if I bowed to the inevitable decree of age-old superstition
we must all remain and meet our fate in some horrible form within this
awful abode of horror and cruelty.
“‘We have the right to escape if we can,’ I answered.
‘Our own moral senses will not be offended if we succeed, for we know that
the fabled life of love and peace in the blessed Valley Dor is a rank and
wicked deception. We know that the valley is not sacred; we know that the
Holy Therns are not holy; that they are a race of cruel and heartless mortals,
knowing no more of the real life to come than we do.
“‘Not only is it our right to bend every effort
to escape – it is a solemn duty from which we should not shrink even though
we know that we shall be reviled and tortured by our own peoples when we
returned to them.
“‘Only thus may we carry the truth to those without,
and though the likelihood of our narrative being given credence is, I grant
you, remote, so wedded are mortals to their stupid infatuation for impossible
superstitions, we should be craven cowards indeed were we to shirk the
plain duty which confronts us.’” (GM/4.)
Some times you have to do what you know is right disregarding the consequences,
hard as that may be. This takes real courage. But this is where the true
confrontation between self consciousness and Existence comes into focus.
This is true existentialism, where the moment has meaning in itself because
you are true to it.
Carter has gotten through to his two new disciples. Their superstition
had two layers of fear to overcome. The first was the fear that came from
the realization that their religion had been a lie, nothing but a lure
to a cannibalistic death. The second was the fear that came from what would
await them when they returned and announced that the Religion of Issus
was a lie, ruining their family’s reputation. The second fear is the greatest
“Both the girl and the green warrior
stood silent in thought for some moments. The former it was who eventually
broke the silence.
They have many adventures, but finally they gain the Gardens of the Therns,
where they discover that the Therns are being attacked by the Black Pirates.
Carter manages to steal a Black Pirate flier, but it cannot bear the weight
of the three of them, so, in a heroic gesture, he sets the controls and
jumps out of the flier, leaving Tars Tarkas and the lovely maid Thuvia
to their fate while he faces his own.
“‘Never had I considered the matter in that light
before,’ she said. ‘Indeed would I give my life a thousand times if I could
but save a single soul from the awful life that I have led in this cruel
place. Yes, you are right, and I will go with you as far as we can go;
but I doubt that we ever shall escape.’
“I turned an inquiring glance toward the Thark.
“‘To the gates of Issus, or to the bottom of Korus,’
spoke the green warrior; ‘to the snows of the north or to the snows to
the south, Tars Tarkas follows where John Carter leads. I have spoken.’”
Carter is captured by the Black Pirates, is imprisoned on the Island
of Shador in the underground Sea of Omean, and escapes with Xodar, a black
dator, and his son, Carthoris. As they make their getaway, they join up
with Thuvia, who then tells them what happened to her and Tars Tarkas after
they escaped from the Therns.
“The great Thark, I fear, is dead,’ she
replied sadly. ‘He was a mighty fighter, but a multitude of green warriors
of another horde than his overwhelmed him. The last that I saw of him they
were bearing him, wounded and bleeding, to the deserted city from which
they had sallied to attack us.’
The rest all want to go too, but Carter refuses, going it alone. He sneaks
into the city, makes his way down the streets, in and out of buildings,
heading for the center. He enters one building by climbing up a wall and
entering a third floor, which allows him to overhear a warrior in the hall
below him addressing another in an adjoining room:
“‘You are not sure that he is dead, then?’ I asked.
‘And where is this city of which you speak?’
“‘It is just beyond this range of hills. The vessel
in which you nobly resigned a place that we might escape defied our small
skill in navigation, with the result that we drifted aimlessly about for
two days. Then we decided to abandon the craft and attempt to make our
way on foot to the nearest waterway. Yesterday we crossed these hills and
came upon the dead city beyond. We had passed within its streets and we
walking toward the central portion, when at an intersecting avenue we saw
a body of green warriors approaching.
“‘Tars Tarkas was in advance, and they saw him,
but me they did not see. The Thark sprang back to my side and forced me
into an adjacent doorway, where he told me to remain in hiding until I
could escape, making my way to Helium if possible.
“‘“There will be no escape for me now,” he said,
“for these be the Warhoons of the South. When they have seen my metal it
will be to the death.”
“‘Then he stepped out to meet them. Ah, my Prince,
such fighting! For an hour they swarmed about him, until the Warhoon dead
formed a hill where he had stood; but at last they overwhelmed him, those
behind pushing the foremost upon him until there remained no space to swing
his great sword. Then he stumbled and went down and they rolled over him
like a huge wave. When they carried him away toward the heart of the city,
he was dead, I think, for I did not see him move.’
“‘Before we go farther we must be sure,’ I said.
‘I cannot leave Tars Tarkas alive among the Warhoons. Tonight I shall enter
the city and make sure.’” (GM/14.)
“‘Come, Tan Gama,’ he cried, ‘we are
to take the Thark before Kab Kadja. Bring another with you.’
Carter follows them to where he guesses they are going: to the Pits below.
He follows them at a distance and finally comes upon a spiral stairway
leading up and down. From Carter’s knowledge of the Warhoons, he assumes
they have gone down.
“The warrior addressed arose and, beckoning to
a fellow squatting near, the three turned and left the apartment.” (GM/14.)
“I myself had once been a prisoner of
the great cruel hordes of the northern Warhoon, and the memory of the underground
dungeon in which I lay still is vivid in my memory. And so I felt certain
that Tars Tarkas lay in the dark pits beneath some nearby building, and
that in that direction I should find the trail of the three warriors leading
to his cell.
The three warriors escort Tars Tarkas upwards and Carter gets lost in the
dark and takes ages before he gets back on track. When he sees light again,
it is from the three returning with Tars Tarkas, taking him back to his
cell. Two of the guards stroll toward the spiral stairway why the third
refastens Tars Tarkas to the wall.
“Nor was I wrong. At the bottom of the runway,
or rather at the landing on the floor below, I saw that the shaft descended
into the pits beneath, and as I glanced down the flickering light of a
torch revealed the presence of the three I was trailing.
“Down they went toward the pits beneath the structure,
and at a safe distance behind I followed the flicker of their torch. The
way led through a maze of torturous corridors, unlighted save for the wavering
light they carried. We had gone perhaps a hundred yards when the party
turned abruptly through the doorway at their right. I hastened on as rapidly
as I dared through the darkness until I reached the point at which they
had left the corridor. There, through an open door, I saw them removing
the chains that secured the great Thark, Tars Tarkas, to
the wall.” (GM/14.)
“The torch had been stuck in a socket
beside the door, so that its rays illuminated both the corridor and the
cell at the same time. As I saw the two warriors disappear I approached
the entrance to the cell, with a well-defined plan already formulated.
A dozen paces behind him followed John Carter, Prince of Helium.
“While I disliked the thought of carrying out
the thing I had decided upon, there seemed no alternative if Tars Tarkas
and I were to go back together to my little camp in the hills.
“Keeping near the wall, I came quite close to
the door to Tars Tarkas’ cell, and there I stood with my longsword above
my head, grasped with both hands, that I might bring it down in one quick
cut upon the skull of the jailer as he emerged.
“I dislike to dwell upon what followed after I
heard the footsteps of the man as he approached the doorway. It is enough
that within another minute or two, Tars Tarkas, wearing the metal of a
Warhoon chief, was hurrying down the corridor toward the spiral runway,
bearing the Warhoon’s torch to light his way.
“The two companions of the man who lay
now beside the door of the cell that had been Tars Tarkas’ had just started
to ascend the runway as Tars Tarkas came in view.
They climb and climb and finally reach a balcony overlooking the courtyard,
to their right a window leading into the room from which Carter had heard
Tan Gama first speak.
“‘Why so long, Tan Gama?’ cried one of the men.
“‘I had trouble with a lock,’ replied Tars Tarkas.
‘And now I find that I have left my short-sword in the Thark’s cell. Go
you on, I’ll return and fetch it.’
“‘As you will, Tan Gama,’ replied he who had before
spoken. ‘We shall see you above directly.’
“‘Yes,’ replied Tars Tarkas, and turned as though
to retrace his steps to the cell, but he only waited until the two had
disappeared at the floor above. Then I joined him, we extinguished the
torch, and together we crept toward the spiral incline that led to the
upper floors of the building.” (GM/15.)
“His companions had returned here, and
we now overheard a portion of their conversation.
Those last sentences sum up the essence of the friendship between John
Carter and Tars Tarkas. The brave Thark will go on to play major roles
in the battle of the Valley Dor against the Therns and Black Pirates, and
even against the fleet of Zodanga again. And finally, Tars Tarkas and the
green hordes will play a decisive role in the great battle of Kadabra,
the Barsoomian Armageddon. This is true friendship.
“‘What can be detaining Tan Gama?’ asked one.
“‘He certainly could not be all this time fetching
his short-sword from the Thark’s cell,’ spoke another.
“‘His short-sword?’ asked a woman. ‘What mean
“‘Tan Gama left his short-sword in the Thark’s
cell,’ explained the first speaker, ‘and left us at the runway, to return
and get it.’
“‘Tan Gama wore no short-sword this night,’ said
the woman. ‘It was broken in today’s battle with the Thark, and Tan Gama
gave it to me to repair. See, I have it here,’ and as she spoke she drew
Tan Gama’s short-sword from beneath her sleeping silks and furs.
“The warriors sprang to their feet.
“‘There is something amiss here,’ cried one.
“‘’Tis even what I myself thought when Tan Gama
left us at the runway,’ said another. ‘Methought then that his voice sounded
“‘Come! Let us hasten to the pits.’
“We waited to here no more. Slinging my harness
into a long single strap, I lowered Tars Tarkas to the courtyard beneath,
and an instant later dropped to his side.
“We had spoken scarcely a dozen words since I
had felled Tan Gama at the cell door and seen in the torch’s light the
expression of utter bewilderment upon the great Thark’s face.
“‘By this time,’ he had said, ‘I should have learned
to wonder at nothing which John Carter accomplishes.’ That was all. He
did not need to tell me that he appreciated the friendship which had prompted
me to risk my life to rescue him, nor did he need to say that he was glad
to see me.
“The fierce green warrior had been the first to
greet me that day, now twenty years gone, which had witnessed my first
advent upon Mars. He had met me with levelled spear and cruel hatred in
his heart as he charged down upon me, bending low at the side of his mighty
thoat as I stood beside the incubator of his horde upon the dead sea bottom
beyond Korad. And now among the inhabitants of two worlds I counted none
a better friend than Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of the Tharks.” (GM/15.)
Call me a slow study, but it is only now – and I ‘ve read this story
at least five times – that I have come to understand the strong theme of
friendship at the core of every page of the novel. I see ERB now as a kind
of early John Lennon, using his art to preach a certain clear message of
friendship and trusting alliances, of racial tolerance, equality of the
sexes, and kindness to animals. There is something deliberately universal
in the ethics of the Barsoomian Mythos that transcend traditional American
Judeo-Christian ideals. Both Tarzan and John Carter are masters at bringing
diverse groups together to achieve a common purpose, usually good.
They may have psychopathic tendencies – what hero doesn’t? – but there
is nothing evil in their characters, except a dark side they keep at bay.
They champion the rights of the underdog. They hate and defy tyranny. They
are the true stuff of classical mythology brought into Twentieth Century
archetypes. I now see clearly that the mental and moral progress of Tars
Tarkas plays an essential role in the development of the first two stories
in the Barsoomian Mythos, coming to an understated conclusion in Warlord
of Mars, where the character of Tars Tarkas is regarded by all Red Martians
in the Helium Alliance, which also includes members of the Black and Yellow
Martians – as a master statesman; a Martian equivalent of the British Disraeli,
the German Bismarck, the French Talleyrand, or the American Woodrow Wilson.
In doing the analysis of the story, I was reminded deeply of the first
time I learned the true meaning of friendship. For the sake of storytelling,
we’ll call this adventure "My Hussong's Enlightenment."
I was twenty years old, attending Fresno City College in the spring
of 1967. A group of my friends, mostly known since High School, decided
to attend the Cinco de Mayo celebration in Ensenada, Mexico. Every year
on that day, a yacht race was held between Newport Beach, California, and
Ensenada, and we didn’t want to miss the fun when the boats came in. The
year before, the Federales had to be called in to put down widespread rioting
and drunken disturbances caused by American sailors. It was rumored that
this year the roads were going to be blocked by Federales, 5,000 of them
having been called up in advance to police the streets during the three-day
We arrived in Tijuana about noon and prepared for the coming party by
drinking two pitchers of beer apiece at the famous Long Bar on Revolucionary
Avenue. My good friend, Tom Smiley, and I then bought a bottle of tequila
which we split between us on our road trip, with nothing but one lime to
chase it down with, and we were hallucinatory drunk out of our minds by
the time we hit Ensenada.
It was a pleasant drive down a newly constructed highway, and when we
neared the cliffs overlooking the sea close to Ensenada, I was amazed to
see that some of the off-ramps were horseshoe turns dead-ending in the
middle of nowhere; if a driver was unlucky to take one of them he would
end up with a sudden end of pavement and find himself sailing off into
the air to be dashed on the rocks below.
As it was, after we had a margarita at some castle-like cantina overlooking
the sea, the driver of our ride lost his wallet and ended up down on his
hands and knees in the gutters looking for it. Sensing a lost cause, the
rest of us split up and wandered off on our separate ways. I linked up
with one of my oldest High School friends and we finally ended up in Hussong's
cantina, where, for some reason or other, a local police officer asked
me to step outside.
The Federales were randomly rounding up drunken Americans where they
would then be transported to the police station and either be charged $15.00,
which they were prevented from paying from the money they had on them,
or spend fifteen days in the Carcel de Municipal: the local jail. In three
days, hundreds of Americans were arrested and fined. It proved to be a
real money-maker for the local economy.
As soon as I realized I was not going to be able to buy my way out of
this one – the police officer had waved for a group of Federales and a
paddy wagon parked down the street – I started to make a dash for escape,
but already four or five other officers had arrived and, surrounding me,
they beat me over the head with their batons until I was submissive and
barely conscious. I still have a slight dent in my skull even as I write
this 44 years later. They then took me by the hands and feet and, Uno,
Dos, Tres, tossed me into the back of the paddy wagon head over heels.
When I sat up I noticed that the other occupant, a long-haired hippie,
looked up from his seat, where he had been holding his head in his hands,
and asked me, “Hey, what part of Los Angeles are we in, man? These fucking
cops are totally out of control!”
I could tell he was on acid I and carefully told him that we were in
Mexico and that we were on our way to the Ensenada jail, and he better
hope it was not as bad as it was notoriously reported to be. He said he
wasn’t going to worry because he had really good friends that would never
let him down and was confident they would bail him out the next morning.
I was relieved to remember that one of my closest friends from High School
had been with me when I was arrested and trusted the same fate awaited
me the next morning. But even then, I was positive I could always trust
Tom Smiley to rescue me once he discovered where I was.
However, a few hours later, after being locked inside a huge roofed
room, I was saddened to discover that Tom Smiley was joining me; he too
had been arrested. Then I passed out for the night. The next day neither
the friends of the LA hippie nor our friends bailed us out. But the day
was far from being boring, even though most of it consisted of endless
stretches waiting for people to come who never did.
The first thing that morning we learned was that we shared our cell
with a doctor from Berkeley, who had come down to go deep sea fishing with
his friend, the chief of the Ensenada police. He had inadvertently double-parked
on entering the city to get out of his car to aid a young boy who was injured
on the sidewalk. When the Federales arrived, he was unable to explain in
time that they were making a big mistake before they struck him under the
right eye with a baton, knocking him out cold. He woke up in the new cell
to which they transferred us the next morning. He had a large dark goose-egg
under his eye from the baton.
Tom and I immediately made friends with him, as we were college students,
and Tom’s father was also a doctor. We gave him our parents names and numbers
so that he could inform them of our whereabouts when he was finally able
to bribe one of the guards to take a message to the chief letting him know
where his missing guest was abiding.
Then Juan was admitted into our cell, which was a huge open-aired space
resembling the Alamo, with broken glass embedded on the tops of the white-washed
walls. Juan was treated like a local celebrity because he was the head
bandito of Ensenada. Twice a year he would be arrested on trumped up charges
and held until enough ransom, er, bribery, could be raised to release him.
Shortly after that, a drunken business man, wearing a very flashy expensive
suit, was thrown in with us.
It was soon evident that he was very drunk and openly gay, hitting on
everyone, and finally, putting his face into the small window that looked
out of the door into the adjoining corridor, he began shouting insults
and demanding justice at the top of his lungs. One of the guards walked
by and smacked him across the face with a rubber hose, shattering his nose.
He fell unconscious to the floor, bleeding profusely.
Almost before he hit the floor, Juan clapped his hands, and five or
six men stripped the business man of his new suit, replacing them with
rags. When they were through the doctor treated the business man’s damaged
nose. Juan ordered the men to pass the suit through the window to the guard
outside, who returned about forty minutes later with a kilo of marijuana
wrapped in newspaper. I was later told that if I stuck around long enough
I would discover that they were also able to get women inside just as easy.
They rolled up fat joints with the newspaper and offered one to us,
but we declined since we were so scared of being in that jail that we were
not taking any chances of having drug charges added to our public drunkeness
charges. Juan seemed to take a liking to me, however, and he approached
me with a proposition I couldn’t refuse. It seems that he was also a local
revolutionary and if I would agree to teach him how to write the English
word “TRUTH” – so that he could paint it on the white-washed walls of the
city in big red letters – he would make sure no one sodomized me that night
when I fell asleep.
Fair is fair. I taught him to spell out the word on the dirt floor with
my finger, like Moses did when he invented the Ten Commandments, or, better
yet, like Jesus did when he let the adulterous wife go free. That’s how
I learned about friends of necessity.
By the end of the day the doctor had finally been released after promising
us again that he would contact our parents. The hippie’s friends had also
come through and he was anxious to get back to LA in his red VW bus. Tom
had been smart enough to stash money in his sock before they confiscated
his wallet at the police station and he got to know the guard pretty well
by bribing him money so we could eat some tacos, instead of the common
pot of boiling who-knewwhat they served us once a day.
Finally, on the third day, he was able to bribe the guard to let him
make a phone call and he discovered that the doctor had notified our parents
and that the chief of police was personally coming to pick us up in his
Cadillac in the morning.
Our other friend, the one who had driven us there and who had lost his
wallet, had no idea of what had become of us and had driven back to UCLA,
but after he received a phone call from our parents, he was heading down
to meet us in Ensenada. The police chief arrived in his Cadillac and Tom
and I then split up, with Tom watching the main road into town for our
ride from UCLA, while I went with the chief to await our money being wired
by Western Union.
It was amazing what a true friend the doctor from Berkeley had been.
Not only was he instrumental in our getting out of the carcel, his friendship
was extended to us by the chief of police himself. After getting the money
and squaring our account with the chief, I walked back across town to meet
Tom at the outskirts so that we wouldn’t miss our ride. But first I stopped
off at Hussong’s cantina for a couple of beers. I was dirty, raggedy, and
likely stunk, but right then I needed those cold beers more than anything
else in the whole wide world; besides, it was kind of exciting to return
to the scene of the crime while sober and in my right mind.
There was only one other customer at the bar, a rich American, who lived
in a large house next to Bing Crosby’s on the coast. I told him my story
and he showed me a protection card he carried in his wallet issued by the
police. For a thousand dollars a year he had absolute immunity for any
crime except murder. He said, “I’d never come to Mexico without one of
these.” Then he asked me if I had heard the news of the hippies who had
been killed driving off one of the new highway's off-ramps in their red
VW bus. This hit me hard and was a great weight on my soul for the whole
trip back home. His friends had been true friends, not leaving him behind,
friends to the death!
We never did get an adequate explanation from our “good old High School
friends” of why they didn’t bail us out or even report to our parents the
predicament we were in. They just thought it was best for them to forget
about us and hope for the best for us. The only person I had known for
sure that I could trust to rescue me had been in the same predicament with
me at the same time. We didn’t have any more opportunities to express our
true friendship after that, unless....
Exactly one year later, on May 5, 1968, near Pleiku, in the central
highlands of South Vietnam, while guarding the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Tom Smiley
was killed by a rocket propelled grenade while manning the machine gun
on top of an armored personnel carrier. His true friendship haunted me
like a ghost for years after. In fact, his ghost may have saved my life
in a friendship that proved to be stronger than death. It gives me comfort
to think that things like this are possible in some of my surviving superstitions.
I had some interesting mind-bending experiences during my college years,
coming to a harsh end when I was drafted into the Army at the end of May
1969. One of my more intriguing LSD trips occurred just prior to my induction
in Isla Vista, near Santa Barbara, California, on the first anniversary
of Tom’s death. I had dropped some very pure and powerful LSD, and had
been tripping heavily on a soap-opera-like episode of a friend’s lesbian
girlfriend when I felt a strong compulsion to go down to the beach. It
was like a psychic calling.
I walked out of the apartment as if literally being pulled like a magnet
to the ocean. When I arrived, there was no one on the beach within sight
in either direction, save for a lone German Shepherd frolicking in the
surf about a hundred yards to my left. I then found a spot on the beach
where there was little tar from the recent oil spill and sat down. Immediately
the German Shepherd started running like hell towards me. Okay, I thought,
he wants to play.
I waited him for him to come to a stop, but he never did, instead he
ran head-on into me, knocking me back with his huge muzzle. Without looking
at me, he dug intently in the very spot I had been sitting, digging up
a rock about five inches in diameter. He gave me a quick gaming glance,
then sped off helter skelter in the opposite direction, never stopping
until he was out of sight. Wow, I thought, what were the odds of that ever
happening? Sitting down in the exact spot where a dog, the only soul inhabiting
the beach, had buried his prize rock?
As I contemplated what this coincidence might signify, I noticed the
tug of the tide, at the waves washing in, and I suddenly realized, like
the Fool on the Hill, that the world was spinning beneath me at one thousand
miles an hour. Distracted from my musings by scores of sand flies who pestered
the huge clumps of seaweed intermingled with clumps of tar, I waved my
hand and thought, more than I said, “Begone!”
There was a cracking sound as the sand flies were smacked back, and
suddenly, a domed force field formed around my head keeping the rest at
bay. I thought, “Wow, if I could learn how to do this at will I could become
a super hero.” But my musings were soon interrupted by a deep bass electronic
hum coming from the sky above, almost like celestial organ music. The overcast
sky parted dramatically over a portion of the ocean, streams of sunlight
poured down, lighting up a huge circle on the surface, and then a voice
spoke loudly and authoritatively inside my head, like the voice of God
in a movie.
This was a very lucid and vivid hallucination I was having, where telepathic
contact was not out of the ordinary. I had experienced telepathy many times
on LSD. Here, though, I was being telepathically contacted by an entity
who told me he was from another galaxy, whose race acted as the guardians
of this galaxy. He told me – let us for the sake of storytelling, call
him Zenon – that I was actually from another planet in this galaxy and
had been sent to Earth to incarnate as a human being in order to save the
Earth from nuclear destruction. The entity told me that I must go into
the Army where I would become a hero in Vietnam, leading me to a position
of political power where I would finally be in a place to prevent nuclear
This was a real bummer for me since I had taken the LSD – called “Orange
Sunshine” from Owsley’s famous original formula, in fact, I had bought
the last batch – hoping that I would finally become a true hippie and dodge
the draft without family guilt at having disgraced them. And yet, here
I was, experiencing the opposite of what I had expected.
The experience seemed incredibly real at the time, but, with the wearing
off of the acid, so with the belief system that provided the context of
the trip. But I always kept it in mind as a possibility since it made me
very special in my own mind.
My father, a retired Lt. Colonel in the Army, who worked in the training
department at Fort Ord, told me that if I could get into Artillery OCS,
I would spend my first year as an officer in Germany, rather than Vietnam.
Then, after being promoted to First Lieutenant, I would be in charge of
a battery and not have to serve as a Second Lieutenant forward observer
in Vietnam. I had made it clear to my father, however, that after studying
both American and Soviet history and foreign policy at Fresno State College,
that I would never go willingly to Vietnam, especially since I had to sign
up for the Regular Army to get into OCS.
Well, I made it through boot camp and advanced infantry training at
Fort Ord and got into Artillery OCS, but things started to take a strange
turn after that. From the very first week it was rumored that our entire
class was going to be sent to Vietnam as a relief force. A general’s son
committed suicide soon afterwards, perhaps because of this rumor. After
all, in Army talk, relief forces often go hand in hand with invasions.
This was confirmed in late January 1970 when a Major from the Rangers
gave us a class on counter-insurgency guerilla warfare. He told us a story
where in the beginning of the war a whole brigade of NVA regulars had been
allowed to escape from a rubber plantantion – owned by B.F. Goodrich –
because of the amount of time it took to haggle out an accepted price for
every rubber tree destroyed in the engagement. “That’s what this war is
all about,” he concluded.
Then he told us that the rumors we’d been hearing were true, that our
entire class was being sent to Vietnam as a relief force at the end of
April. Remember when the Cambodian invasion occurred? Remember Kent State?
I remembered the first day I was inducted: catching the morning Army
bus in Fresno heading for Fort Ord. Then, once getting there, being placed
in a holding barracks for assignment to a training unit. While there, I
looked through a recent Life magazine that was devoted to the military
service pictures of over one hundred soldiers who had been killed in Vietnam
the previous week. Page after page I looked at their faces, noting that
so many of them were officers. Now, back to the present, I remembered that
we were doomed to be forward observers in Vietnam, a hazardous profession
with a six week life span.
Wow, I thought at the time, this is it, I am really going to be sent
to Vietnam. I’m really going to be a forward observer, having to keep track
of how many trees are killed. After all the trouble I went through to get
out of going there, I was going there anyway! What a moral dilemma? I prayed
for a sign.
That night I had the most lucid realistic dream I’ve ever had. I was
leading a platoon in Vietnam as an infantry officer and for some odd reason
we were all wearing WWII uniforms. Suddenly we were ambushed and we all
hit the ground, myself and a few others crouched down behind a fallen tree
trunk. The enemy machine gun was whittling down our cover and suddenly
I remembered my training – the counter-intuitive lesson learned by many
deaths, that in case of ambush you should always charge firing fully automatic
at the location from which you are receiving the greatest amount of fire,
usually the machine-gun nest. Besides, I thought in the dream, the galactic
entity – Zenon, I believe we were calling him – said I would be a hero.
That must mean that I wasn’t going to die in Vietnam.
I pulled out a hand grenade, pulled the pin, lifted my head to aim and
throw it, and was shot between the eyes. I remember feeling the wind whistling
in the hole in front of my head and out the back before losing consciousness.
I awoke on a grassy plain stretching out as far as the eye could see
in all directions. Since the sun was directly over head, making it impossible
to tell direction – like in Pellucidar – I started walking in the direction
I was facing at the time. I walked for what seemed like hours, always the
same grassy plain, until, finally, I could make out a set of wooden bleachers
surrounding a baseball diamond a few hundred yards in front of me. As I
approached the rear of the bleachers I could see that someone was seated
in the front row between first base and home plate with his head hanging
I walked around and stood on the pitcher’s mound and waited for the
man to raise his head. When he did my heart stopped. It was Tom Smiley.
He said, “Hi, Woody, what took you so long to get here?”
I woke up on my barrack’s bunk trembling in a cold sweat, my mind no
longer in doubt. Call me a sentimentalist, but I like to believe that Tom
Smiley’s friendship was so strong that he was able to reach out beyond
the grave and warn me that Zenon was wrong, thus saving my life. Why not?
I went AWOL on Valentine’s Day and gained protected exile for three
years in Canada. I don’t have any regrets and was never punished by the
imaginary galactic entity Zenon for my willful disobedience. In the end
I was granted the same kind of Unconditional Presidential Pardon received
by Richard Nixon, of which I am very proud, since it allowed me to go to
law school and become a trial attorney. Of course, in between, I had to
spend four and a half months at hard labor at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
After all, I went AWOL and had to be punished. But my punishment was just.
Some times I feel as if my life has been written by ERB, with all of those
coincidences and such.
The desire for a fantasy afterlife where you are reunited with loved
ones along with a solid fear of hell are at the core of religion and they
are both delusions of the human mind. ERB is saying that a courageous individual
can have as much satisfaction and joy in existence by experiencing the
love for others and true friendship, as he or she can have at any charismatic
religious service, or by giving them money. There is a genuine spirituality
that comes out of people when they forget themselves, the kind that comes
when you love others and have true tested friends you know you can rely
The thing that prevents me from the nihilism of believing everything
is just random chance is the fact that there is a progressive spiral to
evolution. It’s coming from somewhere and going somewhere, developing more
complex organisms as it progresses who knows where. Why should this be
so? Why should matter evolve into self-consciousness? Why does it progress
at all? Like Nietzsche facing the Eternal Recurrence, I say, “Yes!” to
Existence. Or, as succinctly put by John Carter: “As long as we live we
still have hope!”
Sometimes I wish old Zenon had been right, that I was indeed sent here
from another planet, because sometimes I feel so alien on this one. How
could America have so soon forgotten the lessons of Vietnam, doing it all
over again in Afghanistan and Iraq? It makes me wonder sometimes: did this
really happen? Or was it just another vivid LSD hallucination flashback?
Am I still dreaming? The only long-term lesson learned from Vietnam
seems to be that we were able to do it with a regular army this time and
without draftees. Thanks be to a merciful God there is still Vodka.
In the Barsoomian Mythos, especially in the stirring opening trilogy,
John Carter is the Christ figure and Tars Tarkas is the beloved disciple.
This is all the reader needs to know in order to truly grok the narrative.
We will conclude our examination of the Green Hordes next time in Part
Seven. I hope.