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THE MARTIAN LEGION: In Quest of Xonthron
Robert B. Zeuschner
Mike Taylor for Camille Cazedessus II
Review by Robert B. Zeuschner
JAKE ‘BUDDY’ SAUNDERS, THE MARTIAN LEGION: IN QUEST OF XONTHRON (West Plains, MO: Russ Cochran Company, Ltd., 2014)
This book is a testament to Jake ‘Buddy’ Saunders’ deep affection for and great knowledge of the fantasy realms of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the tale he tells in this book also reflects his deep commitment to the Southern Baptist form of Christianity. As Bob Barrett pointed out to me, even the title, “Xonthron,” is a reference to an obscure title entry in ERB’s notebook, according to page 689 of the hardcover Porges: Despite all of this, an attempt at a story, the first since his return to the mainland, was noted in his diary of May 2, 1946: “Started ‘Xonthron’ ...” No further mention is made of this mysterious work.
Although I do not know, I suspect that Buddy Saunders has immersed himself in the ERB universe for most of his life, because he moves about freely in the many realms. I also suspect that Mr. Saunders’ love for pulp and comic fiction generated versions of this story in his mind long before he began composing the tale. Saunders’ great affection for heroes like Lamont Cranston (aka “The Shadow”) is clear throughout the pages of this mammoth novel, whose 250,000 words amounts to the size of almost four ERB books.
Committed Christians may be pleased to see the numerous references to the God of Christianity, to Jesus, and even the to the Trinity, references that they never find in ERB’s own works.
THE PHYSICAL BOOK:
This is the most beautiful Burroughs-related book I’ve ever encountered. To say “no expense was spared” is another understatement. The author and publisher have put their heart and soul into this volume.
The beautifully bound book is awash in all original interior art, with some spectacular two-page full color interior works of the very highest quality by Craig Mullins (whom I’d not heard of before) plus other full-page color art by Mike Hoffman and Tom Grindberg. Some of the artwork is obviously influenced by fine ERB artists like Jeffrey Jones, Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, but none of these artists are doing a slavish imitation of the Frazetta/Boris styles. Many of these are so good that I’d love to frame them and hang them on the wall (especially the full-color page depicting John Carter showing the real Barsoom to ERB for the first time, a gatefold with a young ape-man in the tree tops surveying a rising Pellucidarian landscape, and another image set in a Barsoomian library). There are also monochrome interior drawings by Hoffman and Grindberg, sometimes two on a page. The page design is of the highest artistic quality, including a two-column format. The printing and the paper are what you’d expect in an expensive art-book. The text is 377 pages of story, and another 50 pages of appendices.
Klee Tun, the son of Matai Shang and a Tenth-Degree Holy Thern, hears a voice in his head. Apparently the voices guide him to take revenge on John Carter and his family for destroying the Thern empire. Klee Tun joins with Fu Manchu to take over Barsoom in the name of the insect deity who speaks to him telepathically. Somehow he manages to convert an army of fanatical Thern and red-men followers in the worship of this giant insect god named Skhet (an Egyptian god of hatred, and perhaps a manifestation of Cthulhu or Satan) who fanatically go to their deaths with Skhet’s name on their lips. Did I mention that they are fanatical? Apparently with the god Skhet at their side, the Therns are able to convert even members of John Carter’s own household to their nefarious pur-poses. The Therns seem to move about freely assassinating and destroying throughout Barsoomian kingdoms, especially in Helium, and the Heliumite security forces are incredibly lax, including those who work in the service of the Warlord of Barsoom. Indeed, even some of those in the service of the Warlord have been converted to blind faith in the new Thern deity. To make matters worse, the Therns have sabotaged the atmosphere plant, telling the Barsoomians that all will perish unless they convert to the worship of the giant insect, with the Therns as rulers.
John Carter travels to Earth to find help. He enlists almost every ERB hero, and many others, in his cause. He comes to Tarzan’s African estate where Tarzan and Jane, Korak and Meriem, Paul D’Arnot, Jr., Carson Napier, Alley Oop and Oola Oop, Doc Savage and his crew including Monk Mayfair, Lamont and Margo Cranston, and an 82-year old balding writer named Ed Burroughs have gathered. H. P. Lovecraft also makes an appearance. Another important character is Reverend Billy Sunday, Jr., who is remarkably successful in converting Barsoomians to the Southern Baptist form of Christianity.
In addition there are numerous references to von Harben, Gridley, and even Poloda. Ghek the Kaldane is a major player. Later David Innes of Pellucidar, Ulysses Paxton, Gor Hajus, and Kar Komak, join the group. All Earthmen seem to adapt to Barsoom’s lesser gravity in a few minutes, not having as much trouble as John Carter had originally. In fact, there are no spectacular jumping feats, and barely any references to all these Earthmen being unusually strong in the lower gravity.
To make all the disparate threads fit, Saunders’ tale includes time travel (with all of its attendant paradoxes) and dimension-hopping. We travel back in time to the Barsoom where the Kaldanes were plentiful, and the people of Lothar were still learning how to project their phantom armies to protect their cities. We travel to a Barsoom in a different dimension, a Barsoom in the same orbit as the Mars that we know, but not the dead red planet that contemporary readers are so familiar with thanks to Mars landers’ explorations and science programs on television.
Often in adventure tales there is something which provides the motivation, something which is desired or even necessary to hero and villain alike. This object which provides the driving force is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call the “MacGuffin.” The driving force for The Martian Legion is the lost book which explains the science of how the Barsoomian atmosphere plants work, the scientific knowledge of which has been lost. The search for the book entitled XONTHRON (translated from Barsoomian into English is “Worldbuilder, The Book of Planetary Mechanics”) is the motivation for most of the action in this novel.
THE WRITING STYLE:
I admit to being pleasantly surprised by the writing style of this book. It not only feels appropriate for the pulp tale, that is, appropriately florid, but there are many places where it feels like ERB. The book’s framing device with the discovery of the hitherto lost manuscript, could have been used by Burroughs himself. Saunders appears extremely knowledgeable about the great majority of the pulp and comic heroes of the 1930s and 1940s. He knows what they wear, he knows how they speak and their weapon of choice.
Actually, in several places footnotes indicate that Mr. Sauders has paraphrased passages from the ERB novels. ERB devices are used throughout, that is, cliff-hanger endings, and parallel stories following the adventures of several different groups. The book also shifts back and forth between firstperson and third-person narrator, but it is not jarring. The adventure sequences are constant, with barely any time for the reader to pause before a new adventure or crisis starts. Unlike books written by Burroughs, in this volume genuinely supernatural events occur regularly.
How does Mr. Saunders compare to Burroughs in terms of style? Well, we all know that ERB was a singularly gifted writer whose work has been imitated, but never equaled. Large sequences in Saunders’ novel are fully consonant with ERB’s style. We all know that ERB was extraordinarily gifted at writing action sequences, and his many sword fights and other battles draw the reader right in. The tone of adventures in The Martian Legion is appropriate, even though Mr. Saunders’ battle scenes are not quite up to ERB’s standards, but few authors are up to those standards. Action in the Saunders tale is quite dense. Kar Komak raises an army of phantom bowmen to fight the Nazis at their Barsoomian base. Battle cruisers crash down on Helium, assassins climb into windows high above the city, ray guns are used, but in addition there is a lot of shooting of tommy-guns and 45s, even while swords clash. There are battles with white apes and even some of the denizens of Pal-ul-Don appear, and the Toonolian Marshes are an important locale.
Two ERBs are discussed: the guy who was born in 1875 and died in 1950 (“Prime One”), and then there’s the guy who was born in 1855 (“Prime Two”) and who heard the story of Tarzan related over a fine vintage; this guy was 82 in 1938, the year when the book is set. A timeline for ERB Prime Two is provided in an appendix. Saunders also tackles the problem of gravity if one is inside a hollow Earth, or a hollow Barsoom.
One of the main heroes in the novel is the younger brother of Korak, twelve-year-old blue-eyed Conan Clayton, son of Tarzan and Jane. Conan Clayton appears to share his name with Saunders’ own son (Conan Saunders). Young Conan Clayton takes to the middle- and upper-terraces of the trees of New Pellucidar in very much the same way that young Korak did in The Son of Tarzan, however Saunders explains some of this ease as due to the reduced gravity of Barsoom in one of the few mentions of gravity’s effect on earthmen. Having been taught by his father, young Conan can make a treetop shelter for Marna (another daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris), can make bow and arrows and spears, and use those bows and arrows with great effectiveness against human and humanoid enemies. Echoing ERB’s tales, Saunders attributes many spectacular abilities of the young Conan to his genetic inheritance, such as where Conan instinctively raises his face and gives cry to the victory cry of the bull ape. The child is extraordinarily well-educated as well. The precocious 12-year old Conan reads and writes Latin, and so he posts a sign in Latin near his treetop lair, Deus benedicat et servet domum nostram in caelo, “God bless and keep our home in the sky.” (p. 172)
RELIGION IN THE MARTIAN LEGION:
Those ERB readers who share Mr. Saunders’ Baptist religious persuasion will find much to like in this immense pastiche. Those who wish that Ed Burroughs had been a Christian will especially appreciate the tale.
If Ed Burroughs had been born in Texas in 1875, instead of Chicago, and if he’d been a devout Southern Baptist, then no doubt in his tales he would have Tarzan buying ten-thousand bibles to give to natives, and Tarzan would use some of his gold to establish Baptist missions throughout Africa. Well, on page 150, Buddy Saunders’ Tarzan does precisely this for the benefit of Barsoomian natives.
Barsoomian assassins with blades drawn enter the room of Rev. Billy Sunday, but instead of picking up his gun, he picks up his bible and reads the gospel to them: “Before him stood an even dozen Ptarthian fighting men, their faces and hands still smeared with the white mask of suicide. ... The dozen listened as in a trance ...” (p. 90). Clearly this book has acquired magical powers on Barsoom that it does not have on Earth.
Let me cite some more examples of Mr. Saunders injecting his religious beliefs in the Burroughs pastiche. Jane Porter Clayton tells her kidnaper: “My faith is also with God. What Tarzan cannot do, God may” (p. 167). “There is but one god, and that god is Jehovah,” explained Jane, speaking with absolute conviction. “On my world, millions know that Jehovah is God the Father, and that Jesus is his Son, our Savior.” Jane even seems to have resolved one of the enduring mysteries of Christian theology: “The Trinity, all one. Perhaps, if you have time, I could explain further.”
In fact, while she is in extreme danger, Jane grabs her travel King James version of the bible. It seems to have been a good decision, because although kidnaped, she can read it to her captors. Jane Porter Clayton reads to the Holy Thern Klee Tun [Klee Tun = Clayton?] from her “small black book [a King James bible], the one that somehow managed to simultaneously intimidate and amaze the Father of Therns.” (p. 190). A fanatical madman whose god is an insect personifying hatred, an insect which performs genuinely miraculous feats and who speaks telepathically to the High Priest in his head, is somehow intimidated and amazed by passages in the New Testament? Perhaps.
Tarzan is talking with Rev. Billy Sunday, who says “... may God go with you,” and Tarzan replies, “Thanks, Reverend,” smiled Tarzan. “If you say so, He’ll surely be with us. You seem to have a lot of pull in that department. And speaking of that, how many have you brought to the Lord so far?”
Rev. Sunday replies, “Getting close to a hundred, Tarzan, mighty close.” (p. 142)
Having recently had his thirteenth birthday, young Conan has fought bravely, but knows the new enemy is too terrible to overcome. “Conan knelt and prayed. Oola, seeing the boy’s actions and guessing his intent, knelt also and gave her thoughts to her ancestors and to the god she had found in Earth’s future.” (p. 196). Saunders makes it clear that this prayer somehow affected the evil terror. He indicates that the dark terror retreats, feeling uncertain...
For myself, as I was reading along and enjoying the ERB worlds, most of which I know very well, I always found it jarring to find the protagonists like Tarzan and John Carter to be speaking devoutly of Christian dogma. That would pull me away from the ERB realm, and make it very clear that this was not ERB’s Tarzan but instead was a Buddy Saunders character in the book whom he chose to call Tarzan, in much the same way that Johnny Weissmuller was not an ERB Tarzan, but just a character given that name.
For me, the author’s unquestioning reverence for Baptist Christianity did not enhance the tale, and in fact distracted me and lessened my ability to read it the way the author intends, that is, to read it as an extension of the ERB worlds. Saunders has Lamont Cranston say “Man alone cannot make morality ...” and that it requires faith in a supreme being. As any student who has ever taken a class in either ethics or world religions would be aware that although popular, this sentiment is not shared by all Christians (for example, in the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas writes that human reason is enough to establish moral principles, and the 18th century Bishop Butler of the Church of England argued that human nature is sufficient grounding for Christian morality). Certainly the great ethical thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Hume, and John Stuart Mill based their arguments on reason and rejected supernatural foundations for ethics. A religion considered one of the world’s great ethical religions is Chinese Confucianism, for which no gods played any role at all. Similarly the Buddha of early Buddhism establishes an ethical system on the lessening of pain and suffering, for which gods are irrelevant.
Aware of how unlike ERB these religious references are, Buddy Saunders writes an appendix entry justifying his inclusion of Southern Baptism into the book. Saunders uses his theory of parallel dimensions to indicate that the other Burroughs (Prime Two) was compelled to include Christianity in his book, The Martian Legion. On page 397 Saunders writes, “Burroughs did not therefore choose to include a thread of Christianity in his story. It was thrust upon him by actual events. More faithful to the truth than many would give him credit, Burroughs doggedly gave God his due, electing not to edit Him and His Christianity out of the fabric of unfolding Martian events.”
Since the time of St. Augustine, theologians have pointed out that a battle between an omnipotent infinitely powerful deity who created all that exists out of nothing, and an evil being (Satan, created by that god) who is not omnipotent, is no battle at all. A being unlimited in power cannot genuinely do battle with a being limited in power, any more than an active weight-lifter can genuinely arm-wrestle a 3-year old child. Nevertheless, this battle between forces of good and evil is the backdrop for the religion in The Martian Legion.
Saunders has more fun with his numerous appendices, almost all tongue-in-cheek while still being properly respectful of his sources. He makes much of parallel universes, and movement between them. Edgar Rice Burroughs in our dimension (“Prime One”) writes the books that we readers and fans know so well. However, the Edgar Rice Burroughs in the parallel universe (“Prime Two”) has written The Martian Legion, which was soundly denounced by critics (including Isaac Asimov) as mixing fiction with fact. Saunders makes clear that fictional heroes exist in these parallel dimensions, a conceit with which we can all agree.
Appendix A deals with the two Edgar Rice Burroughs, who are both gifted story-tellers as well as identical in appearance, but still distinctly different. Appendix B justifies the co-mingling of the many apparently disconnected realms of Burroughs, including Pal-ul-Don, Pellucidar, Barsoom, Venus, and Poloda, and including the realms of Adolph Hitler, Fu Manchu, Doc Savage, The Shadow, etc.
Appendix F discusses slavery in John Carter’s Virginia, and John Carter’s ownership of slaves in Helium. Saunders correctly points out that for most of its history on Earth as well as Barsoom, slavery was not about one race enslaving another. Rather, it was about the victor in battle enslaving those who lose. Saunders could have mentioned that victors enslaving losers in battle is enshrined in many places in his bible. St. Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. The old testament is full of passages which assume slavery is natural. In the appendix Saunders has Rev. Billy Sunday Jr. challenging the institution of slavery as un-Christian. This is appropriate because in 1995 the Baptists acknowledged that in the past they had used quotations from their King James Bible to justify slavery, but at their 1995 convention the Southern Baptist leadership apologized for their advocacy of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy (see Wikipedia on “Southern Baptist Convention”).
Appendix H discusses the 1933 set of Foulds Tarzan figures that many ERB fans have collected over the years (these are mentioned in The Martian Legion). Appendix I explains the visit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes to the Greystoke estate in British East Africa, who are much admired friends of Tarzan and Jane. The use of Conan (meaning “wise”) to name the son of Tarzan and Jane is thus explained. Appendix K provides brief biographical sketches for all the main characters in the novel, both fictional and non-fictional.
We all know that in an ERB novel, a princess is kidnaped and the hero rescues her. Well, Mr. Sauders tries to improve on this trope but in an affectionate manner. Not only has Dejah Thoris been kidnaped, but so too are other heroines taken.
As mentioned before, Saunders is a bit erratic when it comes to the different gravity on Earth vs. Barsoom. Although the Barsoomians note the significantly increased Earth gravity when they first come to Tarzan’s African estate, later in the novel Earthmen come to Barsoom and move about with no problems at all, apparently unaware of all the difficulties John Carter had adapting to the lesser gravity when he first arrived. The Earthmen also lack the extraordinary jumping skills that set Carter apart. Humans travel across dimensions to a strange place and seem unable to tell if they are on Earth or on Barsoom. They visit what appears to be Pellucidar, but mistakenly think it to be within Earth, but this New Pellucidar is not inside the Earth.
In addition to exciting action sequences, ERB’s unique skill at making up fitting and appropriate names for heroes and villains has been admired often. I’ll let you decide if Mr. Saunders is as gifted at making up alien names. For example, the twelve-year-old son of Tarzan and Jane has a calot named “Blot”on Barsoom. Other character names which Saunders has created include: Klee Tun, Holy Hekkador; Bul-Nhot a Thern priest of the Ninth Cycle; Plon Grot; Commander Kellsar; Ahl-Lin [Allen] and E-Thun [Ethan]; Asoth-Naz; Marna (daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris); Kellatap; Lega; Molsum; Mult-Vun; Loptgot; Om Let [“omlette”?]; Rollun, etc.
I salute and applaud the loving effort that has gone into this book. Not only is the story an affectionate conglomeration of the many worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the book itself is wonderfully beautiful. Congratulations to Buddy Saunders who wrote it and to Russ Cochran, who published it. If one loves an exceptionally well-made and well-illustrated volume, and also enjoys the occasional interjection of Christian dogma into an ERB pastiche, then this book belongs on one's shelf. If, like me, the reader finds such references incompatible with the approximately 72 novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, then the buyer has to decide if the beauty and art are enough to justify the price of this labor of love.Dr. Robert B. Zeuschner is author of Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Exhaustive Scholar's and Collector's Descriptive Bibliography of American Periodical, Hardcover, Paperback and Reprint Editions. An alternate version of this review is featured in the ERBapa fanzine.
Reviewed by Mike Taylor for Camille Cazedessus II
Edgar Rice Burroughs dies, and with him passes a pantheon of heroic figures: Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars, David Innes of Pellucidar, Carson Napier of Venus, Shoz Dijiji the War Chief, Billy Byrne the Mucker, and sundry others… Fast forward sixty-four-plus years and many of these heroes are revived and reimagined along with other iconic pulp characters in a big new adventure…
The idea of linking ERB's two most notable characters is not new. In 1954 John Bloodstone (second tier SF writer Stuart J. Byrne) came up with the 100,000 word opus “Tarzan on Mars.” Heavily promoted by controversial editor Ray Palmer (see POL#4) it was rejected by the Burroughs estate and never achieved legitimate publication. In the 1990’s both Marvel and Dark Horse comics ran crossover storylines featuring Tarzan and John Carter. But it’s safe to say there’s not been an attempt as ambitious as this one. So how successful is it?
I doubt that anyone could not be impressed by the packaging and presentation--they are nothing less than superb. This is not just another book; it’s a coffee table centerpiece. Quality artwork (130 pieces!) is plentiful throughout with a goodly number of two-page spreads, the paper stock is heavy and creamy, the printing is generally clean with only a few minor errors noted. Viewing it strictly as a collectible, this is a musthave.
Now to the story. It's impossible to encapsulate the quarter-million word narrative but here goes: Sabotaged by actions of the resurgent Holy Therns led by Klee Tun, their Holy Hekkador, son of Matai Shang and brother of the treacherous Phaidor, Barsoom’s atmosphere plant is once again failing. Fixing it and beating back the therns to save the dying planet will require the combined skills of a Legion of iconic characters. A partial list of those recruited from Earth by the Warlord of Mars for this effort includes Tarzan, Korak, Captain Paul d’Arnot Jr., Carson Napier and friend Dr. Arkonovitch, Doc Savage and his five cohorts, The Shadow, Alley Oop and Oola along with Dr. Wonmug, the Reverend Billy Sunday (!), and (Major) Edgar Rice Burroughs himself.
The time is 1938--but not our 1938. The somewhat confusing triple-framed introduction indicates that we’re dealing with parallel dimensional lines here, designated as Prime Three, Prime Two, Prime One and Sub-Prime One, the last of which I take to be our own reality. The Edgar Rice Burroughs of this story is 20 years older, approaching 83 years (in 1938)--he is that nephew of John Carter whom we first met in the foreword to A PRINCESS OF MARS. The story being told here he identifies as a combination 26th Tarzan novel and 12th Martian novel. With me so far…?
This august group has gathered at Lord Greystoke’s African estate where the situation is outlined by John Carter, who has arrived from Barsoom (Prime 3) in his ship the Virginia. He is accompanied by his old friends Tars Tarkas and Ghek the Kaldane along with a crew. With the atmosphere plant failing and therns on the attack, drastic action is needed. It seems part of the solution may be found in the ancient book of Xonthron, a volume titled “Worldbuilder, The Book of Planetary Mechanics,” but the darn thing has gone missing. So, after a bit of time recapping individual histories and introducing spouses (Jane and Meriem Clayton, Margo Lane Cranston), children, loyal retainers, etc., it’s off to save Barsoom, on board the Virginia and four of Carson Napier’s ships from the distant Ten Worlds of Alpha Centauri.
The biggest departure from the canon as we have known it: Tarzan has a second son! 12-year-old Conan Clayton is a chip off the old block--fascinated by the parade of exotic visitors to his home, he is determined to participate in this grand adventure. He stows away in a food hamper on the Warlord’s ship and is only discovered by Tar Tarkas and Ghek after they are in space. Much of the long tale to come will be told from his perspective. . . . That’s as far down the linear narrative path as I’m prepared to go… presumably your interest has been whetted by now.
I found that within the unending parade of characters and plot machinations it's easy to lose track of whos doing what, some names don’t really come to life, and others pretty much get lost in the shuffle.
And I’m a little uneasy with how religion is introduced into the storyline. I know, I know, ERB probably opened the door by exposing the Holy Therns and their false deities, but in this tome we get a hefty dose of Scripture and an Angel of Light is even involved in the final climactic battle. By the end the Reverend Sunday is busy converting Martians to Christianity. But these are small quibbles.
This is an impressive work and just thinking of the effort involved…!!! The story itself is followed by two afterwords, seven pages of notes tying together the various dimensional lines (including an interesting alternate history of the Pearl Harbor attack), 11 appendices, and a lengthy reference index.
If you’re a true Burroughs enthusiast this is de rigueur, if for nothing else than to re-familiarize yourself with all the past history covered here…yes, it’s certainly over-the-top, but what an engaging tribute…
I’ve read dozens of ERB pastiches over the years and, frankly, most of them left me cold. But this one comes closer than most to capturing the style and mood of the old master. To coin a phrase: it’s not Burroughs but it’s not bad!The above review was adapted from the longer one featured in Caz's online e-zine: PULPDOM #5 -- in which noted pulp historian Mike Taylor has been the featured contributor. Camille Cazedessus has been a driving force in ERB and pulp fandom since 1960 when he first published the award-winning ERB-dom which evolved into the current Pulpdom zines and Website.
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