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Volume 3376
Part Four (continued from ERBzine 3375)
The Tenth Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom
J. Allen St. John wraparound: Swords of Mars - 5 interiors
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
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, since all
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 Uldak.

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.

“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 for him.’

“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.)

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:
“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....

“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 engagement.’

“‘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 my coming.

“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 frighten Povak.’

“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.)

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.

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 the palace:

“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.

“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 pass.’

“‘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 room.

“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 recognition.

“‘Who are you, Zodangan?’ she whispered. ‘Another enemy to harass me in my misery?’

“‘I am a friend,’ I answered, ‘a once cherished friend.’

“‘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.)

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.


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); Dr.No (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 Smiley’s 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); and his
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!

7 WONDERS: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

RUNNERS UP: I.a | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII.2.2b.3a.3b | IX | X.2.3.4 | XI.2.3.

A Princess of Mars
Gods of Mars
Warlord of Mars
Thuvia, Maid of Mars
Chessmen of Mars
Mastermind of Mars
A Fighting Man of Mars
Swords of Mars
Synthetic Men of Mars
Llana of Gathol
Skeleton Men of Jupiter
John Carter and the Giant of Mars

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