Every human season creates its storyteller. When the world grows suddenly larger and the old myths shrivel and seem to wither away, he arrives somehow to tell his tale. If he is a great storyteller, his story tells all the things the people feel but can never say, not even to themselves. If he is merely good, he tells only part of the story they long to hear, and years may pass before another storyteller comes along to complete the tale.
But great or good, he is always popular -- for however disguised his story is, however fantastic it may seem, its true subject is the single one that interests all mankind, Reality. Edgar Rice Burroughs was a storyteller, and for fifty-seven years he has been one of the most popular writers on earth. His books sell in the tens of millions. His characters are known throughout the world, and "Tarzan" has become a universal common noun. Wholly without literary reputation, his stories endure, perpetually successful, living beyond changes in literary style and content, in social behavior, and even in scientific knowledge
-- while the stories of almost every other writer of Burroughs' generation, serious artist or commercial hack, lie unread and unreadable.
There is a story in that success. It began in England, I believe, in 1889.
In 1889 a world was being born, and another was dying. America had been an independent nation for a hundred and thirteen years. The Communist Manifesto was forty-one years old. Darwin's theory of evolution was thirty-one. In England, Queen Victoria still mourned her consort, Prince Albert, who had died twenty-eight years before. In America, the War Between the States was twenty-four years past, but it was not forgotten.
Fourteen year old Edgar Rice Burroughs was part of this new world. Chicago, his birthplace, was a frontier city then, only fifty years old, bigger and more cosmopolitan than the cities and towns to the West, but still raw and vital in a way Eastern America no longer knew. Agricultural trade and industry had established themselves. The arts and sciences were arriving.
But the influences of the Old World were muted, and the surging, exuberant drive that was carrying America vest and challenging the past belonged to America alone. "I still live" became the rallying cry of Burroughs' first hero, the eternally youthful John Carter -- and it echoed the hope and determined conviction held by the young America of Burroughs' boyhood
But a world was dying, too, in 1889. The God who had made kings divine and who had created man in His own image had no answer to popular democracy or mass revolution or Darwinian evolution.
The British Empire was richer and more powerful than ever, America was growing and developing in every material way -- but in England and America the popular songs and poetry were often tragic or merely gloomy, fictional heroines were pale and consumptive and "spiritual," and a dark thread of necrophila ran through literature and the drama. The dead, divine body of the past was helplessly mourned, and the living animal body of the present was looked upon with loathing. Anything associated with man's purported animal ancestry was refused social existence. At once a denial or Darwinism and an agonized acknowledgment, Victorian prudery was the sure consequence of the trauma created by evolutionary thought. Socially, women stopped having arms and legs and developed limbs. Poultry acquired "white meat" and "drumsticks" so that "breast" and "legs" need not be mentioned in mixed company. The naked legs of furniture were sometimes clad in decorative trousers. Metaphysically, it was less comic. To be
made of flesh became obscene. No decent woman liked sex. That was for the beasts. Man had lost his divinity, men knew -- but they would not accept his animality.
Two years before, H. Rider Haggard, the English author of the enormously popular King Solomon's Mines had written an epitaph for that older world, the world he would mourn for all of his life. It was She. In one passage, the eternally youthful Ayesha, deep within the cave-tombs of ancient Kor, voiced the thoughts of an entire generation."O Kallikratesl" she cried ••• "I must look upon thy race again, although it be agony. It is a generation since I looked upon thee whom I slew -- slew with mine own hand." "Shall I raise thee," she said, apparently addressing the corpse, "so that thou standest there before me, as of old? I can raise thee," and she held out her hands over the sheeted dead, while her frame became rigid and terrible to see ••• I thought that the quiet form beneath the coverings began to quiver, and the winding sheet to lift as though it lay on the breast of one who slept. Suddenly Ayesha withdrew her hands, and the motion of the corpse seemed to me to cease.Tormented from childhood by feelings of private guilt part of a society that had lost its Prince, and member of a culture whose philosophies and traditions, one by one, were falling before the test of change, Haggard echoed the public fantasies of his readers by the personal fantasies that energized his stories. Haggard embraced this dying world, and it, in turn, embraced him, an unsuccessful "younger son," made successful by his unhappy inner vision.
"To what purpose?" she said heavily. "Of what service is it to recall the semblance of life when I cannot recall the spirit?"
Young Burroughs was part of this dying world as well. But he would not accept his role. He felt no morbid personal guilt, the Civil War and Lincoln's death were ten long years before his birth, and his culture, the pragmatic and technologically oriented culture of America, was creating new traditions. For his generation, the ante bellum. South -- with its roots in the Old World -- was the stuff of dreams, a long-past romantic age.
But H. Rider Haggard wrote of Life and Death, and he had a vast imagination, one that could clothe his inner thoughts in bizarre and wonderful symbols wholly unlike those of any other writer of his time. Young Edgar Rice Burroughs had a vast and wonderful imagination, too -- and so that year of 1889 saw the publication of another H. Rider Haggard novel, one, with King Solomon's Mines and She, that probably changed the course of Burroughs' life, inspired the Martian novels, and was grandparent to the moat well-known fictional hero of the twentieth century, Tarzan of the Apes.
The novel was Cleopatra.
Early in 1912, Frank A.. Munsey's All-Story Magazine began publication of "Under the Moons of Mars," later to be printed in book form as A Princess of Mars. It was Burroughs' first novel, and the introductory story of his initial Martian trilogy. In
the opening episode, John Carter of Virginia, late of the Army of the Confederacy, voyaged across space to the planet Mars. His mode of travel was as puzzling to his editor then as it has been to fifty-seven years of readers.
"Overcome by poisonous gas," the editor wrote in his synopsis of the first part, "apparently he undergoes a physical metamorphosis, some inherent part of him being released . . . In this state, through series of phenomena, he finds himself transported
to the planet Mars . . ." The editor was only a little less explanatory than Burroughs himself. Why did he choose that singular means of passage? Travel by spaceship between the planets was not uncommon in the fiction of the day. Burroughs' mode of transport ia so unusual in the light of his other purely mechanical fictional devices that it is difficult to dismiss.
As Burroughs told the story, John Carter -- "possessed of several hundred thousand dollars (Confederate) and a captain's commission . . . which no longer existed" -- travelled west after the war, prospecting. Carter recalled no childhood. For as long as he could remember he had always been a man -- a man of thirty. "Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more .. . I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection."
In Arizona, Carter and his partner struck an immense vein of gold. But soon after, hostile Indians attacked, and carrying the arrow-riddled body of his companion, Carter took refuge in a mountain cave. There he was overcome by a mysterious slight vapor," and fell to the floor, paralyzed but in complete possession of his mental faculties.From then until possibly midnight all was silence, the silence o£ the dead; then, suddenly the awful moan of the morning broke upon my startled ears, and there came again from the black shadows the sound of a moving thing, and a faint rustling as of dead leaves. The shock to my already overstrained nervous system was terrible to the extreme, and with a superhuman effort I strove to break my awfulBurroughs' original working title for the novel was "My First Adventure On Mars," and it is clear that the second in the series, The Gods of Mars, had already been planned. A Princess of
bonds. It was an effort of the mind, of the will, of the nerves; not muscular, for I could not move even so much as a little finger, but none the less mighty for all of that. And then something gave, there was a momentary feeling of nausea, a sharp click as of 'the snapping of steel wire, and I stood with my back against the wall of the cave facing my unknown foe.
And then moonlight flooded the cave, and there before me lay my own body as it had been lying all these hours, with the eyes staring toward the open ledge and the hands resting limply on the ground. I looked first at my lifeless clay there on the floor of the cave and then down at myself in utter bewilderment; for there I lay clothed, and yet here I stood but naked as the minute of my birth . . .
My first thought was, is this then death? Have I indeed passed over forever into that other life? But I could not well believe this, as I could feel my heart pounding against my ribs from the exertion o£ my efforts . . .
Again was I suddenly recalled to my immediate surroundings by repetition of the weird moan from the depths o£ the cave. Naked and unarmed as I was, I had no desire to face the unseen thing which menaced me . . .
. . . I leaped quickly through the opening into the starlight of a clear Arizona night . . .
My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon . . . It was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power o£ irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts the particle of iron.
My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness o£ thought through the trackless immensity of space. There was an instant o£ extreme cold and utter darkness.
Mars is an introductory work. After John Carter's passage through the cold and darkness of space, we meet the fifteen foot tall Green Martians and Tars Tarkas of Thark, and the human Red Martians and Dejah Thoris, Princess o£ Helium. 'We roam Mars' trackless deserts, the sea bottoms o£ an earlier age; encounter its great beasts; visit its towering cities. We learn Barsoom's -- Mars' -- history. And we are introduced to the ancient religion of Barsoom.
Early in his experiences Carter notes, "I saw no signs of extreme age among them, nor is there any appreciable difference in their appearance from the age of maturity, about forty, until, at the age or one thousand years, they go voluntarily upon their last strange pilgrimage down the river Iss, which leads no living Martian knows whither and from whose bosom no Martian has ever returned, or would be allowed to live did he return after once embarking upon its cold, dark waters" (27). Later, Dejah Thoris tells him, "Except in the legends of our ancestors, there is no record of a Barsoomian returning up the river Iss, from the shores of Korus in the valley of Dor" (60). Already in this first book, Burroughs had imagined the world of the Valley Dor.
A Princess of Mars bears a slight, but suggestive, similarity to King Solomon's Mines. As with She and Cleopatra, the body of Haggard's story is also presented as an original manuscript, told in the first person. Both novels involve subsidiary hunts for riches, diamonds in King Solomon's Mines, gold in Burroughs novel.
There are long desert treks in each story, and mountain caves containing human remains. Each has a subplot in which a sympathetic barbarian overthrows the cruel king who has wronged him and assumes
the throne -- Ignosi, rightful king of the Kukuana, in King Solomon's Mines, and Tars Tarkas, ultimately Jeddak of Thark, in A Princess of Mars. Both characters conclude their speeches similarly.
"I have spoken," Ignosi says, in a manner apparently characteristic of the Zulus and Tars Tarkas -- as Barsoomians do -- says, "I am done" (57). (However, in the second book in the series, Tars Tarkas concludes his remarks with "I have spoken."
And in a deep cavern, in the land of the Kukuana, Haggard's explorers discover a strange figure carved from stone which suggests the spear-carrying fifteen foot Green Martians: "There at the end of the long stone table, holding in his skeleton fingers a great white spear, sat Death itself, shaped in the form of a colossal human skeleton, Fifteen feet or more in height" (240).
These likenesses are slight; but they do establish a similarity o! symbolic patterns in the works of Haggard and Burroughs. (A clearer possible connection between King Solomon's Mines and the
Martian novels may be found in The Chessmen of Mars, the fifth in the series.)
After making a warrior's friendship with Tars Tarkas, the fierce Green Martian, rescuing Dejah Thoris from captivity, saving her city from its enemies, wedding his princess, and preserving all Barsoom from death when Mars' great atmosphere plant -- which creates air for the dying planet -- fails, Carter is called back to Earth as mysteriously as he was sent. Ten earthly years have passed when he awakens once more in that Arizona cave.
In The Gods of Mars, after ten more years have passed, Carter returns to Barsoom, again called by some strange power or force. This time there is no "slight vapor" to aid him. As he stands on a bluff above the Hudson River praying to return to Mars he experiences once more the sensations of twenty years before. Once more he stands above his seemingly dead body, and once more he crosses space to Mars.
This time, however, he appears on the banks of the legendary Lost Sea of Korus, into which empties the River Iss, in the Valley Dor. The Martians who make their pilgrimage here believe it is heaven; they find that it is hell, inhabited by man-eating plant men, controlled by the Holy Therns, the cruel priests of a religion that worships Issus, "Goddess of Life Eternal."
Unknown to the Holy Therns, they are themselves prey of Issus and her subjects, the Black Martians -- the self-described "First Born" -- who inhabit a world beneath the Valley Dor. Ultimately, Carter exposes Issus as mortal, and destroys her religion.
The concluding novel, The Warlord of Mars, continues from where The Gods of Mars leaves off, but it is anti-climactic. The extraordinary energy that drives The Gods of Mars, central and pivotal story in the trilogy, is less controlled, and the story plunges into wild action which is no longer as deeply meaningful.
Why did Burroughs choose John Carter's curious means of transport? Is there another significant source beyond Burroughs himself for the Martian religion and the world of the Valley Dor? Twenty-three years before, Harmachis, the tragic hero of Haggard's Cleopatra had voyaged into space -- as an initiate into "those fast mysteries that are learned of the chosen of the Gods" he was called to Amenti, the Place of Death, home of Isis, goddess of life."Isis, Holy Mother," I prayed. "Isis, Spouse of Heaven, come unto me, be with me now; I faint! be with me now!""Behold the world that thou hast left," said the Voice, behold and tremble."
And then I knew that things were not as things had been. The air around me began to stir, it rustled as the wings of eagles rustle, it took life . . .
I knew that I was drawing near the confines of the Dead. Nay. I was dying fast, and oh the horror of it! . . . One struggle and the
stillness crept into my brain . . .
I was dying, and then, nothingness! I was dead!
A change -- life came back to me, but between the new life and the life that had been was a gulf and a difference. Once more I stood in the darkness of the shrine, but it blinded me no more. It was clear as . . . day, although it was still black. I stood; and yet it was not I who stood, but rather my spiritual part, for at my feet lay my dead Self. There it lay, rigid and still, a stamp of awful calm sealed upon its face, while I gazed on it.
And as I gazed, filled with wonder, I was caught up on the Wings of Flame and whirled away! away I faster than the lightning's flash. Down I fell, through depths of empty space set here and
there with glittering crowns of stars. Down for ten million miles and ten times ten million, till at length I hovered over a place of soft unchanging light, wherein were Temples, Palaces and Abodes, such as no man ever saw in the visions of his sleep . . . Their spires pierced up and up; their great courts stretched around . . . Here was the flash of crystal, and there the blaze of gems shone even through the glory that rolls around the city which is in the Place of Death. There were trees, and their voices as they rustled was the voice of music; there was air, and, as it blew, its breath was the sobbing note of song.
Shapes . . . mysteriously wonderful, rushed up to meet me and bore me down till I seemed to stand on another earth . . .
"Throw back the Gates . . . open wide, the Doors!" pealed the awful voice . . . Pass On, Child of Earth; but before thou goest look up that thou mayest learn how far thou art ••• from earth."
I looked up. Beyond the glory that shone about the city was black night, and high on its bosom twinkled one tiny star.
Harmachis had not dreamed his adventure. In Amenti, Isis had confirmed that he was the true Pharaoh ot Egypt, and revealed that the Ftolemies would be overthrown and her own worship restored -- if
Harmachis remained faithful to his people and his vows. Then "a Voice called aloud the awful Word" and the Egyptian was returned to earth, and to his corporeal body. "Once again I woke to find myself stretched at length upon the stone flooring of the Holy Place of Isis that is at Abouthis." (61).
Ultimately, Harmachis' fleshly desire for Cleopatra became his ruin and the final ruin of Egypt. Only the gift of revenge against the Ptolemy herself was granted him. As in so many of Haggard's novels, there is an obsession with death, a morbid preoccupation with guilt, and a tortuous division of love into the "spiritual" and the "profane."
But this episode -- some twenty four hundred words long in its entirety -- is remarkably suggestive. A rustling precedes the division of the astral from the corporeal body, in both Haggard's tale and Burroughs' In each instance the protagonist is in the dark when the division occurs, and each then looks down at his dead body -- Harmachis to see in the blackness itself, John Carter in a sudden flood of moonlight. Each crosses tens of millions of miles of space to another world -- a world of towering spires, and blazing with gems. One arrives in the realm ot Isis, Goddess of Life, the other in that of Issus, Goddess of Life
Eternal. And each returns to his physical body on Earth.
It is singular, but not beyond coincidence -- and Carter's first trip to Mars did not take him to the Valley Dor, despite the allusions to it. However, there is a strange anomaly in that first story: the incident in the cave, the "slight vapor" that overcame him. What was its source?
After his return to Earth, following the events in A Princess of Mars, Carter finds himself in the blackness of the Arizona cave. He strikes a match, preserved by the desert climate . . .. . . Its dim flue lighted up what appeared to be a huge cave, toward the back of which I discovered a strange, still figure huddled over a tiny bench. As I approached it I saw that it was the dead and mummified remains of a little old woman with long black hair, and the thing it leaned over was a small charcoal burner upon which rested a round copper vessel containing a small quantity of greenish powder. Behind her, descending from the roof upon rawhide thongs, and stretching entirely across the cave, was a row of human ' skeletons. From the thong which held them stretched another. to the dead hand of the little old woman; as I touched the cord the skeletons swung to the motion with a noise as of the rustling of dry leaves. (l57-8)Here, the old woman departs from the Martian series, never to return. No explanation is ever offered. But it would seem none is needed -- if The Gods of Mars were the first story conceived in the trilogy, and if the others grew about it: if the opening and closing episodes of A Princess of Mars had been originally intended to frame an earlier conception of The Gods of Mars.
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