The Dream Vaults of Opar
 
 

Barsoom Reconsidered


     One of the disadvantages of discovering Edgar Rice Burroughs in the 1950s was that so few of his books were readily available. My first inkling of his Martian novels came from perusing the tantalizing list of his other works that I found in the rear of one of the old (red cloth) Grossett & Dunlap editions that I borrowed from my Uncle Paul—probably The Land that Time Forgot. I remember thinking how silly the titles sounded. A Princess of Mars? The Chessmen of Mars? How incredibly corny!
     I had to wait several long years to find out that those really “corny” titles concealed some of the “coolest” stories of imaginative high adventure ever written. The close encounter of the third kind that finally brought about this revelation took the form of a battered Grossett & Dunlap edition of Chessmen. I was probably thirteen by then—about 1961, shortly before the Burroughs boom of the '60s began. I discovered the volume in an out-of-the-way corner of the upstairs used books room of Siler’s, a long-established book store several blocks off Canal Street in New Orleans. When I went to check out, the clerk gently tried to talk me out of buying the book. As I later learned, he, too, was a Burroughs fan. He hadn’t seen the title when it arrived and would gladly have purchased it himself. He didn’t press too hard, though, and I was not to be dissuaded anyway; finding a Burroughs title in those days was comparable to striking gold.
     The St. John illustrations intrigued me, and I started reading as soon as I could, on the streetcar ride home. The foreword, as I recall, presented an immediate puzzlement. Who was this John Carter person and what on earth was the narrator talking about? Still, I persevered and soon found myself on Barsoom, surrounded by mind-boggling people, places, and things—rykors and kaldanes, living jetan pieces, mummified Martians, and a gorgeous princess.
     I loved Chessmen, and so I eagerly ordered Dover’s Three Martian Novels when, perhaps a year later, I found it advertised by a mail-order firm specializing in new science fiction books. Soon I was dashing across dead seas with Carthoris and Thuvia, racing through the thin air of dying Mars with Vad Varo, and having my mind expanded by such fabulous concepts as phantom bowmen, brain transplants, and animal-human brain hybrids. In many ways this Dover volume was a perfect introduction to Barsoom, with smooth, fresh paper, crisp type, and a generous helping of the original J. Allen St. John illustrations—so moody and evocative.

    Next, I acquired from Gerry de la Ree’s mail order company a gorgeous, like-new copy of Llana of Gathol . . . and finally found out who this John Carter person was. What a marvelous time I had reading that book! The Living Dead, invisible men, frozen armies, and the granddaughter of a planet’s most beautiful woman!
    Shortly thereafter Canaveral Press issued A Fighting Man of Mars with Mahlon Blaine’s totally inappropriate illustrations, then made amends by publishing The Gods of Mars with Larry Ivy’s fine renditions. Both books were wonderful “reads,” but it certainly was disconcerting to enter the initial Martian trilogy by way of its middle volume.
     And then, finally, Ballantine Books began issuing the entire series in sequence in paperback, so that I finally learned how John Carter first got to Mars (so that the whole astral projection thing belatedly started to make sense) and found out what happened to Dejah Thoris in that revolving room. Some months later I was able to finish off the series when they brought out the first paperback editions of Swords of Mars and Synthetic Men of Mars (which I consider a perfectly adequate entry in the series, despite the criticism of it others have occasionally offered). I was glad to read “Skeleton Men of Jupiter” when it was reprinted in Amazing Stories, but even then realized that it was minor and tended to lessen the impact of what is undoubtedly ERB’s most consistently successful series. I tend to discount it and think of the Mars series as consisting of only ten volumes. (“John Carter and the Giant of Mars,” actually written by Burroughs' son, John Coleman Burroughs, as a juvenile for Whitman, should never have been made available in a mass-market edition.)
     Perhaps my opinion is colored by the distorted sequence in which I first read the stories, but I still consider the middle volumes to be Barsoom at its most wonderful. I would probably rank the series like this:

Mastermind
Chessmen
Fighting Man
Thuvia
Princess-Gods-Warlord
Llana
Swords
Synthetic Men
    One point that is seldom addressed with regard to the Martian books, is that they probably constitute the very first science fiction series. I don’t know of any other that predates it. One of ERB’s great insights was that he was writing about a planet rather than a single man. Continuing the series through the eyes of Carter’s son may not have been especially original, but turning over whole volumes to Gahan and Tara, Ulysses Paxton, and Tan Hadron certainly was ground-breaking. And the sheer audacity of featuring Carter’s granddaughter as the romantic lead in Llana was not only without precedent then, but remains unmatched today, as far as I know. DC Comics (or was it Marvel?) carefully eschewed inflicting such cross-generational shock on their young readers when they adapted the book.
     As far as I can tell, the Martian stories represent the earliest extensive attempt at world-building in science fiction or fantasy, and as such have been amazingly influential. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ contribution to the development of these genres—if only in this area—has never been adequately recognized.
     The series boasts inventiveness of a very high order. While Burroughs’ prose style may be a bit too formal in the first half of the series (occasionally even archaic in the first few books), his narrative skill is unmatched throughout. I guess it’s about time to reread the series again, from the beginning.

    Burne Hogarth’s death was surprising, if not startling, given his age. Shortly before Christmas last year I sent him copies of my reviews of the NBM Tarzan in Color series, including the one concerning his work (ERB-APA #47). I received back from him a fascinating letter, scrawled in his bold, inimitable hand on every available blank surface of a holiday greeting card. Here is some of what he had to say. Please keep in mind that his remarks were dashed off and not polished for publication:

    I am absolutely dumbfounded when you report the actual number of weeks some of the episodes spanned out: 32 weeks in one; 91 weeks in another!  That's almost two years of Sundays!  This is something I never calculated, and simply took for granted that story episodes ran three to four months as a typical norm. . . . it must be recalled that the illustrated strip and Sunday page were very new developments in comics history.  Prior to these, all we saw were mostly children's color features appearing on a weekly [basis as] humorous, complete episode[s] — like Little Nemo, Buster Brown, Hans and Fritz, etc.  A long drawn out story was new and no one was really counting the pages —especially since a story line was something that never occurred before. . . .
    [A]s far as Foster was concerned, he was the first artist to introduce the human figure in momentary action—a visual phenomenon that never occurred in art historical creation by anyone before him!  This was a seminal moment that absolutely revolutionized the cartoonist's field—and had its impact decisively in every artistic visual field.  I have put this in the summary form of the “continuum of time-space”—that is, the adventure comic form, “is the seminal elucidation of the ever-ongoing present tense in time—the visual metaphor of Einstein's time-space continuum!”  There's a lot more I would say—but will leave this for another time!
     Ah, if only there could be another time!
—July 1, 1996
 
Edgar Rice Burroughs'
Martian Series

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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.