The seventh installment of my Appendix N series is now up:
RETROSPECTIVE: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
When I write these, I try to read the book and write a couple thousand words that contain a few original thoughts and observations. I might fact check a couple of points during the editing, but I try to steer clear of the rest of the commentariat as I do the work. When I’m done, I scour the web in order to check myself to see if I overlooked anything huge. Man, was there ever a doozy waiting for me this time around!
Here then is a rundown of what other people are saying:
The Little Red Reviewer delves into how people just can’t create stories like this anymore:
Blending science fiction, fantasy, pulp adventure and western, John Carter is the epitome of the American Man – strong and independent, intelligent and well spoken, very handsome, keeps his promises and knows how to throw a good punch. Guys wanna be him and girls wanna date him. If this book had been written today, John Carter would be conceited. He’d know he was the hero of the story. In the words and the mentality of nearly a hundred years ago, he’s just a man who does what needs needs to be done with grace and dignity.
Yes, exactly. The thing you have to understand is that A Princess of Mars is basically The Princess Bride for young men. The big difference is that the princess in the story has to demonstrate that she is actually worth the hero’s utmost. Note that Buttercup gives herself to Prince Humperdink out of boredom and depression when she thinks that Wesley is dead. Dejah Thoris is in a very similar situation, but she is buying peace and deliverance for the people of Helium by marrying a prince that would otherwise destroy her city. In contrast Buttercup, Princess Leia, and Inara Serra, Dejah Thoris is not only worth saving, she is worth a lifetime commitment. It is the virtue of the two lead characters that ultimately lends the mythic tone that the book has.
Notice how the movie adaption completely fails to deliver this aspect of the book as Bestsellers and Blockbusters points out:
They also added a dead wife of John Carter, causing Dejah Thoris to have to win his love. He just wanted to go back home the whole time. John Carter only fell in love with her in the end.
It’s almost as if the modern mind cannot comprehend real romance. But that’s not the only thing about the tale this is hard to accept in today’s world. Alienman can barely handle the fact that John Carter is to consummate Virginian:
I initially had a bit of difficulty in digesting the fact that a book revolving around a Confederate soldier would garner that much adulation pan America. So I trawled the internet for a suitable explanation. I found that people wanted him to be a Confederate soldier, with a certain set prejudices so as to lull (and allure!) a certain section of society with resonating beliefs and try to reform them by showing them how John Carter acted as a uniting force/superglue (though all he cared about was the Princess!), who brought together two warring races with remarkable differences in their physical features. I want to believe that explanation.
Look, the book was written before “southern” became media shorthand for the backward, the incestuous, the bigoted, and the brutally violent. Southern military prowess was well regarded at the time of the book’s writing and would shortly be vindicated by a certain Sergeant York during The War to End All Wars. John Carter’s identity as a southern gentleman is integral to the character. He is nothing short of gallant, and he quite clearly combines the fighting prowess of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the charm of J. E. B. Stuart, and the noblesse oblige of Robert E. Lee.
The most interesting observation out on the web with regards to this book, however, is from none other than James Maliszewski.
Gygax places Edgar Rice Burrough’s stories of Barsoom on the same plane as those of Howard’s Conan, Leiber’s Lankhmar, and De Camp and Pratt’s Harold Shea as the foundations on which OD&D was built. Anyone who’s read the LBBs closely should have no doubt about his sincerity, as they probably include more references to Barsoom than to any other fictional world, including Middle-earth. It’s worth noting as well that Gygax, collaborating with Brian Blume, published the miniatures game (with limited RPG elements) Warriors of Mars contemporaneously with the release of OD&D in 1974, which says a lot about how important Burroughs was to the early hobby.
The generation that grew up watching Star Wars and playing D&D would have largely been unaware of the significance of this series. It’s kind of nuts, really. The fact that this series was of critical importance to the game designers that created the role-playing hobby bears further investigation. I’m blindsided by this, really. I practically eat and sleep vintage games and Appendix N literature, but I completely missed the connection. Honestly, I was having a hard time understanding why Burroughs made Gary Gygax’s famous book list in the first place and opted to omit any discussion of games this time around. But Gygax puts it on the same level as Conan and Lankhmar right there in the forward to OD&D! What a glorious error to stumble into. In my case, it only makes the series that much more captivating.
This book is seriously underrated and really shouldn’t be as obscure as it is.