Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Perspectives on A Princess of Mars

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.

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15 responses to “Perspectives on A Princess of Mars

  1. Walt August 5, 2014 at 9:40 am

    There was a time when, in the late Sixties and Seventies, you could not walk by a book rack without seeing a dozen Burroughs titles.
    Now I have most of them on my Kindle, but I miss those covers!

  2. Carl August 6, 2014 at 6:23 am

    I read every Burroughs book I could get my hands on as a kid. And as Walt suggests, they were pretty easy to find. It was Burroughs’ Mars and Venus series, not Tolkien, that shaped the adventures I wanted to have when RPGs came around.

    It’s hard to believe that he’s becoming considered obscure, particularly in gaming circles, but there are a lot of elements of all of Burroughs’ books that certainly don’t mesh with contemporary sensibilities.

  3. faycrisanto August 6, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    When I wrote the review comparing the book with the movie, I made a general statement that the movie brought in the Therns from the second book, and made them the manipulator of events. I did not specify that John Carter was transported to Mars because he saw a Thern in the cave who was chanting words to transport him, but John Carter got hold of the device ( a sort of large pendant) at the last second, and was the one who got transported instead. This means that Therns easily come and go all over the Earth, and, supposedly, other worlds too. John Carter returned to Earth because Matai Shang said the words, and made him touch the device. No, he did not save the atmosphere device from breaking down.

    I know that this changes the flow of the plot drastically. I wondered how they intended to handle the succeeding books with this new element. But I did not dwell on it too much because I was hoping that the rest of the books will be made into movies. But now that I really think about it, they may end up more convoluted and unrecognizable, due to their initial tampering.

    There are things that just shouldn’t be tampered with. The Barsoom series is one of them.

    • jeffro August 7, 2014 at 3:21 am

      It’s one thing to have to adapt material to a new medium, but yeah… this level of mucking around with such a classic is just plain stupid.

    • Carl August 7, 2014 at 6:49 am

      I didn’t see the movie, but I’m not surprised by those changes. An intrusive alien race with a magical or high-tech (or both) device is much more palatable to today’s audiences than the mysticism that surrounded Carter’s travel to Mars.

      In his darkest moment, John Carter, the consumate warrior, was drawn by “a spell of overpowering fascination” to the planet named for the god of war — the place where he would truly belong and be at home. Even if his body, or some form of it, remained on earth.

      Today, it seems that’s only acceptable in romantic comedies, (which is probably an interesting topic for a different blog!) But when it was written in the 1910s, mysticism and mystical belief was undergoing a a surge in popularity in the U.S. and that idea as a plot device was far less of an obstacle to getting the audience to believe the story.

      I think it also helped make the story incredibly appealing to geeks. I know as an awkward, nerdy, pre-adolescent kid reading that, I was utterly taken by the idea that my longing for some other set of circumstances in which I was the hero could be simply “beyond the power of opposition” and consequently come true.

      • jeffro August 7, 2014 at 7:07 am

        Wow, I like that: “In his darkest moment, John Carter, the consumate warrior, was drawn by “a spell of overpowering fascination” to the planet named for the god of war”

        That’s so epic and so outside of how we’d do this nowadays, I think I went right past it on my first reading.

  4. faycrisanto August 7, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    There’s more. The abandoned cities where the Tharks camped are not the magnificent edifices with exquisite wall paintings as stated in the book. The ones in the movie look like giant termite mounds. Er?

    I don’t like to Disney-bash, and I want the rest of the world to meet Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter. But because they fumbled with this great classic, the world will never know the rest of the story. Sigh.

    • jeffro August 7, 2014 at 5:26 pm

      Well hey, at least we have 11 books… and a miniatures rule set. And a new retroclone looking game.

      • Carl August 8, 2014 at 7:19 am

        There’s actually been quite a bit of gaming in the Barsoom setting over the years, much of it in the 1970s when gaming’s rise coincided with Burroughs’ surge in popularity.

        In addition to TSR’s short-lived “Warriors of Mars” rules, Heritage miniatures published the “Barsoomian Battle Manual” to accompany their line of licensed Barsoom miniatures, which consisted of some really horrible sculpts. Because much of Burroughs’ material has now aged into public domain, several other miniatures makers have done much better Barsoom lines in recent years. A google image search will show the array.

        Then there was SPI’s “John Carter”, designed by Mark Herman if I recall right. It was a really creative design with a somewhat awkward execution, but totally worth having if only for collectible sake.

        More recently, there have been several RPGs and setting books for Barsoom, or “Barsoom-inspired” games.

        [Jeffro: Zounds! Mark Herman!!!!]

      • faycrisanto August 10, 2014 at 11:47 am

        Thanks. I did Google “Barsoom miniatures”, and saw some figures. I am not a gamer, so I never knew these existed.

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