A Princess of Mars: A true classic

Edgar Rice Burroughs 1. A Princess of MarsA Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice BurroughsA Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

As most of the world already knows, A Princess of Mars is the first of 11 Burroughs novels that tell of John Carter’s adventures on the planet Barsoom (Mars, to we Earthlings). This was Burroughs’ very first novel, and one of the first books in the swashbuckling space-opera vein; perhaps the very first. It is a marvel of fast-moving action and imagination; indeed, practically every page offers some new marvel or piece of outrageous spectacle. Unfortunately, the book also displays some of the weaknesses of the novice author, but these weaknesses are more than counterbalanced by the pace, color and detail of the story.

Burroughs’ imagination seemed to be working overtime in this first book. The descriptions of alien life-forms, dead cities, Barsoomian customs and battles are very well drawn, although those battle scenes could have lasted a little longer, for me. (Burroughs might have learned a thing or two from, say, H. Rider Haggard about presenting detailed battle scenes.) There are occasional flashes of strangeness, too; e.g., the ability of Barsoomian psychologists to read the minds of murdered soldiers, and the celibate tax imposed by the Barsoomian government on confirmed bachelors!

A Princess of Mars reads more like a fantasy/fairy tale than science fiction, and the characters are pulpy in the extreme. There are hissable villains, noble warriors, a beautiful princess who needs saving, good and bad monsters, and the like. This book has been so influential that it is amusing, while reading it, to think of all the modern variations. For example, has anybody else been reminded of Princess Leia trapped by Jabba the Hutt of “Star Wars” fame, when reading of the beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris being leered at by the monstrously huge Thark jeddak, Tal Hajus? So many scenes resonate like that, and the book is almost prototypical in this respect. This is a true classic of the genre.

However, like I said at the beginning, there are some problems. Besides the outrageous pseudoscience (I refer here to the “8th and 9th rays” that make possible antigravitation and oxygen manufacture), which I don’t mind at all, there are some real discrepancies. For example, in one scene, Carter is said to be riding in his assigned position at the rear of a troop of Tharks; then he is mentioned as being at the very front! Carter is on Barsoom for only a few days before he picks up the Barsoomian vocabulary, which is said to be a simple one. However, he speaks very grandiloquently, as in this sentence: “I understand that you belittle all sentiments of generosity and kindliness, but I do not, and I can convince your most doughty warrior that these characteristics are not incompatible with an ability to fight.” Pretty good talking, for one who has just learned “simple” Barsoomian a few days before!!! Another problem I had was the scene in which a body of 150,000 Tharks sneak up on the city of Zodanga, unnoticed and unheard. Does this seem possible? As for the scene in which Carter and Kantos Kan fight in the arena… doesn’t all the fighting seem a wee bit too easily accomplished?

And then there is the matter of Burroughs’ writing itself. I mentioned the common mistakes of a tyro writer. By this, I mean repetitive phrases such as “I stole stealthily” and “essayed… to attempt,” as well as endless mistakes of punctuation. I wonder if anybody ever copyedited this book. A Princess of Mars first appeared with the title “Under the Moons of Mars” in All-Story Magazine in 1912, and I’m not sure whether these magazine stories were edited and proofread or what. The book would not have suffered for a professional once-over. But you know what? In the end, all these little nitpickings matter not a whit, because all the minor problems, as I said, are swept away in the drive and excitement of the great story. And that story is as compelling as they come.


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SANDY FERBER is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. Great review Sandy. I particularly like your description of ERB’s “hissable villains.” I also think your point regarding the fact this this is a first published novel by Burroughs, makes the originality of some of his ideas and later much imitated tropes even more impressive.
    Also, Burroughs is one of those writers whose ability to be a story teller, especially when describing action scenes, makes it possible for me to overlook some of the examples of poorer writers such as those you mention.
    All in all, Burroughs at his best is so much fun. Not sure there’s any other way to describe him. Once again, excellent review.

  2. sandy ferber /

    Thanks again for your very kind words, Steven. I really do appreciate them, coming as they do from one of this fine website’s regular contributors!

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