Gulliver of Mars: An incredible fairy tale of adventure

Gulliver of Mars by Edwin L. Arnold fantasy book reviewsGulliver of Mars by Edwin L. Arnold fantasy book reviewsGulliver of Mars by Edwin L. Arnold

Editor’s note: Because it’s in the public domain, Gulliver of Mars is free in Kindle format.

On those rare occasions when it is discussed at all today, British author Edwin L. Arnold’s final book, Lt. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, is primarily spoken of as a possible influence on Edgar Rice BurroughsJohn Carter novels. But this, it seems to me, is doing Arnold’s last writing endeavor a disservice, as the book is an exciting, highly imaginative, colorful piece of fantasy/sci-fi more than capable of standing on its own merits, discounting any possible relation to its more famous successor. Arnold’s book first saw the light of day as a 1905 hardcover published by S.C. Brown, Longham & Co., a British firm. The novel was a popular failure, strangely enough, resulting in Arnold’s decision to cease writing, after five previous books, at the age of 48. The novel did not see an American edition for almost 60 years, when Ace released it as a 40-cent paperback in 1964, with an altered title, Gulliver of Mars (note the difference in spelling of the lead character’s name) and another beautiful piece of cover art by the great Frank Frazetta. (More recently, Bison Books has come out with its own version of the novel, retitled again, as Gullivar of Mars.) It was the Ace edition of this now-113-year-old historical footnote that this reader was fortunate enough to lay his hands on, and let me tell you, whether you call the book sci-fi or fantasy, an ERB influence or not, it most assuredly remains a terrific entertainment all these decades later.

In Arnold’s book, Gulliver Jones, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, relates to us his most unusual story. He had been at a low point in his life, beset with money and girlfriend problems, as well as despondent over a recent failure to receive a promotion, when a mysterious flying carpet (!) had dumped a man at his feet on the streets of New York City. The man was unfortunately quite dead as a result of this dumping, and Jones had taken possession of the carpet and brought it back to his flat. In a moment of depression and anger, he’d uttered a wish to be “anywhere out of this redtape-ridden world of ours! I wish I were in the planet Mars,” and before poor Jones knew what was occurring, the carpet had wrapped him snugly in its folds and, after an indeterminate time, kerplopped him on the surface of the Red Planet!

Once there, Jones had been befriended by the slothful, childlike Hither people, who dwelt in the flower-bedecked yet crumbling city of Seth. Our hero arrived on the day before one of their great annual holidays: the day when all the males drew lots to see who would be their new bride for the next year. Jones immediately fell head over heels in love with the Princess Heru, and she with him, so much so that she had rigged the drawing to ensure that Jones would select her name. But the pair’s happiness was short lived, as during that same ceremony, the festivities had been interrupted by the arrival of the Thither people: hairy, barbarous ruffians from across the sea who claimed a yearly tribute from the weakling Hither folk. Heru was taken as part of this tribute, to be given to the barbarian king Ar-hap, and Jones had been knocked unconscious in his effort to rescue her. And so, at around the 1/3 mark in Gulliver of Mars, our hero begins his quest, to go across the sea and attempt to rescue his princess, facing innumerable perils and encountering myriad alien wonders as he proceeds, in what our narrator calls an “incredible fairy tale of adventure.”

So, you may well wonder, was Arnold’s book an inspiration for ERB’s John Carter series? It is a question that has been tantalizing and puzzling readers for over a century now. Let’s just say that the first Carter book, A Princess of Mars, came out seven years after Arnold’s, and also features an American military man who arrives at the Red Planet via fantastical means (astral projection, in the Burroughs book), after which he too battles near insuperable odds to rescue his princess (Dejah Thoris, in the ERB novel). And in Arnold’s book, the Martians are shown sailing their deceased down a so-called River of Death … very similar to the river Iss in the second Carter novel, The Gods of Mars. After that, the similarities end. Arnold, it strikes me, may have been the superior wordsmith — his book is penned in an ornate, flowery, almost overwritten style — but Burroughs was surely better at making his stories come alive and really move.

In his introduction to the Ace book, Burroughs scholar Richard Lupoff seems to lean toward the case for an undeniable connection, while at the same time contending that Carter himself may have been based on Arnold’s 1890 novel The Wonderful Adventures of Phra the Phoenician.) And finally, as has been pointed out elsewhere, whereas Carter was a truly heroic figure, poor Jonesy is more of a good-hearted but bumbling sort, and indeed, the reader is usually a few steps ahead of him, as far as figuring out what will happen next. (All of which is not to say that Jones is a dunce; no one who quotes such writers as John Milton, Christopher Marlowe and James Graham could ever be termed “dumb”!)

For the rest of it, Gulliver of Mars is full of imaginative touches (such as those tiny flying lizards, and the canoes that the Martians grow from gourds, and those killer plants that emit an irresistibly alluring aroma) as well as bits of decided weirdness (that magic carpet, the provenance of which is never explained; the dead frozen king who is unthawed from an ice cliff containing thousands of corpses at the end of the River of Death, and who awakens to attack Jones; a report of a gaseous alien living somewhere on the planet; the haunted ghost town that our hero explores; a Martian who can deflect spears thrown at him using the power of his mind alone). The novel offers up any number of well-done and exciting sequences, including that marriage lottery; the scene in which Jones listens to a pair of tremendous jungle monsters battling to the death (as shown on Frazetta’s cover) in the pitch dark of night; the near approach of an asteroid to the Martian world, forcing all the peoples of Ar-hap’s capital city to broil under extreme heat and wither with desperate thirst, along with all the animal life that touchingly joins them; and lastly, Ar-hap’s attack on the gentle city of Seth.

And if some parts of Arnold’s novel come off as overwritten for a 21st century reader,

…You yourself do not look so far gone but what some deed of abnegation, some strong love if you could but conceive it would set you right again…

other parts are written in quite lovely verbiage, almost striking the reader like prose poetry:

…to me they seemed hardly more than painted puppets, the vistas of their lovely glades and the ivory town beyond only the fancy of a dream, and their talk as incontinent as the babble of a stream…

Jones himself makes for a likable narrator, and a seemingly honest one, as well, especially when he chastises himself for forgetting details of his remarkable adventure, adding that he prefers to omit certain things due to that forgetfulness, rather than make things up. And then there is this wonderful passage, in which a Martian explains to Gulliver just why all the eateries in Seth give away food for free:

What else is the good of a coherent society and a Government if it cannot provide you with so rudimentary a thing as a meal?

I love it!

Still, there are problems that prevent me from giving Arnold’s work here a higher grade. Instances of faulty grammar occasionally crop up (“…was ambition and hope to desert me…”), a female slave is referred to as a “servitor” (according to my dictionary, a “servitor” is “a male servant”), Heru somehow knows Jones’ name before he tells it to her (and indeed, to us!), and Jones thinks back to a nighttime meal he had enjoyed with a little Martian slave girl named An (the only problem is, they never had a dinner together at night; only during the day). And Arnold’s geographic descriptions are often sketchy, at best, requiring the reader to really tax his/her imagination (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”).

But these are mere quibbles. The bottom line is that Arnold’s 1905 adventure is a splendid piece of entertainment that should manage to please fans of both the fantasy and science fiction genres. With becoming self-denigration, Gulliver tells us repeatedly,

I am no fine writer … I sat down to tell a plain, unvarnished tale … [I am an] ill-paid lieutenant whose literary wit is often taxed hardly to fill even a logbook entry…

He closes his book by calling it an “artless narrative,” and hopes that “if I fail to convince yet I may at least claim the consolation of having amused you.” This reader, however, thinks that our lieutenant is being much too hard on himself. He is a much better writer than he realizes, and his narrative is far from artless, and much more than merely amusing…

Published in 1905. Originally published in 1905 as “Lieut. Gulliver Jones: His Vacation,” An early interplanetary romance story; in the introduction Richard A Lupoff claims this story as a source for Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom. The provenance is visible in hindsight.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), 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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9 comments

  1. great review–off to download!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Thanks for the kind words, Bill. Hope you enjoy this one as much as I did. And if you are by any chance a fan of ERB, I believe you will….

  2. Sandy, I love how you bring these historic works to light and blow the dust off them, so to speak. It is interesting to consider Arnold’s work as an influence on ERB and others, for that matter.

    I’ve grown tired of the women-as-chattel theme, so this won’t be a book I’ll seek out.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Well, Marion, the princess in this book IS very babyish and dependent; no Princess Leia, that’s for sure; a real namby-pamby. She certainly does not advance the cause of feminism, to put it mildly. Oh…I believe you might be well on your way to coming up with a nickname for me here: The FanLit Dustbuster! And since I am currently in the midst of a yearlong reading project dealing with fantasy, sci-fi and horror from the period 1900 – 1950, I hope a lot more dusty tomes will soon be getting the treatment from yours truly….

      • I love these reviews too Sandy–that doesn’t get said enough. It’s alway a push me-pull me between the almost inevitable wince factor (racism, misogyny, etc.) and the story/historical influence. This one’s connection to Burrough’s work won me over (we’ll see if the story itself does . . . )

        • Sandy Ferber /

          Yes, I know what you mean, Bill. That wincing you refer to is something that I have done often, more in the arena of old films, of which I am also a big fan. But these works have to be put in their historical contexts, of course. Perhaps, 100 years from now, the readers of the early 22nd century will be wincing over OUR modern literature. Who knows….

  3. “Fanlit Dustbuster!” [laughing.]

    I understand how much these works influence and inform our present-day works and I always want context. I love Bill’s term “wince-factor!” My complaint is not always from an intellectual stance; sometimes I’ve just hit my threshold and need to take a break.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      This book’s been around for 113 years now, Marion. Hopefully, it will still be available the next time you feel in the mood for some real wussy-princess fare…. :)

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