Retro review: A Princess of Mars
Today, most modern literary critics choose the latter course. For my part, I prefer the first option. Art must first and foremost be free from censorship, and even the most irredeemably offensive works of fiction may yet offer moments of insight. Is it possible to condemn the whitewashed history and “happy slave” tropes of Gone With the Wind while still admiring Scarlett O’Hara as one of the strongest female protagonists of 20th Century fiction? Is it possible to get carried away by Avatar’s exciting plot while recognizing it as yet another variation of the “white savior” trope? Each reader or viewer must make her own choice where to draw the line. What we must not do is censor another reader’s ability to make that choice.
Which brings us to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his seminal “sword and planet” novel A Princess of Mars, published in 1912. I first read the book in high school, back when I was supposed to be reading Ethan Frome, at a time when no one much thought about whatever problematic tropes might hide in the books and movies we consumed. Reading it again today, it’s hard not to be troubled by the book’s opening, when Burroughs’s hero John Carter flees from the Apache “red savages.” Or by the paper-thin character of Martian princess Dejah Thoris, who exists solely to be rescued, married against her will, and fall in love with the hero at first sight.
If you dig deeper, you will also learn that Burroughs himself was a believer in the natural superiority of the white race and a casual proponent of the odious theories of eugenics popular in his day. He wasn’t a virulent racist like H.P. Lovecraft—but he wasn’t exactly not a racist, either. Compared to Burroughs’s Tarzan novels—insanely popular in their day—his Barsoom novels seem enlightened.
But. The book was published in fucking 1912. Pretty much every white person in 1912 assumed that white supremacy was a natural law, like gravity. The question for the modern reader is thus: Can you compartmentalize the less savory dynamics of A Princess of Mars and evaluate it as a work of fiction, if not enjoy it?
If you’re a fan of fantasy and science fiction and you’re interested in exploring the foundational works that shaped modern genre writers, then A Princess of Mars is essential reading. Once you get past the flowery purple prose and the stilted proclamations, declarations, and speeches that pass for dialog, the book is often terrifically entertaining.
A Princess of Mars was originally serialized in All Story magazine, and the serialization shows. Such modern writerly notions as the fifteen-beat plot, clear character arcs, and the hero’s journey are all absent here. The plot is essentially an episodic travelogue, with John Carter leaping from one end of Mars—called Barsoom by its warring tribes of green and red Martians—to the other, mostly in pursuit of Dejah Thoris, the novel’s titular princess. Along the way, he befriends a “calot”—the Martian equivalent of a dog—named Woola, a towering six-armed green warrior from the Thark clan named Tars Tarkas, and Kantos Kan, a red-skinned warrior from the Martian city of Helium. The novel is stuffed full of gladiator combat, great armies clashing, the siege and investiture of Martian cities, palace intrigue, and even aerial combat featuring the great sailing war-barges of Barsoom.
Set aside the troublesome tropes, and what’s not to like? In Burroughs’s time, the idea of a “flawed protagonist” had yet to pierce the conventions of pulp fiction. Jay Gatsby could be flawed, but John Carter and the pulp heroes of his day were expected to function more as the questing knights of the Round Table: morally upright, flawless of character, undefeatable in combat. John Carter is therefore never in any real danger. He vanquishes every foe, masters easily every Martian weapon, language, and custom, and is soon hailed as a conquering hero everywhere he goes. Carter is definitely a white savior trope; he essentially civilizes the green Tharks, and he transforms Tars Tarkas from cruel warlord into noble ruler and father. And, of course—spoiler alert!—he wins the heart of the princess of Mars.
So: If you can temporarily place the troublesome tropes in a box and settle into the rhythm of the florid prose, you might absolutely enjoy A Princess of Mars. I enjoyed revisiting the book, and I’ll probably read a few more in the series. The Tarzan books, however, I’ll probably skip. Like I said, everybody has to draw the line somewhere.
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Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.