Based on the cover painting of the late 70s edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), there is only one question: how the hell do you have sword fights with green aliens when you’re naked?
To be honest, as I re-read Burroughs’ first Martian tale—his first book, period!—I kept an eye out to see if the characters really did wear loin clothes, robes, or what. Turns out no one wears clothes. Strange Martian custom. But, then again, strange was the way our hero, John Carter, found his way onto Mars.
A Civil War vet, Carter and a friend found a gold lode in the mountains of Arizona. There’s a problem, natch: Indians. They kill Carter’s friend and come after him. He’s holed up in a cave, waiting to go down with guns blazing when a strange thing happens: he becomes paralyzed. He hears the Indians approach the cave entrance…and then turn in fear. Great, thinks Carter, whatever scared them is behind me and I can’t do anything about it. Turns out, the thing behind him is…himself. He’s some sort of phantom and, before he knows it, he ‘wakes’ up on Mars.
And he’s Superman. He can leap tall buildings (most of the way) in a single bound. His strength is beyond that of mere mortal Martians. Lucky for Carter the Warrior the first beings he meets, the Green Men of Mars (huge hulks—heh—that stand nearly fifteen feet tall with a set of intermediary limbs below the arms and above the legs) only speak War, Bravery, and Combat Prowess. He woos them, even though he’s ostensibly a prisoner.
Almost the entire story is a travelogue of Mars. Carter learns how martian babies are born, how navel vessels fly through the air, how the thin Martian atmosphere is treated, and how water is preserved on a planet without any surface water. Along the way, he doesn’t even bat an eye that he, and everyone else, is naked. That would include Dejah Thoris, the princess of the book’s title. She is captured after a battle and Carter falls for her. Well, of course. She’s naked. The rest of the book is his attempt to return her to her land and her people usually with many valiant sword fights and battles.
I read this book over thirty years ago and, as I’ve had a reawakening of my love of SF, I thought I’d read some of the classics as well as some of the modern books and stories being published. Burroughs’ books and stories inspired countless creators of science fiction literature and films throughout the twentieth-century. There were a couple of places where you could see directly how George Lucas was inspired. At one point, Dejah is taken before a giant, ugly monstrosity. Jabba the Hutt and Princess Leia anyone? Speaking of Leia, I think we all know what she told Darth Vader in the first Star Wars movie. Come on. Do I have to quote it exactly? “I am on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan.” Now, cut to this exchange between Dejah and her captor:
"And the nature of your expedition?" he continued.Of course, I see Star Trek in there, too. How many missions were merely for “scientific research”?
"It was a purely scientific research party sent out by my father's
father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents, and to take
atmospheric density tests," replied the fair prisoner, in a low,
"We were unprepared for battle," she continued, "as we were on a
peaceful mission, as our banners and the colors of our craft denoted."
The remnants of Victorian prejudices still color Burroughs’ characters. The Green Men of Mars basically are communists. They all live together each person owning nothing individual. One exception is Dejah herself. Like Leia and other damsels, yes, Dejah’s in distress but she holds her own, even helping out Carter a couple of times. It speaks to her character and the fact that Carter doesn’t put up a fuss makes him a better man for it.
A Princess of Mars is certainly a fun book. And there are ten more after it, eleven in all. Not all feature Carter and Dejah but Mars is the real featured player in these stories. Well, that and all our eleven-year-old imaginations that still live within us. You read this book and these stories and you will soar to the heavens with great abandon, losing yourself amid epic tales of heroism and courage, adventure and love. And, let’s be honest: isn’t that one of the reasons you read books anyway?