Exploring the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Copyright © 1982, 1996-2003 All Rights Reserved.

Anatomy of the Green Martian

David Bruce Bozarth
Illustrations by James D. Bozarth
Copyright © 2000

An interesting discussion occurred at the Edgar Rice Burroughs Listserver (ERBList) the other day. A number of folks, artists in particular, offered various commentaries as regards the anatomy and physical appearance of the Green Man of Burroughs' Barsoomian tales. My brother James (a.k.a. Barney Custer on ERBList) stopped by early this week with a series of sketches regarding the appearance and anatomy of the green Martians that he created as a result of the ERBList discussion. This article is intended to explore various speculations as regards the physicality of the green men of Mars rather than the social or cultural aspects of these war-like peoples.

Barsoom is populated with many fantastic races and creatures, but the green man is perhaps the strangest of all. John Carter, on his advent to Mars, meets first the green men of the dead sea bottoms. Burroughs wrote that these creatures were fierce and unloving nomads and provides the following description of their physical appearance.


At birth the young appear to be all head and six limbs, two for walking erect, two used as arms and two in between which can be used as either. Eyes are set at extreme sides of heads and above center and can look in one or two directions without turning the head. Ears, slightly above eyes and close together; small cup-like antennae protruding about one inch on small specimens. Noses are longitudinal slits entered in face midway between mouth and ears. No hair. Light-greenish color in infants and women, deepening to dark olive for adult males. Iris of eye is blood-red, pupils are dark, eyeball is very white, as are the pair of tusks extending from the lower jaw upwards in a curve toward the center of the face where human eyes would be.

We are also told that these creatures can attain a height of 14-15 feet and weigh upwards of 400 pounds (earthly measures). Weight and mass would be different on Mars where the lesser gravity and less dense atmosphere, which is maintained by a fortified atmosphere manufacturing plant, would be major factors in growth and density of bone and tissue.

The green man can walk erect on two legs, but is also described as utilizing four limbs for locomotion in the Barsoomian books--it is the latter which is often the subject of debate by fans of the series. Among the arguments presented are those that question the flexibility of a spine that would allow the green man to travel on all fours with the upper torso erect, similar to a centaur. Pre-supposing green Martians have bones as rigid and dense as terrestrial humans such an arrangement would indicate the need for a spine with a hinge or flex joint.

If, however, the mid pair of arms was longer (and the long reach of the green Martian warriors is frequently described in the books), the legs a little shorter, and the head mounted on a long, flexible neck, the green man might appear as seen in the illustration at right when traveling in four limb mode. The body's center of gravity would be more natural and changing stance from two to four limbs, and vice versa, could be accomplished with ease.

Ed Burroughs carefully avoided giving specific dimensions for the green man, other than height and weight, so we are left with our imaginations to "fill in the blanks" he so expertly created with his story-telling style. He knew our imaginations were best stimulated with limited descriptions and, after all, the stories were about new worlds and adventure, not medically precise anatomy books!

Over the years many artists have tried their hand at interpreting the appearance of the green Martian. J Allen St. John, John Coleman Burroughs, Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Michael Whelan, Joe Jusko, among the many, have illustrated green men that are frog-like, two human torsos stacked, thin and insect-like, heavily muscled, or variations of these themes--but all follow the basic blueprint that ERB painted with his exciting prose. Six limbs, tusks, large eyes, cup-like antennae, and green coloration.

We are told in various passages how the green man used his various limbs in battle. Among the more fearsome weapons carried by Tharks, Warhoons, Thurds and Torquas (the green tribes of Mars) was a 40 foot long, steel-tipped lance which they used on foot or while riding thoats (the Martian "horse"). Unlike humans, who would have great difficulty managing a lance of such length, the green warrior does not need to cross grip to hold the weapon. Supported by two hands on the same side the green warrior can approach a foe from one side or the other rather than frontally. Additionally, the long arms could easily balance the great length of the lance and guide it with devastating effect.

The ERBList discussion centered on the mid-pair of arms and the musculature necessary for the arrangement to work. Most of the speculation centered around the skeletal conformation. Some of the participants could not seem to shake the skeletal arrangement as found in humans because their concept of the middle limbs being "arms" rather than "arms and legs" was so unshakable. In the arms predominant arrangement the attachment of the limb and range of motion of the "shoulder" socket was troubling. James came up with an interesting physiology that appears to address all issues. In his version the green man has a massive inverted "Y" sternum which ends in sockets that allow full rotation that in conjunction with the more upright stance of his green man when traveling on all fours would more than adequately support the weight of the creature. I further speculated that any evolved being that tended toward height would be unlikely to give that advantage up when traveling on four limbs. I would imagine the green Martian's head, at the top of that long neck, would still be some 7 to 8 feet above the ground. The green men live on the vast dead sea bottoms of Mars and each foot of height above the surface would extend their range of vision tremendously.

But James was not yet through with his imaginative anatomy of the green Martian. The last image he showed me was of the skull in two views and a third in flesh. The skeletal views were as one might expect, depicting the fissures and openings for eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears. The images also revealed the massive length of the twin ivory tusks protruding upwards from the lower jaw. Then James drew my attention to the two smaller images to point out that, in his opinion, the green Martian could unhinge the lower jaw when in battle to better present the deadly tusks to any foe. Such an ability is not described in the Barsoomian books by Edgar Rice Burroughs but when presented with the speculation it does make perfect sense that these strange and bizarre warriors of the dead sea basins would be able to physically use these magnificent tusks.

We will never know what the green Martian looks like since we cannot enter the mind of Ed Burroughs and view his imagination where the green man was created. But we can draw some conclusions as to which artists might be close.

As reported in Porges' excellent biography 1 Burroughs was very particular as regards the illustrations which appeared in his novels. J. Allen St. John and John Coleman Burroughs illustrated many of the Barsoomian novels of Burroughs. If they were too far off the mark we know that the author would have made them keep at it until they got it "right." In the mean time, here's hoping we continue to see artists like James, and those who are more famous or who are about to become famous, will continue to give us their visions of the green men of Barsoom--and all the other fascinating creatures and worlds written by the failed businessman from Chicago!

1 IRWIN PORGES, Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan, Brigham Young University Press, 1975