Exploring the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Summarizing ERB's works one chapter at a time
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Worlds of: Barsoom, Pellucidar, Moon, Amtor, Caspak, Pal-u-don
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Bereft of once mighty oceans and a natural atmosphere, Barsoom is a world of strange and dangerous contradictions. At one end of the spectrum is a science so evolved that it exceeds anything on Earth, yet at the other it is a world of savage barbarity unlike anything found on our planet.

Though Barsoom is smaller than Earth, it has more land surface than the third planet! Ed Burroughs populated this vast desert world with some of the oddest and most interesting alien races ever to spring forth from his fertile imagination.

Thark, St. John

Hordes of nomadic green martians rule the dead sea bottoms. These creatures, averaging 14-15 feet in height, often take a deserted, ancient city as a gathering point, tribes up to 60,000 strong with a possible world population of 5 millions.

Hereditary enemies of the green martian is the red man. Quite human in appearance, though the female lays eggs rather than giving birth of infants, it is among these peoples that John Carter gains acceptance which matches his admiration for their finer qualities.

The south pole is ruled by the Therns (a white race) and the First Born (a black race). Burroughs has major fun debunking Martian religions as represented by the First Born Issus and the tenets of the Holy Hekkadors of the Therns.

The north pole is the land of the yellow race, the Okarians. They have an advanced science based on electromagnetics. Like all the other races of Barsoom, the Okarians are forever at war with all peoples as a matter of survival on this world of dwindling resources.

ERB's Barsoomian names roll off the tongue. To some they appear a little contrived and hokey given the increasing strangess of naming conventions by fantasy writers in recent years, but in 1911-1920, names like Hor Vastus, Thuvan Dihn, Gahan of Gathol, Thuvia, etc, were quite exotic—yet familiar and easy to pronounce.

The Wars of Barsoom

Warlord of Mars

If we were to apply the "body count" logic of the tv-for-children censors, ERB would rank with Hitler and Stalin for filling mass graves. Not shown in the Barsoom series is the mental anguish that all soldiers endure to be victorious. They must destroy another human being and in the real world that is not an easy thing to live with, though it is, sadly, often easy to accomplish in the heat of battle. Ed's heroes never seemed to have twitching consciences and I have always wondered why. For all the beautiful prose and fantastic worlds, ERB's major characters are rather blood-thirsty—even Milquetoast Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones!

One might suggest that warfare or physical danger is when human drama is most heightened, but to decimate whole civilizations novel after novel, and so adroitly that finer sensibilities are rarely disturbed, is a hallmark of Ed Burroughs' writing. Barsoom ranks numero uno re: murder and mayhem with the "eternal war" on Poloda as a close second.

When Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars, some very large scale wars had been recently fought. The threat of an even larger conflict loomed on the near horizon by the end of Warlord. When the Mad King (in two parts) was written, Europe was on the brink of war. By the time the Caspak trilogy was serialized that great war had munched tens of millions lives. Before World War I was over a staggering loss of life had occurred, not to mention poisoned resources, destroyed animals and livestock and plants. This warfare was different from the long decades of warfare in the American west where small groups of Indians tied up vast numbers of Army troops, even though the violence of those military engagements was just as extreme and exaggerated as any wars before or since.

I believe ERB wrote about Earth in allegories of Barsoom. The best and the worst of humankind—for the attributes of all the characters of Barsoom are human and the motivations which govern their actions are all-too-human as well. ERB's plots often hinge upon murder or death—as if death itself was perhaps the most vile or frightening thing in ERB's mind. Warfare, either personal, local, national, international, or interplanetary is a constant refrain throughout the various novels, including the Tarzan stories.

Our terrestrial histories are no different from those presented for Barsoom which is why so many ERB commentaries in the Martian books have direct corollaries to what we know. The green man may be the noble Indian (American) or he might be the Mongol Hordes of Genghis Khan. The red man might be the best of European chivalry, or he might be what remains of civilization if prudence is not brought to bear.

Every war is as uncivil as it can be—that is the sole purpose of war—the utter breakdown of diplomacy requiring deadly force to impress one viewpoint upon another. War is ugly and nasty and smelly and horrible—yet ERB managed to decimate millions on paper without turning one stomach or raising more than an eyebrow in the process. However, that which was written as entertainment just might be a dark prognostication for the future of life on our planet.

Wars for survival have been fought through the ages. 1200 years ago the Pueblo Indians of the American southwest fought a half century of war over food, water, and territory and in the end they disappeared. With our population approaching 8 billion, 9 billion, 10 billion... it won't be long before casual murder, as espoused by Barsoomians, will become common place. Look for law and order to disappear about the same time.

Some readers of Barsoom believe the constant warfare was principally engaged as population control. I wouldn't call it "population control." I would call it territorial aggression, lieberstram, assimilation, world domination or genocide. By eliminating the opponent the victor enjoys the benefit of peace, expansion and growth—or survival on a world of dwindling resources.

Why doesn't anyone wear any armour?

ERB left a great deal to the imagination which is a grand way to insure the longevity of one's material; but, no matter how frequently the term "naked" is used it is unlikely complete nudity was intended. There is considerable mention of a warrior's harness as being leather, metal studded, and sufficiently sturdy to support steel weapons and a radium pistol. Early armors on Jasoom were constructed of thick leather and metal studs—the leather to turn a blade and the stud to dull or capture the blade. An explosive pistol, on the other hand, negates the benefit of armor more sturdy than leather, therefore why trade mobility and speed to be encumbered by armor that is only effective against blade weapons? Helmets are described.

Naked, on Barsoom, I take to mean "no trousers" not bare of cover.

Thuvia, Maid of Mars

Women are described as "naked" throughout the saga, yet there are references to breast plates, silks and furs "which reveal more than they conceal", and provided coverage equal to concealing slim daggers, etc. Both men and women wore belt pouches which act as pockets.

Amerindians, which provided some tribal modeling for ERBs Barsoomian cultures, were once referred to as "naked savages" by European culture. Indians were, in fact, a society that believed in clothing for adornment as well as protection against the elements.

Nudity on Barsoom is over-stated. Clothing exists, but it is not like Western garments.

John Carter, typical Southern Confederate Gentleman?

I think folks forget ERB treated the upper crust of Southern society (Virginia in particular) as a homegrown American aristocracy. The extreme disparity between the landowner and field workers is a direct parallel to feudal lords and serfs during Europe's medieval ages—there is no similar social model in Northern society. One might suggest that industrialists in the north lorded over the thousands of plant workers, and that is a kind of power, but it is not power AND control of large tracts of DESIRABLE land.

Throughout the ages of literature, it is the high born or well-bred who have adventures. They can afford them–and they have more to lose when barbarian hordes pound on the gates.

Even Southerners considered the landed gentry of Virginia hoity-toity before and after the Civil War. The Carolinas were next followed by Georgia and Mississippi. Texas and Alabama were backwoods relations. For ERB to select Virginia as the home state for John Carter, an officer of the Southern gentility, was obvious if he wished to have a noble character on the losing side of the Civil War. Virginia was always involved in the process of national government in the Union or Confederacy. The plantation owners were colorful and powerful figures (so are major league sports team owners, but I digress). The Southern code of chivalry reeks of the knights of yore, though it was more confined to a code of honor towards women than justice in general. This modified code was a ideal device for mushy romances, which form the basis for the majority of ERB stories.

As for hereditary nobility, I suggested earlier that only the well-to-do, and that would include royalty, have the wherewithal to conduct adventures. Michael Milquecow, Brian D'Butcher, or Frank Freighter are ordinary workaholics too busy supporting life and limb and caring for families to go traipsing off. In reality it was these people who were the real heroes. They built a nation (this and all other nations) by conquering the land, raising families, and building for the future—but writing about the fellow who brought milk cows to the wilderness and built a successful dairy isn't a likely subject for stirring rhetoric.

The Barsoom Series

John Carter, a Confederate veteran, is transported to the dying planet Barsoom.
Returning to Mars after a 10 year absence on earth, Carter discovers his wife in peril. Nothing will stop him from saving her.
From one pole of the planet to the other, John Carter fights his way to protect his family and to unify nations.
Like his father, Carthoris learns quickly that happiness is not easily won, either by the heart or by the sword!
Tara, daughter of the Warlord of Mars, embarks upon an accidental—and dangerous—adventure.
The Master Mind of Mars
A Fighting Man of Mars
Swords of Mars
Synthetic Men of Mars
Llana of Gathol
John Carter of Mars