The Priceless Jewels of Barsoom & The Atmosphere Plant ...a Mystery Solved?

Laurence Dunn


The following article 'The Priceless Jewels of Barsoom and the Atmosphere Plant' originally appeared in Frank Westwood's fanzine, The Fantastic Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was written in response to an article that Frank had written in his previous issue. This in turn was based on a letter that I had written and which appeared in Pete Ogden's fanzine, Erbania some years earlier that raised a question surrounding the fabulous jewel worn by the Keepers of the Atmosphere Plant.

Princess of Mars

The novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs which introduces the Barsoomian atmosphere plant

The question was, how did the fabulous jewel worn by the Keepers of the Atmosphere Plant (of which only two were known to exist), were also seen to be worn by the Holy Therns of the Tenth Cycle?

Frank Westwood was so intrigued by this question that he decided to set about solving the problem. But I considered Frank's conclusions to be way off the mark and so wrote my own response. If one intends to solve a mystery based on the information given by Burroughs, the last thing that should be done is to surmise or insert a separate story line to make that theory work. There is no credibility in pure speculation as it can be totally different to the next person. When I attended my first Edgar Rice Burroughs convention in the summer of 1985 at Louisville, Kentucky, I can still recall the small groups of fans that stayed up into the early hours talking Burroughs. During that time, Kevin Julius told us of his belief that John Carter was really a Barsoomian and went on to expound his reasoning. At the time it sounded a wonderful revelation and we all hoped that one day he would write an article to the fact. It was approximately six months before he finally put pen to paper and eventually his article was published in Bill Ross's fanzine, Tarzine #42. The problem was that he (like Frank) added so many stories of his own to make the theory work, that it was no longer a part of Burroughs' novel.

As a separate by-line to this article, it occurred to me that when it was discovered the air pumps in the atmosphere plant had stopped and all life on Barsoom was doomed, why did everyone not head for the River Iss and Heaven? I had every intent on including this question into the article… at least that was until I read Tars Tarkas's account for his being in the Valley Dor at the beginning of Gods of Mars.

"....for at the end of the long pilgrimage I must take some day....and a month since I started upon the journey, the end of which you have this day witnessed...." [ 29]

So there is the answer. If it took Tars Tarkas a month to reach the Valley Dor from his home city (when at the time the pumps had stopped working, they calculated they only had three days to live), they would barely have had the chance for the waters of the River Iss to lick the hulls of their boats - let alone make it all the way to Heaven.

For those wishing to read the passages that I have included in their full context, the page number references are taken from the British paperbacks published by New English Library in 1972 and 1973.

Gods of Mars

The novel containing the bulk of the diadem question

DURING THE SUMMER of 1985, a letter I had written to Pete Ogden appeared in the double issue of his fanzine, Erbania #53/54, making the comment that the diadems worn by the Keepers of the Atmosphere Plant, also appeared to be worn by the Holy Therns of the Tenth Cycle. At the time, I left Pete with the question "Does this mean that the Keepers of the Atmosphere Plant were really Therns in disguise?"

After the letter was published, I will be the first to admit that I was slightly disappointed that no one challenged the remark I had made. After all, Erbania has been the battle scene for many discrepancies, factual or otherwise during its long and illustrious history, so my disappointment was well grounded.

It eventually took eight years before the gauntlet was finally picked up by Frank Westwood in an article in the summer issue of Fantastic Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In his article, Frank made the effort to determine a way in which the diadems adorned by both Keepers, could fall into the hands of the Therns during the period between the pumps no longer working, and John Carters' second advent upon Mars ten years later. However, if we are to assume that there were only two diadems to begin with, how did they come to be in the possession of three different Therns, on three separate occasions?

To begin with let us recall John Carters' first encounter with the Keeper and the diadem itself....

...a strange, dried up, little mummy of a man came towards me. He wore but a single article of clothing or adornment - a small collar of gold from which depended upon his chest a great ornament as large as a dinner plate set solid with huge diamonds, except for the exact centre which was occupied by a strange stone, an inch in diameter, that scintillated nine different and distinct rays, the seven colours of our earthly prism, and two beautiful rays which, to me, were new and nameless. [ 113]

Now take a look at the three diadems worn by the three Holy Therns....

...he (Sator Throg) wore in addition to his leather trappings and jewelled ornaments a great circlet of gold about his brow in the exact centre of which was set an immense stone, the exact counterpart of that which I had seen upon the breast of the little old man at the atmosphere plant nearly twenty years before....was of about the same inch in diameter....scintillated nine different and distinct rays...[ 45]

...with that he (Xodar) drew his dagger and cut open a locked pouch which had dangled from the (un-named) Thern's harness, and from it he brought forth a circlet of gold set with a large gem - it was the mate to that which I had taken from Sator Throg. [ 167]

...the diadem in the centre of the circlet of gold upon the brow of Lakor proclaimed him a Holy Thern. [ 28]

Gods of Mars

More pieces of the puzzle are found in Warlord of Mars

In each case, the only similarity between the diadem worn by the Keeper and that of the Holy Therns is the gem itself. The Keeper had his set in the centre of an ornament the size of a dinner plate whereas the Therns had theirs set in a circlet of gold upon their brow. This then would give us our first indication that there may be more than just the two diadems worn by the Keepers of the Atmosphere Plant. is the one priceless jewel of Barsoom. Only two are known to exist 1, and these were worn as the insignia of their rank and position by the two old men in whose charge was placed the operation of the great engines which pump the artificial atmosphere to all parts of Mars... [ 45]

But let us be sure of this by determining the fate of each of the diadems. At this point, the fate of the Keeper 2 in charge of the Atmosphere Plant at the time of the engines failing is unknown. His Assistant 2 is found horribly mutilated by an assassin in the pits beneath his home. No mention is made of the diadem belonging to the dead assistant and therefore we can assume that the location of the two diadems is uncertain.

As for the whereabouts of the three diadems found to be worn by the Therns, we are told this...

...she (Thuvia)...approached the body of the man she had slain (Sator Throg), and kneeling beside it removed the circlet of gold from the forehead....she advanced to my side and placing the yellow wig over my black hair, crowned me with the golden circlet set with the magnificent gem. [ 46]

John Carter continues to wear the disguise until he is alone with Xodar, the First Born Dator, and Phaidor, daughter of Matai Shang, upon a flyer escaping the onslaught of the First Born upon the Therns. However, after removing the wig and circlet of gold, Carter is again captured only this time by the First Born. While imprisoned on the Isle of Shador in Omean, Carter has Xodar sketch a map of the South polar regions on the cell floor with...

...the sharp edge of the wondrous gem I had taken from Sator Throg. [ 93]

A series of adventures follow before Carter returns to his palace in Helium. The gem is never mentioned again, but presumably now resides in Helium.

The second diadem was taken from a man found spying outside Carters' palace in Helium and slain by the palace guard...

...where Xodar had applied the thoat oil the face was white, as white as mine, and then Xodar seized the black hair of the corpse and with a sudden wrench tore it away, revealing a hairless pate beneath...

"A thern!" whispered Tars Tarkas

"Worse than that I fear" replied Xodar..."He was a Holy Thern" [ 166/167]

...after the discovery of the diadem in his locked pouch.

Lakor was the third Holy Thern found to be wearing the diadem but he was killed by Woola beneath the Temple of the Sun.

...there occurred to me the memory of that other occasion upon which I masqueraded in the wig, diadem, and harness of Sator Throg...a moment later I had torn his yellow wig from his bald pate and transferred it and the circlet, as well as all his harness, to my own person. [ 28]

Some time later, John Carter discards his disguise in the presence of Matai Shang, Thurid, Phaidor, Thuvia and Dejah Thoris at the Thern secret tower...

...of all the holy of holies which the Thern venerates and worships, none is more revered than the yellow wig which covers his bald pate, and next thereto comes the circlet of gold and the great diadem, whose scintillated rays mark the attainment of the Tenth Cycle...knowing this. I removed the wig and circlet from my head, tossing them carelessly upon the flagging of the court. Then I wiped my feet upon the yellow tresses...and spat upon the holy diadem [ 39]

From this information we have now determined that the first two diadems found in the possession of the Therns were lost to them before Lakor could possibly be wearing his. What is also apparent is that on two occasions, John Carter has himself adorned the diadem taken from Sator Throg and Lakor as part of his disguise whilst in the Valley Dor. If there were only two diadems, those worn by the Keepers, and they did fall into the hands of the Therns, then they would be just as rare within the Thern palace as they were to the outside world and therefore attract just as much attention. But on no less than four separate occasions we are also told, the first by Xodar...

" is it you wear the golden hair and the jewelled circlet of a Holy Thern?" [ 66]

The second, again by Xodar...

"He was a Holy Thern" [ 167]

...after the discovery of the gem on the dead man.

The third occasion was shortly after Woola had killed Lakor...

...the diadem in the centre of the circlet of gold upon the brow of Lakor proclaimed him a Holy Thern [ 28]

The fourth is told by Carter...

...the great diadem...mark the attainment of the Tenth Cycle [ 39]

It has now become obvious that, rather than there being just two diadems - those worn by the Keepers, they are in fact also worn by every Holy Thern of the Tenth Cycle. Since the race of Therns were unknown to the outside world prior to 'Gods', and they already had in their possession similar diadems, then we must assume that the jewel worn by the Keepers came from the same source as that which the Therns got theirs - presumably from a mine somewhere within the Valley Dor. If that is the case, then how did two of the diadems fall into the hands of the outside world? For an answer we must go back in time when the planet Barsoom was still alive with its five mighty oceans and the air was full and plenty. At some point, two golden ornaments, the size of a dinner plate set with huge diamonds and a strange scintillating stone at its centre fell into the hands of the outside world. By the time the oceans began to dry up and the air became thin, it was found necessary to build an Atmosphere Plant to sustain life on Barsoom. Access to the plant was to be known only by two men, the Keeper and his assistant. To prevent their lives being in jeopardy from an unknown assailant, the two diadems were presented to them to be worn always, thereby safeguarding their knowledge of access to the Atmosphere Plant, and life continuing on Barsoom.

During John Carters' encounter with the Keeper of the Atmosphere Plant he is told...

...the only fear they entertain is of attack from the green Martians or some demented red man, as all Barsoomians realise that the very existence of every form of life on Mars is dependent upon the un-interrupted working of this plant. [ 114]

It would appear then that this was the fate of the Assistant Keeper as foretold to Carter ten years beforehand. However, we are not told how long the assistant had been dead by the time his body was discovered. It has been suggested that his death coincided with the failure of the plant, but this cannot be confirmed. During Carters' education with the Keeper, he is told...

...for eight hundred years...he had watched these pumps...he has one assistant who divides the watch with him. Half a Martian year, about three hundred and forty-four of our days, each of these men spend alone in this huge isolated plant. [ 114]

At the end of 'Princess' when it is discovered that the air pressure is rapidly decreasing, Tardos Mors addresses the council chamber in Helium...

"This morning...word reached the several governments of Barsoom that the Keeper...had made no wireless report for two days, nor had almost ceaseless calls upon him from a score of capitals elicited a sign of response."[ 155]

At this point the grisly discovery of the Assistant Keeper is made and knowing that no one other than the two Keepers had access to the plant, all life on Barsoom was doomed. But of course we already know that John Carter has also learnt the secret and remembers just in the nick of time. Shortly before losing consciousness, Carter hurls the nine thought waves at the portal and his last view of Barsoom is the workman crawling on his hands and knees inside the plant to start the engines once more and breathe life back into the planet. When Carter next awakes he is back on Earth at the mouth of the Arizona cave that he had left ten years earlier.

So if there were just three men who knew the secret to the plant, that is the two Keepers and John Carter, we know that at the end of 'Princess', Carter is back on Earth, the Assistant is known to be dead, and the Keepers' whereabouts are unknown - we are left with one very intriguing question... After the pumps are restarted and the air pressure is returned to normal - who shuts the door to the Atmosphere Plant!

Well the only logical answer has to be the Keeper himself, there can be no alternative within the boundaries set by Burroughs. We are already informed that the Keeper is at least eight hundred years old, and at the time of the pumps failure, no response is received from within the plant. It has to be assumed that either an accident or sudden illness has befallen the Keeper to the point of him losing consciousness - otherwise he may still have managed to get to his wireless. Under normal circumstances, the Assistant would have come to his aid and there would never have been a crisis. But by the coincidence so often a characteristic in Burroughs work, the Assistant was slain and the necessary aid to the Keeper would be unforthcoming. After Carter had managed to open the portal and the workman crawled inside, successfully re-starting the engines, he discovers the unconscious body of the Keeper. Aid is then brought to him, and once he recovers, the Keeper can once again take up his post in maintaining the plant.

In conclusion...

A mystery has been solved where there was no mystery. It is important to not only read what has been written, but to read between the lines as well. After Carters' encounter with Sator Throg, the relationship between the diadems worn by the Keepers and those by the Therns was never mentioned again. The diadems had become a symbol of those Holy Therns that had attained the Tenth Cycle.

Edgar Rice Burroughs never did go back to explain the cause behind the pumps stopping, nor did he tell us what had happened to the Keeper inside the plant, and he certainly never mentioned who could have closed the doors after Carter had opened them. But then again, did he really have to? By careful observation we can deduce that the Keeper must have had a mishap that prevented him from maintaining the plant and calling for help. He would later survive the ordeal in order for the doors to be closed and their secret is passed on to his new assistant.

1 It is important to recall that Carter is stating a fact on knowledge that he has acquired prior to 'Gods'. His subsequent encounter with the Holy Therns wearing similar diadems would affect his opinion on the subject.

2 The term 'Keeper' and 'Assistant' are used purely to differentiate between the two men in the absence of any names. It is not known if one had superiority over the other or not. Both men could be termed 'Keeper' and both the Assistant of the other. At the time of the 'Assistants' death nearly ten years after Carter visited the Atmosphere Plant, it is never determined if the assassins victim was the man Carter had met on that occasion.