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Tantor Trumpets - by Ken Webber

The 'Age Mystery' of John Carter
Warlord of Mars

Internet version copyright © 2000,
All Rights Reserved.

John Carter, The Warlord of Mars, in the opening words of his initial manuscript given to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs, gives us some enigmatic remarks about his age and personal history. He states:

I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more, but I cannot tell because I have never aged as do other men, nor do I remember my childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years ago or more.

It is clear that the stalwart swordsman had no explanation to this mystery surrounding his birth, childhood or his perpetual youthfulness.

Princess of Mars

What then was the etiology (being the study of the causes, reasons, or origins) of his longevity and his own beginning? Does this mystery have its solutions? I propose that his permanent youthfulness was imparted to him by the singular events, which occurred to him in the Arizona caves before he found himself transported across space to the Dead Sea bottoms of Mars. To establish my theory it is necessary to address two separate issues. The first will be to review John Carter's known history and to examine the incident of his experience in the cave and determine what did happen to him at this point. The second matter is to consider Carter's peculiar memory of these events that seems to place him in a percussive history far before this experience.

The enduring youthfulness that he claims for himself in his manuscript can be supported by the eyewitness account of his favorite nephew and biographer. Edgar as a child of five in the year prior to the Civil War (1860) remembers the visit of his Uncle Jack Carter to the Burroughs home in Virginia. He recalled him as a tall, dark, smooth-faced athletic man with a gentle manner and the sturdy carriage of a trained fighting soldier. As a small child Edgar does not apply a definite age to his uncle, but he does keep a sure mental picture of his dashing relative. When he then sees the Captain fifteen or sixteen years later, he is much surprised to note that he has not aged a moment. And then many years later in Oahu, Hawaii, the two kinsmen meet for the last time. It is then 1940 and while Mr. Burroughs is an old man, it is apparent that his Uncle Jack is still a young man of about thirty in appearance and has not aged, as do other men.

If John Carter were about thirty at the onset of the Civil War, that would place his natural birth date somewhere in the mid-1830s. I contend that this birth-date would have been accurate. I believe him to have been a young Virginian adventurer who led a normal but active life until a remarkable event in March of 1866 imparted unto him the gift of longevity. If so, what transpired in the events of that mountain cave in Arizona that dramatically altered his life and life expectancy?

Let's look again at that experience. After months of prospecting, Captain Carter and a fellow ex-Confederate officer, Captain James K. Powell, found a rich vein of gold in the hills of Arizona. Powell sets out on horseback to return to civilization and register their claim. He encounters a war party of Apaches who ambush and kill him. John Carter follows the Apache band to their camp swoops in and valiantly recovers the arrow-riddled body of his companion. The enraged savages pursue him. Carter manages to make it to the hills and loses them on a narrow cliff trail ascending a high mesa. The trail abruptly ends at a small cleft that soon widens into large cavern chamber. As he explores the cave looking for a second exit, he begins to feel a pleasant drowsiness, which he attributes to the fatigue of his long and arduous flight. Suddenly he reels drunkenly and falls to the cavern floor and is horrified to then discover that he is paralyzed. While he is thus immobilized, the pursuing Apaches have tracked him to the cavern entrance and begin to enter the cleft. But they are startled by something that they can see in the rear of the cave behind the helpless Carter. Whatever it is then utters a low, distinctive moan and the warriors flee in panic-stricken, superstitious terror. For the next few hours the paralyzed ex-soldier lies helpless in fear at the mercy of the unknown terror that inhabits the rear of the cave. He becomes aware of the pungent odor of a poisonous vapor that he realizes as the source of his paralysis. He can also hear faint moaning sounds and rustlings of movement.

It would be ten long years later, after his initial sojourn upon Barsoom, that he would return to this cave and then discover the strange mummified remains of a little old Indian woman with long black hair. She is leaning over a copper vessel upon a small charcoal burner containing a residue of a greenish powder. This must have been the source of the odor he remembered. Behind her, hanging from the roof upon rawhide thongs, and stretching entirely across the cavern wall was a row of human skeletons. The thong is then tied to the hand of the little old woman. When he touches the cord, it produces the strange rustling sound he remembered.

It appears that our soldier of fortune had chanced upon a mystical Indian ceremony being performed by an Apache shaman. The evidence of his own experience would imply that this ritual was a secret youth transferring rite and that he was an unwitting recipient of the procedure. To give this theory any credence, it is necessary to find supportive evidence from the legends of the Apache culture to establish their belief in the practice of imparting longevity.

From The Myths and Tales of the Jacarilla Apache Indians I quote in part, the following incantation,

"All of you watch me. Don't turn around. Listen to what I say. The world is just as big as my body. The world is as large as my word. And the world is as large as my prayers."…"Whosoever believes me, whosoever listens to what I say, will have long life."…."Don't think that I am in the east, west south or north. The earth is my body. I am there. I am all over. Don't think I stay only under the earth or up in the sky. I am all over."

There are enough common threads of this ritual that were part of Carter's experience to suggest quite strongly that this was the ritual that was in progress when he sought refuge in the cave. The old shaman was obviously deep into the ceremony and under a trance and did not notice his presence at the front of the cave. Carter is overcome with the fumes of her cooking potent and as he lies paralyzed on the cavern floor he becomes an unwilling participant in the ceremony. He lies unable to move, but he desperately reminds himself that "I still live." This fighting spirit helped to make his connection with the ritual. As those terror filled events near the midnight hour, the unseen rustling bones and the crescendoing chanting come to climax. Carter tries to escape, and with an ultimate superhuman effort of mind, will, and nerves he struggles to break the restraining grip of his paralysis. Suddenly something within him snaps sharply, as the snapping of a steel wire, and he finds himself standing in a corporal body. But before him at his feet he sees his own lifeless body. Another loud moan from the cave's recess sends the confused man running naked from the cave and out into the crisp starlit desert night. Can we assume that the moan was a cry of dismay from the shaman that her ritual had gone awry and she had not received an influx of new youth, but that it had gone to another.

When Carter returns to the cave ten years later, he finds his previous body unaged still upon the cavern floor although his clothes have withered into dust. The old shaman is still at her spell pot, now mummified with her string of victims. She apparently did not survive that night gone wrong, ten years previously that had bestowed youth upon the young soldier of fortune who had the stronger will to live, instead of upon herself. From that bizarre event forward John Carter never appears to age beyond the thirty years of age that he was when he was at the life altering moment.

As he stands naked outside the cave after that climatic moment of the ceremony, the cool night breeze of the Arizona mountain air invigorates him and he regains his strength and composure. Then his gaze turns heavenward and the bright red star that is Mars close on the horizon rivets his attention. The irresistible enchantment of Mars, the god of war, seems to call and lure him across the void. How he is propelled across time and space to the Dead Sea Bottoms of the dying planet of Barsoom, that we call Mars, I will leave to other scholars of the canon to explain. I will only point out that John Carter is momentarily functioning on a deep subconscious and supernatural level. His level of suggestivity is very acute at this point. The extraordinary ritual that he has just experienced had heightened his sensitivity and did therefore have a definite influence upon his transport to Mars. But it was not probably an inclusive part and intent of the old Indian ceremony. (The red skin color of one of the Barsoomian races does cause one to pause and wonder if there was not a previous contact between the red skinned Indians of our planet and Barsoom.)

We have resolved the question of the source of John Carter's longevity. Now we need to address the quandary presented by the episodes of his memory, especially those memories that find him recalling events that obviously predate his birthdate in the 1830s. It is important to note that John Carter cannot recall any memory of his childhood. We have learned in our knowledge of human psychology that when an individual has repressed memories of childhood that it is the result of a significant trauma that has blocked that part of his experience. Let's follow this psychological trail and examine Captain Carter's condition.

The disruptive trauma is probably the events that we have just examined, with the terror in the cave with the Apache shaman and the subsequent shock of finding himself split into two entities and suddenly naked upon a strange planet. Carter himself notes that he is "disorientated". To expand upon that point, the effects of disorientation are a breakdown of a person's awareness and understanding of time and space, peoples, places, and an impaired self-awareness. Finding himself thrust suddenly into an alien environment would produce a momentary period of a dissociative reaction, as well. This is a subliminal defense mechanism that a person uses to reorientate himself to a strange new environment, especially when it appears hostile in nature or circumstance. It is the human brain's way of emphasizing certain elements and minimizing others in order to meet the crisis at hand until new coping skills and knowledge can acclimated in order to survive. The de-emphasizing side of this equation can produce some negative effects, such as selective amnesia, the alteration of consciousness and even identity, and memory disturbance. This defensive reaction would account for the selective amnesia that blocked all memory of his childhood and his developmental years. The other three effects were evident by his baffling memories.

Let's return to the statement of Mr. Burroughs when he says this about his Uncle Jack, " This man who remembers no childhood and who could not offer a vague guess as to his age; who was always young and yet had dandled my grandfather's grandfather upon his knee.." There is no evidence of this fact being supported by any other famial proof. It should have been an issue of long standing in the Burroughs family. We can assume that this assertion is based solely upon the evidence of the reflections of Carter's own manuscript that was entrusted to Burroughs keeping. Add to this statement in the manuscript Burroughs own eyewitness accounts that from 1860 to 1940 his Uncle Jack never aged. It is easy to see that he had no reason to question Carter's manuscript on this point. In light of the adventures that his uncle wrote about, the facts of his early memory were indeed a minor point. Being his uncle's trusted confidant and biographer, it is consistent that he would mirror his diagnosis.

But without disputing their viewpoint, I can present my own theory. Remember that John Carter himself stated that he had no clear answer when he penned, "How old I do not know." Therefore, I feel free to examine the evidence that he has given us under our own light and see at what conclusions we may arrive.

First, I would expand upon the point of Carter's perpetual youth was not an accepted fact in the Burroughs family. When Edgar saw his Uncle Jack for the first time after a fifteen year span he was surprised that he had not aged. If the youth of his uncle had been a common family fact, then he would not have been taken unawares when he met him again. There is no evidence to imply that any other member of the Burroughs family were privy to the unique youth of their kinsmen. Nor did Burroughs, as an author ever seek out any relative for an explanation or insight into his uncle's prior history, even in the long years of silence between their rare meetings.

Shortly after the unanticipated return first to the cave in Arizona, and then later to his Virginia homeland John Carter sought seclusion. After a while he must have become uncomfortable in Virginia being around friends and family. They would have talked of events that he would have been unable to recall. It would be probable that the question of his apparent youthfulness began to become an embarrassment for which he had no answers. He moved to a quiet spot overlooking the Hudson River and in his retreat he began to write his memoirs and he longed for the loved ones and his life upon a far distant world. He had came to the realization that he could not return nor find peace on the planet of his birth.

Let us go back to the moment of his arrival upon Barsoom after the events at the cave. After an instant of extreme darkness and cold, he finds himself standing upon the strange alien landscape of Mars. "My inner conscience told me plainly that I was upon Mars…" he states. This is our first clue that as a highly conditioned fighting man he relies keenly upon his subconscious mind in moments of peril and stress. It is a reflex. Remember that when he rushed into the Apache camp to recover Powell's body, he did it without hesitation, noting that, "My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously into paths of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes." As time goes on during his early days other sentient abilities become evident. He finds that he has developed telepathic skills. Also he finds that he has the ability to locate Kantos Kan or Tars Tarkas in the open desert by a cognizant awareness of their presence. These latent senses were keened by reason of necessity in order to survive and prevail in a hostile New World.

Indeed our uprooted soldier of fortune quickly adapts to the differences of his new home; its different gravity, climate, food, culture and language. As he became more familiar and capable in his adopted environment, the dissociative reaction would gradually abate. The most important assimulative event that happened to him was the capture by the Warhoons of Dejah Thoris, the incomparable Princess of Mars. Besides falling instantly in love with her beauty, he establishes a bond with her because she is a fellow prisoner and a human being. When one bonds to another person a subtle adaptation takes place. The most noticeable is that the things that she places an importance and value upon, he likewise learns to attaches a strong prominence. This is quite important, as we will see. Dejah is the one to first evoke the importance of 'ancestors'. She often speaks of her ancestors, her first ancestor and many other emphatic statements regarding her lineage. Dejah draws courage and strength from her ancestors. Soon we find Carter following her cue and also remembering his heritage as he begins to proclaim "The fighting bold of my Virginian fathers". Beyond the comfort that it brought him, I think Carter drew upon his proud heritage in a more significant way.

To begin to understand what happened in John Carter's situation it is necessary to take a few minutes to look at what we know about 'memory'. The human memory has many layers. The most familiar is our conscious memory, which is our readably available memory. Then there is our subconscious memory, which is highly active in running our lives but is normally beyond our awareness level. Next we have a collective unconsciousness which is a level of memory remote from our own individual personal experiences that draws upon the collective experiences of humanity. This memory is inherited by all of humanity and is easily demonstrated by our archetypes or shared basic fears as a race. Also in this realm of our memory system lies another external memory that is subjective. This is generational memory, which is the collective family memories, which are usually focused upon the strong central theme of that family system.

For our study, the Virginia Carter family had a proud history of fighting men for many generations. This was their heritage and identity. This fighting family tradition was passed down as often told tales of adventures and battles from father to son. But beyond the vocal history, there were aspects of this family identity that were transmitted subliminally. These unspoken promptings are the materials that become part of the deeper levels of memory. Also the strongest memories of one person can be transmitted through the family memory system, even unspoken, for generations that follow. Individuals have been clinically observed to have clear, detailed memories of people, places, and events that did not happen to them, but instead to their forebears. Whether this generational memory is subliminal, genetically encoded, or spiritual in nature is not clearly understood at this point.

Remember that John Cater found his level of sentient gifts to be highly attuned when he needed them to enable him to cope with the strange and dangerous New World. Many people who have had a near death experience find that such gifts are active when they return to their lives. His experience in the cave was such of an experience. With a young maiden to protect and care for John Cater needs all of the skills and knowledge that he can muster. The initial disassociative reaction would be enough to alter his normal level of consciousness and identity and then to activate a memory disturbance that would call the Carter generational memory to the fore. The selective amnesia buried his memories of childhood. In its place is a pool of the necessary memories of generations of fighting Carters at his disposal. He suddenly has the innate ability to master weapons he has never seen or handled before, but that were probably similar to older modes of war that his forefathers had used in their days.

When John Carter spoke of a "strange wild life in all parts of the world" and that he had lived and fought for years among the Sioux in the North" it is possible that he did live those events. But it is equally probable that these could have been generational memories. His fathers' histories of fighting in the colonial wars, Indian wars, and foreign wars were at his disposal. These memories gave him a resource of battle skills, tactics, and seasoning beyond his own years and experience with which to draw upon. This gifting of memories of his sires helped enable him to become the greatest swordsman and warrior of two worlds.

But along with these memories that enaided him came a confusing collection of the events related to their original occurrence. Sadly, memories of his own childhood never returned to him (that he ever spoke of). In the place of this part of his mental life, he instead had a smattering of memories of random events of various Virginian ancestors. This explains why he could write of dandling his nephew's grandfather's grandfather upon his knee. This event was a strong generationally imparted memory of that long departed relative. But he was unable to recall his own childhood or even guess with any accuracy as to his own age. John Carter had been equipped for the adventurous life he would live but at a strange cost to himself.

When Captain John Carter summoned his nephew to the Hotel Richmond in 1878 to present him with the portfolio of his second adventure under the Moons of Mars, he advised him,

I know that you are interested and that you believe and I know that the world, too, is interested, though they will not believe for many years; yes, for many ages, since they cannot understand. Earth men have not yet progressed to a point where they can comprehend the things that I have written in those notes.

Many of the mysteries that he eluded to will have to await the onsite discoveries of our first astronauts to land upon the Dead Sea Bottoms of Mars itself. But our knowledge has progressed to the point that we can begin to comprehend some of the riddles that he shared with his nephew, and through him, a world of fascinated readers.

Hopefully my analysis will help to resolve one of the many enigmas that were a part of the unparalleled life of that fighting gentleman of Virginia, John Carter, and the Warlord of Barsoom.


My references for this article were: the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs on the life of his Uncle John Carter, Baker's Encyclopedia of Psychology, and Myths and Tales of the Jacarilla Apache Indians by Morris Edward Opler.