Monday, March 5, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Gods of Mars

With the release of Disney's John Carter looming later this week, my thoughts have been turning to Barsoom lately. Rather than indulge my tendency toward laziness by simply re-posting last year's discussion of A Princess of Mars, I decided to turn to its sequel, The Gods of Mars, which was serialized over five issues of All-Story magazine, from January to May 1913. The illustration to the left is not from any of the All-Story covers, since I couldn't find any decent scans of them to use. Instead, it's from the first edition of the collected novel, which appeared in 1918. In case you're curious, the fellow in the ridiculous blond wig is a Holy Thern, a race of Martian who are in fact
completely hairless but who hide this fact from others. The Therns acts as one of main antagonists of The Gods of Mars, as they are part of a manipulative cult that preys on the superstitions and religious beliefs of other Martians.

In my experience, The Gods of Mars is ranked very highly among fans of Burroughs's Barsoom novels. I certainly consider it to be the best of them all. That's not to suggest that its immediate predecessor or successor novels are bad -- they're not -- but I think Burroughs really hits his stride with the second novel. In part, that's because he doesn't have to devote as much verbiage to introducing John Carter, Barsoom, or its wonders. Instead, he just dive in and give us a terrific pulp adventure of surprising sophistication. Furthermore, the themes of The Gods of Mars are a bit deeper than those of A Princess of Mars. Whereas the latter is (largely) a love story written in the form of a tale of derring-do, the former is a lot more philosophical, as John Carter and other characters must come to grips with the meaning and purpose of belief. Make no mistake, though: like all the Barsoom books, The Gods of Mars is first and foremost an adventure story and it should be approached with that in mind. However, it's a very good adventure story and one that contains a little more than just swordplay, beautiful damsels, and cruel villains.

Like A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars presents itself as a first-person account of John Carter's exploits on Mars, as presented by his nephew, the author Edgar Rice Burroughs. After a brief prolog in which Burroughs explains how the manuscript came into his possession, the action of the novel picks up almost immediately. Carter returns to Barsoom to find a boat of Green Martians, including his friend, Tars Tarkas, overwhelmed by a group of Plant Men. Tars is the only survivor of this attack and he explains that he had come to this remote area of Barsoom -- the Valley Dor -- where the Martian religion taught that all go after their deaths. As Tars explains it,
"This is the valley of love and peace and rest to which every Barsoomian since time immemorial has longed to pilgrimage at the end of a life of hate and strife and bloodshed," he replied. "This, John Carter, is Heaven."
When Carter unexpectedly disappeared after the events at the end of A Princess of Mars, many believed that he had sought out the Valley Dor to end his days. Of course, he'd actually been whisked back to Earth, but since none knew this, the Valley Dor seemed a logical alternative to many Martians. Of course, the Valley Dor was far from the Heaven Tars expected it to be and he and Carter escape the Plant Men and their white apes only by rushing into a cave, where they find a door that leads into the darkness.

Inside the caves, Carter and Tars face numerous perils, free a Martian woman named Thuvia (who will herself become the protagonist of a later book in the series), encounter Black Martian air pirates, the Holy Therns, and even a self-proclaimed goddess, among other things. In true pulp style, the action rarely ceases, as Carter moves from danger to danger, along the way acquiring new friends and allies, as well as new foes. In the process he also learns more about both the history and religion of Barsoom and it's here, I think where The Gods of Mars shines brightest. Whereas A Princess of Mars was a story of adventure in an exotic land, The Gods of Mars affords Burroughs the opportunity to explore that exotic land more fully and to show off his considerable world building skills. In the second novel, Barsoom becomes more than just a place where John Carter can have adventures; it becomes a world of its own.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I've been very inspired by The Gods of Mars in creating many aspects of my Dwimmermount campaign. In some cases, the inspiration isn't obvious, while in others it's readily apparent. I simply liked ERB's ideas so much that it was hard not to rip them off, even if I tried to disguise the fact. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, then I hope the shade of Burroughs recognizes the high compliments I've paid him.


  1. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've been very inspired by The Gods of Mars in creating many aspects of my Dwimmermount campaign.

    Now you have me wondering, is Dwimmermount itself inspired by the caves the Therns are found inhabiting at the beginning of the book (and to a lesser degree the haunts of the Black Martians)?

  2. I finished this book a few weeks ago, and you're spot on in saying that, in many ways, it is a more enjoyable novel than Princess of Mars. I chalk it up to the reasons you provide, but I'll also highlight the sheer epicness of the story. The locales are even more exotic, the foes even more dangerous, and the air battle near the end is just mind-blowing. Not giving away any spoilers here, but I think it easily tops the biggest battles in the first novel. Epic Adventure cranked to 11.

  3. I also find that Gods is a really interesting read with the racial critique that a lot of people bring to bear on the first book. I agree with a lot of thoughts regarding the Green Martians as "savages" & unflattering stereotypes of Native Americans, but I can't help but find the Red, White & Black Martians (& eventually Yellow) to be an explicit answer to those problems. Yeah, you CAN all just get along!

  4. I just finished reading A Princess of Mars due to your last review and the upcoming movie. I loved it. I'm ashamed I didn't read it sooner. Now I'm starting this book. Perfect time for the post!

  5. I'm sorry, I'm going to be "that guy". The guy on the cover in the silly wig is actually John Carter wearing the wig of a Holy Thern about to board the ship of a First Born.

    On a side note, the only reason I read the John Carter books was because of your review. I saw them as a child but never read them. I cannot thank you enough for putting me on the path.

    1. Please be "that guy!" :)

      I never owned a copy of the book with this cover, so, when I saw it, I just didn't connect it to Carter's disguising himself to get aboard the enemy flier.

      Thanks for the correction.

  6. Of note to us D&D players, GoM also contains a series of literal Martian dungeons! Personally, I like that the book shows us a vision of a 'technologically advanced' society that still falls prey to cultural manipulation and false gods, despite their being otherwise rather culturally sophisticated. And one day my players will definitely have to face the deadly Plant Men!

  7. I'll not only agree with every positive thing written so far about Gods of Mars, but I'll up them by saying I consider this novel third on my list of all-time favorite novels.

  8. I like to think that the only person who believed John Carter had been to Mars was someone he'd never had much in common with: his intellectual, neurotic cousin Randolph.

  9. Hah! Nice tie to Yog-Sothothery there.

    I do like this book, but I've always preferred the first one, I guess. The novelty and sheer delight of seeing Barsoom the first time shines through in the text, whereas here it's more about plot.

    Still, love it regardless. The first few books of the Barsoom series really go together, and don't really work nearly as well unless you read all three of them as a series anyway.

  10. Im rereading this one now. My faves in order have always been Princess, Chessmen, and Thuvia. I'm still waiting from the Warriors of the Red Planet project to produce something and dreaming of my own Holmes inspired ERBRPG!