Monday, November 16, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Warlord of Mars

The Barsoom tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs hold a special place in my heart and, as I hope I've demonstrated, in the heart of Gary Gygax as well. More than either Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien, I'd argue forcefully that it was Burroughs who invented the literary genre of fantasy as we know it today. So influential were these stories that not only were their general outlines imitated by later writers but so too were their specifics, with a fantastical version of Mars, filled with bizarre lifeforms and peril in equal measure, becoming a common setting of pulp fantasies. (It's also quite likely that John Carter, with his increased strength and leaping ability was an influence on the creation of Siegel and Shuster's Superman – but that's a topic for another occasion).

Another way in which Burroughs's Barsoom stories exercised an influence on later writers is by being a continuous narrative, with each tale building upon those that came before. Over the course of three decades, Burroughs penned almost a dozen stories of Barsoom (not all of which focus on John Carter). The third of these is The Warlord of Mars, published in novel form in 1919, but having first appeared as a four-part serial in the pages of All-Story Magazine from December 1913 to March 1914. The story picks up after the events of The Gods of Mars, which ended on a cliffhanger – a literary device that Burroughs by no means invented but that he used to good effect in order to hold his audience's attention.

In The Gods of Mars, John Carter had overthrown the religion of the goddess Issus, "the false deity of Mars," after he had revealed her as "naught more than a wicked old woman." In the aftermath, the society of the First Born, who had worshiped and served Issus, was thrown into chaos and they turned first to Carter, asking him to become their new ruler. He refuses and instead suggests that his friend and ally, Xodar, become Jeddak of the First Born. More significantly, Carter's wife, Dejah Thoris, is still missing, having been captured, along with two others, and trapped within the Temple of the Sun, a rotating prison whose individual chambers can only be entered on a single day each year. 

Carter hopes that there is some alternate means of entering the prison and indeed there is. Matai Shang, Hekkador (leader) of the Holy Therns, the priesthood of the false goddess Issus, knows such a means and uses it to rescue his own daughter, Phaidor, who had wound up imprisoned, along with Dejah Thoris and Thuvia, princess of Ptarth. In this, he is aided by Thurid, a First Born whose position was undermined by Carter's actions in The Gods of Mars. When Matai Shang frees Phaidor, Thurid convinces him to take Dejah Thoris and Thuvia too, as a means of revenge against the meddlesome Earthman. They then flee to the city-state of Kaol, whose ruler remains a believer in the religion of Issus. 

If this all sounds confusing, it is – one must read the story very carefully to keep the details of its narrative straight and, even then, it's not always easy going. If I have a complaint about the Barsoom stories, it's that they can sometimes become a confused welter of names and events of which it's hard to keep track. Fortunately, Burroughs's prose is generally straightforward and that helps somewhat, but there's no denying that untangling the plot threads is no simple affair, especially three novels in. Though all the novels are short by modern standards, Burroughs packs a lot of detail into them; one cannot simply skim them and hope to comprehend its events.

All that said, The Warlord of Mars is engaging. It's filled with memorable moments of heroism and derring-do, such as Carter's disguising himself to enter Kaol unseen; the Pit of Plenty, a horrible prison to which Carter is sentenced; the discovery of the Yellow Martians; and more. Personally, I was particularly struck by the moment when the Jeddak of Kaol, Kulan Tith, renounces his faith in Issus after he realizes he has been duped by Matai Shang.

"With my own hands would I have wrung the neck of Matai Shang had I guessed what was in his foul heart. Last night my life-long faith was weakened–this morning it has been shattered; but too late, too late.

It's fun – a rambling, occasionally moving yarn of John Carter's sojourn across Barsoom on a quest to save his wife. While it definitely lack the punch of either A Princess of Mars or The Gods of Mars, The Warlord of Mars brings its own kind of pleasure, the kind anyone who's participated in a long campaign would recognize. That might not be the stuff of high literature, but it's plenty diverting and sometimes that's enough.


  1. I just started reading princess of mars and am enjoying it. It appears all of the books are available at Gutenberg press, which is nice. I still prefer book format but beggars can't be choosers.

  2. Reading it for the first time and nearing the end.
    Minor corrective nit: Carter disguised himself as a yellow martian to enter Kaol.

  3. My uncle had several of the Barsoom books and had left them at my grandmother's house. I read the covers off those things before I was 10 and it was only later in life that I really understood how influential they were to D&D. Great books!

  4. I wish that we had seen Andrew Stanton's trilogy realized - a casualty of Disney's acquisition of the Star Wars franchise...

    1. Is that what happened? I simply thought the movie performed poorly at the box office and that put an end to any plans for sequels.

      (That said, I have mixed feelings about the movie we got, even as I liked many aspects of it.)

  5. For those of us who prefer print while thanking God for Project Gutenberg, Barnes & Noble has a very attractive hardcover omnibus edition of the Barsoom novels, the five already in the public domain anyway. The omnibus title is John Carter of Mars.