Despite its inherent naiveté, there's a purity of form and narrative so powerful in Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter series, that it has survived across the decades where its imitators have faded into obscurity.
The life of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s life story is fascinating and well worth investigating in its own right, as is the history of his other stories, including Tarzan and his inner earth tales of Pelucidar. He was enormously productive, publishing no less than 80 novels in his lifetime, although we’ll concern ourselves mostly with the Barsoom books, Burroughs’s word for Mars. And what’s so intriguing about Burroughs, is that not only was he prolific, he was also a master storyteller from day one, and knew how to maintain the attention of his readers through brutal cliffhangers and short, gripping prose.
He was born in 1875 to Major George Tyler Burroughs, a veteran of the civil war and CEO of the American Battery Company. As a youngster the young Burroughs drove cattle in Idaho amongst the last remnants of men who had known and even helped define the wild west. In the late 1890s he joined a cavalry troop at the Michigan Military Academy serving in the Arizona territories, where his troop took some part in hunting The Apache Kid. And although he had intermittent problems dealing with army life, his one dream in life was for a career in the service, like that of his fathers. It shattered when he was discharged in 1897, upon learning that he had a heart condition.
Unable to do the one thing he’d had any notion of pursuing, he went from job to job, unable to settle down in any of them. At one point his brothers had set about gold mining in Idaho, where ERB and his wife Emma joined them. When that didn’t pan out, he went through a series of menial jobs, until he launched a small agency to sell wholesale pencil sharpeners. He would later recollect that “I was 35 and had failed in every enterprise I had ever attempted”.
Sitting there at his borrowed desk in the summer of 1911, waiting for reports to come in showing no sales, he whiled away the time reading through the pulp magazines of the time. Having little else to do, and probably at the end of his rope, he surmised that “…if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.”
Burroughs’s first story was a swashbucking adventure yarn set on the planet Mars, initially titled Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars. He submitted it to Thomas Metcalf, editor at All-Story Magazine, who paid Burroughs $400 and printed the story with the new title, Under the Moons of Mars. $400 for his very first story submission was more than enough to send Burroughs’s head reeling. Here he was, literally struggling to put shoes on his feet, working one odd job after another, and he could get paid just to make up crazy stories? He saw his opportunity, and he took it. Before the year was out he had already penned two other stories, one of which went on to even greater success than John Carter, Tarzan of the Apes.
In the spirit of this book, it of course raises the question of where Burroughs got his ideas. It’s easy to find antecedent sources of inspiration that he could have drawn on, for the underground adventures in Pellucidar, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), and a plethora of other similar works, and for Tarzan probably Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894). In his time, Burroughs was no stranger to accusations of creative robbery, and Kipling was particularly annoyed, with no good words to say about Tarzan. The Kipling comparisons often got on Burroughs’s nerves and provoked a response, as did comparisons with HG Wells, who Burroughs claimed to never have read.
Perhaps it was simply through an unconscious process that he drew on these earlier works. Or maybe he did it consciously, and simply denied any such direct inspiration for fear that it would diminish his position as an author. After all it was bad enough that he was a pulp writer, it would be worse if he was exposed as a hack; such fears may have overshadowed his own idea of his actual qualities as a pulp writer for some time. It is by any metric astonishing how fast he established his style and got on with the job.
Even today, debate still rages on whether Burroughs had read Arnold’s Gullivar yarn prior to writing A Princess of Mars, and drawn inspiration from it. A debate that springs from the technicality that Arnold’s book hadn’t seen publication in the US at the time Burroughs started writing. But given the facts and timeline we’ve established so far, it seems nearly impossible for any other scenario to have played out, if for no other reason than the fact that the similarities are far too numerous to be conincidental.
What’s worth noting is that while A Princess of Mars follows the already well established pattern of an officer traveling to Mars, encountering strange societies and adventuring amongst them, as we shall see shortly. Burroughs didn’t simply copy Arnold, he imbued the story with his own personal experiences. In fact, if you look at John Carter as a character, he is arguably none other than a heightened version of Burroughs himself.
Written in the style of a travelogue, journal or autobiography, as was so popular in those days, and as had been done for both Edwin Arnold’s Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation and the Greg’s Across the Zodiac as well as an untold number of other fantastic fiction books of the time, the story that was finally published in bookform in 1917 as A Princess of Mars of course tells the story of an officer, this one of the cavalry. John Carter, that “splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of a fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type. His horsemanship, especially after hounds, was a marvel and delight even in that county of magnificent horsemen.”
Here it’s hard not to see glimmers of Burroughs, who himself having been a cavalryman, and quite a proficient rider. And as the story opens, John Carter even finds himself prospecting for gold in the mountains of Arizona, when he must flee from a band of Apache, ultimately hiding in a cave as night falls. Burroughs, as we’ve learned, was involved with with hunting Apache in the very same Arizona area as Carter starts his story, and he went on to prospect gold with his brothers. It’s doubtful however that Burroughs ever passed out in a cave and as astral projected to the planet Mars, though who knows? Buck Rogers however would do something quite similar, but more on that later. Meanwhile, gone is the scientific pondering of Across the Zodiac and the whimsey of Gullivar’s flying carpet. It’s possible that there was some credence given to astral projection and the like in the early 20th century, but in all likelihood Burroughs was simply looking for something shocking, and as fantastic, though less old-fashioned than a flying carpet.
Burroughs’s Mars is that of Lowell, a planet once teeming with life and civilization now covered by great deserts, a few scattered cities with life clinging to its last breath. It’s dotted with grand ruined cities and scarred by Schiaparelli’s canals, where whatever farming can be won from the soil takes place.
No sooner does Carter wake up than adventure sweeps him away and into the arms of the four-armed, green-skinned warrior nomads, the Tharks. Here he learns of the planet’s ruin and the warring factions that make up its remaining population. Furthermore he finds that because of the difference in gravity between Mars (Barsoom as it is known in the Martian tongue) and Earth, his human muscles are capable of tremendous feats of power and agility. Finally he meets, falls in love with, and defends the honor of the most beautiful woman across all the planets, the red, but otherwise very human looking, Dejah Thoris, who of course continually in peril, throughout Carter’s continued adventures on Barsoom.
“She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect symmetrical figure.”
Many of these general details are similar to those of Arnold’s story, but while they share the trappings and a picaresque structure, they could hardly be more different. Gullivar bumbles his way through his mis-adventures, while Carter fights, jumps and most of all braves his way through his. Gullivar is a man of circumstance, Carter one of action. If ever there was a story deserving of the title ‘The Great Romance’, A Princess of Mars is it. It elevated the kind of Robin Hood-like swashbuckling Arnold had used for his story to a wholly different level. While Gullivar had super powers, Carter is arguably not only a super-hero, but the first. Not simply because of his powers, “thirty, fifty, a hundred feet at a bond are nothing for the muscles of an athletic Earth man upon Mars,” but because of his chivalrous code and unwillingness to flinch in the face of the evil. Finally, where Carter finds himself mysteriously thrust back to Earth without knowing whether his final acts of sacrifice saved all of Barsoom (they did), Gullivar literally flees Mars as the city Seth is unexpectedly invaded by the Thither people, leaving behind his princess, her maidens and all the other Hithers to their fate. Gullivar never returned to Mars, at least not at the hand of Arnold, though both Marvel and Alan Moore had a run at it. But Carter did, as did his progeny, in a total of no less than eleven books in the Barsoom series, one more fantastic than the previous.
We’ll come back to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon shortly, but it’s worth pointing out that Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery hero Conan, first appearing in 1932, no doubt owes more than a little to the adventures of Carter. Where Carter wanders the mythical surface of Mars and its lost, mythical civilizations, so does Conan wander ancient Earth. Both are driven by the same sense of justice as they slash they way through one fantastic creature or mad wizard after another. Conan drew on numerous other influences, but it’s hard to imagine him existing without John Carter’s example to draw upon.
As mentioned before, John Carter was also the first superhero in many ways; he didn’t wear a cape or a mask, but he had the powers and the drive to fight evil, much like Superman, which drew the majority of its inspiration for the origin story and the powers of Superman himself from Burroughs. Rather than being the story of a man from Earth who finds himself on the dying planet of Mars with super strength and the power to leap tremendous distances, Superman comes from the dying planet of Krypton, landing on Earth, where he fights evil using those exact same powers (and an ethos not unlike Carter’s). The addition of flight, laser sight and whatever else he would gain, were all later additions.
Over the years, Tarzan has probably outlived John Carter in the public’s imagination, even though Disney attempted a John Carter revival recently. But while Tarzan also had its own impact over time, in terms of genre influence, it’s hard to deny that John Carter remains undefeated in terms of how far that influence stretched over the decades.
When it comes to comparisons with Star Wars, it’s not as straight-forward as it might sound to those who haven’t read Burroughs’s stories. There are a few names, Banths, on Mars six-legged lion-like creatures, and in Star Wars the Banthas are beasts of burden, similar to Barsoom’s Thoats, employed by the sand people. Another is ‘Sith’, which obviously became very central to the mythology of Star Wars as the evil pendant to the Jedi; on Barsoom however they’re giant, ferocious wasp-like creatures; unrelated in anything but name.
An early draft of The Star Wars had a Tars Tarkas-like character, the ‘Jeddak’, or chieftan, of the green Tharks, in Chewbacca, a prince of the barbarian Wookies. Similar to how Carter gained the respect of the Tharks by defeating one of them in hand-to-hand combat, so General Skywalker gains the respect of the Wookies. But, on the whole, the influence of Burroughs is less one of direct inspiration, than it is the fact that John Carter’s adventures resonating throughout most pulpy fantasy literature in some shape or fashion.
Obi-Wan Kenobi springs to mind as Carter in the opening pages of his tale describes himself as having “a captain’s commission in the cavalry arm of an army which no longer existed; the servant of a state which had vanished with the hopes of the South. Masterless, penniless, and with my only means of livelihood, fighting, gone,” a side of his character, which is in fact perfectly mirrored in another of the primary sources for Star Wars, namely in John Wayne’s homecoming confederate soldier Ethan Edwards, from John Ford’s 1956 classic, The Searchers. Though the parallels between John Carter and The Searchers don’t go much beyond that. And the very idea of the famously grumpy John Ford ever having read such outlandish tales seems hilarious in and of itself (though he did in fact dabble in colonial adventure films in his early days. See The Black Guard, a source of inspiration for The Temple of Doom).
Beyond that, many of the trappings like sword-fighting and one-man ‘speeder-bikes’ echo, but the tone is substantially different. Both are in essence romantic, in the literary sense of the word, but Burroughs’s world is much more savage and brutal, and quite often graphic in its depiction of Carter’s sword-wielding ferocity. Where the protagonists of Star Wars are at their core human, Carter himself is simply super-human.
Mostly, Lucas drew from not just Carter, but his descendants, a sense of adventure, mystery, romance and pacing. These stories moved, less concerned with the finer points of their plots, and more with a ferocious pace and painting a picture of high adventure and incredible daring-do. Star Wars is often accused of having brought about the end of ‘serious cinema’ for any number of reasons, but what can be said about it, is that it certainly moved much faster than its contemporaries; more akin to a rollercoaster ride than the more moderate storytelling of old.
Just as Lucas draws the ire of some critics for this part of his contribution to modern film making, so did Burroughs draw the ire of having popularized pulp stories more than ever before.
It’s interesting to look at the two men behind these adventure stories, and note the number of striking similarities. Granted, they were remarkably different in as many ways. But both their respective alter-egos are quite clearly representations of their lives in some ways. Lucas’s is frustrated farm boy where Burroughs’s is a decisive soldier. One naive, the other seasoned.
But they shared not only a similar process in how they kept journals of character and place names (and both wrote in longhand), they were also both very shrewd businessmen, something which was quite uncommon for men of their respective professions in their respective times. Just as Lucas managed to strike deals that secured him his financial freedom off of the success of the Star Wars films, Burroughs would bargain quite hard with his publishers, pushing the terms in his favor.
But most striking perhaps is how Burroughs bought a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, California in 1919 and named it Tarzana Ranch, after Tarzan. Today it’s home to 24.000 residents in the Los Angeles neighborhood that still carries the same name. A gesture Lucas echoed, perhaps unknowingly, when he in the late–70s, bought up and built out the land that became Skywalker Ranch, north of San Francisco, in Marin County (on Lucas Road).
Burroughs, Edgar Rice (October 27, 1929). “How I Wrote the Tarzan Stories”. The Washington Post and the New York World (Sunday supplement)
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars. A. C. McClurg, 1917.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Warlord of Mars. A. C. McClurg, 1919.