Saturday, June 2, 2012

"A Princess of Mars"- A novel where being a princess means being helpless

File:John Carter.svg is a former Virginian confederate officer. Penniless after the end of the Civil War, Carter is not without courage, honor, and a friend: James Powell. When Powell is taken by a band of Native Americans, Carter follows and finds his friend dead. He later takes refuge in a cave and is almost overtaken by the same band of Native Americans. Though, some noise or presence scares them off (maybe a foreign spacecraft; Burroughs never says) and when Carter next awakes, he is on the planet Mars.
The first sign of life Carter is exposed to are green men called the Tharks. They are a harsh sort of civilization, comparable to the culture of Spartans. They relish brutality, respect violence, and laugh only when these two things occur. Carter is lucky because he kills two of their chieftains, and gains the Tharks esteem, becoming a chieftain himself. His female mentor (all Tharks are raised by female mentors, not mothers or fathers) is Sola, and she shows him compassion and kindness. Carter’s other companion on Barsoom (the Thark word for Mars) is his dog-like companion, Woola.
File:Princess of Mars.jpg
Cover art by Frank Earle Schoonover
AC McClurg Publishing, 1917
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Carter finds out that there are other humanoids on Barsoom when he meets Dejah, a captive of the Tharks. She looks like an Earthling, but for her copper skin. Through her, he learns that Barsoom thrived over a thousand years ago, but due to failing resources, it fell into a state of disrepair ruled by the warring Tharks and other creatures.
A constant theme (and perhaps even a fear held by Burroughs) is the unjust nature of a communal civilization, as displayed by the Tharks. Personal possession is unheard of, unless it is something consequential like a blanket. Children do not learn love or even who their parents are. From the first year, they are taught warrior codes, and always to fight for what they want. Tharks do not even recognize love or friendship when the concepts are presented to them by John Carter. “Friendship?” asked Tars Tarkas. “There is no such thing.” (p. 62). Dejah laments the loss of love from the Tharks, a race that once mixed with her own to create hybrid Barsoomians.
Burroughs chooses to make the female character of Sola independent, brave and strong (as she is a Thark). Yet, the more ‘civilized’ female character, Dejah (the Barsoomian Princess of Helium), is not either of those things. Carter thinks of her as ‘earthly womanly’, giving that comparison whenever Dejah displays affection, weakness, or abject stupidity (at least, she does not seem that bright to me, the reader). For example, when Dejah convinces herself that Carter is an alien, she does not do so from any deductive reasoning, but rather she says her conviction comes from “her heart telling her to believe because she wishes to believe it”, a logic that Carter deduces is a “good logic, good, earthly, feminine logic.” (p. 48-49).
It seems that Burroughs idea of a Communist society was one in which barbaric pleasures reigned, as the Tharks did nothing but create a menacing picture of a communal faction, unlike the Utopian commune depicted in Gilman’s Herland. Carter’s ideas on ‘real’ women are borderline offensive at times, but probably reflective of the decade in which the novel was written.

Burroughs, Rice, Edgar. A Princess of Mars. Chicago: AC McClurg Publishing. 1917. Print. 

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