I Dream of Barsoom — Part 1


From time to time I pop up here trying to coax comment insights from the denizens of JCF  that address the issue of what made the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs special and different in comparison to, on the one hand, other pulp and sci-fi writers, and on the other hand in comparison to writers more generally. We are all familiar with the tendency of literary critics to take the position that Burroughs was “just” a pulp adventure writer and leave it at that.  Yet the passion and lifelong appreciation of ERB that so many readers feel seems to be in conflict with the notion that he was “just” a pulp writer.  There was something else going on there — something that most literary critics seem impervious to, but which millions of readers stretching across and entire century have recognized, understood, and appreciated.

My own sense of it has always been that Burroughs did something differently, and better, than just about anyone else — but whenever i try to put my finger on it, I struggle in articulating it.  Reading Burroughs in my youth, the stories ignited my imagination in a way that was more vivid and more engaging than other, similar books.   It was like the difference between a technicolor, surround sound movie (Burorughs) and a black and white, mono-sound movie (most others).   There was botha  greater vividness of the world created; and a greater engagement in the experience of that  world as a reader.  The former is easier to understand — one simply assumes that Burroughs wrote vivid descriptions and had a fertile imagination.  The latter is not so easy to explain, because Burroughs has been accused of not writing “great characters” in the way that “great literature” creates great characters. John Carter in particular has been criticized as too “vanilla” or “Prince Valiant” (to use Andrew Stanton’s formulation) . . . .

My quest has for the most part been situated in the realm of literary criticism simply because that is how we tend to break down and analyze, well, literature.  But increasingly, I’ve felt that this is not the realm in which I’m going to find the answers that I seek.  This is more a matter of what I would call “literary psychology” than literary criticism — by which I mean the answers seem to live in the very detailed breakdown of how the reading experience works — how our mind assimilates the information on the page and converts that into images and emotions.   Literary criticism is a little loftier than that.  Literary psychology is more basic than that — what is it on the page that makes the reader feel the “thrill” of reading; what makes the reader feel the urge to hurtle through the pages and find out what happens next at a pace that is essentially “breathless”?

I have found two intriguing sources that are making me feel like my quest is on the verge of bearing some significant fruit.

First, fellow ERBophile Dr. Stan Galloway was kind enough to put me in touch with Dr. Charles Early, an academic cognitive psychologist who will be giving a presentation at the Bridgewater Tarzan conference Nov 1-3.  The other i David Maas, a literary agent who came up with the concept of “micro-tension” as the fundamental characteristic of books that have that “best -seller -page-turner” quality that I associate with ERB, and which is also associated with other authors whose stories achieve huge global acceptance and have that “page turner” quality.

In the case of Maas, the full argument is available via his book “The Fire In Fiction” and various other writings.

There are many, many interesting aspects of Maas’s concept.  One of them has to do with settings — which of course is one of the strong points of Burroughs work.  Why is it that the settings of ERB seem more vivid and are more emotionally satisfying than other settings by other authors.  Why is Barsoom so damned special?   According to Maas, the key is to “link details and emotion” — that is, the description of place will be greatly strengthened by the linking of emotion to that description.

It is the combination of setting details and the emotions attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story’s characters experience it. Either element alone is fine, but both working together deliver a sense of place without parallel.

Maas provides a somewhat simplistic but illustrative example:

For me the special summer place was my Great Uncle Robert’s farm on a hillside near Reading, Pennsylvania. “Uncle Locker,” as we called him, was, as far as I knew, born old. He loved his John Deere tractor but didn’t particularly like children, especially not after my younger brother dropped the tin dipping cup down the front yard well. Uncle Locker raised sheep. He stocked the lower pond with trout. He had connected a Revolutionary War-era log cabin with a Victorian-era farmhouse, erecting a soaring brick-floored, high-windowed living room between them. In that living room was a candy dish that each day magically refilled itself with M&M’s. (I suspect now that it was my Great Aunt Margaret who was the magician.) In the evenings Uncle Locker would read the Reading newspaper on the glassed-in porch, classical symphonies crackling on his portable transistor radio as summer lightning flashed across the valley. That, today, is my mental image of perfect contentment. When I hear a radio crackle in a storm, I relax. I miss my Uncle Locker with a sharp pang. Now, let me ask you this: Without looking back over what you just read, what do you remember best about what I wrote? Was it a detail, like the dipping cup, the M&M’s, or the lightning? Or was it the feeling of contentment that, for me, accompanies an approaching storm? Whatever your answer, I would argue that you remember what you remember not because of the details themselves or the emotions they invoke in me, but because both those details and personal feelings are present.

Maass, Donald (2009-05-06). The Fire in Fiction (pp. 82-83). Writers Digest Books. Kindle Edition.

Maas then asks to the reader:   “Without looking back over what you just read, what do you remember best about what I wrote? Was it a detail, like the dipping cup, the M&M’s, or the lightning? Or was it the feeling of contentment that, for me, accompanies an approaching storm? Whatever your answer, I would argue that you remember what you remember not because of the details themselves or the emotions they invoke in me, but because both those details and personal feelings are present.”

I think, intuitively, we sense that Burroughs forged a very emotional connection to Barsoom through the experience of that planet by John Carter.  But is this something that builds up slowly over time?  Or does Burroughs somehow forge that emotional connection quickly.

I’m reminded of this passage from the frame story at the beginning of A Princess of Mars, as Edgar Rice Burroughs describes an observation of John Carter:

After I had retired for the night I have seen him from my window standing in the moonlight on the brink of the bluff overlookingthe Hudson with his arms stretched out to the heavens as though in appeal. I thought at the time that he was praying, although Inever understood that he was in the strict sense of the term a religious man.

Now, admittedly, this is just a tease — but such a good tease.  The reader at a minimum knows he is reading a book about Captain Carter’s adventures on the planet Mars, and thus there can be no doubt about the object of the “arms outstretched” — and what does this do to our reaction as readers?  For me, it creates that same pull . . . it’s one thing for an Earthman to have an adventure on another planet; it’s another for him to feel so connected to that planet that he raises his arms in supplication, presumably because he wants to go back there.

During the early portion of APOM, while John Carter is in Arizona, the descriptions of the locations are minimal and conveyed without emotion. As a youth, during my multiple readings of APOM, I always found myself skimming through this part of the story.  Was it that I was just impatient to get to Barsoom?  Or is there something fundamentally different about this section of the book.  There is adventure to be sure . . .prospecting for gold, Apaches . . . . but it’s not the same as what will follow.

It is only at the very end of the Arizona portion that Burroughs, in building  bridge from Arizona to Barsoom, begins to connect emotion to the setting.

Few western wonders are more inspiring than the beauties of an Arizona moonlit landscape; the silvered mountains in the distance, the strange lights and shadows upon hog back and arroyo, and the grotesque details of the stiff, yet beautiful cacti form a picture at once enchanting and inspiring; as though one were catching for the first time a glimpse of some dead and forgotten world, so different is it from the aspect of any other spot upon our earth.

Burroughs’ purpose at this point seems to be clearly to prepare the reader for what is about to come — to invoke the mystery and hint of an “dead and forgotten world” on Earth, to prepare the reader for the sudden transition to Mars.

In the very next paragraphs, Burroughs introduces Mars and in that introduction, emotion is injected forcefully even before the physical descriptions begin:

As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination–it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron.

My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space. There was an instant of extreme cold and utter darkness.

Thus before Carter ever arrives in Barsoom, Burroughs has created an emotional context — first in the mysterious “arms outstretched” in supplication description of the character Burroughs observing Carter; and now from within Carter’s own consciousness. His arrival on Barsoom “seals the deal” of the emotional connection:

I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape. I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness. I was not asleep, no need for pinching here; my inner consciousness told me as plainly that I was upon Mars as your conscious mind tells you that you are upon Earth. You do not question the fact; neither did I.

So . . . three beats: First, Carter observed years later in supplication, arms outstretched to Barsoom, 2) In the moment before his “journey” to Mars, he feels “irresistible enchantment” and “overpowering fascination”, and c) Upon arrival, he observes a “weird” landscape, but knows precisely where he is.

Interesting stuff.

Clearly, it’s going to take a few installments to work through this — but as noted at the outset, I think that between the psycho-literary insights of Donald Maas, and the insights of the cognitive psychologists — I’m going to make some progress in my quest.

To be continued.


  • One thing about Burroughs is that he doesn’t place himself above his readers. His peculiar way of working generally, with no firm blueprint in mind, leads to him, in fact, discovering things at the same time as his hero of the day, and at the same time as the reader also, by consequence (hence his use of flashbacks to know the whereabouts of the hero’s relatives since he last saw them).

    Burroughs sticks mostly to his hero (who narrates the story in the past tense), we seldom have another point of view. It’s a very personal and intimate way of writing. I think he creates a very special relationship with his readers in that regard. There’s a sense of familiarity when you read Burroughs, you know what to expect, but you don’t know in which form it will appear.

    I hesitate to point to his wild imagination first, which is an undisputable fact, but I recently discovered that I was as passionate about his work even in more “mundane” settings, as in The Mad King. So it’s really his style (whose very existence he would probably ferociously denied) that draws me in ultimately.

  • “as though one were catching for the first time a glimpse of some dead and forgotten world”

    Though this was a reference to Arizona, ERB meant it to foreshadow Barsoom, as Dotar pointed out. Once on Mars, John Carter notes evidences of ancient Barsoom that are all around him. There is a continuing, poignant sense of nostalgia for a world that is largely “dead and forgotten”. It’s evoked by the dried sea bed, and the ancient port city of Korad with its futile docks jutting into a valley which once served as a bay. It’s evoked by the beautiful yet crumbling buildings. By the wooden desks much too small for the Tharks. By the courtyards overgrown with vegetation, and the murals depicting a lost civilization. The dried sea beds, crumbling buildings, and ancient murals are the kinds of evocative details that make us want a made-up world to be real.

    Those details create the impression of a world not far removed from the ancient aspects of our own world. On Barsoom, a civilization composed of human beings – in many ways similar to civilizations we know from the history of Earth – faced extraordinary challenges and ultimately was overwhelmed. That familiar human link to actual history turns the imaginative setting of Mars into a more engaging backdrop and makes it a more realistic frontier for discovery, rather than a place for mere escape or distraction. Fantasy books which entertain, but which don’t achieve the emotional bond of historical resonance, do not generally remain popular for 100 years. Burroughs’ Mars may have been created for entertainment first, but there is also an undertone of mystery and melancholy about the history of that world which evokes ancient myth and the grandeur of past ages on Earth. The details of Barsoom’s history help emotionally anchor the stories, and help give ERB’s imaginative world realistic weight, as well as an alluring and unique personality.

    ERB wasn’t the only writer to use details and emotionally resonant history to create an evocative fantasy world. Tolkien was a similar craftsman in that regard. The cultures and characters and history that he created allowed him to bring to life moments like the confrontation on the Bridge of Khazad-dum in Fellowship of the Ring. In that moment, a father-figure who is a wizard of great power stands against a demon of the ancient world. When backed up by compelling details, such moments can serve as a sudden invitation into the depths of history and the self-reflection that can accompany a close study of history. The best moments of history in works of fiction mirror real history in the way they convey a sense of deep voices slowly speaking over the threshold of time, hinting at lost ages of beauty and glory and terror, similar to ages our world has known, yet also unique. Among all the big themes and grand events, there is always the question of what role each of us will play. Gandalf chose to stand and fight to rid the world of a great evil. What will we choose in our own Khazad-dum moments?

    ERB and Tolkien created their respective worlds in a way that gave fantasy the resonance of history. It could be said that they were among the best at it, each in his own genre. If influence on other writers and creatively-minded individuals over the decades is any indicator, ERB and Tolkien were clearly pioneers and leaders in imaginative storytelling. Any fantasy story that would be “historical” should take a close look at what they did and how they did it.

    Stories of men and women who accomplished great things in earlier times (or in fictional worlds) inspire us to live so that we might someday be counted among them. Stories in history and fiction call us out to make our own lives worthy of celebration and reflection by those yet to be born.

    The evocation of rich history in fiction, conveyed with detail and emotion, provides a canvas for that continual and necessary exploration of the question of one’s own legacy. Seeing how others have painted their self-portraits inevitably affects how we paint our own. When the resonance of history and the imagination of fantasy are combined, as they are in ERB’s best moments, the possibilities for inspiration are virtually limitless.

  • That’s why I re-read Burroughs when I merely read once most other sci-fi-fantasy books. It’s to experience again the feeling of the story, the pace, twists and turns. I may remember the details, but there’s nothing like the journey itself. There’s a fluidity in Burroughs’ style that is really overlooked, perhaps due to his habit of leaving the story mainly in first draft form, made up as he wrote along. Perhaps the mood of the moment is lost with too many later revisions, I don’t know.

    When you read about the Land of Awful Shadow in Pellucidar, it’s not just a description, you FEEL the gloom conveyed by the place, and the occasional moment of wonder when David Innes can see clearly the landscapes on Pellucidar’s sun satellite.

    Also, there’s a sense of familiarity with Burroughs’ writing, it’s not pretentious, it seems so accessible, reader-friendly. And yet, I found nobody who can write like him. It’s unique, like Robert E. Howard’s, who never met his match with other writers on the Conan series. Their drive, their passions made their works unique, even if other authors had access to the same vocabulary. It’s indeed hard to grasp! Good luck for your neverending search, answers will be difficult to get, but hey, it’s the journey that matters! 🙂

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