Warlord of Mars Pulp Cover

Who or What IS John Carter of Virginia by Jerry Alan Kimbro

Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter of Mars

A guest post by Jerry Alan Kimbro
I am currently re-reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original Mars Trilogy (Published in three volumes: A Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars, and Warlord of Mars) in honor of his 140th birthday. Burroughs created the Mars series in 1912 and it was the first sword and planet story of its kind, influencing a host of other heroes of that genre including Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and even Luke Skywalker.
But the protagonist- namely John Carter of Virginia was the first of that brand of inter planetary hero- a bold Earth man set upon another world of barbaric splendor, which through a series of harrowing adventures he fights savage new creatures and conquers weird alien races; finally finding true love with an exotic alien princess. It is a stirring space saga that Burroughs first pioneered all those years ago, and while seemingly clichéd today, it has still not lost its literary power to excite and enthrall.

But John Carter is NOT a typical human being. Burroughs introduces him in practically the first sentence as a very old seemingly immortal being! In his own words, Carter does not even know how old he is! He states he has the appearance of a man of thirty, and he has been that way for at least 40 years. He also does not even remember his childhood! So from the beginning of the series it is plain that Carter is a unique person, seemingly born to defy time and space.

Who or What IS John Carter?

Firstly we must unravel how old John Carter was, and this may give us clues as to his peculiarities. Burroughs states in his introduction of ‘A Princess of Mars’, that Carter had always been a beloved a family member, apparently no one remarking on his ageless condition. And we first meet John Carter in ’the opening years of the civil war’ or around 1860. If we use the 70 year span that Carter himself says he remembers, then John Carter would have been born in the year 1790. This means Carter was 75 years old when he teleported to Mars for the first time- and at the time of his second Earthly death (also recorded on the introduction) in 1895, John Carter would have been 105 years old.
BUT is that Carter’s real chronological age? Burroughs gives us other hints that contradict the above supposition and even defy reason. We know for example in chapter one from his own description that Carter was a crack shot and spent years earlier in the American West as an Indian Fighter, and that further he had spent years peacefully among the Lakota Sioux Indian tribes. There was a period of peace between the Sioux and American settlers- but it was in the mid 1700s. So we can push Carter’s birth back another 30 years to 1760.
However Carter provides another hint himself of his real age when he says that in his career as a fighting man he has had ‘honors bestowed upon him by three republics, …won the friendship of a very old Emperor, and several lesser Kings in whose service… (his) sword had been red many a time.’

We can guess that since in the 18th Century, there were so very few Republics in existence that Carter may have been referring to the Old Swiss Confederacy (1291- 1798), the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795), the British Commonwealth (1649-1660), or even the Dutch Republic (1581-1795). AS for the very old and powerful Emperor- I am drawn to the rising Hapsburg Empire and its long lived rulers as the most likely candidates, but several Asian Empires and even the Chinese Empire still existed in the mid 18th Century.
What is particularly interesting is that Carter states that is his swordsmanship and courage that won him reknown- and that mean Carter was a fighting mercenary when firearms were less practical and universal. So I think we can push the lifespan of Carter back another 50 years to the end of the 17th Century- making him a contemporary of such swordsmen as Solomon Kane, Athos, Pothos, Aramis and D’Artagnan.
The final clue of Carters true age might be in his love of the State of Virginia. Carter identifies himself enough with that state to say that he is “of Virginia”- not merely from there. That indicates a deep rooted love and personal origin.

Virginia was founded at Jamestown in 1603. And the first historical records of Carters in Virginia start from the year 1613. So assuming Carter was born in Virginia to these original Carters – we can guess his birth was somewhere circa 1620. That means when John Carter first arrived on Mars in 1866 – he was nearly the astounding age of 250 years old!

But how can this be? WHO or WHAT was John Carter?

Next: John Carter’s Great Leap to Mars.

6 comments

  • I just finished yhe JC Mars series for the 1st time and i want to know when an epic movie trilogy in the realm of LOTR is going to take place. To honor ERB and JC it would have to be done in this grand design. I have spoken.

  • I think you are missing the most likely Republics that Carter may have provided services for. I would consider it possible that John Carter did serve some time in the US Army before the War Between the States. It is possible that he also made his way westward years earlier to fight for the Republic of Texas in their War of Independence.

    Following the War Between the States many former officers did go overseas and fought in foreign colonial armies. It is possible that Carter served in the French Army (post 1871) or even the Foreign Legion – the he could have been referring to Napoleon III with his remark of the ‘old and powerful Emperor’. Then again, the reference in full to “won the friendship of a very old Emperor, and several lesser Kings in whose service” could be a mention of the newly crowned German Emperor Wilhelm I and the lesser Kings and Princes of the German states that had recently been united in 1872.

  • Interesting subject. I look forward to your next installment.

    Have you considered that John Carter might actually be a survivor of the time before the Biblical flood? People apparently lived much longer prior to that event, and few of them actually died of old age.

  • This is cool! A reasonable and intriguing approach to some of the questions ERB left unanswered. Looking forward to the next part!

Leave a Reply