Cosmic Knight Errantry: Why I love Princess of Mars by Art Mayo

A Princess of Mars

Note: Art Mayo, the author of the very article, is offering the Mousecatcher Media “Best Edition of John Carter” eBook for Free. Just click here to learn more.

Following is the foreword to the book:

Cosmic Knight Errantry: Why I love Princess of Mars

By Art Mayo:

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars has meant more to me than almost any other adventure story I have ever read. And I’m not alone. Many of its readers can say the same thing. I know it isn’t the best adventure story of all time; I have tasted well enough the deep romance of Scott, the perfect style of Stevenson. But what other story has made me wish so strongly it were true – that the heavens were filled not with cold rocks but with damsels in distress, incredible creatures and wars in which I might play a vital part.

Granted, this would actually be a fairly inconvenient state of affairs, since it would presumably be a two-way street. John Carter, cavalry officer of Virginia, is transported to a stretch of Mars beside an incubator of the green martians’ huge eggs, becomes embroiled in personal and tribal intrigues, increasingly bloody combat, a number of wars and revolutions, and sparks up a romance with a glamorous royal. Were brawny Venusians to start cropping up in maternity wards up and down the country, preliminary to slaying our politicians and marrying the Middleton sisters, I don’t know how long we’d see the enchanting side.

Interestingly, for all its powerful grip upon the imagination of readers – particularly those fortunate enough to read it in their youth – Burroughs originally feared it would prove too peculiar. When it was first serialised, he requested it be done so under the pseudonym ‘Normal Bean’. I am not sure if that really would have made readers think the author any less insane than he feared – presumably Arthur C. Clarke never considered publishing as Ordinary Cabbage. Regardless, ‘Normal’ was mistakenly ‘corrected’ to Norman by a rogue typesetter, and far from telegramming the gentlemen in white coats, readers were overjoyed to be transported to the dry, mossy seabeds of a dying Mars, and the quest of a gentleman of the Old South to save a princess from an abominable fate.

It’s no wonder. With its beautiful maiden, its swordplay, and its faithful hound; its horsemanship (albeit upon ‘thoats’), its seamanship (albeit upon the air), its clashing of rival kingdoms – it makes romance a thing alive once more. Six hundred years after the close of the age of knights, it furnishes the possibility of new vistas for chivalrous deeds – and in the modern age. John Carter is, in the words of Princess Dejah Thoris, “a queer mixture of child and man, of brute and noble”. And in this he is little different to the ideal knight described by C. S. Lewis:
“a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; [as well as] a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man.”

It is also one of Burroughs’s greatest geniuses to have grounded the unrivalled physical prowess of John Carter when on Mars in the reasonable notion that the lesser gravity and thinner atmosphere might make this the case. And if so for John Carter, why not for any luckless earthling, however young and powerless? Not everyone can hope to be chewed by a radioactive spider, or born the heir of Gotham’s wealthiest family. But if the teenager with his nose in A Princess of Mars were to ever be drawn to that planet as randomly as John Carter is, he has cause to hope he might do as well.
This is the wish fulfilment that lies at the heart of the book meaning so much to those who read it. It inspires an intensely personal connection. The cool, slightly archaic narration of John Carter must also take a lot of the credit here. Its urbane modesty goes a long way to making the daydreaming feel plausible. I for one am not ashamed to admit I couldn’t very well charge a plateau of Apache with nothing more than a pistol and weariness, as Carter does in the book’s atmospheric first chapter. But he is such a candid host, and at heart such an admirable man, that one feels it not incredible to aspire, however wistfully or adolescently, to the same deeds he performs throughout.

And this daydreaming is not, I think, irrelevantly spent in our age. It was a Marslike century that followed Burroughs’s book. One doubts whether the catastrophes suffered by the various races of Mars ever exceeded an era in which almost 100 million people met a violent end. The “civilized order” left behind by John Carter on Earth, the counterpoint to the barbarised Martian world – the Virginia of gentlemen who only lie “if a lie would save others from sorrow or suffering” – must have been a little archaic to readers of 1912. Yet it still stood well enough for the values civilisation held in common. It is prehistoric for those of us who read in divided, relativist, unconfident 2012. Prehistoric – yet not fossilised; by this book one feels such things a living force still, and a possibility for those ages which lie ahead, if only we can do our part.

To do as well in our often strange, uncivilised world as John Carter did on Mars is not a hollow aspiration.

Leave a Reply