The Gods of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Gods of Mars Cover

The Gods of Mars: ERB Shifts into High Gear

Scott Laz

The Gods of Mars is the second of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars novels, first appearing in All-Story Magazine in 1913. John Carter, after ten years on Earth, mysteriously reappears on Barsoom in the Valley Dor—the destination of all Barsoomians who take the pilgrimage to the afterlife, as first explained in A Princess of Mars. Instead of finding the paradise promised by Barsoomian religious teachings, the Valley is really a trap perpetrated by the Therns, a bald white-skinned race who take the pilgrims as slaves and food (they’re cannibals) or leave them to the predation of the fearsome White Apes and Plant Men who inhabit the Valley. Attempting to rescue a group of pilgrims set on by a horde of Plant Men, Carter finds that one of them is Tars Tarkas, the giant Green Martian warrior he befriended in Princess. They are forced to fight for their lives against impossible odds before finding a means of escape, which only leads them into even greater peril. This opening sets the pattern for the novel: an ever-escalating series of dangerous trials, pursuits and escapes, each victory followed by an even more dangerous challenge, punctuated by the occasional impossible coincidence. Carter never rests (except when imprisoned). The reader is likely to find the narrative exhilarating, exhausting, or ludicrous, depending on her taste for Burroughs’s pulp adventure style. He is at his best in his descriptions, as in this, of the Plant Men, from the novel’s opening chapter:

Its hairless body was a strange and ghoulish blue, except for a broad band of white which encircled its protruding, single eye: an eye that was all dead white—pupil, iris, and ball.

Its nose was a ragged, inflamed, circular hole in the centre of its blank face; a hole that resembled more closely nothing that I could think of other than a fresh bullet wound which has not yet commenced to bleed.

Below this repulsive orifice the face was quite blank to the chin, for the thing had no mouth that I could discover.

The head, with the exception of the face, was covered by a tangled mass of jet-black hair some eight or ten inches in length. Each hair was about the bigness of a large angle-worm, and as the thing moved the muscles of its scalp this awful head-covering seemed to writhe and wriggle and crawl about the fearsome face as though indeed each separate hair was endowed with independent life…

By far the most remarkable feature of this most remarkable creature, however, were the two tiny replicas of it, each about six inches in length, which dangled, one on either side, from its armpits. They were suspended by a small stem which seemed to grow from the exact tops of their heads to where it connected them with the body of the adult.

Or the action sequences, as in this section from the final massive air battle:

Zat Arrras had brought five thousand ships. The sky was black with the three enormous fleets. It was Helium against the field now, and the fight had settled to countless individual duels. There could be little or no manoeuvering of fleets in that crowded, fire-split sky.

Zat Arrras’ flagship was close to my own. I could see the thin features of the man from where I stood. His Zodangan crew was pouring broadside after broadside into us and we were returning their fire with equal ferocity. Closer and closer came the two vessels until but a few yards intervened. Grapplers and boarders lined the contiguous rails of each. We were preparing for the death struggle with our hated enemy.

There was but a yard between the two mighty ships as the first grappling irons were hurled. I rushed to the deck to be with my men as they boarded. Just as the vessels came together with a slight shock, I forced my way through the lines and was the first to spring to the deck of Zat Arrras’ ship. After me poured a yelling, cheering, cursing throng of Helium’s best fighting-men. Nothing could withstand them in the fever of battle lust which enthralled them.

Down went the Zodangans before that surging tide of war, and as my men cleared the lower decks I sprang to the forward deck where stood Zat Arrras.

“You are my prisoner, Zat Arrras,” I cried. “Yield and you shall have quarter.”

For those new to Burroughs, these excerpts should give a flavor of the prose, which will certainly be a sticking point for modern readers, but for those accustomed to it, or willing to overlook the excesses, this is early pulp writing at its best. For those familiar with A Princess of Mars, the sequel ups the ante in every way. Instead of one beautiful princess in love with John Carter, we get three. Instead of an air battle between two fleets, we get one that involves four. If the introduction of the Plant Men and the Therns are not enough, we also get another new race—the Black Martian Pirates of Barsoom. And if these races are not enough of a menace to Carter, he is also threatened by his own adopted Red Martians, due to political rivalries in his native Helium, and the fact that it is considered blasphemous for anyone to attempt to return from the Valley of Dor. It may be a spoiler to mention that he does make it out, but regular readers of Burroughs will not be in doubt. The pleasure is in seeing how he does it, and in the anticipation of what additional setbacks will be thrown at him, and how he will then deal with them. The narrative pattern for a Burroughs novel is “out of the frying pan and into the fire” over and over and over, with each pan and each fire hotter than the last.

Amidst all the action, there are a couple of themes that seem to interest Burroughs. First and most prominent is a rather remarkable animus to organized religion, or at least to the political power of religious institutions. Religion is repeatedly identified with superstition, and seen as a barrier to the sort of rational problem-solving that Carter embodies. The religion of Barsoom is immediately identified as a massive fraud perpetuated by the elite of the “Holy” Therns, who are dependent on the pilgrims for their livelihood. The majority of Therns, however, are also deceived. They believe in their own racial destiny to subjugate the other Martian races, but do not realize that their own beliefs are just as fraudulent, as they too are being preyed on by the Black Martians. The Black Pirates also believe in their religious destiny, not realizing that the entire system is being used by Issus, worshipped by all on Barsoom as a goddess, for her own sick purposes. Issus, the personification of Barsoomian religion, is one of the ugliest (literally and figuratively) and most despicable characters Burroughs created.

Along with the desire for rationality to triumph over superstition, Burroughs also brings in a theme of racial harmony. Just as religion creates destructive conflicts among the Barsoomian races, the pride of each race puts it at odds with the others. Carter repeatedly helps the Barsoomians by pointing out that the various races can get along and coexist to their mutual benefit. Just as he brought together the Green Martians and the Red in Princess, he now enlists the Black Pirate Xodar, the Green Jeddak Tars Tarkas, the Red Princess Thuvia, his son Carthoris (half-human, half-Red Martian), along with the Red Heliumites, in the quest of an alien Earthman to spread the truth about the Martian religion and rescue his wife Dejah Thoris from the clutches of evil.

Readers looking for characters with psychological depth and a plot characterized by logical and believable development should look elsewhere. At times, I thought I could hear the pulp gears grinding in Burroughs’s brain as he wrote the book: “Carter’s air fleet is intercepted by an enemy fleet… Not good enough: let’s make it two fleets; no, three! Carter is cut off from rescuing Dejah Thoris by an underground flood… not good enough, let’s throw in a fire!” This sort of thing can be lots of fun, or just plain annoying, depending on your level of “pulp tolerance.” But for readers who want an excellent example of the pulp style that inflamed the imaginations of generations, and influenced early SF writers from Bradbury and Brackett to Moorcock and Vance, The Gods of Mars is a great example of it. Burroughs wrote fast and unevenly, but the second Mars novel is an early high point of his career.