A Princess of Mars: Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs' influential science fiction novel

Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Chicago History Museum

A Princess of Mars is a science fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan. The novel is the first of a series of novels following the adventures of John Carter and the Martian society he encounters. Burroughs was inspired to write the novel mainly out of financial desperation—he needed money, and thought writing a novel would be an easy way to get some. He sold the first version of the novel to All-Story magazine in 1912 for about $400.

Today, A Princess of Mars is considered a seminal but extremely flawed—ridden as it is with racially biased themes—work of science fiction and fantasy. The novel remains immensely influential in the science fiction and fantasy genres, and has been cited as an influence by Golden Age sci-fi writers like Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Fredrick Pohl. 

Plot

Burroughs frames the story as a true report from John Carter, who leaves Burroughs the manuscript after his death with instructions not to publish it for 21 years.

John Carter is a former Confederate officer traveling with a fellow veteran in the American southwest after the end of the Civil War in hopes of finding gold. They do discover a rich vein of gold, but are attacked by Apache Indians; Carter’s friend is killed, but Carter finds his way to a remote cave that appears to be a sacred place used in ceremonial rituals, and hides there.

While hiding, a mysterious gas knocks him unconscious. When he wakes up, he has somehow been transported to the planet Mars.

On Mars, Carter discovers that the different gravity and atmospheric pressure grant him incredible strength and other abilities. He quickly meets a tribe of Green Martians (who are literally green-skinned), who have two legs and two arms each and very large heads.

The Green Martians, who call themselves Tharks, are a martial, primitive tribe who do not read or write, and who settle all problems through combat. Carter, who the Tharks think might be a strange example of a White Martian due to his white skin, earns the respect of the Tharks due to his great strength and fighting prowess, and eventually rises to a high rank in the tribe, and becomes a friend of one of the other tribal leader, Tars Tarkas as well as another Martian named Sola.

The Tharks attack a group of Red Martians (a human-looking hybrid race resulting from the prescient breeding between Black, Yellow, and White Martians) and capture Dejah Thoris, princess of Helium. The Red Martians are more civilized and advanced, and through a network of canals they control the remaining water on the planet. Dejah is beautiful and tells them that she is on a mission to unite Martians, arguing that since Mars is a dying planet, the only way Martians can survive is if they work together. John and Dejah fall in love, and when Dejah is sentenced to death in the great games by the supreme Martian ruler, Carter and Sola (and their dog, Woolah) rescue Dejah and escape. However, another Green Martian tribe, the Warhoons, attack and Carter sacrifices himself to allow Dejah and Sola to escape.

In the Warhoon prison, Carter meets Red Martian Kantos Kan, who was sent from Helium to search for Dejah. They become friends, and when they are forced to fight each other to the death in a gladiatorial game, Carter feigns death. Kan is given his freedom as the victor, and later Carter escapes and the two meet up. They discover that another Martian tribe, the Zodanga, has laid siege to the city of Helium; Dejah was to marry the prince of Zodanga and the tribe will not relent until the promise is fulfilled.

On their way to Helium, Carter sees the Tharks in battle against the Warhoons, and he goes to fight alongside his friend Tars Tarkas, who is very moved by the gesture. Tarkas challenges the supreme ruler to ritual combat and wins, becoming the supreme ruler of all Martians. He allies with Carter and Kan to fight the Zodanga and prevent Dejah’s marriage.

Dejah confesses her love to John Carter as the army marches to relieve Helium, and as a peace accord is struck John and Dejah are married.

For nine years they live happily in Helium. Then, suddenly, the great atmosphere machines that replenish Mars’ air stop working. John Carter leads a desperate mission to repair the machines before all life on Mars ends, but asphyxiates before the repairs can be made. He wakes up back in the cave on Earth. He discovers that nine years have in fact passed since he entered the cave, and he is presumed dead. Another decade passes and Carter becomes wealthy, but he finds himself always wondering if his efforts to save the Martians succeeded, and how Dejah is faring.

Major Characters

John Carter, a veteran of the Civil War (fighting on the Southern side), Carter is from Virginia and is a mystery, even to himself. Professing to have no memory of his life before he was 30, Carter is a brave and capable man. An expert shot and fighter, when he wakes up on Mars the different gravity of the planet grant him incredible strength, and he becomes a legendary warrior in the dying planet’s primitive culture.

Dejah Thoris, a Red Martian with a physical appearance very close to human. A princess of the city of Helium, she is leading an effort to bring the different races of Mars together in a mutual quest for survival.

Tars Tarkas, a Green Martian and member of the Tharks tribe. Tarkas is a fierce warrior, but is unusual amongst Green Martians in his emotional intelligence; he is capable of love and friendship, and has a clear intelligence despite the primitive nature of the Tharks.

Tarkas is an example of the Noble Savage trope.

Sola, a Green Martian who reveals herself to be Tars Tarkas’ daughter. She befriends Carter and serves as the primary exposition tool in the story, explaining Barsoom (the Martian word for Mars) and its culture and history as the story requires it.

Kantos Kan, a Red Martian and a warrior from the city of Helium. Sent to locate and rescue Dejah, he encounters Carter in a prison and the two form a strong friendship.

    Literary Style

    Told in the first-person from the point of view of John Carter, the story is offered as a form of memoir, with Carter directly relating past events. This allows Burroughs (through Carter) to add in explanatory exposition as needed; Carter often pauses the action of the story he’s telling in order to explain something to the reader. The memoir format allows this to happen without affecting the suspension of disbelief inspired in the reader.

    At the time, the science-fantasy genre was not a formal category of fiction, and was mainly published in the so-called “pulp” magazines with little respect. Burroughs was nervous about being perceived as non-serious or even unbalanced, and so he initially published the book under a pseudonym to protect his reputation. This is mirrored in the story by Carter’s instruction not to publish his manuscript until after he is dead, so he can avoid humiliation when people read his story, which they will find unbelievable.

    This attitude had a flip-side, however, as there were very few rules or templates to follow, and thus Burroughs was free to let his imagination flow.

    The end result is a story that has a very thin plot, and which is structured mainly as a series of explorations of Mars, punctuated by battles and duels. In fact, the plot can be boiled down to five basic occurrences:

    1. Carter arrives, is taken in by the Tharks

    2. Carter meets and falls in love with Dejah, helps her escape

    3. Carter befriends Kan

    4. Carter, Kan, Dejah, and Tarkas attack Helium

    5. The atmospheric machines fail, Carter returns home

    The rest of the story is essentially not germane to the plot, giving it a loose, travelogue-style structure. This doesn’t harm the story, however, because Burroughs is very good at rendering the battle and fight sequences, which add a great deal of excitement to the story even if they do nothing, usually, to advance the plot, and because this structure assists in world-building to a tremendous degree because Burroughs is free to describe the dying planet and its ancient, fractured culture in great detail while John Carter travels from place to place.

    Themes

    The novel's racial and cultural themes are  in the early 20th century, the racial and cultural themes of the novel are notably old-fashioned in some ways.

    The "Noble Savage" Trope. Burroughs sees the races of Martians as defined by their skin coloring, and there is an implied thematic link between the Apache warriors who hunt Carter in the beginning of the story and the savage Green Martians he meets later. The Apache are presented as bloodthirsty and cruel, and the Green Martians are depicted as ignorant and primitive (though are admired for their fighting ability). Despite this, Tars Tarkas is shown to have intelligence and warmth. This concept of the "noble savage" — portraying non-white characters as honorable and decent but still inferior to white characters — is a racist trope that crops up man times in Burroughs' work. Burroughs viewed race as a defining characteristic, and his racism (a mainstream view at the time of his writing) is evident throughout the text.

    Civilizing Influence. Another aspect of the racist attitudes in the book is the idea that Carter, as an educated, civilized white man, has a civilizing influence on the Tharks in general and Tars Tarkas specifically. This idea that white culture was beneficial to ‛savage’ cultures was used as a justification for slavery before and during the Civil War. The novel suggests that the Martians are improved by contact with a single white man.

    The Frontier. A Princess of Mars was written at a time when the American frontier seemed to have been lost forever; in place of the ‛wild west’ and the total freedom of the vast unsettled West, the country seemed to be consolidating and imposing order everywhere. Burroughs depicts Mars as a new frontier, a vast place with no over-arching authority where a man could use his natural talents to achieve whatever goals he wished.

    Science. Burroughs based some of his concept of Mars on what was, at the time, legitimate science. However, his approach to science and physics in the story is decidedly loose, and he makes no attempt whatsoever to explain some of the incredible aspects of the story—for example, Carter’s mysterious transport to the red planet simply happens, without any explanation. When he returns at the end, it is clear that time has actually passed—there is no humbug about possible dreams as is found in other ‛portal stories’ where people travel to fantasy realms. One theme of the book is that science cannot explain everything, and not everything needs to be understood.

    Key Quotes

    • “I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape. I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question my sanity or my wakefulness… You do not question the fact; neither did I.”
    • “A warrior may change his metal, but not his heart.”
    • “I understand that you belittle all sentiments of generosity and kindness, but I do not, and I can convince your most doughty warrior that these characteristics are not incompatible with an ability to fight.”
    • “Twenty years have intervened; for ten of them I lived and fought for Dejah Thoris and her people, and for ten I have lived upon her memory.”
    • “Give a Martian woman a chance and death must take a back seat.”

    A Princess of Mars Fast Facts

    • Title: A Princess of Mars
    • Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
    • Date Published: 1912
    • Publisher: A. C. McClurg
    • Literary Genre: Science-Fantasy
    • Language: English
    • Themes: Race, the "noble savage", the frontier, and freedom
    • Characters: John Carter, Tars Tarkas, Dejah Thoris, Sola, Kantos Kan

    Sources

    • “A PRINCESS OF MARS.” Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/62/62-h/62-h.htm.
    • McGrath, Charles. “'John Carter,' Based on 'Princess of Mars'.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Mar. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/03/05/movies/john-carter-based-on-princess-of-mars.html.
    • Wecks, Erik. “A Princess of Mars Book Discussion Over on the GeekDad Forums.” Wired, Conde Nast, 15 Jan. 2018, www.wired.com/2012/03/a-princess-of-mars-book-discussion-over-on-the-geekdad-forums/.
    • “SF REVIEWS.NET: A Princess of Mars / Edgar Rice Burroughs, www.sfreviews.net/erb_mars_01.html.
    • “Writings.” Famous (and Forgotten) Fiction-Writings-The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage by F. Scott Fitzgerald, famous-and-forgotten-fiction.com/writings/burroughs-a-princess-of-mars.html.