Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons

Advanced Readings in D&D: Edgar Rice Burroughs

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In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more. Welcome to the fifth post in the series, featuring a look at the beginning of the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Tim Callahan: When we stared down the Edgar Rice Burroughs canon, we tossed around the idea that maybe we’d do a read of Pellucidar, to get into the Hollow Earth mythology, or maybe we’d do Carson of Venus to highlight one of his less-well-read series of books. Interestingly, neither of us ever threw Tarzan into the mix, and I suspect that’s because Tarzan is too much a part of the culture. Too well-trodden. Too likely not to surprise us. Though I understand that the later Tarzan books get pretty crazy. I don’t know, I haven’t read them, and I’ve only read comic book adaptations of the first book, so that probably tells you a lot about me, and not in a good way.

But we settled on A Princess of Mars, the first of the John Carter books, because it’s such a seminal work, and so hugely influential to the space opera genre and the swordfightin’ fantasy genre, and it was turned into a movie last year that was pretty disappointing in too many ways.

Not that we’re here to talk about the movie, but I’m sure it will come up, because it just did.

So A Princess of Mars, the classic novel? What do you think of it? What makes it worth reading? Is it worth reading?

Mordicai Knode: Well, I have to say; the first time I read A Princess of Mars I thought I was just sort of “paying my dues.” You know, going through the classics of the fantasy canon and giving them a shot. My expectations were pretty moderated; some classics really deserve their accolades, but I find a lot of them aren’t my cup of tea. These John Carter books…mwah! Magnifique! I really think they are the bee’s knees, and you know what else? I think a lot of modern criticism of the books—notably racial ones—are not just dead wrong, but that the Barsoom series is actually pretty great on the subject of race. Not perfect by any means, but especially given its position in history, I think the explicit moral of the story is a call for pluralism and tolerance.

I might be jumping the gun on that, so let me start with this. There are giant green aliens with four arms and tusks that lay eggs, are mildly telepathic, and have guns that shoot radium bullets which explode when light hits them. Come on, right there, that is enough of an elevator pitch to get me interested…and we’ve barely even scratched the surface. I haven’t even talked about John Carter’s suite of Superman powers or the anti-gravity properties of the Eight Ray, or the Oxygen Station that Total Recall borrowed as its MacGuffin, or the secret cults or weird critters of Mars. So…I guess what I’m saying is heck yes it is worth reading!

TC: I was astounded by the thrilling pace of the novel, and I love that the book begins with that Civil War-era framing sequence, so you really get the clash between the dusty archetypes of the old west and the operatic space adventures on Mars (ahem, Barsoom).

It’s also a book that manages to balance Burroughs obvious intelligence with the needs of the readership. The book isn’t quite the equivalent of a popcorn flick, even though its trappings may be outlandish and action-packed and visually extraordinary. Instead, it’s a smartly written planetary romance about a hero in an alien land.

Maybe that was the problem with the recent Disney movie version. Burroughs’ voice was missing, even if many of the plot elements were maintained. And without Burroughs’ voice—or with it, but only in a laborious cinematic framing sequence that didn’t have the charm of the novel—the spectacle remains, and we’ve seen plenty of spectacle in the years since this book was written.

A Princess of Mars came out in 1917! I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to read it back in those days.

MK: Seriously, reading this book when it came out must have turned your brain into a puddle that dribbled out your ears. No wait, better metaphor: it must have blown your mind so hard that your head popped off and became a Kaldane. Though you know, I liked the movie—I did find it to be a popcorn flick, but I thought it was a fun one. It isn’t going to enter my top ten or anything, but I was really confused by the drubbing it took, both at the box office and critically. I thought it was pretty, and I was entertained throughout, as was my wife, who doesn’t care about John Carter. I think the misstep was in smashing up the stories too much; adding the Therns was a nice touch, but adding a giant crawling mechanical city…well, that was where the plot convolutions starting impacting the suspension of disbelief.

The frame sequence! So…well, so weird. No, scratch that, Weird, capital W, as in the genre. So John Carter… So let me get this straight, John Carter…is immortal? They hint at it more than a few times, but what the heck is going on with John Carter? He’s an immortal warrior—it is his true warrior spirit that draws him to Mars, the planet named after the god of war—who keeps dying, and every time he dies he switches planets? From Earth to Mars, from Mars to Earth? That is…that is the sort of craziness inspired by genius; that is a Big Idea and the fact that it is just the framing device goes to show just how deeply and systemically weird the John Carter books are.

TC: Woah, that is weird. I’ve always appreciated the way the frame story provided a gritty, six-gun context for spacefaring swordsmanship, but I never spent much time thinking about the implications of his traveling soul and potential for immortality. Then again, I’ve never read any of the other books in the Barsoom series, so perhaps that stuff is emphasized more in later volumes.

Or maybe I’ve always just been distracted by the courtly heroics around Dejah Thoris and the fact that Tars Tarkas is just one of the coolest characters in the history of English-language literature. I mean, he doesn’t feature on that many pages, considering everything in the novel, but who’s better than Tars Tarkas? He’s like Han Solo and Conan all rolled up into one Martian package.

MK: I totally agree about Tars Tarkas…which I think brings us into a position to talk about race a little. First, a word on genderpolitik in here—no, it ain’t good. Dejah Thoris is pretty much a damsel and pretty high up on a pedestal. That said, there isn’t, you know, anything gross on display towards women here, just the kind of “fairer sex” tropes endemic to society at the time. I don’t want to condone that just because it isn’t blatantly offensive—the absence of real female characters with agency is a problem on its own—but, well, it isn’t offensive. Which, dealing with some of these pulps, counts for something when viewed in historical context, while at the same time failing in a larger framework. I don’t want to let it off the hook for that.

On the topic of race…well, I have read past the first book and besides the Green Martians—the aforementioned four armed giants—there are the Red Martians, who look like humans with red skin and are effectively immortal. The White Martians, Yellow Martians & Black Martians are all like the Red—that is, humanoid and long-lived. The first three books—the “John Carter trilogy” if you will—are about how John Carter unites all the races of Mars, becoming the eponymous Warlord of Mars. It is explicitly a message of how the different tribes of Mars have far more in common than dividing them, and how rejecting bad leadership, superstition, tribalism and old hatreds can result in a better, tolerant world.

I mean, that is right there in the text. That is actually the arc of the story; some White Martians are bad, some Green Martians are bad and so on, but some members of each Martian race good, also. I can understand people who see the Green Martians as a thinly veiled allegory for racial prejudice about Native Americans, and I don’t really disagree with John Carter as a manifestation of the Great White Hope—your Dances with Wolves or Avatar style white man who “saves” primitive people—but I think the fundamental message of the series undercuts that. At the end of the day, it reads like a screed of racial acceptance.

TC: But isn’t that racial acceptance only the result of the white savior? I’m only going by what you tell me here, because I’ve never read the later books, but I’m not sure you’ve convinced me that it’s all that different from Dances with Wolves, except…better.

And maybe this isn’t the place to get into it, but if we want to tie it back into Dungeons & Dragons, which is always in the background of our discussions, the racial politics of the Burroughs books aren’t all that different than what we see in early versions of the game, where there’s plenty of racial diversity (Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits…I mean Halflings) but the Humans (always portrayed as white people in the illustrations) are the only ones without class restrictions and level limits. The implicit message is that all races can and should work together, but Humans are the best! Those kind of racial restrictions were removed in later editions of D&D, but they seem not dissimilar from the kinds of stories we see in the Barsoom series. Or so you tell me.

MK: The elves and dwarves and what have you are white too in most of the classic—and non-Pathfinder modern—illustrations, too, for that matter, which I talked about in my Modest Proposal post. That said, I generally find that the mechanics of species in D&D are sort of self-selecting; humans are the norm in a campaign setting, but I haven’t found them to be the norm in actual adventuring parties, you know what I mean? Everybody grab-bags and monster mashes, playing anything from halflings to…well, my last 3.5 character was an astral deva. I think the problems with orcs and other monstrous humanoids—which I also talked about on Tor.com—are much more problematic, and mirror a lot of the concerns I have with the Tharks. That is what I mean when I acknowledge the Great White Hope problem of the books; totally real and I don’t want to ignore it, but it is in a context of a paean for racial harmony, which tempers it. Plus the books are—did I mention this already?—freaking awesome.

TC: I acknowledge the paean for racial harmony and I accept the awesome. Oh yes, I do.


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

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