Great Unsolved Mysteries in the John Carter of Mars (Barsoom) Series
It was John Carter of Mars, the Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, that got me to love science fiction when I was 11. They did to me what Lord of the Rings often does to other people at that age: it got in my head and refused to leave. I made my own Jetan (Martian Chess) set as a kid with checkers and post-its (and isn’t it amazing that, in a world you can get your own Back to the Future Pepsi Perfect and pink hoverboard, this remains the last series unmerchandized to hell?). Barsoom inspired Carl Sagan to be a scientist (he had a BARSOOM vanity license plate in California) and made Gore Vidal and Ray Bradbury want to be writers.
Despite all that, Edgar Rice Burroughs never had a series in mind; he focused on writing each story as an individual unit. The end result was often a series where some plot threads were left dangling, and crucial questions were never answered.
4. The Great White Apes of Mars are evolving and becoming sentient.
When we first encounter the great white apes of Mars in the very first Barsoom novel, they were described entirely as animals, nesting in dying Mars’s crumbling, ruined lost cities, but with features that alarmed John Carter because they were so very close to human.
However, when we see the great white apes again in Thuvia, Maid of Mars, a huge jump happened: we saw the great white apes wore rudimentary clothes and started using clubs as weapons. The series never forgot the apes were borderline sentient. By the time of the Master Mind of Mars, we learned the great white apes actually had a basic language and could even be reasoned with. In short, every story has the white apes become more intelligent and advanced, and the implications of this are utterly unexamined, and this plot thread is never directly addressed in the way it deserves. In its dying days, Barsoom is due for a new intelligent race, alongside the Green and Red Men, something that is a “game changer.”
If the white apes are evolving into something more human, there is some evidence that it has happened in the past. In Gods of Mars, the First Born, who have the longest history and memory of any Barsoomian people, claim that the therns, the white race of Mars, evolved over ages from the white ape.
One last thing: white apes are never actually given a Barsoomian name. We do get one from one of the stories in the anthology of short stories by other writers, Under the Moons of Mars, the white apes were called Ilthur.
3. Thuvia’s attempted kidnapper got away with it.
Thuvia, Maid of Mars, despite the title, is more about Carthoris, John Carter of Mars’s half Martian son who hatched from an egg. See, I knew the movie adaptation was missing something!
The inciting incident of the book is that Thuvia, Princess of Ptarth, was kidnapped by Astok, Prince of Duhar. Astok’s plan was to blame the kidnapping on John Carter’s son Carthoris, so that Ptarth and Helium would go to war, and Duhar would pick up all the pieces. The point of this inciding incident is to “shove Thuvia and Carthoris out of the door” so they can have exciting adventures in unexplored regions of Barsoom, where the real story of the book happens. The trouble is, the inciting incident was totally forgotten and we never returned to it. In other words, the book let Prince Astok get away with it, and he’s still out there, still planning to start a war.
This is especially frightening because Thuvia took pains to establish that Astok had numerous assassins and infiltrators throughout Helium, walking unknown and unopposed, who are very good at frame up jobs, and they kill enemies by such un-Barsoomian means as sabotage. We have every reason to believe that, out of fear of having his plot exposed, Astok would have Thuvia or Carthoris assassinated again. Instead, we never hear about him again.
Wow, that’s two in a row from Thuvia, Maid of Mars. You know…while we’re on the subject…that book did raise way more questions than it answered. For instance, are we simply to believe Kulan Tith, Jeddak of Kaol, the betrothed of Thuvia, would just bow out gracefully because she said she was in love with Carthoris? The two were engaged to be married their entire lives. Kaol is an ally of Ptarth; so what happens, politically, when the two just plain won’t get married? And why is it that the self-sacrificing, noble, physically courageous and humble Thuvia of Gods of Mars doesn’t sync with the often catty and casually cruel character we saw in the book that had her own name?
2. Barsoom was invaded by Skeleton Men, who were never defeated and never left, and who, last we heard, had Dejah Thoris prisoner and she was never shown to be rescued.
In the last of the John Carter of Mars books, Skeleton Men from Jupiter invaded Barsoom. Known only as Morgors, they aren’t actually dead bones, but are living beings with tiny, nearly transparent organs stretched between their bones and eyes that are dead black, all of which give the impression they were moving skeletons. The Morgors had truly frightening high technology: the secret of invisibility, a prismatic dust that made their ships invisible. Even more terrifyingly, they established a major beachhead on Barsoom, one that was never destroyed.
Skeleton Men of Jupiter was very exciting because it represented a major shakeup: Barsoom was invaded by another planet. Unfortunately, this big shakeup came just when Edgar Rice Burroughs died, and we never found out exactly what the consequences of it all were.
The most galling part about all this is that, last we heard, Dejah Thoris was prisoner of the Morgors. But the next time we see her in John Carter and the Giant of Mars, she returned to Helium with no explanation given for how she got away. If you agree, as many do, that Giant of Mars is of dubious authorship and is non-canon, the situation is even more annoying, because we never found out what Dejah Thoris’s final fate was, maybe the second most important person in the entire series.
1. Hey…what exactly happened to Tan Hadron, anyway?
Tan Hadron is the penniless but brave hero who was the main character of A Fighting Man of Mars, who wanted to marry a snotty princess who looked down on him for being poor. Eventually, after rescuing her from terrible dangers, Tan Hadron refused to marry the Princess because he realized she was an awful, shallow person, and instead married the friendzoned slave girl who was loyal to him no matter what. You might also know this one as the Barsoom book with giant spiders and invisible paint, or maybe from one of the most Frazetta-esque covers ever (that, by the way, is not John Carter, but Tan Hadron).
Because of the way A Fighting Man of Mars humorously plays with the usual princess rescue story and the tropes Burroughs himself created, it may be the most popular of all the later Barsoom books, and Tan Hadron is the most popular of all the non-John Carter protagonists of the series. In fact, it’s the one I recommend reading most right after the first three. This affection for Tan Hadron makes it unsurprising he would return in Llana of Gathol, but we never discover his final fate.
When we last heard about Tan Hadron, he met up with returning protagonist John Carter of Mars to fight the polar tyrant Hin Abtol. Tan Hadron was recaptured by the polar tyrant after an escape attempt, but we never saw him again in the rest of the novel.
This absence is so horrifying that Barsoom superfan and pro-writer Mike Resnick actually wrote an entire book to explain it, the Forgotten Sea of Mars, one of the few bits of fanfic to get so big in pre-Internet days that even ERB, Inc. signed off and approved of it.
What does that teach us? Well, the thing about unsolved mysteries in fiction is that they can be solved if you write the ending. Yes, I’m talking to you. John Carter of Mars is public domain now, and anyone can create their own Barsoom tales. I look forward to seeing what the next generation will come up with. We may finally see the final vengeance of Askok, Prince of Duhar, or the ultimate defeat of the Skeleton Men.
As Kermit the Frog said, “life is a movie. Write your own ending.”
Edgar Rice Burroughs told the tales that were inside of him. Now it’s your turn.