Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Warlord Of Mars

Can pulp be classified as literature? That is a question that in my opinion can only be answered with yes if the pulp stories had a great impact on later writers and the genre itself. One of the great pulp writers has been Edgar Rice Burroughs. He is most famous for his creation Tarzan, although he wrote many other completely different stories. His second-most popular series, at the time was his John Carter-series, about an American Civil War veteran getting transported to Mars. Science Fiction thus and in that sense he is a successor to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

The main difference between these two authors was that Burroughs wrote serials for pulp magazines, so each chapter had to entertain and end in a cliffhanger to keep readers hooked. The story was far more important than the characters. To keep things simple: the characters are very one dimensional. Dialogue that is not directly related to the story is absent. This absence allows for a concise and fast pacing story although it is not always rushed. He adds sufficient details to the plot. Nevertheless time is not really of great importance and Burroughs just provides time periods where necessary.

I am rushing a bit ahead of myself. The book I started with is the third novel of the John Carter-series. The Warlord Of Mars (1918) pretty much directly picks off where the previous novel, The Gods Of Mars, ended. As these series aren’t that complex it was rather easy to get into the story. Personally I like it when I’m dropped in the middle of the story. A true beginning requires an isolated (or far away) location or a setting with a boring background. Either way, I did not need to bother myself with starting up.

What not helps the one dimensional characters is that a first person narrative is used. Everything is told from the main character, John Carter’s, viewpoint. A quite remarkable character actually. He is a man of action and impulses. Caution or dabbling in inner thoughts are not his way. While this behavior is at the same time leads to annoyance at his lack of control and sudden surprises in plot development, it provides Burroughs with a natural explanation why the main character does not bother much with telling more about the characters as to give them more depth.

Describing the main character like this would make one think he is a simple man, but it is here that Burroughs will surprise the reader. His main character has a very progressive nature. Confronted with many different races with their own strange behaviors and cultures, he remains ever open-minded, denouncing cruelty and seeks peaceful cooperation between the at first conflicted peoples. He defeats or liberates, but never conquers or subjugates, even if it is easily in his power. It is this hidden message of humanitarianism that surprised me after finishing the book. I don’t remember if the first two books were presented in the same way. It is too long ago that I read them. Perhaps the First World War, when the serial was first published, had a certain amount of influence on this novel.

While these stories were originally pulp the prose itself is not. It is actually well written. The prose is strong and fluent and never getting repetitive. He manages to express his imagination, with the weird creatures and surroundings of the Martian biology, quite well. It is vivid and strange, and I liked it quite so.

So if one doesn’t mind the one dimensional characters and the action-based plot The Warlord Of Mars is quite the entertaining read. I would not read too many novels of the series in a row because it are still pulp stories and I do like to read stories with better characterization and more depth. Still, it is easy to see why Burroughs influenced so many later writers. This is of a quite different nature and style than the more solemn stories of Verne and Wells, allowing an easier accessibility and a greater trigger on the imagination of the reader.

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