Introduction. This essay takes for granted a number of premises: For example, that Twentieth-Century genre literature, even when it is a purely commercial endeavor with the author being remunerated according to word-count, often resurrects types of thinking, not least the mythic and sacred modes of thought, that the doctrines of modernity reject and that the organs of modernity attempt to suppress. A related premise is that these modes of thought, or states of mind, through the symbols associated with them, articulate an image of full humanity, especially of full masculine humanity, unavailable elsewhere in which many people wish to participate, even if it were only vicariously. In the liberal-modern, rationalistic view, such vicarious participation in archaic processes and dramas belongs to an escapist and antisocial attitude, the participants in which the representatives of the prevailing order admonish and chastise with the aim of shaming them into re-assimilating themselves to a prescriptive, but highly unnatural, set of norms. While it is true that stock formulas govern the unfolding action of genre narrative, those formulas stand, perhaps startlingly so, emphatically outside the horizon of any Post-Enlightenment order. They are in many ways both dissentient from and critical of that order. Not least, the generic formulas derive from the paradigms of archaic heroism, known from the Homeric epics and especially from the medieval Germanic and Celtic sagas, which in turn carry with them the patterns of ritual processes in general and of ritual initiation in particular. This initiatic pattern invariably entails the confrontation of the subject or initiand with a transcendent mystery, where-through the protagonist acquires manly status, wisdom, and on occasion a help-meet, and either earns acknowledgment from a community that has previously ignored him or reconciles himself to a status as permanent outsider by virtue of his proper and self-validating achievements.
Who was he? In the first half of the Twentieth Century, the historical period that this exposition addresses, he was an office worker, a bank teller, a low-level civic bureaucrat, a technician in a factory, or a high school physics teacher in his mid- to late-twenties, a bachelor but interested in marriage, whose five-day-a-week, eight- or ten-hours-a-day routine while it bought him a living, replenished him spiritually not at all. Aware of his confinement in stultifying routine and chafing at it; living in a city, likely in an efficiency apartment, with few opportunities of escape; and possessing an educated imagination, on which the demands of his employment never drew, he sought compensation. He might look for it in the movie house, but film appealed largely to a female audience, which merely dragged the male along and required him to buy the popcorn and soft drinks. He might take night classes in the city college or subscribe to a correspondence course. He might join the Elks or the Rotarians. He might affiliate himself with the Technocracy movement or join a rifle-club. His plight was not, however, the Marxist alienation of the worker, but a condition much more profound than that, lying entirely outside the horizon of economics. A colorful promise of redemption existed in his day, however, of which he no doubt frequently caught sight: The corner news stand, with its rack on rack of garish periodicals. Those racks sometimes loomed providentially, rising up like a sign to the initiand, who did not yet know himself as the initiand, rather in the way that the Holy Grail appears in Arthur’s castle, lighting up the hall “seven times greater than before.”[i]
“While… in a newsstand the other day,” writes a reader of Planet Stories in that pulp quarterly’s “Vizigraph” or letters column, “I noticed a magazine on a high shelf far out of reach.”[ii] The letter-writer concocts a fantastic story about how he finally elevated himself to lay hold of the beacon, so to speak, that had addressed him. “I could just reach it,” he continues, and “while I was at it I got two, a Winter issue and a March,” whereupon “I shot home on a motorcycle a cop had just left, and locked myself in my room and started reading madly.”[iii] Another Planet Stories aficionado rehearses a like tale: “I was standing before the magazine rack in a local drugstore… looking for a copy of my favorite national weekly, when my eye fell on the cockeyed cover of the Fall issue… so far, I’ve only read it twice.”[iv] That both these “Vizigraph” contributors gently mock their own enthusiasm signifies. It tells of a degree of self-awareness that in turn grants credibility to self-descriptions by the same and similar writers, many of whom express their critical acuity. “It gripes me,” another one of them attests, “to have a yarn full of flaming guns and dashing heroes with hair-breadth escapes cluttering up the pages”; and he reminds the editors that, “a few of us are actually older than twelve… have even gone to school… [and are] even intelligent.”[v] The qualified self-ascription, as being educated and intelligent, finds attestation in the grammatical competency of the prose and the reasoned ranking of stories by the correspondents. “The great value of science fiction,” one opines, “lies in its capacity to enlarge vision, to encourage thinking in terms of sweeping concepts and broad vistas of space and time, [and] to enable the reader to get some kind of grasp on the ever-elusive realms of Time-to-Come.”[vi] The same comment-writer asserts that science fiction, “contrary to the opinion of some, does not make ideal ‘escape’ literature.”[vii]
Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012), who signaled his status as a professional fictioneer by placing several outer-space yarns in Planet Stories in the mid-1940s, comments autobiographically how, encountering The Gods of Mars (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs in an early stage of his self-education, he experienced a sudden transformation of personality. Bradbury remembers the event in the present tense, holding the Burroughsian volume in hand while “maybe not on the floor, but nearby, are some scattered photographs of the mysterious world by the Lowell Observatory.”[viii] He next pictures himself outdoors in the Illinois night, searching the sky for “that bright red fire burning in the dark.”[ix] Finally, alluding to the prequel of The Gods, Burroughs’ Princess of Mars (1910), Bradbury writes of himself, “His soul slips out of his body and sails swiftly and silently to Mars.”[x] In the interview where these statements originate, the interviewer asks Bradbury whether he can summarize his lifetime obsession with the Red Planet. “The unknown celestial environment cries out to be known,” Bradbury responds; “we are delegates of cognition whose task it is to witness and celebrate.”[xi] Bradbury’s diction undoubtedly partakes in metaphor, but no more than any attempt to convey in words those ripples of the spirit that reveal themselves only to acute psychic proprioception. If the term “witness” and the raising of the glance to the heavens together connoted the Platonic periagoge, that would be no accident. The elements of the scene arrange themselves so as to signify the subject’s spiritual graduation. Consider those photo-plates of Mars from “the Lowell Observatory.” Bradbury makes not one authorial allusion in his scenario but two – the second one, through astronomical photographs, to Percival Lowell (1855 – 1916), the founder of the Lowell Observatory, without whose literary work neither A Princess nor The Gods would be conceivable.
Lowell, the liberally bankrolled son of a New England manufacturing dynasty, led an eccentric but not unproductive life, devoting himself in his twenties and thirties to the study of Far-Eastern religious practices and in the last half of his life to the study of the planet Mars. More people know of Lowell’s Martian obsession than know of his interest in the shamanic practices of the Koreans and Japanese, but the earlier fascination thoroughly informs the later one. Lowell’s theory of the fourth planet as the home of an immensely ancient and philosophical civilization in turn informs the generic Martian Romance, beginning with Burroughs’ “John Carter” trilogy, whose writer-imitators found their venues in the pulpy purveyances of commercial fiction, the bright covers of which would beckon to hungry souls from the display rack. Lowell wrote up his ethnological forays in a series of books, among them Chosön – the Land of Morning Calm (1886), Noto – an Unexplored Corner of Japan (1891), and Occult Japan – Shinto, Shamanism, and the Way of the Gods (1894). Occult Japan begins with Lowell’s first-hand description of a shamanic ritual at the crater-edge of Ontake, a dormant volcano in Kagoshima prefecture. Two young monks help a third to enter a trance whereupon an ancestral spirit possesses and speaks through the medium. “The veil was thrown aside,” Lowell writes; “we stood face to face with the gods.”[xii] Occult Japan ends with a long chapter, “Noumena,” wherein Lowell goes in quest of “that innermost something that each of us calls ‘I,’” “the essence of the Ego,” or “the Self.”[xiii] Perhaps the gods and the Self are, in fact, one.
The symbolic features of the Shinto landscape recur in Lowell’s books about Mars. Lowell built his observatory in 1894 on what came to be known as Mars Hill in the then non-populous desert-town of Flagstaff, in the Arizona Territory. The astronomer, like the Shinto priests, must climb his mountain. He must, as well, alter his perspective. In The Evolution of Worlds (1910), Lowell writes that, whereas “astronomy is usually thought of as the study of the bodies visible in the sky” and is thought to concern itself only with “the present state of the universe”; the astronomer in fact “attempt[s] to peer into [the universe’s] past and to foresee its future.”[xiv] The astronomer deals, counter-intuitively, less with the visible than with “the contemplation of the invisible” through apperception “by the mind’s eye.”[xv] In Mars and its Canals (1906), having proven by his own lights the inhabited status of that world, Lowell writes that the Martians must qualify as “life of a high order,” in that “where the conditions of life have grown more difficult, mentality must characterize more and more its beings in order for them to survive.”[xvi] A certain rather Puritanical attitude might, Lowell grants, determine that “the very strangeness of Martian life precludes for it an appeal to human interest,” but quite the opposite is the case: “The less the life there proves a counterpart of our earthly state of things, the more it fires fancy and piques inquiry as to what it be.”[xvii] It matters little to Lowell whether the intellectual establishment acknowledges his argument. He quite candidly reveals himself as more the seer and adventurer than the staid man of science. It might be significant that in his youth, before his independence, he spent six years running a cotton-mill for his father. Lowell declares, and in so doing fuses himself with the science-fiction aficionado transfixed by a magazine cover on a high rack, that, in aging, “we but exchange… the romance of fiction for the more thrilling romance of fact,” and “the stranger the realization the better we are pleased.”[xviii]
I. Death and Rebirth in Burroughs’ Princess of Mars. Lowell knew tedium in his six years of fulfilling his obligation to his family, after which he affirmed his essential individuality by decamping for exotic places. Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950) went from tedium to tedium in the first forty years of his life. He attended preparatory school in Massachusetts and military college in Michigan. Failing to gain admission to West Point, he joined up in 1895 as a horse soldier in the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, of Little Bighorn fame, then assigned to Fort Grant in the Arizona Territory. The Indian Wars having come to their end and no action being in prospect, Burroughs must have found his soldiering stint as tedious as anything else. He attempted gold-mining in the Upper Midwest with his brothers, and then clerked for a railroad company in Utah, after which, having married and sired two sons, he buckled down for seven years as a stationery wholesaler in Chicago, his native city. That Burroughs compensated the intense boredom of his low-salaried routine by omnivorous reading one might plausibly infer from the noticeable literary influences on the speculative project that would alter his life when Munsey’s All-Story Magazine accepted it for publication in 1911 – his Under the Moons of Mars, re-dubbed when it became a book as A Princess of Mars. In the ancestry of A Princess lie, of course, Lowell’s three Mars-devoted titles, but also in all likelihood Occult Japan and Chosön; H. Rider Haggard’s “lost civilization” novels; Gustavus Pope’s Journey to Mars (1894); Edwin Lester Arnold’s Gulliver of Mars (1905); and a large swatch of Theosophical literature. A Princess differentiates itself from such as Journey to Mars and Gulliver of Mars in one way among others by the fact that while they made no great stir and quickly descended into oblivion, A Princess immediately ensconced itself in the popular imagination and has remained in print ever since. What was the cause of that? A Princess hews much more closely to the classical and medieval epic traditions than do its immediate precursors; Burroughs’ story was thus, and remains, anthropologically truer than they, whatever their felicities. A Princess consequently satisfied a psychic need of its readers in a way that those others could not – and in so doing it made of itself the real foundation of the Martian Romance.
The term romance insists on itself through its etymology. In medieval literary parlance, a romance is an archaic tale from the era of the Late Roman or Christian-Roman Empire. The Arthurian cycle falls into the category of romance, Arthur’s stubborn and much-belated Romanitas being inherent to his appeal. It adds to the piquancy of romance that while it takes its setting in early Christendom, its content derives from pre-Christian traditions that have more or less been baptized. The Grail cycle, which encompasses the Arthurian cycle, offers a case in point. As typified in the Grail cycle, romance entails a quest, undertaken by someone who wishes to measure his own prowess, for a sacred person or magical talisman whose return to an alienated home will effect a restitution of the land or the kingdom. A quest resembles a pilgrimage while a pilgrimage in turn resembles a ritual and even more so a rite de passage or initiatic ordeal. “Pilgrimages are probably of ancient origin,” writes anthropologist Victor Turner in Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (1978); “but pilgrimage as an institutional form does not attain real prominence until the emergence of the major historical religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”[xix] For Turner, pilgrimage hence also initiation concerns itself with what the pioneering ethnologist Arnold van Gennep referred to as liminality. Turner accepts van Gennep’s division of the rite de passage into three phases. In Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (1974), Turner names these as “separation, margin… and reaggregation.”[xx] A margin is a limen, so that marginality is liminality. Liminality is the phase during which transformative events befall the initiand: “During the… liminal period, the state of the ritual subject… becomes ambiguous, neither here nor there, betwixt and between all fixed points of classification; he passes through a symbolic domain that has few or none of the attributes of his past or coming state.”[xxi]
Two examples, one from the Classical Greco-Roman world and the other from the medieval Celto-Germanic world, will illustrate Turner’s thesis. The itinerary of the protagonist in Homer’s Odyssey conforms precisely to van Gennep and Turner’s three-phase articulation. An unavoidable oath coercively alienates Odysseus from his homeland and family so that he might aid Agamemnon in laying siege against Troy; the siege lasts ten years, but Odysseus, having incurred the wrath of Poseidon, finds his homecoming delayed by an additional ten years of unremitting trial. Those twenty years of involuntary absence keep Odysseus suspended in a prolonged phase of liminality, during which he gradually, in part through unwise actions, loses everything that he had taken with him from his home and the total loot that he had pillaged after the Trojan defeat. The nadir of Odysseus’ misfortune coincides with the commencement of his reaggregation. In Book V, having left Calypso’s island on a raft, and the raft having been sundered by Poseidon mid-voyage, Odysseus expects only to die; a goddess, Leucothea, intervening, Odysseus finds himself cast up by the sea, that feminine element, on the island of Scheria in the Kingdom of Phaeacians, as naked as a newborn baby, but also badly scathed by wave and rock. In E. V. Rieu’s translation: “Pieces of skin stripped from his sturdy hands were left sticking to the crag… his knees gave way… all his flesh was swollen and streams of brine gushed from his mouth and nostrils.”[xxii] Turner writes how “degradation,” “ritual leveling,” and “humiliation” belong to the ordeal of liminality, and how during his trial, the initiand, insofar as he has any, is “stripped of status and authority.”[xxiii] Reduced to a beggarly condition, Odysseus must supplicate a teenage girl, Nausicaä, who having been encouraged benignly by Athene, clothes him and leads the way to her royal parents, with the hero following at a respectful distance.
The second example, originating in the Grail cycle, is more in the nature of a pattern than of a specific myth or mythic episode. In The Mystery of the Grail (1937), Julius Evola devotes a chapter to the “Initiatic Adventures of the Grail’s Knights.” Evola remarks the importance in such adventures of “clearing the path,” which he identifies with the askesis incumbent on the knight errant, as he undertakes his errand, and in turn with the structure of initiation.[xxiv] Evola adds that while these adventures partake in “an epic and warrior character,” they nevertheless also possess a “symbolic” side, “expressing mainly spiritual deeds and not material actions.”[xxv] He gives the example, one with onomastic aptness in the present context, of Percival or Parsifal. In the great quest, Percival presents himself in his naivety as an unlikely contestant. He remains boyish, still clinging to his mother in late adolescence, badly lettered or altogether unlettered, and, as lacking in experience, lacking equally in wisdom. Evola comments on Percival’s sensitivity to birdsong, which, like Sigurd in The Volsung Saga, he can understand. Birds being denizens of air, they symbolize “supernatural natures, gods, or angels,” such that the subject’s converse with them signifies “a certain phase of inner awakening.”[xxvi] The Grail Knight, as Evola emphasizes, seeks to perfect himself both as a warrior and as a healer. The knight must redeem the wounded Fisher King from his travails. Thereby he will redeem the land that has fallen waste.
John Carter, Burroughs’ hero in A Princess, has lived his life, as he commences his own Odysseus-like first-person flashback of it, in strange uncertainty about his identity, a quality that immediately endows him with what Turner would call liminal status. Carter experiences or embodies liminality in a number of ways. In the first chapter proper of A Princess, titled “On the Arizona Hills,” Carter asserts that: “I am a very old man; how old I do not know.”[xxvii] Carter’s appearance, as he tells his readers, is that of a man “of about thirty,” and yet “I appear today as I did forty years ago.”[xxviii] Carter confesses to fearing death even though “I… have died twice and am still alive.”[xxix] In a Foreword to Carter’s story, a nephew of Carter who goes by the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs divulges that the tale he offers originates in a manuscript that Carter had entrusted to him under the condition that it might be published only after Carter’s death. Carter has died. As stipulated in his will, he lies entombed in a Mausoleum whose door opens only from the inside. That death (if death it be) would constitute a third such event beyond the two tallied by Carter himself in his manuscript. In a few sentences, many mysteries have multiplied. Even stranger, Carter avers that although he remembers no childhood, and although he has been a soldier, lately in the Army of Virginia during the Civil War, yet his “thoughts and feelings” have always been those “of a boy.”[xxx]
Knowing only the trade of arms, the Confederate defeat deepens Carter’s sense of existential displacement. In March, 1866, with another ex-soldier, Powell (as close to Lowell, as one letter), Carter heads west to the Arizona Territory to prospect for gold – and that Burroughs should stipulate the month, that of the god Mars, is no doubt telling. Powell and Carter locate a rich vein, but lacking the equipment to extract it, they decide that Powell should return to civilization to acquire it while Carter watches their claim. Marauding Apaches ambush Powell on his way out of the desert; Carter witnesses the event, rides out in the night to fetch his companion’s body, whereupon the war-party makes him their quarry. Under the moon around midnight, as Carter narrates, he “entered a defile,” which he hoped would carry him over a low range of hills into a valley beyond.[xxxi] Instead, the trail narrows to a ledge as it climbs into the heights and soon ends at the entrance of a cave, which Carter, dismounting his horse and leaving Powell’s body on the ledge, enters. Like the ocean in Odyssey, the moon in A Princess symbolizes the female element. So, too, the cave has both a maternally receptive and a womblike generative character. Readers must sense that these symbols portend the imminence of a mystic transformation – a symbolic rebirth. A sentence from Lowell’s Occult Japan and an observation from Turner’s Ritual Process (1969) recommend themselves in context. Lowell, addressing things supernatural associated with Shinto, writes, “Spirit not only circulates after death; it may do so during life.”[xxxii] Turner, in discussing the ascetic aspect of liminality, remarks how the neophytes, or initiands, “have to be shown that in themselves they are clay or dust, mere matter, whose form is impressed upon them by society.”[xxxiii] Once inside the cave, Carter experiences a depression, as it seems, of his mental state; a powerful urgency to sleep overcomes him until he finds himself collapsing to the cave-floor in a swoon. Burroughs employs this figure of speech paradoxically, however, for Carter’s Schwärmerei corresponds, in fact, to Evola’s “phase of inner awakening” from his discussion of Percival and the Grail cycle.
Burroughs enriches his scene with numerous details. Carter lies paralyzed on the cave floor, his eyes fixed on the cave entrance. Something unidentified lurks behind him in the cave, the sight of which frightens away the Apaches who would follow him into his asylum. (The novel’s Epilogue reveals some details of what terrified them but hardly dispels the enigma.) A full day passes until midnight returns. Sensing that the thing approaches him, Carter’s terror rises whereupon, “I strove to break my bonds.”[xxxiv] His resolve, as he says, “was an effort of the mind, of the will, of nerves,” but “not muscular.”[xxxv] As he rises to his feet, “the moonlight flooded the cave, and there before me lay my own body as it had been lying all these hours, with the eyes staring toward the open ledge and the hands resting limply on the ground.”[xxxvi] He looked, as he says, “at my lifeless clay,” while feeling “utter bewilderment,” because though the recumbent Carter lay fully clothed, the upright one, the center of a new self, “stood but naked as at the minute of my birth.”[xxxvii] Leaving the cave, he surveys the desert. Transfigurations of the landscape have accompanied the transfiguration of Carter’s person. The great natural arena has taken on the aura “of some dead and forgotten world.”[xxxviii] Carter descends to the sands where, as he says, “my attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. An impulse of “great longing” propels Carter outward to the horizon and upward to a higher level of being. “I knew that I was on Mars,” he narrates; “my inner consciousness told me as plainly that I was upon Mars as your conscious mind tells you that you are upon Earth.”[xxxix] Even so, Carter’s digenesis is not yet complete. When he attempts to walk, the difference of gravity makes it impossible. He flies away in great aerial leaps, willy-nilly. “I found that I must learn to walk all over again.”[xl]
Like Odysseus in Homer’s epic, Carter has undergone a ritualistic sequence of death and rebirth. Carter’s nakedness reduces him, as it does Odysseus, to a state of helplessness which nevertheless also constitutes the first step of growth at a higher level. Just as Carter, in his boyish naivety, resembles Percival in The Quest of the Holy Grail, so too the Burroughsian Mars, or “Barsoom,” resembles the Waste Land of the Arthurian Tradition. Burroughs’ Mars, reflecting to some extent Lowell’s Mars, is a steadily self-depleting world, which would soon become desiccated and airless if the Red Martians, the upholders of civilization, did not maintain the canal system, distributing springtime melt water from the poles to the arable regions on either side of the equator, and an atmosphere plant, which replenishes the air. The Green Martians, into whose society Carter has precipitated himself, are, by contrast, not only savage in their tribal ways, but overtly hostile to civilization. The allure of A Princess stems in large part from Burroughs’ description, often given to characters as explanatory speeches to Carter, of a dying world. Water is life, but on Burroughs’ Mars, the oceans have long since evaporated. The nomadic Green Men wander from ruined city to ruined city, accommodating themselves as they like but paying no heed to the abundant signs of a long-departed better way of life. Carter’s education – which improves when his captors take prisoner Dejah Thoris, the eponymous royal person of the romance, who becomes a friendly mentor – corresponds to Turner’s notion that in his liminal state, the initiand must be imprinted with the knowledge of the larger cultural domain he is about to enter.
Although scholars of Burroughs acknowledge Lowell’s three books about Mars as strongly inveigling the conception of Barsoom, they make little mention of Lowell’s books about East Asia as playing a similar role. That those books as much as the Mars books exercised a formative influence over Burroughs’ creativity as a “world builder,” is suggested by the standard oath of the Red Martians, which Carter first hears from the lips of Dejah Thoris: “In the name of my first ancestor.”[xli] The Red Martians possess only the minimum of religion, but such religion as they observe resembles a Japanese or Korean ancestor-cult. Reminders of the ancestors make themselves manifest everywhere on the planet in the abandoned cities, built and rebuilt on the contracting shores of the ancient seas, in which the nomads squat. In one such city, during a time of privacy and leisure, Carter and Dejah Thoris examine the frescoes that decorate the interior walls of what was once a public edifice. Carter learns from Dejah Thoris that “these people had presumably flourished over a hundred thousand years before” and that “they were the early progenitors of her race.”[xlii] A powerful sense of loss imbues the relics of the ancestors when their remote descendants gaze on them. The original Martians fought a battle, not only with the growing hordes of Green Men, but also, as Carter remarks, with “stern and unalterable cosmic laws.”[xliii] According to Dejah Thoris, “These ancient Martians had been a highly cultivated and literary race, but during the vicissitudes of those trying centuries of readjustment to new conditions, not only did their advancement and production cease entirely, but practically all their archives, records, and literature were lost.”[xliv] The current Red Martian people have reproduced the technical achievements of their predecessors to some degree, but the warlike depredations of the Green men inhibit progress. Restitution of the ancestral order is forestalled.
Communitas, as Turner calls it, belongs with liminality. The initiand and the pilgrim are rarely solitaries, but rather they convene in an ad hoc cohort and may in fact, especially where it concerns pilgrimage, be strangers at first to one another, but convergently. In The Ritual Process, Turner observes that “among themselves neophytes tend to develop an intense comradeship and egalitarianism.”[xlv] A captive of the Thark tribe, who paradoxically gains rank among them but is still held by them as a prisoner, Carter forms bonds with other persons whose situation corresponds to liminality. There is, of course, Dejah Thoris, another captive, with whom Carter falls in love although not knowing the Martian customs of courtship he inadvertently alienates her for a good part of the story. There is Sola, a young Green Martian female who teaches Carter the planetary language. Sola differs psychically from most Green Martians in that she is capable of compassion – and due to her difference she is a pariah of sorts. Woola, a Martian dog set by the Tharks to shepherd Carter so that he might not escape, forms a bond with his ward and soon answers to Carter only. In tribal rites de passage, as Turner notes, initiands might be forced to “wear only a strip of clothing, or even go naked,” so as to emphasize their lack of status.[xlvi] In A Princess and its nine sequels, everyone goes naked, but neither his nakedness nor that of Dejah Thoris seems to bother Carter. Green Martians have no romantic urges whatsoever. Among Red Martians, the code of sexual conduct is at once strict and deeply internalized. Carter’s way with animals, especially his close relation with Woola, belong again to the traits of shamanism; the shaman frequently has an alter-ego in an animal spirit.
In respect of Carter’s amorous feelings toward Dejah Thoris, one can say that he again resembles the Grail hero Percival. Although Carter has lived a virile, indeed a martial life, he mentions no experience with women before being thrown in company in utterly novel circumstances with Dejah Thoris. He is, as far as the reader can discern, as virginal as she. After tumultuous events, during which Carter becomes a kind of restorer of Martian civilizational confidence, he indeed espouses his princess, but in the meantime, like a Grail Knight, he has kept himself celibate even while dedicating himself strenuously to succoring the lady in her plight. Percival infamously botches his first encounter with the Grail by failing to ask in its presence a ritually obligatory question. Carter offends Dejah Thoris when, fairly early in their companionship, she utters a formula in addressing him which indicates her willingness that they be joined; he fails to reply with the formulaic countersign and she then spurns him. Logically, the princess should not hold this against Carter, whom she knows to be an Earthman, hence ignorant of Martian conventions, but she holds it against him anyway, while he patiently endures her archly female hauteur. Bachelordom partakes in liminality, while marriage is one of the few remaining explicit rites de passage in modern North American society. Youthful bachelordom is the intended audience of A Princess. Burroughs’ romance is not yet a Planet Stories type of novella, but it sets the pattern for the Planet Stories type of novella. It provides vicarious initiation into the mysteries of sex and the cosmos in a world where such initiation has largely disappeared. The bright red star that Carter sees on the desert horizon of Arizona finds its counterpart in the gaudy Planet Stories cover glimpsed by an aficionado high up on the crowded newsstand. Munsey’s All Story, where A Princess first appeared, boasted no gaudy cover, but those would come later, beginning in the mid-1920s.
In his study of Shamanism (1951), Mircea Eliade remarks that shamans “are pre-eminently the antidemonic champions,” who “combat not only demons and disease, but also the black magicians.”[xlvii] Carter describes himself as a mercenary soldier who has dedicated his life to the field of battle and knows little else. He wields sword and lance, preferring these to modern weaponry. Eliade notes that weapons such as “lance, cuirass, bow [and] sword,” belong to the shaman in his combative mode as protector of “the psychic integrity of the community.”[xlviii] In this light it is important to quote the impassioned oration that Dejah Thoris addresses to the council of Thark after she has been taken by the Green Men as a prisoner. When they fatally damaged the great airship in which she was traveling as part of a regular survey of atmospheric conditions around the Martian globe, they damaged the cause of their own ultimate survival. “The work we were doing,” she tells them, “was as much in your interest as in ours, for you know full well that were it not for our labors and the fruits of our scientific operations there would not be enough air or water on Mars to support a single human life.”[xlix] What the Princess calls “the brutal and ignorant interference of you green men” in the struggle for the commonwealth of the planet is Eliade’s demonism and the reference to planetary commonwealth is his psychic integrity. Eliade also reminds his readers that the shaman is not only a warrior but a healer. When, toward the end of A Princess, Carter persuades the Tharks to ally themselves with the Red Men of Helium in a common cause, he has not fully cured, but has ameliorated the planetary affliction of psychic disintegration. Carter’s combative and healing powers are in fact fully intertwined. A new arrival among and captive of the Tharks, he unwittingly alters his status upward when he kills in succession two Thark warriors, one of whom has provoked a fight and the other attacked the defenseless Princess. Carter discovers that he has acquired the status of those whom he has fairly slain. The sub-plot is once again initiatory in Turner’s sense.
Notes for Part I