Outward is Upward: The Anthropology of the Martian Romance (Part II)

Jegga Amazing Cover

Amazing Stories November 1943

I continue my “Anthropology of the Martian Romance.”  The previous installment dealt with the seminal Martian Romance, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs and its background in the studies of East Asian shamanic practices and later of the planet Mars undertaken in the early years of the Twentieth Century by Percival Lowell.  In this second part of “Outward is Upward” I discuss a little-known but impressive addition to the Martian Romance, David Reed’s Empire of Jegga, and a late addition, Leigh Brackett’s Queen of the Martian Catacombs, later republished as The Black Amazon of Mars.  While I confine myself to a sub-sub genre of science fiction, I believe that my interpretations are applicable to mid-Twentieth Century genre across the board. I take genre seriously. Genre offers, as I put it in Part I, “a colorful promise of redemption.”

II. Epistemological Displacement in Reed’s Empire of Jegga. Burroughs’ example, no less than his success, provoked many writers to imitate him. Knock-offs of A Princess quickly became legion. Burroughs even imitated himself, launching new series of books whose action takes place on the planet Venus, on the moon, in a vast cavern at the center of the Earth, or on an extra-solar planet away across the galaxy.  In his Venus series, Burroughs might have been imitating one of his imitators, Otis Adelbert Kline (1891 – 1946), whose “Planet of Peril” trilogy, set on the next planet inward from Earth, saw serial publication in Argosy All-Story Weekly between 1929 and 1931.  The first of Burroughs’ Venusian tales, Pirates of Venus, only appeared in 1932.  Kline wrote his own Martian novels in the early 1930s.  If Kline’s romances had come back into print after many decades, as they have, it would be a case of their riding on Burroughsian coat-tails.  Kline’s prose is certainly entertaining, but it lacks the symbolic richness of Burroughs’ prose.  Now imitation is not only flattery; it is also the index of a market.  In its turn, a market is the index of a desire or need.  The desire or need arises from the subject’s proprioception of alienation or maladjustment.  In the case of maladjustment, however, the subject senses the condition not so much as his own but rather as a deforming affliction in the external social world.  That deformation is modernity, which in rejecting Tradition drastically diminishes the opportunity of proper self-placement that the archaic rites of passage facilitate.  The world of getting and spending obviously exerts on John Carter no attraction whatsoever, but Carter nevertheless seems incapable of bitterness.  Stalwartness belongs to Carter’s Percival-like character.  Nick Brewster, the protagonist of David V. Reed’s Empire of Jegga (Amazing Stories November 1943), presents himself at first, in contrast to Carter, as a materialist, even a hedonist, and womanizer.  Not only in its protagonist, but in the fullness of its details, Reed (1924 – 1989) appears to have conceived Empire initially as an anti-Princess of Mars, but his story is nevertheless a version, or perhaps an inversion, of Burroughs’ saga about John Carter.

Rocketship 01

Early Private Space Program

Turner’s concept of communitas proved itself useful in revealing the initiatic structures in A Princess.  The idea of communitas and one or two others associated with it deserve some further consideration because they are applicable to the understanding of Empire of Jegga albeit in a largely negative way.  Communitas, as Turner conceives it, is the liminal counterpart of social structure, but in addition to being a counterpart, it is also a negation of social structure.  On the other hand, social structure is, to some extent, ossified communitas.  In Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, Turner writes how the conflict between communitas and social structure sometimes erupts in “social dramas.”[i]  These are crises in which “the interests and attitudes of groups and individuals [stand] in obvious opposition,” and the situation demands resolution.[ii]  Turner cites the Icelandic sagas, those studies of multigenerational feuds, as a prime example of social drama.  “Conflict,” Turner adds, “seems to bring fundamental aspects of society, normally overlaid by the customs and habits of daily intercourse, into frightening prominence.”[iii]  The case has been made in the introduction to this essay that genre fiction itself functions as a sign of crisis, to which any number of names may be put: The Weberian disenchantment, for example, social conformism attendant on the bureaucratization of society, David Riesman’s other-directedness, and the restriction of outlets for genuine masculine expression.  Evola offers a good summary in The Revolt against the Modern World (1969): “There is a radical unrealism and inorganic character to all modern phenomena,” such that “nothing is endowed any longer with true life,” and Evola traces this condition to “the loss of Initiatic tradition.”[iv]  Burroughs’ Carter finds on Mars opportunities to rise through Initiatic ranks, but also the sense of peerage that belongs to those of liminal status.

Reed’s Brewster, on the other hand, lives in a society that resembles by anticipation the generically Western society of 2019: Media and entertainment dominate the social scene both completely and vapidly; one might attain celebrity-hood, as Brewster has, for no other reason than because he is the playboy son of an industrial magnate who pursues affairs with starlets and debutantes – but one can find little opportunity to escape the arrangements of getting and spending so as to prove oneself in a meaningful way.  Brewster self-characterizes mordantly.  “He had never confided in anyone,” he thinks to himself at one point, “and he could not now.”[v]  Of communitas, in other words, in the prevailing circumstances, there is none.  Press coverage at the time when Brewster takes off in his experimental moon rocket, the Trailblazer, conforms to pure muck-raking.  The copy-writers call Brewster a “foolhardy adventurer,” who was “born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” and “is usually given to sneering”; he has earned his notoriety only through his “arrogance and his… record with ladies” and he “could call few men his friends.”[vi]  Brewster attempts not at all to mitigate or influence such publicity.  Sensing the corruption of the institutions, he expresses his judgment in cynicism and contempt.  Brewster’s womanizing, his drunkenness, and his studious rudeness to all parties stem from his conviction that a spreading decadence has driven all authenticity from the cultural space.  Given that a previous expedition, financed by him, had disappeared in silence after its departure, Brewster half-expects to die in his attempt to reach the moon, and would perhaps prefer it that way.  Brewster is not totally cynical, however, for Reed grants him a personal quality that, under apposite conditions, might form the basis of conversion.  Whereas “wealth had taught [Brewster] to enjoy luxury whole-hearted,” nevertheless, “luxury for him meant the time to read”; indeed, he identifies the literary domain with “civilization” and Reed asserts without qualification that he “as a civilized man.”[vii]

Reading

A Civilized Activity

Reading is a cognitive hence also an epistemological endeavor.  The gesture of epistemological displacement, as it might be called, structures the science fiction genre fundamentally, and therefore also the sub-genre of the Martian Romance, equally fundamentally.  This gesture, which concerns expanding horizons of awareness, bears in turn a relation to ritual processes especially in the case of rites de passage or initiation.  Plato furnishes the paradigm of epistemological displacement in his cosmological dialogue Timaeus, which famously undertakes a detour from cosmology in order to tell the story of Atlantis, the lost continent.  Plato first establishes the genealogy of the Atlantis story: It comes down to the present of the dialogue from Solon, the celebrated lawmaker of archaic Athens, who told it to the great-grandfather of one of the colloquists.  The Atlantis story is a type of lore, a symbolic narrative replete with meaning that may be divulged to those capable of grasping it at the level of its connotations.  Solon never invented the tale himself, but how he acquired it is the tale’s crux.  In young manhood on a visit to the temple-complex at Saïs in the Nile Delta, Solon boasted about the antiquity of Greek civilization.  The temple priests, much amused, admonished Solon.  In Desmond Lee’s translation, “Oh Solon, you Greeks are all children, and there’s no such thing as an old Greek.”[viii]  They explain that catastrophes of fire and flood periodically destroy civilizations, whose survivors must begin at again at the degree zero of culture.  The only exception to such regular destruction is the Nile Valley.  The Saïtic archive maintains extremely ancient records going back as long as ten thousand years.  At that time, a prehistoric Athens fought a war with the aggressive Atlanteans, whose hubris so outraged the gods that they sent earthquakes to sink the island in punishment.  The Atlantis story exercises considerable fascination, but Plato makes his real point in Solon’s sudden and humbling realization of the limitation in his worldview.

A series of similar intellectual reversals befalls Brewster in Empire.  They constitute an initiatic itinerary.  In the story’s first phase, Brewster makes his flight to the moon with his surly crew.  The Trailblazer nearly crashes, but a force-field emplaced by Venusians averts the disaster; the Venusians claim that they have prevented the Martians or Jeggites (Jegga is Mars) from capturing the Earthmen, but without explanation they destroy the Trailblazer.  The Jeggites mount an attack whereupon the Earthmen, mistrusting the Venusians, allow themselves to be taken by the Jeggites, who immediately put them on a spaceship bound for their home planet.  During the flight to Mars, a mutiny occurs, which Brewster is instrumental in putting down.  Reed emphasizes the confusion and lack of knowledge that afflict the bewildered Earthmen, not least Brewster, whom the circumstances force to act on instinct informed by intuition.  The reader, too, participates in this confusion and lack of knowledge.  Very little of the action is understandable.  No claim seems fully trustworthy.  The feeling of desperate improvisation is palpable.  The next phase of the story introduces Brewster and his crew, as well as the reader, to Jegga or Mars.  Brewster finds what he witnesses difficult to absorb.  The sheer scale of Jeggite civilization – immensely ancient, architecturally Babylonian, and the seat of an empire over the rest of the solar system save earth – overwhelms him.  Class-stratification and ritualism characterize Jeggite society.  “This was a world of almost unimaginable splendor,” Reed gives it to Brewster to think; “the product of centuries of might, of rulers with incalculable labor at their disposal, but there was no softness to its luxuriousness.”[ix]  On the contrary: “There was a barbaric strength and vigor, a clashing that often bordered on the savage [yet] this only added to its beauty.”[x]

Martian City 01

A Jeggite City

A ritualizing society would seem to be a stable society but the ritualism of Jegga, while it must have been rational in its beginnings, suggests cultural ossification and a draining-away of meaning in the direction of Machiavellian calculation.  Brewster discovers that the homicidal ambition of Jegga’s ruling elite makes his own cynicism look harmless and assumed.  In fact, palace conspiracies move the politics of Jegga’s Imperium, and the just outcome of any ritual may be abrogated at any moment by the whim of an ambitious usurper.  The Jeggite interest in the Earthman-industrialist gradually reveals itself.  Although the Jeggite Empire stretches back anciently (“interplanetary commerce existed a thousand years ago,” an informer tells Brewster), Jeggite technology bases itself on plastics, the arts of metallurgy being unknown.[xi]  The Jeggite requirement for Brewster’s knowledge enjoins anyone’s intention to kill him, for the time being.  When Brewster learns of a planned rebellion, he decides to use that time and special status to aid the rebels.  In A Princess, Carter earns status among the Green Martians by defending himself and Dejah Thoris against assailants.  In the tribal society, a defender who kills his attacker acquires the social status of the vanquished.  While Carter remains technically a prisoner, he also becomes a Jed or chieftain.  Without intending it, therefore, Carter rises through foreign ranks.  Whereas Barsoom consists of countless feudal kingdoms and nomadic hordes, Jegga consists of a nominal planetary monarchy, whose absolute power delegates itself through lower ranks, one of which, something like a count or baron, is a Jev.  While the subjugated planets ready themselves for their revolt, and their liberation, a conspiracy among the Jevs seeks to subdue the power of the Ho-Gon or emperor to their rank.  To flatter Brewster, the Jeggites have elevated him to Jev, and so in his new rank he finds himself willy-nilly in the thicket of intersecting plots.

It belongs to the strangeness of Empire that Reed has created an array of quasi-sacred talismans and tokens, possession of anyone of which bestows great advantage on the possessor.  In ceremony, the Jevs wear ritual masks and emblazoned tunics: “One wore three bolts like unfeathered arrows of emerald jewels,” another “a fiery red streak like the wake of a rocket,” a third “the amber flaming stone”; others – “an ensign that might have been the amorphous, quivering mass of some protozoid, its body blue and its many eyes a deeper blue-black,” and finally, “a pattern of diamonds, like a field of well-ordered stars.”[xii]  In addition to his ensign, the Jev of the Ahriman faction lays unique claim to the Anzus, a device that can possess its victim psychically and force him to self-destruction.  Reed borrows the name Ahriman from Zoroastrianism, where it signifies the spirit of wrath who wars perpetually against Ahura Mazda, the spirit of life and reason.  Often in myths that take their structure from initiatic ritual, it falls to the hero that he must confront the glamorous seductions of power and, drawing on his discipline, see through their seductiveness, so as to disempower them.  Percival’s adventure in Klingsor’s castle, with its bevy of Playboy Bunnies, offers itself as a good example.  Indeed Brewster must outmaneuver a Martian seductress, Vrita, whose name derives from that of a dragon in Vedic legend.  A socio-political effect of the rigid panoply and hollow ceremoniousness of Jeggite society is that, jealous of any spontaneous relations between its subjects, it moves constantly to obliterate communitas.  Jeggite society is a totalitarian society, unsurprising given the global situation when Reed’s novel appeared, which means that Empire offers itself as an allegory of Nazism and Stalinism.

Symbol 02

An Esoteric Symbol

In his study entitled From Ritual to Theater (1982), Turner remarks how “communitas exists in a kind of ‘figure-ground’ relationship with social structure.”[xiii]  Communitas, in Turner’s assessment, is generally more “liberated” than social structure; therefore when social structure becomes aggravated in its rigidity, the counter-model of that rigidity and its potential cure exists in and as communitas.  Rites de passage are in this way examples of cultural adaptation because sending the initiand into a phase of liminality gives him a taste of liberty and enables him, on his return from his excursion, to apply the criterion of liberty to the social status quo.  What appears as heresy or sin from the point of view of the social status quo might indeed be the decent human norm, only through readjustment to which can the rigidified society healthily alter itself and so survive.  Whereas Reed’s Empire shares its broad story outline with Burroughs’ Princess, the specific divergences tell greatly.  Burroughs’ hero, in a trance-like state back on earth, dreams only of returning to Barsoom or Mars; he thus sustains his implicit critique of the social status quo on earth as deficient, and he manages his return to his preferred realm at the beginning of The Gods of Mars.  Reed’s Brewster sees the rebellion against the Jeggite Imperium through to its triumph, but, despite having found a true help-meet in Suba Marannes, a Venusian who coordinates the insurrection, he wants only to return with her to earth – or, more specifically, to Brooklyn!  Brewster thus ironically affirms a social status quo that he had previously rejected.  He perhaps affirms it in a higher context, which his planetary ordeal has furnished him.  He returns to his native world, moreover, in possession of a higher wisdom, not least his newly acquired sense of communitas, by which he can protect that world from its potential dispossession.

Turner stresses the importance of symbolic discourse in ritual processes.  The initiand must learn to “read” the sacred symbols by which the liminal phase expresses itself.  He must, then, learn to think, not exclusively on the denotative level, but, enriching his mind as he does so, on the connotative level of figures and metaphors.  He must negotiate with symbols.  Genre fiction functions partly in its context of an industrialized and bureaucratized order as a necessary displacement of archaic ritual processes into the literary domain so that it might make itself available once again to those who sense their spiritual need and can see the insipid reality of a de-spiritualized society.  Genre is liminal; it is escapist, but then escapism can only be judged by reference to that from which it wishes to make its escape.  Reed’s description of Brewster as a reader and therefore ultimately as a civilized man betokens the meaningful self-referentiality of his story.  Indeed, Reed inserts into his text a passage from a fictitious history of the Imperial Monarchy, the reading of which forces Brewster toward his moral conversion.  The cruelty of Jeggite history overwhelms him.  It awakens the acuity of his moral distaste.  To read Empire, which is something of a forgotten classic, is to undertake a vicarious descent, which is simultaneously and paradoxically an ascent, into Eliade’s demonic realm.  Like Odysseus in the Cyclops’ cave or Beowulf in the watery realm of Grendel’s sea-hag of a mother, Brewster carries his war against demonism to the very realm of the demons.

Brackett Quenn of the Martian Catacombs planet_stories_1949sum (1)

Planet Stories Summer 1949

III. The Shaman as Slayer-Healer in Brackett’s Black Amazon of Mars.  In Leigh Brackett’s Black Amazon of Mars (1951; originally The Queen of the Martian Catacombs, 1949), this study returns to the place where it began, the pulp-journal Planet Stories, whose publication stretched from 1939 to 1955.  In its own day, Planet Stories already qualified as a throwback and, to a new elite of science fiction, an embarrassment.  By the 1940s, a new generation of science fiction writers, dominating the field in the pages of Astounding and Amazing, the two most widely circulating of the science fiction periodicals, had roundly rejected the Burroughsian type of planetary romance.  Editors of those periodicals wanted stories of the “hard science” type, focused on technology and on plausible extrapolations from chemistry, physics, and astronomy.  Insofar as astronomy now described Mars, for example, as a desiccated world where only the most rudimentary organisms, such as lichens, might exist – then a story set on Mars would need to reflect the institutional consensus about conditions there.  It amounted both to a phase of reductionist literalism in the genre and a phase of snobbism aimed at the genre’s earlier phases.  Planet Stories came into being as a reactionary response to this newly prevailing superciliousness.  No contributor to Planet Stories exemplified that reactionary response to the new generic snobbism better than Leigh Brackett (1917 – 1978), at the time one of a small number of female writers working in the science fiction field.  Brackett, who combined stylistic originality with a willingness to make use of formulas, described her artistic indebtedness this way: “At the age of eight I was a great reader…  I got hold of a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Gods of Mars and I was never the same after that.”[xiv]  Readers of Planet Stories loved Brackett.  In response to one of her early contributions an enthusiast wrote: “I intend to say that Child of the Sun is not only the best [story] in the issue, but the best that I can remember in all my experience of Planet Stories reading…  That Brackett gal can really write.”[xv]

In its insistent anomalousness, and in its insouciant outrageousness, Planet Stories qualifies itself as liminal under Turner’s definition – that is, as standing outside the mainstream of something, in this case a commercialized genre or science fiction, which was, itself, at one time, outside the mainstream and only incipiently domesticated or commodified.  Brackett’s stories invariably take as their central figures a liminal person, but there is another term, introduced by Turner into his discourse late in his career, that describes not only Planet Stories but also Brackett’s storytelling, and again her protagonists, more precisely than the term liminal.  The term is liminoid.  Turner’s From Ritual to Theater first places the liminoid in the context of modernity, where it substitutes for certain features of archaic societies that have been declared obsolete and no longer function overtly; the liminoid takes its space, so to speak, in leisure, when the subject frees himself temporarily from the structure implicit in work; yet at the same time the liminoid replicates the “work” necessary to the performance of ritual, whose domain is anti-structure.  According to Turner the liminoid partakes fully in anti-structure.  Turner writes: “I see the liminoid as an independent and critical source,” based in “leisure genres” that “can repossess the character of ‘work’ [of one’s own] through originating in a ‘free time’ arbitrarily separated by managerial fiat from the time of ‘labor.’”[xvi]  The liminoid first appears with the “nascent capitalist societies” of the Eighteenth Century, and “liminoid phenomena continue to characterize the democratic-liberal societies” in the Twentieth Century and presumably also of the Twenty-First.[xvii]  Finally, “liminoid phenomena tend to be… idiosyncratic, quirky” and they often have the character “of social critiques.”[xviii]  Planet Stories was, then, in addition to being a liminal, also a distinctly liminoid phenomenon.

steranko-stark1

John Eric Stark by Sterenko

Brackett’s continuity protagonist in several of her Martian and in at least one of her non-Martian tales, Eric John Stark, qualifies as a liminal character par excellence.  He is a crosser of thresholds; he lives in the interstice between structure and anti-structure.  The most spectacular narrative in which Stark figures, is Black Amazon, but Brackett furnishes details of Stark’s origin in Queen of the Martian Catacombs (Planet Stories Summer 1949).  Readers learn in that tale that Stark began life as the only child of a homesteading prospector-family on Mercury; when Stark’s parents died suddenly, Mercurian natives took him in, giving him the name N’chaka, or “The One without a Tribe.”  Under minimal native supervision Stark grew up a wild child, rather like Burroughs’ Tarzan.  When a monopolistic mining-consortium brought mercenaries to Mercury to subdue the tribes so that it could exploit the planet’s resources Stark found himself orphaned a second time.  Worse yet, the ruthless operatives of the mining-consortium, having captured and caged the feral child, proposed to kill him more or less for their amusement.  At the last minute, Ashton, a policeman of moral character, intervened, freeing the boy, and adopting him to be raised on earth.  At the beginning of Queen, Ashton confronts Stark, who has long been a refugee from the law, wandering the Martian desert.  Ashton reminds Stark that it was he “who came along when the miners in that valley on Mercury had a wild boy in a cage, and were going to finish him off like they had the tribe that raised him”; and Ashton adds, “Remember all the years after that, when I brought up that boy to be a civilized human being.”[xix]  Stark responds, “I was caught a little old for civilizing.”[xx]  Nevertheless, Stark agrees to undertake a mission for Ashton, which he fulfills with a genuinely civilized conscience even though he does not then return to the precincts of civilization.

Consider Stark’s pilgrimage thus far: Born to human parents on the innermost planet; orphaned; raised and partly acculturated by tribal Mercurians; orphaned again; brought up on earth to accord himself with civilization, but with ambiguous results; finding himself on Mars in the capacity of a gun-for-hire, but unable to descend fully into the brutal insouciance that he outwardly adopts.  Stark qualifies as the consummate outsider; yet the stages of his life suggest another more deeply symbolic meaning.  Science fiction of the sub-species to which A Princess, Empire, and Black Amazon belong borrows motifs from archaic narrative; it is the case, moreover, that the universe assumed by Burroughs, Reed, and Brackett corresponds much more closely to the ancient Ptolemaic model than it does to the Copernican model, which qualifies as one of the early demystifying expressions of modernity.  Given that Stark’s Venusian adventure appears to precede his Martian adventures, his curriculum vitae conforms to an ascent from the lowest level of the cosmos – for despite his birth on Mercury his ancestry remains terrestrial – through successive higher levels of the cosmos until he reaches Mars, a de facto pinnacle.  Like the Shinto monks in Lowell’s Occult Japan, Stark has climbed his mountain.  Stark resembles the monks in another way: He is capable of being possessed by spirits and of gleaning knowledge from his phases of psychic dispossession.  While Lowell’s Japanese spirit-mediums are pacifistic in their demeanor, Stark’s shamanism links itself rather more with Odin’s berzerkers, as they appear in the sagas of the ancient heroes, like those of Sigurd and Hrolf Kraki.  In battle Stark becomes beastly, but he never harms the innocent.

ptolemaic-universe-1660-granger

Still Valid Symbolically

Brackett foregrounds Stark’s fundamentally ethical character in the dramatic opening of Black Amazon, where she also nods to epic tradition, beginning her tale in medias res.  Stark escorts a dying friend, Camar, to make his way home – to Kushat, an ancient Martian city in the planet’s Far North – where in a paroxysm of guilt he wishes to replace a sacred talisman that he had once stolen from a shrine.  A sense of profanation overwhelms the weakened Camar, to whom Stark admits owing his life.  “My brother,” he tells Camar, “has given his life for mine.”[xxi]  Camar tells Stark: “I have sinned…  You’re an outlander, you would not know of Ban Cruach, and the talisman that he left when he went away forever beyond the Gates of Death.”[xxii]  Brackett sets her action in a scene of natural severity, in which ordeal weighs on every slightest effort.  The two men have sheltered in a ruined tower or tor, as Brackett calls it: “The wind howled down from the northern ice, and the broken walls rose up against it, brooding, gigantic, roofless now but so huge and sprawling that they seemed less like walls than like cliffs of ebon stone.”[xxiii]  The hoary antiquity of the tor presages much in the tale, which takes its structure, seen one way, in a series of epistemological displacements.  Before he expires, Camar tells Stark that a myth might be true, and what people deride as legend or superstition might be supremely real.  The talisman gives evidence for Camar’s guilt-ridden wisdom.  When Stark presses the jewel, with its complex inner structure, to his forehead, his vision alters: “The great tower of stone rose up monstrous to the sky.  It was whole, and there were pallid lights within that stirred and flickered, and it was crowned with darkness.”[xxiv]  Next, “The tower was gone, and far below him was a city… beneath the ice, blurred and fairy-like and strange, a dream half-glimpsed through the crystal.”[xxv]  Finally, “He was not Eric John Stark,” but “he was Ban Cruach.”[xxvi]

Brackett supplies her exotic vocabulary from the resources of the ancient Celtic tongues.  Tor designates a burial mound; Ban Cruach derives from Crom Cruach, a god of the pre-Christian Celts, the Cruach part of whose name means “bloody” or “slaughtersome.”  When readers at last meet the namesake Black Amazon of the tale, she, although she masquerades as he, bears the name Ciaran, the Irish word for a black-haired boy.  Ciaran corresponds to a Nordic shield-maiden like Brynhild (she conceals her sex in full armor) or to the legendary Boadicea, who led the Britannic tribes against the Romans.  As in the case of A Princess, the Lowellian bibliography undoubtedly informs Black Amazon, but one might also suspect that Brackett has nourished herself on Lewis Spence’s studies of ancient Celtic occultism such as The Mysteries of Britain: Secret Rites and Traditions of Ancient Britain Restored (1905) and The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, (1949).  There is also a certain parallelism with Plato’s Atlantis story at work here too.  Ban Cruach lived fully one million years in the past, according to his misty legend.  In the Atlantis story, which belongs in Plato’s telling to the remote past some nine thousand years before his own time, the hubristic Atlanteans attempted to subdue the entire European continent, their ambition failing when the prehistoric Athenians rallied a defense against them.  In Brackett’s fictitious myth, a fantastic menace originating at the North Pole once extended its ice-cold Imperium over the entire Northern hemisphere.  The broken tors of the Northern Desert betoken that advance.  Ban Cruach, in marshaling a technology which the myth records as magic power, beat back the conquest and confined it in a narrow circle beyond the Gates of Death, which he then founded Kushat to protect.  Brackett’s narrative is sufficiently complex that a summary would fail to do it justice.  Nevertheless, in the finale, Stark and Ciaran must break the taboo against passing through the Gates of Death in order to preempt a catastrophic revival of the conquering force.  In doing so, Stark submits fully to becoming Ban Cruach.  Brackett restores Stark to himself in the denouement and he enters into a quasi-marriage with Ciaran who having proven herself in battle beside Stark at last lets her tomboyish femininity, and her tumbling red hair, emerge.

On the outward-upward shamanistic itinerary, ending in a chivalrous union, Brackett has superimposed a sublime temporal precession.  Archaeological phenomena such as ruins play an important role in science fiction generally and in the Martian Romance particularly.  Million-year-old architectural remains appear in A Princess and in virtually all of its sequels.  In the late Barsoomian tale, The Ancient Dead (1941 – collected with three others as Llana of Gathol, 1948), invoking the Martian past and the scattered ruins that attest it, Carter confesses that: “I am always interested in these deserted cities of ancient Mars.  Little is known of their inhabitants, other than what can be gathered from the stories told by the carvings which ornament the exteriors of many of their public buildings and the few remaining murals which have withstood the ravages of time and the vandalism of the green hordes which have overrun many of them.”[xxvii]  The mystique of archaeology appeals to Brackett as much as to Burroughs.  Approaching Kushat for the first time, “Stark saw as in a dream… a great walled city… and [he] fancied he could see the ages clustered like birds around the towers.”[xxviii]  Once Stark passes beyond The Gates of Death and penetrates the mountain-girded snow-plain where Ban Cruach confined the frost people, he finds himself in a realm of glassine architecture, dominated by “a dark tower of stone, a cyclopean bulk that Stark knew must go down an unguessable distance to its base on the bedrock.”[xxix]  There are also “temples and palaces glittering in the ice.”[xxx]  In the degree to which the architecture plunges into chthonic profundity, so also the scene as a whole draws Stark – and with him the reader – into the deep time that is so much constitutive of science fiction, beginning with Plato’s Atlantis story.

It is no small function of Brackett’s powerful narrative that it lifts the reader out of the blandness of his corporatism contemporaneity, whose main interest is its medley of routines, repetitively day after day, all managerially prescribed.  Turner points out in From Ritual to Theater, relying on the philology of Samuel Beal, that the Sanskrit root of the word shaman is sram, which Beal glosses as “to be fatigued.”[xxxi]  A shaman experiences fatigue because he works, but his work finds its situs under divine sanction, in the sacred dimension, where “the whole community goes through the entire ritual round.”[xxxii]  The shaman, through his communion with the spirit-world, provides guidance and a species of prophetic expertise, and he might likewise fulfill a representative role, standing in for the many; nevertheless, at the same time, he belongs to “the whole community,” and when he works the community works through him.[xxxiii]  As Turner writes: “Communal participation, obligation, the passage of the whole society through crises, collective and individual, directly or by proxy, are hallmarks of ‘the work of the gods’ and sacred human work – without which profane human work would be, for the community, impossible to conceive.”[xxxiv]  Turner adds that “this ‘work’ is not work, as we in industrial societies know it, but has in both its dimensions, sacred and profane, an element of ‘play.’”[xxxv]  Reading, like writing, constitutes the play of imagination, through which activity the writer and reader become temporarily as one in the liminal dimension of the story.

It will be evident that Stark’s character corresponds to Eliade’s notion of the shaman as an antidemonic warrior whose labors insure the psychic integrity of the community; a slayer of monsters who is also a healer.  Eliade writes: “The shaman’s adventures in the other world, the ordeals that he undergoes in his ecstatic descents below and ascents to the sky, suggest the adventures of the figures in popular tales and the heroes of epic literature.”[xxxvi]  Stark’s psychic fusion with the legendary Ban Cruach at the climax of Brackett’s Black Amazon entails all at once another symbolic death, as Stark deliberately elides his own personality to make way for the ancient hero’s spirit, and the resurrection of that same hero from his own frozen and ages-old death.  In Reed’s Empire, Brewster gains knowledge from the libraries of Jegga.  In Brackett’s Black Amazon, Stark accesses directly, in the very substance of Ban Cruach’s memories, both the knowledge necessary to defeat the demonic threat and the cumulus of experience and wisdom that lend context to that knowledge.  Brackett writes how, “the remembered shock, the flood and sweep of memories that were not his own” so transform Stark that his physical appearance changes: “And now his face had a strange look, a curious duality… the lines of flesh had altered subtly, so that it was almost as though the old unconquerable king himself had risen again in battle.”[xxxvii]  That synthesis of personalities mirrors the fusion of writer and reader in the ritual of immersion in the fantastic by which genre takes its stand against the jejuneness of modernity and thus powerfully attests to its own truth.

The struggle against what Burroughs in A Princess called “stern and unalterable cosmic laws” is the struggle against necessity and enslavement – as under the economy with its mandate of routine or simply under the dominion of matter, which promises only death.  Man is more than matter: He seeks freedom in transcendence; he wants to pass through death into a greater life.  In its function as vicarious initiation, as immersion in the fantastic, and as truth, Twentieth Century genre literature, especially the fantastic sub-genres, and even more especially the sub-sub-genre of the Martian Romance, proves itself able to furnish for the reader-subject a necessary access to transcendence in the form of myth-charged symbols the interpretation of which both requires and facilitates an alteration of consciousness or periagoge.  Profound engagement in such stories consists both of play and of work; such engagement also entails a rite-de-passage-like detour outside the social structure that, in a managerial world which regards the human being as a resource, can strike the subject as akin to a Waste Land, a desert of meaning to which meaning must be restored.  Burroughs, Reed, and Brackett, in their capacity as myth-makers for a mythless age, are themselves shaman-experts although only the initiated will possess the perspicacity to see them in that preternatural illumination.

Notes for Part II

[i] Dramas, Field, and Metaphors, 33.
[ii] 33.
[iii] 35.
[iv] Evola, Julius (G. Stucco, translator): The Revolt against the Modern World.  Rochester, Vermont, Inner Traditions International, 1995, 313.
[v] Reed, David: The Empire of Jegga. Medford, Oregon, Armchair Fiction, 2012, 84.
[vi] 8.
[vii] 85.
[viii] Plato (Translated by Desmond Lee): Timaeus and Critias.  London, England, The Penguin Group, 1977, 35.
[ix] Empire of Jegga, 62 – 63.
[x] 63.
[xi] 30.
[xii] 74.
[xiii] Turner, Victor: From Ritual to Theater – The Human Seriousness of Play. New York, PAJ Publications, 1982, 50.
[xiv] Brackett, Leigh: Shannach – the Last (Farewell to Mars). Royal Oak, Michigan, Haffner Press, 2011, 543.
[xv] Planet Stories, Spring 1941, 127.
[xvi] From Ritual to Theater, 33.
[xvii] 53.
[xviii] 54.
[xix] Brackett, Leigh and Hamilton, Edmund: Stark and the Star Kings. Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005, 206.
[xx] 206.
[xxi] Brackett, Leigh: Black Amazon of Mars. Aegypan Press (no place or date of publication given), 8.
[xxii] 8.
[xxiii] 7.
[xxiv] 11.
[xxv] 11.
[xxvi] 11.
[xxvii] Burroughs, Edgar Rice: Llana of Gathol. Tarzana, California, Edgar Rice Burroughs Incorporated, 1948, 18.
[xxviii] Black Amazon, 26.
[xxix] 54.
[xxx] 55.
[xxxi] From Ritual to Theater, 31.
[xxxii] 31.
[xxxiii] 31.
[xxxiv] 31.
[xxxv] 31.
[xxxvi] Shamanism, 510.
[xxxvii] Black Amazon, 69.

2 thoughts on “Outward is Upward: The Anthropology of the Martian Romance (Part II)

  1. Pingback: Outward is Upward: The Anthropology of the Martian Romance (Part II) | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 03/17/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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