Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Princess, A Banth and An Illusory Army

cover art by P.J. Monohan

In 1916, Edgar Rice Burroughs had completed the first three Mars books starring John Carter, the finest swordsman on two planets. These three novels make up a trilogy, starting the Carter's mysterious teleportation to Mars and ending with him being chosen to be Warlord of Mars, married to Dejah Thoris and with a son named Carthoris.

As he did in late 1915 with the Tarzan series, ERB choose to now expand his selection of protagonists in his Mars stories. But where Son of Tarzan was the only entry in that series which didn't feature Tarzan as the primary protagonist, we would get four straight Mars novels in which someone other than John Carter would be at the forefront of the action.

It's probably a function of Tarzan's popularity that the Ape Man was never pushed to the sidelines of his books for very long. Or perhaps its because Tarzan usually had only a continent to play in, whereas Carter and his allies had an entire planet, giving ERB a lot more room for additional protagonists.

Wait. What am I talking about? I'm implying that Burroughs wrote fiction rather than simply passed on stories from Mars he heard from his uncle, John Carter. So if adventures happened to other people on Mars, ERB was merely being faithful to his duties as an historian in passing their stories on to us.

cover art by Gino D'Achille

Anyway, Thuvia, Maid of Mars was serialized in three successive issues of All-Story Weekly in April 1916. We'd met Thuvia in the previous novels. She was a Martian princess with the strange ability to calm down wild Banths and get them to obey her. Banths, by the way, are very large, 8-legged lions that are among the most savage and perpetually hungry of Barsoom's fauna.

John Carter's son Carthoris is in love with Thuvia. But, though she might return this love, she is engaged to the ruler of another city, part of a political match arranged by her dad.

So Carthoris is out in the cold. So is Astok, prince of the city of Dusar, who also loves the princess. But while Carthoris is willing to do the noble thing and step aside, Astok decides to kidnap Thuvia and frame Carthoris for the crime.

This involves taking Thuvia to one of Barsoom's many abandoned cities and also luring Carthoris to the same location--all part of the plot to make him look guilty of the crime while Astok can then run away with Thuvia. This, in turn, will set off a major war, with Carthoris' home city of Helium being forced into a fight against three other powerful nations.

art by J. Allen St. John

But Astok's plans go awry when Thuvia is kidnapped by a tribe of green Martians. Carthoris pursues the green warrior who carried her off and soon gets into some fights, which in turn results in Thuvia and Carthoris discovering the lost city of Lothar.

This is where things get delightfully weird. Lothar is a huge city, but only has about 1000 inhabitants, all male. This is the last remnant of a once mighty civilization that existed before Barsoom's oceans dry up. The Lotharians have powerful mental abilities. When attacked by the green Martians, they are able to summon up the image of a huge army. The illusion is so convincing that the green Martians simply fall over dead when shot with non-existent arrows, killed by the power of suggestion.

art by J. Allen St. John

Burroughs has fun with this section of the novel. He keeps up his usual fast pace and gives us plenty of action, there's also some wonderfully funny dialogue as one of the Lotharians tries to explain the ongoing philosophical differences among different factions in Lothar. Are they real and everything else an illusion? Are they illusions themselves? Is anything real? Does anything need to be real?

It's a biting parody of the sort of philosophical and academic discussions that grow obtuse and convoluted without ever actually explaining anything.  And, on top of that, Burroughs manages to sneak in a scene in which Carthoris and Thuvia are showed an illusion of what the once-mighty city was like in its heyday, giving us a scene full of forlorn melancholy amidst the mix of adventure and satire.

By the time Carthoris and Thuvia have gotten away from Lothar, they've been joined by Kar Komack, one of the illusory bowmen who has somehow become real. And when Thuvia is re-kidnapped by Astok, Komack's ability to also call up illusory bowmen might just come in handy when Carthoris mounts yet another rescue attempt.

A make-believe soldier who becomes real and then summons up additional make-believe soldiers. Even on Barsoom, that makes for an unusual day.

art by Roy Krenkel

I haven't re-read Thuvia in years and, in fact, may not have read it since first discovering the series in high school. I thoroughly enjoyed at last revisiting it. My thanks to Edgar Rice Burroughs for his commitment as Barsoom's historian.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing! This series kept me sane at a very dysfunctional job.


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