Romances are not the only books I read, but that is the subject of this blog, and it would be irresponsible of me to wander off into action, fantasy, or science-fiction. Yet the boundaries between genres are fuzzy. There are suspense and para-normal romances, and I’m sure science-fiction romances are out there too. A Princess of Mars is not a romance, but it is very close to the boundaries of the genre.
A Princess of Mars was the first book written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, in 1917. It has some signs of being written in haste, such as plot threads that go nowhere. Copyright has expired in the United States, and it is available as a free ebook from many sources including Project Gutenberg. Burroughs is better known as the creator of the Tarzan series, but his Barsoom series of Mars novels has a strong following, and got a slight boost from the recent film adaption, curiously called John Carter. John is the rescuing hero of A Princess of Mars.
The book’s description of Mars is based on the scientific knowledge of Mars at the time. That and some other elements are from the science-fiction genre. Yet there is no spaceship or other scientific explanation for travel between Mars and Earth, and John may be immortal. That’s from the realm of the fantastic. Although John learns the language and harnesses local resources, his motivation is not return to Earth, as it might be in science-fiction. A common fantasy plot is an outsider bringing order to the community (also used in Westerns), and that is a significant aspect of the story, but in this case the bringing of order is a consequence of the romance that drives the plot.
John is a Confederate soldier who falls asleep in a cave in Arizona, and wakes up on Mars. Although the first Martians he encounters have six limbs and stand fifteen feet high, John’s human origins make him much stronger than the Martians. As a result, although he is their prisoner, he also has their respect, and in their martial society he soon acquires a modest standing. Eventually he meets another prisoner, a female from a different Martian race:
And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life. She did not see me at first, but just as she was disappearing through the portal of the building which was to be her prison she turned, and her eyes met mine. Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.
She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.
As her gaze rested on me her eyes opened wide in astonishment, and she made a little sign with her free hand; a sign which I did not, of course, understand. Just a moment we gazed upon each other, and then the look of hope and renewed courage which had glorified her face as she discovered me, faded into one of utter dejection, mingled with loathing and contempt. I realized I had not answered her signal, and ignorant as I was of Martian customs, I intuitively felt that she had made an appeal for succor and protection which my unfortunate ignorance had prevented me from answering. And then she was dragged out of my sight into the depths of the deserted edifice.
John resolves to rescue the princess. This desire, along with his physical prowess, leads to him becoming a key player in
defeating the Empire Martian politics. They fall in love, but there is a decidedly earthly misunderstanding.
“Do you remember the night when you offended me? You called me your princess without having asked my hand of me, and then you boasted that you had fought for me. You did not know, and I should not have been offended; I see that now. But there was no one to tell you what I could not, that upon Barsoom there are two kinds of women in the cities of the red men. The one they fight for that they may ask them in marriage; the other kind they fight for also, but never ask their hands. When a man has won a woman he may address her as his princess, or in any of the several terms which signify possession. You had fought for me, but had never asked me in marriage, and so when you called me your princess, you see,” she faltered, “I was hurt, but even then, John Carter, I did not repulse you, as I should have done, until you made it doubly worse by taunting me with having won me through combat.”
This explanation resolves the misunderstanding, but too late, as she is about to be married to some one else. At this point John has killed many Martians in pursuit or defense of her, but under some complex and narratively convenient law, if he kills her prospective husband he won’t be able to marry her. After John wins more battles, the two of them are wed, and they spend happy years together watching their egg in the incubator.
John is a traditional romance hero. He’s stronger and smarter than the others, kind to animals, and helps the betrayed. Once he has mastered basic survival skills on Mars, including earning the devotion of a dog-like creature, his only goal is to love and protect his princess. The princess, Dejah Thoris, is not unlike many romance heroines, particularly in historicals. If you substituted pirate for Martian, you’d almost have a traditional romance. One major difference: The entire story is John’s point of view. We never know if the princess truly cares for him or is resigned to her role as prize.
As for happily ever after, we are denied that too. There is a period of happiness, but then the lovers are parted. Her fate is unknown, or would be if it were not for the ten sequels. Two concern the princess, and three more are about the children of John and the princess. For all that this is not a romance, the last lines are as sentimental as it gets.
Was my Dejah Thoris alive, or did her beautiful body lie cold in death beside the tiny golden incubator in the sunken garden of the inner courtyard of the palace of Tardos Mors, the jeddak of Helium?
For ten years I have waited and prayed for an answer to my questions. For ten years I have waited and prayed to be taken back to the world of my lost love. I would rather lie dead beside her there than live on Earth all those millions of terrible miles from her.
The old mine, which I found untouched, has made me fabulously wealthy; but what care I for wealth!
As I sit here tonight in my little study overlooking the Hudson, just twenty years have elapsed since I first opened my eyes upon Mars.
I can see her shining in the sky through the little window by my desk, and tonight she seems calling to me again as she has not called before since that long dead night, and I think I can see, across that awful abyss of space, a beautiful black-haired woman standing in the garden of a palace, and at her side is a little boy who puts his arm around her as she points into the sky toward the planet Earth, while at their feet is a huge and hideous creature with a heart of gold.
I believe that they are waiting there for me, and something tells me that I shall soon know.