A Review: The Chessmen Of Mars By Edgar Rice Burroughs
January 7, 2009
Edgar Rice Burroughs On Mars
The Chessman Of Mars
Porges speaks quite highly of this story and I think him right. The story is a quite complex one with many highlights and as many or more undertones. Burroughs manages to unite his past with his present while mildly projecting a future.
The story was his only effort of 1921 while falling between Tarzan The Terrible and The Girl From Hollywood the first of two books for 1922. the other being Tarzan And The Golden Lion. Thus this book falls between the recovery of Jane and their return to the Estate and Tarzan’s subsequent return to Opar. These two Tarzan novels undoubtedly reflect discord in the marriage of ERB and Emma.
It would seem that the move to California disrupted ERB’s concentration as the effort to udjust to Tarzana must have consumed his time somewhat in contradiction of his opinion in Tarzan The Invincible that man has been given all the time he can use, no more, no less. Well, there’s limits to everything, probably even infinity.
Whether Burroughs’ tremendous building efforts of the first couple years were pinching his finances at this time there does seem to be an element of panic in the story. The pictures of his new three car garage shows two Packards and a Hudson so that the unbridled spending of Marcus Sackett in Marcia Of The Doorstep of 1924 seems to be directly based on ERB’s own wastrel habits.
The Hudson is interesting as ERB may have bought his first Hudson in 1914 in emulation of his hero L. Frank Baum who he visited in Hollywood in 1913 and was friendly with again in 1916. In that connection the opening of Chessmen is a variation on The Wizard Of Oz in which Dorothy, her house and dog are transported from Kansas to Oz by a tornado. In Chessmen Tara of Helium is caught in her flier by a furious windstorm that deposits her in the all but forgotten outpost of the Kaldanes. So far out that it might in fact have been the Martian Oz.
Thus in a sense, ERB returns to the scenes of his childhood or, at least, his young manhood. This is very likely the result of stress, whether from looming financial difficulties or the responsibilities of managing his estate of Tarzana.
That he was under extreme stress is made evident by the appearance of John Carter who only appears to a stressed out Burroughs. At such times Burroughs psychologically returns to the comfort and security of Mars where he is beyond the travails of earthly existence. This in turn connects this story to the trials and tribs ERB was facing when he wrote Tarzan And The Lion Man. As I hope to show there is more than one similarity to that story.
This apprearance of Carter is interesting. Carter appears after sunset while leaving just before sunrise. ERB cannot be sure whether he was dreaming or the visit was real. ERB has said that his stories came from his dreams and this story bears all the marks of being a dream story.
ERB had the remarkable faculty of turning his problems into metaphors and symbols of his daily problems. While I don’t believe the stories were concocted in REM type dreaming I’m sure tha as he lay dozing weighing his daily problems he was able to weave them into a creditable story that he was able to elaborate when awake.
Plus, while we can’t be sure how much psychology he knew or how he understood it he had been aware of psychological concepts while still a boy. He learned much of this at the knee of Lew Sweetser on the Idaho ranch. One presumes he remembered, considered and developed his psychological ideas over the years. Sweetser, even as ERB was writing the story was giving public lectures on psychology. Chessmen is replete with psychological images not least the appearance of Carter himself.
Whether Carter was quasi real to Burroughs or not he wants us to believe that Carter was real. It is quite possible that Carter is not actually there but is merely a phantom of himself much as Helen of Troy was said to be a phantom in Rider Haggard’s The World’s Desire. Just as Carter explains his appearance to the dreaming ERB, Burroughs admits he was in a dreaming or trance state as he blew smoke at the head of his defeated king when Carter appears. That’s quite an image. His king or himself had been defeated on the chess board as perhaps in real life calling up the need for a visit from the omnipotent Carter.
And now as to your natural question as to what brought me to Earth again and this, to earthly eyes, strange habiliment. We may thank Kar Kormak, the bowman of Lothar. It was he who gave me the idea upon which I have been experimenting until at last I have achieved success. As you know I have long possessed the power to cross the void in spirit, but never before have I been able to impart to inanimate things a similar power. Now, however, you see me for the first time precisely as my Martian fellows see me- you see the very short sword that has tasted the blood of many a savage foeman; the harness with the devices of Helium and the insignia of my rank; the pistol that was presented to me by Tars Tarkdus, Jeddak of Thark.
Indeed. And I do see what Burroughs suggests, one presumes that the reader sees in his own mind’s eye, the habiliment and weapons on which John Carter, the bronze giant, speaks. We’ve been hypnotized into projecting into our own reality what isn’t there.
Yes, Carter speaks of Kar Kormak as though he really existed when we, having read the novel Thuvia, Maid Of Mars, know that the fantastic Bowmen Of Lothar were mental projections without substance who hypnotized others into seeing them and making them believe that they were real.
So what has Burroughs done here? We know that he is very familiar with the principles of hypnosis. At this very time many forms of mass hypnosis were being practised or about to be practiced. Freud was publishing his mass hypnosis lessons; Fritz Lang had or was making the first of his incredible Dr. Mabuse movies- Mabuse, The Gambler, in which mass hypnotism figures so prominently while Hitler, himself a master hypnotist, was making his bid for power.
Was Burroughs laughing up his sleeve at us as he knew we were actually visualizing in our own way what he suggested to us. I don’t know whether he was laughing but I’m sure he was confident that he had succeeded. So, having hypnotized us into believing the strange appearance of Carter who appears only in the same manner as the phantom bowmen of Lothar to Burroughs although as Carter says he has been successful in projecting the appearance of inanimate matter ERB then begins to weave his incredible story arranging the details so that all can be seen as reality to our minds having once accepted the appearance of Carter as reality who then narrates the story in his own voice.
Another interesting detail is that Carter now addresses ERB as his son. When ERB created Carter he was the man’s nephew his father being still alive. Then as he finished The Warlord Of Mars his father died thus Carter’s son dominates Thuvia, the next Martian novel. Now, while under stress, ERB’s father reappears to him to dictate this story to his son.
Carter, then, must always have been ERB’s projection of his idea of the perfect father.
Finally in this introduction I would like to note that both the city of Helium and the ruins of Opar were colored red and gold. ERB’s Hudson automobile then, a bit of memorabilia of Baum, links the Emerand Cityof Oz and the red and gold cities of Helium and Opar. Both cities are retreats under stress. As we will see a key strain of Chessmen is ERB’s fond memories of Baum and the Oz series. Indeed, Tarzana itself was a grander version of Baum’s own Ozcot while being at the same time an attempt to realize a terrestrial Opar and Helium.