Comments on Burroughs: Message Fiction Done Right

It’s among the watchwords of the PulpRev community that message fiction is opposed to entertainment. The current holders of the sci-fi citadel promote message fiction and are thus unentertaining and this is why they’re wrong.

I’ve got problems with that paradigm. If “message fiction” as a term is limited to “fiction which promotes ideas contrary to reality”, then I tend to agree, message fiction is a problem. And we do see this type of fiction present across the entertainment landscape, especially around matters of sex, family, religion, nations, history, politics…

But as we see with Burroughs, this isn’t the only sort of message fiction that’s out there. In A Princess of Mars, Burroughs has clear messages to his fiction – heroism in the face of danger, purity of romantic intention, honor and nobility civilizing brutishness, loyalty and love of one’s leaders… The whole story is a kind of handbook on acting like a heroic gentleman. John Carter is not analyzed by Burroughs. Rather, he is given forth as a model for young men to imitate.

Take for instance Carter’s romance with Dejah Thoris. In the chapter “Love-making on Mars”, we see Carter as the consummate gentlemen attempting to woo the object of his desires, not with seduction, but by gracious conversation. Dejah Thoris, for her part, responds with ever growing wonder at the masculine virtues he embodies – both a virile ferocity and a tender heart:

“I presume it is the better part of wisdom that we bow to our fate with as good grace as possible, Dejah Thoris; but I hope, nevertheless, that I may be present the next time that any Martian, green, red, pink, or violet, has the temerity to even so much as frown on you, my princess.”

Dejah Thoris caught her breath at my last words, and gazed upon me with dilated eyes and quickening breath, and then, with an odd little laugh, which brought roguish dimples to the corners of her mouth, she shook her head and cried:

“What a child! A great warrior and yet a stumbling little child.”

“What have I done now?” I asked, in sore perplexity.

“Some day you shall know, John Carter, if we live; but I may not tell you. And I, the daughter of Mors Kajak, son of Tardos Mors, have listened without anger,” she soliloquized in conclusion.

Then she broke out again into one of her gay, happy, laughing moods; joking with me on my prowess as a Thark warrior as contrasted with my soft heart and natural kindliness.

“I presume that should you accidentally wound an enemy you would take him home and nurse him back to health,” she laughed.

“That is precisely what we do on Earth,” I answered. “At least among civilized men.”

-Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars (Kindle Locations 1150-1159). Kindle Edition.

We later find out he had applied a term of great love to Dejah Thoris (My princess), though had ignorantly done so without (gasp!) making clear his intentions to make an honest woman out of her. In fact, this conversation ends with her so shocked at his ignorance that she storms away:

“Do people kiss, then, upon Barsoom?” I asked, when she had explained the word she used, in answer to my inquiry as to its meaning.

“Parents, brothers, and sisters, yes; and,” she added in a low, thoughtful tone, “lovers.”

“And you, Dejah Thoris, have parents and brothers and sisters?”

“Yes.”

“And a—lover?”

She was silent, nor could I venture to repeat the question.

“The man of Barsoom,” she finally ventured, “does not ask personal questions of women, except his mother, and the woman he has fought for and won.”

“But I have fought—” I started, and then I wished my tongue had been cut from my mouth; for she turned even as I caught myself and ceased, and drawing my silks from her shoulder she held them out to me, and without a word, and with head held high, she moved with the carriage of the queen she was toward the plaza and the doorway of her quarters.

-Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars (Kindle Locations 1182-1189). Kindle Edition.

The handbook is not only for gentlemen. In Dejah Thoris, we find how a woman should react to a man who claims her illicitly – with utter disdain.

This sort of purity of romantic intention is present even in the villains of the tale. Sab Than, once he lays eyes upon Dejah Thoris and falls in love with her, seeks to make her his wife. That any man would treat a woman as a possession to be used as he wills is only among the qualities of Tal Hajus, the degenerate Jeddak of Thark. And his end reveals another aspect of true virtue:

“Chieftains of Thark,” I cried, turning to the assembled council and ignoring Tal Hajus, “I have been a chief among you, and today I have fought for Thark shoulder to shoulder with her greatest warrior. You owe me, at least, a hearing. I have won that much today. You claim to be just people—”

“Silence,” roared Tal Hajus. “Gag the creature and bind him as I command.”

“Justice, Tal Hajus,” exclaimed Lorquas Ptomel. “Who are you to set aside the customs of ages among the Tharks.”

“Yes, justice!” echoed a dozen voices, and so, while Tal Hajus fumed and frothed, I continued.

“You are a brave people and you love bravery, but where was your mighty jeddak during the fighting today? I did not see him in the thick of battle; he was not there. He rends defenseless women and little children in his lair, but how recently has one of you seen him fight with men? Why, even I, a midget beside him, felled him with a single blow of my fist. Is it of such that the Tharks fashion their jeddaks? There stands beside me now a great Thark, a mighty warrior and a noble man. Chieftains, how sounds, Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark?”

A roar of deep-toned applause greeted this suggestion.

“It but remains for this council to command, and Tal Hajus must prove his fitness to rule. Were he a brave man he would invite Tars Tarkas to combat, for he does not love him, but Tal Hajus is afraid; Tal Hajus, your jeddak, is a coward. With my bare hands I could kill him, and he knows it.”

After I ceased there was tense silence, as all eyes were riveted upon Tal Hajus. He did not speak or move, but the blotchy green of his countenance turned livid, and the froth froze upon his lips.

“Tal Hajus,” said Lorquas Ptomel in a cold, hard voice, “never in my long life have I seen a jeddak of the Tharks so humiliated. There could be but one answer to this arraignment. We wait it.” And still Tal Hajus stood as though electrified.

“Chieftains,” continued Lorquas Ptomel, “shall the jeddak, Tal Hajus, prove his fitness to rule over Tars Tarkas?”

There were twenty chieftains about the rostrum, and twenty swords flashed high in assent.

There was no alternative. That decree was final, and so Tal Hajus drew his long-sword and advanced to meet Tars Tarkas.

The combat was soon over, and, with his foot upon the neck of the dead monster, Tars Tarkas became jeddak among the Tharks.

-Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars (Kindle Locations 2334-2351). Kindle Edition.

Here we see the call to nobility, and honor over the degenerate rule of force exerted by Tal Hajus. The Tharks, for all their faults, have within themselves the possibility of rising above the brutality of their people (unlike the Warhoons who end badly). In Tars Tarkas, we see one inspired by John Carter’s virile virtue and becomes a great leader of his people.

How one could not call this and similar portions of Burroughs’ novel message fiction is beyond me. The difference is that this, for all its fantastical elements, is grounded firmly in reality. Men are men, nobility is nobility, glory is glory, sacrifice is sacrifice (see his protection of Dejah Thoris from the Warhoons).

The elements of fancy, the exotic locale, the foreign practices – all this is there to magnify reality, to make it all the more enchanting. A Princess of Mars is remembered for its setting, yes. But it thrills the heart because of the virtue it inspires. The message is integral to the entertainment.

This is message fiction done right.

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About Tomas

Catholic. Texan. Philistine. Teacher.
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5 Responses to Comments on Burroughs: Message Fiction Done Right

  1. Pingback: Message Fiction or Not? | Nixon Now

  2. John E. Boyle says:

    “This is message fiction done right.”

    Agreed. I think that the message (in Tarzan as well) was at least in part meant for Burroughs’ own children. He had two when A Princess of Mars was published, with his youngest son being born in 1913.

    A handbook for acting like a heroic gentleman (or gentlewoman). Well put.

  3. Jess Terrell says:

    This is very well written and presented with clear examples based on sound logic. Well Done!

  4. Pingback: Message Fiction: Some Comments | Pulp Catholic

  5. mobiuswolf says:

    Helps that it’s a good message. ;o)

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