CRACKING THE COLOUR CODE OF MARS: The Barsoomian “Trilogy” of Edgar Rice Burroughs

by D. K. Latta

Burroughs’ Mars is filled with races of all colours, but do those those colours have earthly analogs?

Best remembered today as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes, American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs enjoyed his first success with A Princess of Mars, a swords n’ science swashbuckler featuring the earthman John Carter. The Martian landscape that Burroughs dubbed “Barsoom” remains his second most famous literary creation after a certain Lord Greystoke — or at least vying for that second chair with the inner world of Pellucidar. The latter received its big screen treatment in 1976’s At the Earth’s Core — John Carter didn’t get his stab at celluloid glory until 2012!

Burroughs dabbled in everything from historical fiction to crime melodramas in addition to his signature jungle and extra-planetary adventures. Yet despite his publicly self-deprecating attitude toward his work, I suspect he fancied himself a social commentator-cum-satirist, even a modern day Jonathan Swift. Such ambition is a two-edged sword. It lends his pulpy writing an unexpected ambition at times but, equally, it’s hard to dismiss Burroughs’ more dated attitudes as unintentional.


I grew up reading Burroughs, but I willingly acknowledge problematic aspects of his work. Appreciating art doesn’t require willfully ignoring its pros and cons. So with that out of the way, let’s jump into Burroughs’s Martian books with both feet, because for years I’ve found them a fascinating study in ambiguity.

One could argue the Martian books are a victim of their own success — the sheer number of them diluting their impact (eleven books all told — though I guess there’s some question whether the final book was partly ghostwritten ~ see “Dimes for Tarzan” by G.W. Thomas in Dark Worlds Quarterly #1). They remain an enduring work for generations of SF fans, it’s true. But my late brother once remarked to me that if Burroughs had stopped with the initial trilogy — A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and The Warlord of Mars – today they might well be regarded as something akin to literature, maybe even in the same vein as The Lord of the Rings, The Foundation books, or even Dune.

Well, maybe not quite in that company, the books’ swashbuckling tone is easy to dismiss as “just” escapist fantasy. But in terms of world building, of creativity, and in terms of social and political themes there is a genuine ambition to those volumes (especially the first two — the third book a necessary wrap up to the plot threads, but maybe not as ambitious). Some of the themes are explicit, such as the saga’s critique/satire of religion, with John Carter discovering the dark secret at the heart of Barsoom’s main religion.

Part of the problem with trying to decipher a work of art is understanding the creator’s motives, whether even they had settled views on issues. And are we seeing things the way the author imagined them? Terms change, too. One chapter of A Princess of Mars is titled “Love-Making on Mars” — but, settle down, kids. Love-making in that context was simply a euphemism for courting. (And if you find that disappointing, wait till you get to all the people “ejaculating”).

So with an acknowledgement that meaning can change with time, I’ve always been intrigued by the racial dynamics inherent in Burroughs’ Barsoom.

John Carter himself is a white American from Virginia — and a Confederate veteran, to boot. Something to which Burroughs doesn’t necessarily ascribe much political significance; Carter is neither especially bitter that the south lost the Civil War, nor guilt-ridden by his participation. It seems mainly there just to set him up as a professional soldier of an “army which no longer existed” (and possibly to make him seem exotic — a Southern Gentleman). While on Mars there are five sentient races: Green Men, Red Men, White Men, Black Men, and Yellow Men.
Here’s where it starts to get interesting.

Of those, the Green Martians are alien-looking: with tusks and four arms. The other four look human…and their colours correspond to colours ascribed to human races, especially at the time. We still commonly use white and black, but though red and yellow have fallen into disrepute, to Burroughs’ post-Edwardian readers, red and yellow were commonly used to describe Indigenous North Americans and Asians respectively.

John Carter can pass for a White Martian, indicating Burroughs was picturing “White” as Caucasian pink. So the intriguing question is to wonder if Burroughs meant for his readers to envision the Red Martians… as North American Indians.

Just to take a back step for a moment, it’s worth acknowledging how, well, weird are aspects of A Princess of Mars. Even prior to his adventures on Mars, we are told John Carter is ageless with no memory of a childhood (one possibility I’ve long considered is that Burroughs had intended to have Carter discover he was from Mars himself, where people live millennia — but then he simply forgot about that plot idea). The story begins with a gold-prospecting John Carter pursued through the Arizona desert by Apaches circa the 1860s; he gets chased into a cave where he succumbs to a mysterious paralyzing gas and has an out-of-body experience where he floats up to the planet Mars. On Mars he finds a surreal existence where people barely age despite existing for millennia and time has little meaning (Burroughs seemed fascinated by timelessness, revisiting the theme in Pellucidar, the island Caprona, and Tarzan had trouble understanding the human concept of time).

It’s all very dreamlike — and I wonder if that was the point. When Carter arrives on Mars he first encounters the Green Martians — nomadic desert warriors marked by their humourlessness and penchant for torture, but not without their gruff nobility and respect for bravery. In other words: very much the then-popular stereotype of “savage” Indians. And the first human Martian he sees is Dejah Thoris: a Red Martian. So it’s possible Burroughs, nervous about the public reception to his outlandish flight of fancy (initially releasing it under a pseudonym), intended to present it ambiguously, open to being interpreted as simply a dream ala the (later) movie version of The Wizard of Oz: Carter falls unconscious being chased by Apaches across the desert, experiences a kind of dream paralysis, and wakes up in a desert world populated by green “savages” and red-skinned humans (“And you were there, and you…” as Dorothy says to her friends once back in Kansas).

Whether literally or symbolically, on some level the colours must have been intended to resonate. Otherwise, why aren’t there Purple or Saffron Martians? Why is the only Martian skin colour without a human parallel reserved for the decidedly unhuman Green Martians?

There is more to this article. Read the rest of D. K. Latta’s essay in the latest issue of Dark Worlds Quarterly. It’s available as a FREE download and it is packed with so much amazing stuff.

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