This seminal science fiction story follows John Carter’s fantastical transportation from Earth to Mars, where he meets a variety of warlike Martian tribes. Readers can easily see how many of the ideas in Burroughs’ novel have influenced generations of science fiction authors, from heightened powers such as Carter’s ability to jump long distances due to different gravity on Mars, to the various delineated races of Martians, to the wild west-inspired battles, to Carter’s being a prisoner and forming alliances through demonstrations of incredible strength, to the interplanetary romance between Carter and Dejah Thoris.
Burroughs creates a fascinating and captivating world of green Martians, who lay eggs which hatch in five years and then are raised by foster parents, so that they never know their biological parents. Carter says this “horrible system” causes “the loss of all the finer feelings and higher humanitarian instincts.” I found this a rather negative view, as one could also imagine foster care provides particular love and devotion to a child, furthering higher aims. Even Dejah Thoris, Carter’s love interest and a red Martian, says “‘Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common.’” While it may be questionable whether the communal aspects of the green Martians are actually detrimental to a caring society, the green Martians definitely do prove themselves relentlessly warlike. For example, even one character’s wanting a prisoner to live and be held for ransom rather than be displayed going into agonies at the great games is seen as showing weakness, and should their ruler learn of these “‘degenerate sentiments,’” he would not “‘care to entrust such as [her] with the grave responsibilities of maternity.’”
As the story progresses, Carter uses the green Martians’ warlike nature to his benefit. With his extraordinary physical skills due to coming from Earth, he kills some of the Martians, and following their custom, he is given the position of the men he kills. At the same time, Carter comes to teach the Martians about human kindness. For example, he says “‘I understand that you belittle all sentiments of generosity and kindliness, but I do not, and I can convince your most doughty warrior that these characteristics are not incompatible with an ability to fight.’” He lives up to these words, doing battle with many different Martian races and with very strong adversaries, demonstrating through his brave actions how friendship, loyalty, and love can exist simultaneously and collaborate with bravery in battle.
One way Carter shows these qualities is through his kindness towards his thoats, or support animals. He explains to a Martian, “‘the softer sentiments have their value, even to a warrior. In the height of battle as well as upon the march I know that my throats will obey my every command, and therefore my fighting efficiency is enhanced, and I am a better warrior for the reason that I am a kind master.’” This wise advice goes counter to the Martians’ affinity for war, where even laughter is seen not as mere mirth but as approval of violence.
This kind of power through kindness also surfaces in Dejah. Carter describes her as “so small, so frail beside the towering warriors around her, but in her majesty dwarfing them into insignificance; she was the mightiest figure among them and I verily believe that they felt it.” Her nobility fascinates Carter, especially in her contrast with the other Martians. She in turn is fascinated by him, saying “‘I know that Barsoom has never before seen your like…you have done in a few short months what in all the past ages of Barsoom no man has ever done: joined together the wild hordes of the sea bottoms and brought them to fight as allies of a red Martian people.’” Carter completes the instructive dialogue, saying it was no he who did it, but “‘it was love, love for Dejah Thoris, a power that would work greater miracles than this you have seen.’” Carter brings human nature and values to the Martians.
Finally, Carter asks Dejah for her hand, stating his love by saying “That you are a princess does not abash me, but that you are you is enough to make me doubt my sanity as I ask you, my princess, to be mine.’” This shows his real respect for and fascination with her, being amazed by her beauty and loveliness as a person far and above whatever her rank as princess may be. In the end, the Martians all thank Carter for what he has taught them, saying “‘it has remained for a man of another world to teach the green warriors of Barsoom the meaning of friendship; to him we owe the fact that the hordes of Thark can understand you; that they can appreciate and reciprocate the sentiments so graciously expressed.’” Overall, the story has this good moral of the value of loving sentiments, adding to the excitement of the many battles and war strategies of Carter and the various Martians throughout the book.