October 17, 2010

Stereotypes in A Princess of Mars

With a new comic book out and a movie coming out, it's time to look at a seminal science-fiction character:

John Carter (character)John Carter is a fictional character, created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who appears in the Martian series of novels. Though actually a Virginian from Earth and a visitor to Mars, he is often referred to as "John Carter of Mars" in reference to the general setting in which his deeds are recorded, in the time-honored tradition of other heroes (such as Lawrence of Arabia). The character is an enduring one and has appeared in various media following his 1912 serialized debut.

John Carter first appeared in A Princess of Mars, the first Burroughs novel set on the fictionalized version of Mars that the author dubbed "Barsoom." Written between July and September 28, 1911, it was serialized as Under the Moons of Mars in the February to July 1912 issues of the magazine All-Story and first published in book form in October 1917.
Burroughs also created Tarzan of the Apes, of course.

What fans may forget is that A Princess of Mars is bookended with savage Indians. At the beginning, Carter and his partner Powell are prospecting for gold in the Arizona hills. Carter narrates:Since we had entered the territory we had not seen a hostile Indian, and we had, therefore, become careless in the extreme, and were wont to ridicule the stories we had heard of the great numbers of these vicious marauders that were supposed to haunt the trails, taking their toll in lives and torture of every white party which fell into their merciless clutches.

Powell, I knew, was well armed and, further, an experienced Indian fighter; but I too had lived and fought for years among the Sioux in the North, and I knew that his chances were small against a party of cunning trailing Apaches. Finally I could endure the suspense no longer, and, arming myself with my two Colt revolvers and a carbine, I strapped two belts of cartridges about me and catching my saddle horse, started down the trail taken by Powell in the morning.
Carter finds the missing Powell:I had forged ahead for perhaps a mile or more without hearing further sounds, when the trail suddenly debouched onto a small, open plateau near the summit of the pass. I had passed through a narrow, overhanging gorge just before entering suddenly upon this table land, and the sight which met my eyes filled me with consternation and dismay.

The little stretch of level land was white with Indian tepees, and there were probably half a thousand red warriors clustered around some object near the center of the camp. Their attention was so wholly riveted to this point of interest that they did not notice me, and I easily could have turned back into the dark recesses of the gorge and made my escape with perfect safety. The fact, however, that this thought did not occur to me until the following day removes any possible right to a claim to heroism to which the narration of this episode might possibly otherwise entitle me.
Carter to the rescue

Carter rescues Powell's body, which is "fairly bristling with the hostile arrows of the braves," and flees into the hills. He hides in a mysterious cave but the Apaches find him:I had not long to wait before a stealthy sound apprised me of their nearness, and then a war-bonneted, paint-streaked face was thrust cautiously around the shoulder of the cliff, and savage eyes looked into mine. That he could see me in the dim light of the cave I was sure for the early morning sun was falling full upon me through the opening.

The fellow, instead of approaching, merely stood and stared; his eyes bulging and his jaw dropped. And then another savage face appeared, and a third and fourth and fifth, craning their necks over the shoulders of their fellows whom they could not pass upon the narrow ledge. Each face was the picture of awe and fear, but for what reason I did not know, nor did I learn until ten years later. That there were still other braves behind those who regarded me was apparent from the fact that the leaders passed back whispered word to those behind them.

Suddenly a low but distinct moaning sound issued from the recesses of the cave behind me, and, as it reached the ears of the Indians, they turned and fled in terror, panic-stricken. So frantic were their efforts to escape from the unseen thing behind me that one of the braves was hurled headlong from the cliff to the rocks below. Their wild cries echoed in the canyon for a short time, and then all was still once more.
Carter's spirit escapes his body and flies to Mars, where he has various adventures. Then it returns to his body and he awakens:As my hands passed over my body they came in contact with pockets and in one of these a small parcel of matches wrapped in oiled paper. One of these matches I struck, and its dim flame lighted up what appeared to be a huge cave, toward the back of which I discovered a strange, still figure huddled over a tiny bench. As I approached it I saw that it was the dead and mummified remains of a little old woman with long black hair, and the thing it leaned over was a small charcoal burner upon which rested a round copper vessel containing a small quantity of greenish powder.

Behind her, depending from the roof upon rawhide thongs, and stretching entirely across the cave, was a row of human skeletons. From the thong which held them stretched another to the dead hand of the little old woman; as I touched the cord the skeletons swung to the motion with a noise as of the rustling of dry leaves.

It was a most grotesque and horrid tableau and I hastened out into the fresh air; glad to escape from so gruesome a place.
Stereotype check

What do we have here? Let's see:

  • Tipis and a warbonneted Apache...in Arizona? Flat-out wrong.

  • A mummified old woman and a row of skeletons? Theoretically possible but extremely unlikely. You might find something like that at a Maya or Inca site, but not in the American Southwest.

  • 500 Apaches gathered in one place to torture one victim? Unlikely.

  • Apaches wearing warpaint? I'm not sure, but I think that occurred mainly on the Plains, not in the Southwest.

    The descriptions of the Apache as cunning, savage, merciless torturers are par for the course. They may even have some validity. But note what Carter doesn't say. He doesn't claim he had the right to be in Apache territory. Presumably he didn't ask the Apaches' permission. He simply entered the land and began extracting its riches because of his white privilege. To Anglo-Americans of that era, taking was almost as common as breathing.

    Note also Carter's history. He fought as a Confederate soldier to preserve slavery. He fought and presumably killed the Sioux. He admits he's "not prone to sensitiveness," which is putting it mildly. He seems to be insensitive to anyone who isn't white like him.

    Despite this criticism, A Princess of Mars was one of my favorite books when I was growing up. I probably would've put it in my personal top 10. I haven't read it in ages, but I'd still give it a solid 8.0 of 10.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

  • 1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    It's Burroughs. Pretty much any science fiction writer from the early 20th century is generally a racist. The worst was probably Robert E. Howard; the entire cosmology of the Conan series is based on Aryan supremacy. Of course, so was Tarzan's premise, so it's hard to tell which one was more racist.