John Carter, ex-cavalry officer and gentleman of Virginia, has found himself inexplicably transported to the planet Mars. Astral projection can be such a pain. He has been taken captive by the six-armed green-skinned natives of the planet, a tribe of warlike barbarians who live in the ruins of a much older civilization. He has earned the respect of his captors through his amazing leaping ability (due to the planet's lower gravity), and his ability to take out one of them with a single punch, (which they find hilarious; this should tell you something about the Green Martians' sense of humor).
Carter has been cared for by a female named Sola, belonging to the household of Tars Tarkas, a high-ranking warrior. Sola has been teaching Carter the rudiments of Martian language and culture. Carter has also acquired a pet of sorts; a "watchdog" which is supposed to be guarding him and preventing him from straying.
He is about to meet another kind of Martian. Enter the Princess.
The Martians are about to leave the ruined city they have been occupying to return to Thark, their capital. They had been staying there to be near the incubator where their eggs were hatching. The hatching has occurred, and so now they are ready to pack up and take the hatchlings, and their prisoner Carter, home.
But before they leave, they spot aircraft on the horizon. Instantly the Martians scoot for cover, and their warriors take up offensive positions. Although a seemingly primitive culture, the Green Martians possess firearms which shoot explosive bullets. Burroughs calls them "radium bullets", and later on explains how they have a core which explodes when exposed to light, jacketed by an opaque protective coating which ruptures on impact. This makes loading your rifle very dangerous and battlefield surgery suicidal.
A fleet of aircraft approaches the ruined city. From their hidden positions, the Green Martians open fire and drive off the greater body of the fleet, crippling one vessel. Carter watches as a boarding party brings back armloads of plunder (and as we can see, the Tharks have a lot of arms to load) and also a single captive. The new prisoner looks very much like a human female with coppery-reddish skin and dark hair. She is one of the Red Martians, (the many races of Mars have been color-coded for our convenience), and Carter immediately takes an interest in her. When she sees him, she makes a gesture to him, evidently some kind of signal which Carter absolutely fails to recognize.
Strike One, John.
Carter continues his education gaining more fluency in the Martian language as well as other aspects of Martian life such as fighting and the making of weapons. One evening he overhears Sola discussing the new captive with some of the other females. One of them, Sarkoja, states that their leader, Lorquas Ptomel, plans to take her back to the capital, where she can be tortured to death as part of the half-time entertainment at the great games before their Jeddak, or king, Tal Hajus. Sola expresses the hope that the girl would be ransomed back to her own people instead.
Sarkoja derides Sola for being soft and sentimental, but Sola replies with a bitter tirade against the Tharks's culture of violence and warfare. Carter realizes how fortunate he's been to have been placed in the custody of the kind and compassionate Sola rather than a callous and cruel Thark like Sarkoja. He also sees that Sola might be a future ally.
Carter has gained another ally: the guardian beast Woola, his "watchdog." By treating the creature kindly, as he would a mastiff back in his native Virginia, he has gained the beast's loyalty. The fearsome fang-faced monster becomes quite affectionate to him.
The next day, Carter slips in to a council meeting of the Green Martians. Their leader, Lorquas Ptomel, is questioning their beautiful captive. She states that her name is Dejah Thoris, and that she is the daughter of Mors Kajak of Helium, a major city-state ruled by the Red Martians. She explained that the flotilla which the Tharks had attacked was a scientific expedition to chart changes in the air currents and to take atmospheric density readings.
"The work we were doing was as much in your interests as in ours, for you know full well that were it not for our labors and the fruits of our scientific operations there would not be enough air or water on Mars to support a single human life."She gives an earnest plea for peace and for the co-operation of all the races of Mars. And for a moment, it seems as if Tars Tarkas at least might be moved to consider her words. Just then, however, one of the younger warriors present shuts the Princess up with what passes among the Tharks as a witty bon mot: he socks her in the jaw.
This is too much for Carter's Virginian blood. As the warrior laughs at his witticism, Carter leaps to his feet and attacks him. They duel briefly and Carter kills the jerk. He then goes to Dejah Thoris, who fortunately was little injured by he warrior's blow.
"Why did you it?" You who refused me even friendly recognition in the first hour of my peril! And now you risk your life and kill one of your companions for my sake. I cannot understand. What strange manner of man are you, that you consort with the green men, though your form is that of my race, while your color is little darker than that of the white ape? Tell me, are you human, or are you more than human?"Carter explains that he is an earthman from Virginia and a captive of the Green Martians as well, and that he is only wearing the harness and regalia of a Thark chieftain because... well, actually he's not sure. He was given this harness and these ornaments to wear and didn't know they denoted any status. Actually, it is a custom among the Green Martians that when a fighter is killed in a duel, his rank and all his accouterments go to the winner. Remember the other jerk Carter punched out a couple days previous? Carter got his stuff; and this inherited rank was why they let him be present at the council meeting.
Tars Tarkas explains this to him as he gives Carter the spoils of his latest victory; and also warns him that he got lucky.
"Do you know what your unprecedented temerity would have cost you had you failed to kill either of the two chieftains whose metal you now wear?"
"I presume that one whom I had failed to kill, would have killed me," I answered, smiling.
"No, you are wrong. Only in the last extremity of self-defense would a Martian warrior kill a prisoner; we like to save them for other purposes," and his face bespoke possibilites that were not pleasant to dwell upon.Carter takes advantage of his newly-discovered rank within the Thark community to claim custody of the prisoner from Helium. Tars Tarkas, and presumably his superior, Lorquas Ptomel, consent; but Carter is warned that he will still have to answer to their king, the jeddak Tal Hajus, when they reach the city of Thark.
Carter and Dejah Thoris go off for a bit of private time together. He tells her a little more about himself and is surprised to discover that she actually knows a good deal about Earth. Her people have been studying it for centuries through telescopes. The reason she did not recognize him as an earthman right away was because it was her understanding that the men of Earth covered themselves with layers of cloth all the time.
Yes, we might as well address this point here. The Martians, of all races, do not wear clothing. They wear metal ornaments denoting rank and tribe; they wear utilitarian harnesses to hang weapons on; but that's it. This is why Barsoom has always been a popular subject with fantasy illustrators.
(This also comes up in the Skylark of Space novels by E.E. "Doc" Smith: the heroes discover that Earthmen are the only people in the galaxy who wear clothing. I can't help but wonder if this is a common theme in pulp science fiction).
Carter is called back before Lorquas Ptomel. Carter's position in the tribe is a peculiar one. The easiest way out of the problem would just be to kill Carter, but as he says, the Tharks may be a cruel people but they are also just. They will not kill him without orders from Tal Hajus, unless he does something to justify it. And Lorquas Ptomel emphasizes that trying to run off with the Princess before they get to Tal Hajus counts as justification. Carter gets the distinct feeling that Sarjoka has been spying on him and Dejah Thoris, and passing the information on.
Carter doesn't get to spend as much time with the Princess as he'd like. He does learn how to ride the eight-legged Thoats which the Martians use as mounts. As with Woola, he treats them with kindness and so is able to train them much better than the callous Tharks can. Tars Tarkas, impressed by Carter's results, asks him to teach him to become a Thoat-whisperer too.
When he can, Carter spends time with Dejah Thoris. He asks her if she is being mistreated.
"Only in little ways, John Carter," she answered. "Nothing that can harm me outside my pride. They know that I am the daughter of ten thousand jeddaks, that I trace my ancestry straight back without a break to the builder of the first great waterway, and they, who do not even know their own mothers are jealous of me. At heart they hate their horrid fates, and so wreak their poor spite on me who stand for everything they have not, and for all they crave and never can attain. Let us pity them, my chieftain, for event though we die at their hands we can afford them pity, since we are greater than they and they know it."That sounds awfully racist and condescending, Princess. But she does have grounds for a sense of superiority apart from mere pride of ancestry. Her people have a deeper understanding of science, and a more sophisticated culture; they also have an appreciation for mercy and compassion which the Green Martians have lost. The novel never makes any connection between the relationship between the races of Mars and the situation Carter would have known on the plantations of his native Virginia, but it's hard to imagine that he didn't think about it.
Dejah Thoris also said something very significant here, something which Carter misses all together. He refers to Carter as "my chieftain." And it goes completely over his head. At first she seems amused by his cluelessness; ("What a child! A great warrior and yet a stumbling little child."); but deep down he has stung her pride. All he knows is that he has offended her. She begins avoiding him and tells Sola that he is unworthy to polish the teeth of her grandmothers sorak.
Strike two, John.
The tribe is finally ready to move on to the City of Thark. Dejah Thoris has been chained to the chariot in which she is riding, to insure that neither she nor Carter tries to escape; for Tars Tarkas knows Carter will not leave without the girl.
Carter spends much of the trip obsessing over his love for Dejah Thoris and puzzling over why she won't speak to him anymore. He barely notices that Sarkoja has been plotting with a young warrior named Zad.
Then, a day or two into the journey, during a rest stop, Zad unexpectedly strikes Carter's thoat with his sword. Carter may not know enough to polish a sorak's teeth, but he does know a challenge when he sees it.
Zad is a worthy swordsman and under Martian etiquette Carter may only fight with the same weapon as his attacker or a lesser weapon. The fight is a long one, and only Carter's agility and earthly stamina keeps him from avoiding death.
Suddenly, a flash of light temporarily blinds him. Sarkoja, observing the fight from the sidelines with the other Martians, is using a small mirror to reflect the sun into his eyes. She has found a way to kill Carter without striking the blow herself. As Carter tries to recover, Zad wounds him.
Dejah Thoris, standing next to Sarkoja, sees what she is doing and now there are two fights going on; the one between Carter and Zad and another one between Sarkoja and the Princess. Sarkoja attmepts to stab Dejah Thoris with a dagger, but Sola throws herself between the Princess and the fatal blade.
Carter takes another wound to the chest and makes one last all-out effort to defeat his foe. He throws himself and his sword against Zad with all the force he can muster and then passes out.
NEXT: Sola's story; an escape; fun with Warhoons and the deadly Zodangas.