After weeks of imprisonment by the savage Warhoons, escape, more weeks of wandering in the Martian desert, and a narrow escape from a creepy scientist in the atmosphere factory, John Carter has ended up in the city of Zodanga, a city-state currently at war with Helium, the home of the Princess Dejah Thoris. He has met Kantor Kan, a soldier of Helium whom he met earlier and from him has learned that Dejah Thoris is now a captive of the Zodangans. Carter and Kantor Kan have enlisted in the Zodangan air force hoping to get closer to wherever the Princess is being held, which may seem like a roundabout way of doing it, but it worked. Carter has managed to save the life of a member of the royal family and so has been promoted to a position in the palace guard. Now all he has to do is find the Princess.
Piece of cake.
Carter is assigned to bodyguard the Zodangan jeddak, Than Kosis. The jeddak's throne room is situated so that his guards remain concealed behind a wall of one-way tapestries, so that the guards can see everything, but no one else can see them. It is while he stands hiding like Polonius behind the arras that who should come into the room but Dejah Thoris.
The jeddak's son, Sab Than, is infatuated with the Princess, and Than Kosis has decreed that he will end his country's war with Helium if she will voluntarily marry the prince. She has come before Than Kosis to tell him she has decided to accept.
"From the beginning of time upon Barsoom it has been the prerogative of woman to change her mind as she listed and to dissemble in matters concerning her heart," she says coquettishly. "Two days ago I as not sure of his love for me, but now I am, and now I have come to beg of you to forget my rash words..."
This is the last thing Carter wants to hear. The reader will guess that she is only agreeing to the marriage for the safety of her country, but Carter has to speak to her directly to know exactly what is really in her heart.
He commented at the beginning of his narrative that he is not so much brave as that the cowardly course of action never occurs to him until he is already committed to a rash one. This usually works for him, but here his impetuousness gets him in trouble. He darts out of the throne room, his departure hidden by the tapestries, and goes looking for Dejah Thoris' chambers. This takes some time, because he still doesn't know where in the palace she's staying. When he finds her room, he tries to bull his way past her guards. Again his luck fails him and the guards aren't buying his bluff. Oh well, it was a stupid conversation anyway. He draws his sword and quickly dispatches the four guardsmen.
The Princess does not recognize Carter immediately, because he's painted his skin a Barsoomian orange and he's wearing the metal ornaments of a Zodangan soldier; and because she believes John Carter to be dead. When she does recognize him, she wails in despair: "Too late, too late... O my chieftain that was, and whom I thought dead, had you but returned one hour before -- but now it is too late, too late."
She has made her promise to wed Sab Than, the Zodangan prince, and on Barsoom that promise is a binding oath. The wedding ceremony that will follow is but a formality. Carter offers to remedy the situation by making her a widow at his earliest opportunity, but she tells him that won't help either: "I may not wed the man who slays my husband, even in self-defense." There are a lot of these Barsoomian Dating Do's and Don'ts that Carter has to pick up on yet.
She does however explain the reason for her earlier coldness to him:
"Do you remember the night when you offended me? You called me your princess without having asked my hand of me, and then you boasted that you had fought for me. You did not know, and I should not have been offended; I see that now. But there was no one to tell you, what I could not, that upon Barsoom there are two kinds of women in the cities of the red men. The one they fight for that they may ask them in marriage; the other kind they fight for also, but never ask their hands. When a man has won a woman he may address her as his princess, or in any of the several terms which signify possession. You had fought for me, but had never asked me in marriage, and so when you called me your princess, you see," she faltered, "I was hurt, but even then, John Carter, I did not repulse you, as I should have done, until you made it doubly worse by taunting me with having won me through combat."Things were so much easier in Virginia.
Now he can't escape with his Princess, and he can no longer remain either. The bodies of the guards he killed are quickly discovered. Although the jeddak first assumes that there's some kind of hit squad roaming about his castle, his personal psychologist reads the minds of the dead men -- yes, you read that right: he reads the minds of the dead men -- to find that the carnage was committed by one man, whose description matches the new bodyguard who has gone missing. (That bit about mind-scanning the dead guards is a lovely piece of pulp; I'm surprised Burroughs didn't do more with it)
Carter tracks down his buddy Kantos Kan and explains the situation. "If I can come within sword's reach of Sab Than... I can solve the difficulty in so far as Helium is concerned, but for personal reasons I would prefer that another struck the blow that frees Dejah Thoris." They plan to steal a couple of fliers; Carter will make for Helium, while Kantos raids the palace to deal with Sab Than.
As Carter is making his escape, he is spotted and fired upon by an aerial patrol. Using a "trick of gearing, which is known only to the Navy of Helium" which Kantos Kan has taught him, Carter is able to evade and outdistance the patrol; but their fire has damaged his compass. Without navigational aids, he has to guess his general direction and hope he happens across the twin domes of the cities of Helium. (Why doesn't he just follow the canals? Perhaps his mind is too busy concentrating on Twin Domes.)
Now, given Burroughs' fondness for coincidence, one might guess that Carter does indeed happen upon the right city; but no, that would be too improbable. Instead, he happens across two armies of green Martians fighting each other, one of which is being led by his old buddy Tars Tarkas. He swoops down and helps the Tharks defeat their enemies.
Tars Tarkas offers to give John a team of thoats to flee on; Tal Hajus, the jeddak of the Tharks, has not forgotten the humiliation blow Carter dealt to him the last time they met, and will undoubtably order him killed. Helping him, however, will make Tars Tarkas a fugitive as well; and Carter would rather have it out with the Tharkish tyrant.
He tells Tars Tarkas the story Sola confided in him; about how she was Tars Tarkas's child by his long-dead lover, who had been betrayed by the vicious Sarkoja into Tal Hajus's hands. At this, Tars Tarkas agrees to confront the jeddak; but first he wants a few words with Sarkoja.
"Sarkoja," said Tars Tarkas, "forty years ago you were instrumental in bringing about the torture and death of a woman named Gozava. I have just discovered that the warrior who loved that woman has learned of your part in the transaction. He may not kill you, Sarkoja, it is not our custom, but there is nothing to prevent him tying one end of a strap about your neck and the other end to a wild thoat, merely to test your fitness to survive and help perpetuate our race. Having heard that he would do this on the morrow, I thought it only right to warn you , for I am a just man. The river Iss is but a short pilgrimage, Sarkoja. Come, John Carter."
The next morning Sarkoja was gone, nor was she ever seen after.Carter is brought before Tal Hajus, but before the jeddak has a chance to order his death, Carter demands the right to be heard. "Cheiftains of Thark... I have been a chief among you, an toady I have fought for Thark shoulder to shoulder with her greatest warrior. You ow me, at least, a hearing." The Tharks are a cruel people, but they pride themselves on being just. Although Tal Hajus howls, the other chieftains of the Tharkish Council agree to let Carter speak.
"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?"
Tal Hajus is in a corner. The only way he can prove his fitness to lead is to fight Tars Tarkas for it; which is just the opportunity Tars Tarkas has been longing for all these years.
It's not much of a fight; it's over almost before it begins. And now Tars Tarkas is jeddak of the Tharks.
I hadn't made the connection before, but we also saw this kind of succession-by-combat in Frank Herbert's Dune, except that there Paul Atriedes was trying to establish his leadership without having to kill the existing leadership of the Fremen that he needed as allies.
Seeing that the Tharkish Council seems favorably inclined, Carter now brings up the situation in Zodanga. He wants the Tharks to attack the Zodangan capital so that he can rescue the Princess. Tars Tarkas supports him. He reminds the Council that the Princess had originally been their captive -- so there is a certain amount of pride involved here -- also that by looting Zodanga they will gain much booty and that by returning the Princess to Helium they will be able to establish an alliance that will benefit the tribe. The Council is delighted to have a leader who actually seeks to build consensus rather than rules by fiat. Or perhaps they just like the idea of a good fight. In either case, they endorse Carter and Tars Tarkas's proposal.
Traveling by night and camping during the day in the ruins that litter the martian landscape, the great Tharkish army avoided notice by Zodangan aerial patrols. Carter was able to lead a small commando team into the city and open the city gates so that the invading army could enter. While the Tharkish horde engages the city's defenses, Carter leaps ahead to the palace where Dejah Thoris is about to be wed to Prince Sab Than.
There's a big fight, involving Carter, the Princess, Sab Than and his father, lots of guards, and ultimately Tars Tarkas himself. We never do find out exactly who kills Sab Than; the narrative doesn't say. I like to think that Dejah Thoris did it herself, but then that's the romantic in me. (She does kill the prince's father at the beginning of the fight; you have to give her credit for that).
The City of Zodanga has been conquered. Carter and Tars Tarkas seize as many Zodangan airships as they can and fly to Helium. Dejah Thoris is returned to her grandfather, the jeddak of Helium; who welcomes Carter warmly, and greets Tars Tarkas courteously as a fellow-jeddak and an ally.
John Carter and Dejah Thoris marry, with the blessings of all Helium. You'd think from there it would be all Happily Ever After, and for a few years it is. Carter becomes a respected Prince of Helium and earns a respected position in its armies; he and Dejah Thoris have a beautiful egg which they put in a special incubator in the palace. All is wonderful.
Then about nine years after the rescue of the Princess a new crisis strikes Barsoom. Radio contact is lost with the keeper of the Atmosphere Factory. It is presumed that he has died. The keeper's assistant has been found in his home, murdered. Only those two men know the secret to opening the door of the Factory, and without supervision, the Factory will shut down and the the Martian air supply will begin to dwindle. Who murdered the assistant? Was there some kind of plot? Who would do such a thing, since the loss of the Factory threatens all live on Mars? The narrative doesn't say and Carter never finds out.
It isn't until the air supply on the planet is dangerously low that Carter remembers that he knows the psychic combination to the Factory doors; he was able to get it from the keeper when he visited it briefly after escaping the Warhoons. He hurries to the Factory on the swiftest flier where a team of men are laboring vainly to penetrate the Factory walls, and with almost his last gasp of air sends the nine thought waves at the unyielding door before he passes out.
He wakes up once again in the Arizona cave where his adventure started. Somehow, his unconscious body has remained unmolested there for ten years. He finds the gold mine he and his friend had dug way back when and comes back east, a wealthy man, but haunted by his experiences.
Did the Martian reach the pump room? Did the vitalizing air reach the people of that distant planet in time to save them? Was my Dejah Thoris alive, or did her beautiful body lie cold in death beside the tiny golden incubator in the sunken garden of the inner courtyard of the palace of Tardos Mors, the jeddak of Helium.
As I sit here tonight in my little study overlooking the Hudson, just twenty years have elapsed since I first opened my eyes upon Mars.
I can see her shining in the sky through the little window by my desk, and tonight she seems calling to me again as she has not called before since that long dead night, and I think I cans see, across that awful abyss of space, a beautiful black-haired woman standing in the garden of a palace, and at her side is a little boy who puts his arm around her ans she pints into the sky toward the planet Earth, while at their feet is a huge an hideous creature with a heart of gold.
I believe they are waiting there for me, and something tells me that I shall soon know.