08 March 2012

Get Ready for John Carter: My Quick Guide to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars

It floated there in space, fourth from the giant sun, slowly turning on its axis. Its rolling hills and blue waters were silent and empty. On that entire world only one spot pulsed with the mysterious spark of life. It was in the Valley Dor, and the stirring was within the Great Tree of Life.

All this was some twenty-three million years ago, when Dor lay across the equator.

A millennia passed.


—John Flint Roy, A Guide to Barsoom

Kaor! Tomorrow, John Carter [of Mars] opens across the country. (My review.) Most of you know how I feel about this, and my blogger-level fight to make it a hit. You may also know I’ve been reviewing all of the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s an important day for me tomorrow, and you can expect to see a review of the movie on the website by the afternoon. I plan to do a video review as well, which is a first for me.

For many viewers, going to see John Carter [of Mars] will be their first encounter with the Mars that Edgar Rice Burroughs first created exactly a hundred years ago in the novel A Princess of Mars, the source novel for the movie. (Based on what I’ve seen in the promotional material, the film will also contain elements of The Gods of Mars, the second novel.) I’ve provided below a short guide to what audiences may expect to see in the film: no spoilers; and of course and I’m guessing at some of this, since I only know what I’ve seen in the trailers and heard from interviews.

These are some of key races, creatures, and terms you will probably encounter in John Carter [of Mars], and I hope many of you enjoy having a bit of a “cheat sheet” on ERB’s amazing Martian world. I’ve included the names of the actors playing the various parts in parentheses.

Update: Now that I’ve seen the movie, I’ve added a few terms germane to what is on screen.

Barsoom: The name the inhabitants of Mars use for their world. “Barsoom” is not the Mars we know in the twenty-first century, but Mars as it existed in our own nineteenth century. The once verdant world dried up approximately 500,000 years ago, and the civilizations that covered it shriveled to smaller kingdoms and savage tribes fighting for the dry sea beds. Our modern exploration of Mars shows that, unfortunately, all life on Barsoom has gone extinct. In John Carter you will see what this Mars was like, only four generations ago in our own planet’s time.

Jasoom: Martian name for Earth.

The Races of Mars: There are five sentient races on the planet, four “human” and one “semi-human.” The human races are the white, black, yellow, and red-skinned Martians. The white, black, and yellow races were the original races on the Tree of Life. Their numbers are now significantly lower, and don’t expect to see either the black-skinned Martians (“The First Born”) or the yellow-skinned ones (“Okarians”) in John Carter; they first appear in the novels The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars respectively.

These three races intermingled and produced the red-skinned Martians, who in the present day of the novel and movie are the dominant race on the planet. They seized their lands from the fifth race, the green-skinned men. Most of the human characters in the movie are from the red Martian race, and they live in city-states across the planets that are usually at bloody war with each other.

The green men of Mars are a very different race, coming from a separate evolutionary branch on the Tree of Life. They have reptilian qualities, stand between twelve to fifteen feet high, have four pairs of arms, antenna, and giant tusks protruding from their lower jaws. They live in tribal groups, often centered around the ruins of cities of the sea beds. The green Martians are a classic “barbarian” society, known for their savagery.

Martian ranks: Burroughs freely used invented Barsoomian words to describe characters’ stations in life. The most common:
  • Jeddak: “Emperor/King.” The highest rank within a nation, city, or tribe.
  • Jed: “Prince.” The second highest rank within a nation, city, or tribe.
  • Jeddara: “Empress.”
  • Jedwar: “General.” Highest military rank
  • Odwar: Second-highest military rank.
  • Dwar: “Captain.” Third highest rank. A dwar commands a unit called an utan, roughly a hundred soldiers.
  • Padwar: “Lieutenant.” A lower military rank.
  • Panthan: “Mercenary.” A soldier of fortune.
  • Kadar: “Guard.”
Tharks: The most important green Martian tribe in A Princess of Mars. This is the native tribe of Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), John Carter’s close ally and friend among the green men; and the gentle Sola (Samantha Morton). The current jeddak is Tal Hajus (Thomas Hayden Church). Because of the popularity of this tribe in the books, the term “Tharks” is often incorrectly used to refer to all the green Martians.

Warhoons: Another green Martian tribe, often at war with the Tharks.
The Holy Therns: These are the people of the white race who have set themselves up as Priest-Kings, wielding a false religion over the planet. The Holy Therns are haughty and cruel theocrats. The therns do not show up until the novel The Gods of Mars, but will appear in John Carter, since Mark Strong is playing the villain Matai Shang, leader of the Holy Therns. If The Gods of Mars gets made into a movie (oh please, oh please, oh please), expect Matai Shang to continue as the main adversary and the world of the Holy Therns in the Valley Dor to become the main part of the story.
Helium: The most powerful red Martian nation, the home of heroine Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the granddaughter of the city’s jeddak Tardos Mors (Ciáran Hinds), and daughter of the Jed of Lesser Helium, Mors Kajak. Kantos Kan (James Purefoy) is a padwar in the navy of Helium. Citizens are called “Heliumites.”

Zodanga: A red Martian nation and the principal foe of Helium. The main city is located near to the Atmosphere Station critical to Barsoom’s survival. (The station never appears in the movie, however.) The jeddak is Than Kosis, and Sab Than (Dominic West) is his son and jed.

Issus: The principle Martian deity, “Goddess of Life Eternal.” Her home is said to be at the south polar region in the paradise of the Valley Dor. Nasty surprise about all this arrives in The Gods of Mars.


The River Iss: The major waterway of Barsoom. It is said to eventually flow into the Martian paradise of the Valley Dor, and pilgrims wishing to make the “final journey” float down it. As revealed in The Gods of Mars, “paradise” is a bit… uhm, not.

The Eighth Ray: Barsoomian scientists discovered that a ray thrown off from each planet and star allows for them to create an “anti-gravity” propulsion system that powers their flying machines.

Thoats: The Martian “horse,” a ten-foot tall (at the shoulder) creature with eight legs. They can live long periods without water. These larger breeds are favored of the green Martians, while the red Martians use a smaller breed.
Calots: Martian “dogs.” The size of a pony with ten short legs. The fastest creature on Barsoom. Although fierce fighters, they can become loyal to humanoid masters, and the green men frequently domesticate them. Woola, John Carter’s sidekick creature, is a calot.

Banths: The Martian “lion,” these are beasts you don’t want to mess with. Hairless except for a mane, they roam the sea bottoms solo or in packs and attack anything with their gigantic jaws. [Damn, they don’t appear in the movie, although they are mentioned once.]
The White Apes: You’ve seen these monstrosities on the posters and in the trailers. They aren’t strictly “apes” in the Earth sense, although they have a simian appearance. Hairless except for a spot along their heads, they have an extra pair of arms and tower fifteen feet tall and often use crude weapons such as clubs. They live in tribes, and a few have developed more complex societies. But I don’t think we’ll see any of those advanced ones in the movie. If you spot of these creatures, start running the other direction a fast as you can.

Zitidar: A Mastodon-sized beast used as a draft animal by the green Martians.

Thuria and Cluros: The Barsoomian names for Phobos and Deimos, Mars’s two tiny moons.

“Kaor!”: Traditional Barsoomian greeting.

“Sak”: Barsoomian for “jump.”

Dotar Sojat: This is perhaps the most confusing term used in the movie. It’s the name the Tharks give to John Carter after he kills two Tharks with those names; part of a Thark tradition, although not so clear in the film, where Tars Tarkas implies that it means “my right arm.”

Edgar Rice Burroughs: A fictional version of the real author, at least twenty years older than him and from the South. (The real ERB was from Chicago.) Played by Daryl Sabara.

There you go! There’s much more, but this should serve as a good starting point. Print this out and take it with you so you can impress the people seated beside you with your Barsoomian knowledge! (But not during the movie, okay? Please let all of us enjoy big multi-armed green things beating each other up. This is a basic human right.)