March 23, 2012

Asian Elements of Barsoom


This is all conjecture, as of course I never knew Edgar Rice Burroughs; but I posit that ERB took a lot of his inspiration from Asia in writing his Barsoom stories.  Like any other writer, ERB would have sourced at least some of his ideas from what was going on in the world at his time, so let’s see what the picture was like from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, when Under the Moons of Mars was published:

Rise of Modern Archaeology
The mid-1800s saw a torrent of archaeological works and discoveries, awakening a sense of mankind’s true age and rekindling a sense for the mortality of civilizations – motifs very prominent in the Barsoom stories. 

Valley of the Kings, Egypt

In 1840, Layard was excavating Nineveh; in 1871 Schliemann was excavating Troy; and in 1907, Howard Carter partnered with Lord Carnarvon to dig in the Valley of Kings, which would lead to the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

It’s easy to trace ERB’s fascination with dead cities and lost civilizations to these archaeological efforts, as well as the ‘lost race’ literature spawned by them, such as the works of H. Rider Haggard.  After all, who can resist the vista of ‘a rose-red city, half as old as Time?’

The Princely States of India
This was the time that the princes of Rajputana and other parts of India that had remained under the rule of local potentates were touring the world in style, while at the same time British public figures would often have gone to India themselves.  Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II of Jaipur made waves when he visited England in 1902, bringing the two largest silver objects in the world – to carry his drinking water.

Zitidars: from Dynamite Comics

I’m sure ERB’s ideas for small, warring monarchical city-states was informed as much by the states of India as by Ancient Greece, and the descriptions of pomp – especially of the Martian caravans with their ‘mastodonic zitidars’ are a dead giveaway. 

Also from India, I believe, are ERB’s descriptions of Barsoomian architecture: in particular, the idea that the entire facades of buildings are entirely covered in relief sculpture, such as found in Hindu temples:

The Rajputs and Marathas also sometimes wore two swords, but these swords were usually the same size.  Instead the two swords idea I believe came from Japan.

In 1854, Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened U.S. relations with Japan, helping trigger the Meiji Restoration and the opening of Japan to international trade.  The decades that followed saw a mania of japanoiserie sweeping the west, with the first photographs from Japan appearing in books and periodicals.

Hand-tinted samurai photo, c.1850s

It is here where I think Burroughs got his ideas for the wearing of two swords, one long and one short, and the code of honor requiring a warrior to meet his opponent with an equal or lesser weapon (something which by the way I had hoped to see in the movie, but didn’t).

America Acquires the Philippines
By a shrewd piece of double-dealing, the Spanish government – already losing the Philippines to a popular revolution – sold the islands to the United States after their defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Immediately the Americans found themselves dealing with the same problems the Spaniards had – including the feared Iranun and Sulu pirates.  Striking from hidden, fortified bases – sometimes in incredibly picturesque locations that are now tourist destinations! – these raiders terrorized locals and expatriates alike with their propensity for taking slaves. 

From this, I believe, ERB took his ideas for Black Pirate culture, the hidden Black Pirate base in Omean, and to me the title of the Black Pirate princes – Dator – is a dead giveaway, pointing to the Malay word datu

This last connection struck me only yesterday, as I was re-reading Gods of Mars.  Having left my battered old physical copy in Manila, I was reading from the Gutenberg Australia archive, when a trick of pagination, or perhaps my mind just skipped something, rendered Dator Xodar as Dato Xodar to my eye.  Dato?!  It was when that element clicked that I got the yen to write this article.

I find it really cool that, for all its escapist pleasures, the Barsoom stories were also a mirror of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ times and the world as he saw it.


  1. I think you're right that there's some Orientalism or chinoserie in Barsoom. I say a lot of it is disguised (or either our views are so different that his). The names of Barsoomians often have a bit of a "I think this is Chinese sounding about it" (Matai Shang, being a great example).

  2. Yup, Matai Shang sounded Chinese - or maybe Malay-Chinese. What I love about ERB's naming choices for Barsoom is that, with just a few exceptions, they roll well off the tongue; they're short, easy to remember, look easy to pronounce, and praise Issus, they came long before the trend of putting apostrophes everywhere in F/SF names.

    I also love the custom of creating names by combining syllables from the parents' names.


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