Monday, June 18, 2012

Return to Barsoom

Ock, Ohem, Oktei, Wies, Barsoom... the mystic phrase that returned John Carter to Mars.

I got back from a camping trip with the kiddos and the John Carter movie was waiting at home… good old Netflix.  I enjoyed the film a lot - it's not a deep movie, but it is a rousing adventure tale, and it was delightful to see an influential early pulp story flickering on the screen.  As a gamer who invests a significant amount of time into imaginary worlds, I found the motif of Carter's return to Barsoom particularly compelling.

Consider:  when we first meet him in the story, Carter is a rootless Civil War veteran living with the ghosts of his family.  There's a sense of anger and desperation.  On Barsoom, however, Carter possesses super human strength and jumping ability; he wins the hand of a beautiful princess, unites a warring planet, and overthrows a tyrant.  He is the "Dotar Sojat" of the Tharsk people.  Is it any wonder he spends his fortune attempting to find another medallion to return to Barsoom, rather than live out the rest of his life on Earth?

That's the part that made for such a compelling metaphor for gaming.  The campaign represents your own Barsoom, where players can forge their own roles as champions of the oppressed, or tyrannical warlords, or daring treasure hunters.  The setting is an opportunity to forget about life in the cubicle, or office, or out on the job site, or whatever your 9 to 5 Monday through Friday gig requires.  You get to project your consciousness to Barsoom for a few hours every time the DM kicks off the next game and the dice start rolling.

The other thing I can appreciate is how influential John Carter of Mars has been on post-Barsoom writers.  The conceit of living an alternate life in a fantastic realms is echoed in stories like Cameron's Avatar film, or the Thomas Covenant fantasy novels, or the movie Total Recall; heck, the 1990 film Total Recall is practically an updated love letter to the earlier John Carter stories.  (I can't speak if that's true for the original Philip K Dick story).  I'm sure if I think on it further, I'll identify more stories that use the motif of a hero choosing a fantastic other-world over a mundane life on Earth.  Here's an interesting question for the literary folks in the readership:  how many stories predating Barsoom involve a main character discovering an amazing alternate world, losing it, and then spending their time attempting to return?  I'm assuming the element of losing and returning to Barsoom figured in the original ERB stories.

In the meantime, good gaming, and may all your campaigns be so vivid and exciting!

Now get back to work.  It's Monday.


  1. Hmmm...Good question. I don't know of many that have the "trying to return" motif (at least, I don't remember if _Gullivar Jones_ had that element or not).

  2. Last of the Mohicans? Not an exact match, for sure, but I think the same emotional resonance is there. Certainly the notion of a civilization producing both loss of innocence and triumph over "savages" is a strong element of Romanticism (and post-colonial guilt more generally). Rousseau, Byron, etc.

  3. Baum's first Oz book was published in 1900, making it a contemporary of Peter Pan, and I believe (although I know little about Oz) that such yearning is common to both of them. And Oz books were still coming out in 1912 when Barsoom hit the newstands.

    Working backwards, Swift's Gulliver yearns for life back among the houynnhyms after he leaves them, and that's probably a quotation from the basic form of the faerieland excursion narrative which is alluded to in, say, Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, and possibly draws from religious literature with its visions of paradise lost.

    Working forwards, Flash Gordon's the most obvious and direct quotation, but both Luke Skywalker and Arthur Dent wind up preferring wandering around the galaxy to their own dirtball of origin. Superman's an interesting reversal since he winds up on Earth, like the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. (To the objection that both Superman's and Arthur's planets of origin are destroyed and therefore they are forced into exile against their will, I say that both heroes' worlds break their own laws so often that this objection hardly matters, and Arthur is repeatedly offered chances to go back (in time, to alternate Earths, etc) and I bet Supes is too but I've never bothered to follow him).

  4. Sindbad always bitterly regrets leaving home and says he's a bad person for feeling wanderlust, so he's kind of an anti-Carter. Which makes me think they could be a great double act.

  5. Interesting stuff - my first thought was Lost Horizon, and the quest for Shangri La, but I saw it was actually published 1933. Another one might The King of Elfland's Daughter, where the main character spends a lifetime trying to get back to Elfland. That makes me wonder if the theme starts in the Chansons de Geste or other late Medieval romantic tales, even the grail vision. It does have Biblical echoes of paradise or the epic of Gilgamesh.