Thursday, 22 March 2012

Gulliver of Mars (1905)

Written almost ten years before Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, one cannot help but notice similarities between it and Edwin L. Arnold's Gulliver of Mars. Originally published as Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, Arnold's protagonist is a Civil War veteran who happens across a magic carpet that transports him bodily to Mars. There he falls in with the ancient ruling civilization and falls in love with its princess, but must confront the brawny masculinists who threaten the peace and his lady-love's modesty. Sword-in-hand, Jones quests across this early example of the Planetary Romance, fighting to win back his princess.

Not well received during his lifetime, Arnold's novel has been critically reappraised for its possible role in inspiring Burroughs' classic series and its undisputed role in the development of the Planetary Romance genre. On a sober, mature reading, Gulliver of Mars actually fares better than the adventures of John Carter. Those same excesses that drove Burroughs' popularity - the blatant "Mary Sue" characters, the textbook Hero's Journey, the obvious narrative expedients, the unreflective escapism - are refreshingly absent in Arnold's work.

Gullivar Jones is a good soldier, there is no question of that. He is driven to the ends of the Red Planet to find his love. But he does not bore the reader with constant reminders of what a good soldier he is. On the contrary, with the novel being written in the style of a memoirs, Jones is almost too humble about himself and the credibility of his story.

Gulliver of Mars is not without its Edwardian masculinism, inherent as it is to the Hero's Journey and swords n' sandals quests. The defining characteristic of the Martian civilization is that they are such an ancient, lethargic race that marriages are decided by public draw and assented to by an attitude just above apathy. Jones is an oddity not merely because of his strange dress and manner, but because of his passion for the princess. Contagious, it spreads to her and she is willing to risk her own life to provide Jones a means of identifying her ballot in the jar. Just when it seems his goal of bedding his mistress is reached, she is snatched away by the invading barbarians from afar. Furious, Jones tries to frenzy an army to no avail. The men of Mars are too cowardly, comfortable and indifferent. The only one who isn't is the prince, who sold off the princess out of jealously, the opposite of Jones' wholesome and manly red blood.

Making his way by land and sea, Jones tours the Martian environs and befriends its people. Once or twice he even catches himself feeling more sympathy for the brutish, hairy barbarians than for the weak and waifish native peoples of his princess. Still he presses onwards to win her back to her people and his breast. Nevermind, of course, that he does have a girl back home that he was engaged to before the magic carpet spirited him away. She does come to mind occasionally whenever he fears that he will meet his end on this faraway world. He wonders what has become of her and what she must be feeling at this moment, but the wondering passes when he concentrates again on his quest to find his girl in this port.

Though grossly unfaithful in a way that John Carter never succumbed to (Burroughs never did explore the inherent sexuality of his stark naked planet), this indecisiveness of Gullivar Jones is part of what makes him more human and refreshing than Carter. He is dragged along on his adventures, with only spotty help, no retainers falling into his lap by handy coincidence, contradictory in his feelings and ultimately denied a solid resolution. The irony is that despite Carter being a Mary Sue, Jones is more relateable.

1 comment:

Masterless Magician said...

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