Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Reflections on Barsoom, Part 2

Book 4

2. The Artistic Vision of Mars

Art reflects not only the mores and attitudes of the culture in which it is produced but reflects the sensibilities of the times in which it was created. While most readers familiar with the Barsoom novels may envision Edgar Rice Burroughs' hero, John Carter, and his adventures on Mars as portrayed in the artwork of Frank Frazetta:

Classic Frazetta.

That work represents but one artistic vision of Barsoom. Yet a quick Google for "Princess of Mars" turns up an ad containing this iconic model kit representation of Dejah Thoris:

Iconic princess.

Look for fan art online and this is an example of what you'll find:

Inspired fan art.

Obviously that's inspired by master illustrator Frank Frazetta's work. Thus this artistic vision of Barsoom has obtained as the popular one. Granted times, and cultural mores, change. A Princess of Mars was first published circa 1912 as a multi-part serial in All-Story magazine. And it was portrayed quite differently way back when:

Book 1

Yet it is Frazetta's work which is remembered for it more faithfully captures Barsoom as written in the novels. Yet even Frazetta's art was somewhat inhibited. For comparison here's an example of fan art for the character Dejah Thoris:

Dejah Thoris

Actually, as you may have noticed, this particular character is far more prominent in the artwork than is the titular hero. Dejah Thoris has become an iconic figure, so no pressure on the director or actors, yet if fans don't get something like. .

Dejah in action.

Or perhaps. .

Dejah sketch.

Or maybe even something like. .


The 'fan boys' will probably really get nasty, though not without just cause. Disney is synonymous will family friendly entertainment. That begs the question: What are they doing buying the rights to a pulp adventure series in which the characters seem to be either naked or half naked most of the time? Viz.

I looked first at my lifeless clay there upon the floor of the cave and then down at myself in utter bewilderment; for there I lay clothed, and yet here I stood but naked as at the minute of my birth.

Naked and unarmed as I was, I had no desire to face the unseen thing which menaced me.

With the exception of their ornaments all were naked.

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.

There are two ways to interpret this. The characters are either totally nude or they aren't. Naked can imply defenseless, unprotected, exposed, or without covering (as of hair or fur). The word's meaning depends on context. In the above the context is clear, it's used in reference to a character without apparel or clothing. Yet, as typical of many primitive cultures with limited textile resources, they are not entirely lacking ornamental adornments; thus in the context of their culture they are neither naked nor nude. It is only through the prism of our own culture that they appear so.

So why did the author portray the aboriginal inhabitants of Mars this way at all? Surely he must have been aware of this fact?

Indeed he was!

The characters are 'nude' in the novels not for salacious effect but because nudity was, once upon a time, viewed as being metaphoric for a return to an Eden-like state of primal grace. Yet the author also knew that their was a fine line between the "noble naked savage" and the merely "naked savage" and thus it is left to the reader to make their own mind up about the nature of the natives of Mars. Alas, in our contemporary society of the relative present, expressions of sexuality have fallen victim to politically correct fascism. In the lemming rush to judgment nudity has become viewed by purveyors of dogmatic Political Correctness as salacious and impure. This poses a dilemma since the main alien antagonists, a race of being called Tharks, and indeed most of the inhabitants of Barsoom, don't really wear clothes. Then again neither does every culture on our own planet. Witness the following images of Xingu natives of the Amazon river basin in Brazil:


Despite elements of modern influence in their dress their traditional ceremonial garb remains rather minimal, aside from body paint/tatoo art and beads. .


But are they nude or merely naked? Perhaps they are neither. There has always existed a double standard where depictions of aboriginal cultures in their so-called "native state" exist. Edgar Rice Burroughs pulled no punches with his writing about the aborigines of Barsoom, which is perhaps why his novels are so well received. They possess a reality as gritty and candid as any National Geographic article about native cultures. Alas few Hollywood studious have the moral, or intestinal, fortitude to stand up and treat aboriginals and their culture, even fictionalized representations, with the respect they deserve.

But what does this mean for the John Carter of Mars movie adaptation?

Dejah Thoris

# to be concluded in Part 3

Copyright © C. Demetrius Morgan


Bill said...

Excellent work, and I'm looking forward to part three.

Another perspective on the issue of nudity and how naked the Barsoomians really were is to think about Edgar Rice Burroughs' own mindset.

His stories all have a distinctly Victorian sensibility to them, at least in my eyes. All of his work, from Barsoom to the jungles of Africa to Pellucidar, has a feel of the Victorian "Lost World" adventure yarn. Considering that he wrote Princess of Mars in 1912, at the extreme end of what might be termed the Victorian period, these novels are a sort of Lost World unto themselves.

"Naked," from a Victorian perspective, is not so much full nudity as even a partial exposure -- heck, bare shoulders are practically "naked" by this standard.

I've always seen the Barsoomian outfit as being an extension of how the "harness" is usually depicted that covers the essentials as well.

Kester Pelagius said...

Thanks for reading. Interesting take on Barsoom as a "Lost World". I never really thought of it as such but you're right, despite Mars being a dying world, the elements are almost all there.

Quinn said...

It seems to me that "naked as at the minute of my birth" does not leave much room for the Victorian bare shoulders interpretation.