A Princess of Mars — “Barsoom” Series


Readability Age Range



Year Published

Book Review

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the first book in the “Barsoom” series.

Plot Summary

John Carter, a captain in the Confederate army, goes prospecting in Arizona after the end of the Civil War. Carter and his business partner run into trouble with Apache warriors, and the partner is killed. Carter is pursued by the Apaches and ducks into a cave to hide. In the cave, Carter is overcome by a mysterious mist and is transported to the planet Mars.

On Mars, Carter has superhuman strength and agility due to the difference in the planet’s gravity. Shortly after arriving on Mars, or Barsoom as it is called by its habitants, Carter is captured by a tribe of green Martians called the Tharks, and he becomes the responsibility of Tars Tarkas, the tribe’s second in command. The Tharks are a warlike race who stand 15 feet tall and have six limbs. Carter is taken before the community of Tharks, and one of the chiefs harasses him. Carter hits the chief and inadvertently kills him. In the custom of the Tharks, Carter inherits the dead chief’s title and rights, thus becoming a Tharkian chief himself.

Carter soon learns that the Tharks live as a community where possessions are all shared. The Tharks do not have romantic relationships or marry, but instead procreate for the sole purpose of repopulating the community. The females lay eggs. Each year only the most perfect are allowed to hatch in enormous incubators. The rest are destroyed. Offspring are raised as common children of the community and are not shown any love. They are taught how to fight, and if they are found to be defective, they are killed.

Tars Tarkas assigns a female named Sola to find food and shelter for Carter. She also teaches him how to speak the language and use Thark weapons. Carter develops a telepathic ability, but while he can read the minds of others, they cannot read his. Carter is surprised to find that Sola is secretly kind and caring, a stark difference from the other Tharks. While Carter’s living conditions are comfortable, as a prisoner, he is not allowed to leave the tribe.

As Dejah Thoris is being questioned in a community assembly, she is hit in the face by a Tharkian leader. Carter immediately fights and kills this Thark. Carter asks that Sola be responsible for Dejah Thoris instead of Sarkoja, the angry and spiteful Tharkian woman who has been watching her.

Sarkoja, filled with hate and anger toward both John Carter and Dejah Thoris, plots to have Carter killed by another Thark. She almost succeeds. Sola gets hurt in the process.

Knowing that she can trust Carter, Sola confides in him that unlike other Tharks, she knows who her parents are. She tells him that her parents secretly fell in love and while her father, Tars Tarkas, was sent off on an expedition, her mother, Gozava, had an egg and kept it hidden. After Sola was hatched, Gozava met her secretly at night, cared for her and showered her with affection. Sarkoja discovered both mother and child and reported them to Tal Hajus, the Tharkian chieftain. Gozava quickly hid Sola with the other Tharkian children just before she was arrested and killed by Tal Hajus. When Tars Tarkas returned from the expedition, he found out his love was dead and didn’t know what happed to his child. He has been plotting to kill Tal Hajus ever since.

Carter knows that Tal Hajus plans to kill Dejah Thoris, so he escapes with her and Sola in an attempt to get her back to Helium. The trio crosses paths with the green Martians of Warhoon, and Carter allows himself to be captured so Sola and Deja Thoris can get away and continue on to Helium.

After Carter escapes from Warhoon, he stumbles onto an “atmosphere factory,” a facility that provides breathable air for all of Barsoom. He begs the factory’s keeper to let him in, and he does. The keeper soon regrets helping Carter and plots to kill him. Carter telepathically hears the man’s thoughts as well as the access code to open the facility’s doors. Carter manages to escape to Zodango, a city-state that is at war with Helium.

Carter learns that Dejah Thoris and Sola are prisoners in Zodango. Believing that Carter is dead and desperate to stop the war that is destroying Helium, Dejah Thoris agrees to marry Sab Than, the prince of Zodango. When Carter tries to rescue Dejah Thoris, she tells him that he is too late. She has made a promise to Sab Than, and according to her people’s customs, she cannot break it.

Carter leaves for Helium, determined to get help in saving Dejah Thoris. Along the way, he gets lost and ends up in the middle of a battle between the Tharks and a rival tribe. Carter saves Tars Tarkas, and after the battle ends, Carter tells Tars Tarkas the same story that Sola told him about Gozava. Tars Tarkas confronts Sorkoja, who fleas rather than face death. He also challenges Taj Hajus to a battle and kills him, thus becoming the chieftain of the Tharks.

Tars Tarkas agrees to help Carter in the war between Zodango and Helium, and also enlists the help of rival tribes, resulting in a massive army of green Martians marching across the desert to Zodango. The army attacks Zodango, killing both Sab Than and his father. No longer under an obligation to marry another, Carter asks Dejah Thoris to marry him and she agrees.

Leaving some of the green Martians to loot and burn Zodanga, Carter, Tars Tarkas and Deja Thoris take the rest of the army to Helium to fight the war raging there. They defeat the Zodangan fleet both in the air and on the ground, and Deja Thoris is finally reunited with her family.

After the war, the Tharks and Helium forge new bonds of peace and friendship. John Carter and Dejah Thoris marry and for nine years, Carter serves and fights as a prince of Helium.

Helium gets news that the atmosphere factory has malfunctioned; the keeper is dead, and no one can get into the facility. The people of Barsoom have only days to live. When only an hour of breathable air remains, Carter remembers that he knows the code to open the facility’s doors, allowing a worker to get inside. Carter asphyxiates before knowing if the factory was repaired and wakes up in the cave in Arizona.

Broken and sorrowful, Carter spends the next 10 years wondering what happened to his life on Mars. He prays that somehow he will be taken back to the red planet.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems

In the book’s prologue, Burroughs says he saw John Carter standing with his arms stretched to heaven as if he were praying. He did not believe Carter was a religious man. Carter refers to the Roman god of war, Mars, as being the god of his vocation.

When it is time to die, inhabitants of Barsoom go into the river Iss and are never seen again. They believe the afterlife begins where the river empties into the lost sea of Korus in the valley Dor.

Authority Roles

Tharkian children are raised by foster mothers, who teach them how to talk, use weapons and fend for themselves so they won’t be a burden on the community. There is no parental or brotherly love in the community. Dejah Thoris tells Carter that the humanoid red Martians love and care deeply about their children.

Profanity & Violence

God’s name is taken in vain with help. Lord is also taken in vain. John refers to the Apaches as savages and the green Martians as grotesque and hideous monsters, demons and devils.

The Apaches capture Carter’s business partner and kill him. On three separate occasions, Carter fights Tharkian chiefs and kills them, inheriting their titles and privileges. Two ape-like creatures that live on Barsoom also attack Carter. The creatures try to club Carter to death, but he overpowers them and kills them both.

The Tharks shoot down airships, killing several red Martians and capturing Dejah Thoris. Dejah Thoris is struck across the face in a Tharkian general assembly, giving her a bloody nose. Immediately, Carter fights her attacker and beats him to death.

When Carter is captured by the green Martians of Warhoon, he witnesses a brutal fight between leaders. Carter also participates in games where captives are put in an arena and fight to the death. Tars Tarkas challenges Taj Hajus for leadership and easily kills him.

While trying to free Dejah Thoris, Carter kills four guards in Zodanga. Several Zodangan soldiers are killed when Carter and the green Martians attack the city. Dejah Thoris tells Carter that Barsoom’s customs will not allow her to marry the man who kills Sab Than, so while Carter fights him, he lets Tars Tarkas kill the prince. Thousands of soldiers are killed in the final battle between Helium and Zodanga.

Sexual Content

Sola’s mother told Tars Tarkas that she hated how cruel and unloving Tharks were, expecting him to rebuff her for her thoughts. Instead, Tars Tarkas kissed her. They have a relationship resulting in Sola’s birth. Carter allows himself to be captured so Dejah Thoris can escape, and he kisses her goodbye. After he finds out she has promised to marry Sab Than, Carter kisses Dejah Thoris and promises to rescue her. When Sab Than is dead, Carter kisses Dejah Thoris and asks her to marry him. Carter kisses Dejah Thoris for the last time before he leaves for the atmosphere factory. Tal Hajus threatens to rape Dejah Thoris before killing her. After Carter and Dejah Thoris marry, they have an egg and are waiting for it to hatch.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments

Nudity: John Carter arrives on Barsoom naked and notices that the Tharks are also naked. When Dejah Thoris is captured, Carter notices that she is also naked. Dejah Thoris mentions seeing pictures of people on Earth and comments on how strange clothes and hats are. When Carter meets the keeper of the atmosphere factory, the man is naked except for a plaque that he wears around his neck.

Suicide: Keeping with tradition, captains of the Zodangan airships commit suicide by jumping from their ships after they surrender.

Movie Tie-In: Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and the movie differ, compare this book review with Plugged In’s movie review for John Carter.

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected].

For additional parenting resources, download a free issue of Thriving Family, a marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family, at ThrivingFamily.com/magazine.

Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email