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The Chessmen of Mars  
The Chessmen of Mars
dust-jacket of The Chessmen of Mars
Author Edgar Rice Burroughs
Country United States
Language English
Series Barsoom
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher A. C. McClurg
Publication date 1922
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 375 pp
Preceded by Thuvia, Maid of Mars
Followed by The Master Mind of Mars

The Chessmen of Mars is an Edgar Rice Burroughs science fiction novel, the fifth of his famous Barsoom series. Burroughs began writing it in January, 1921, and the finished story was first published in Argosy All-Story Weekly as a six-part serial in the issues for February 18 and 25 and March 4, 11, 18 and 25, 1922. It was later published as a complete novel by A. C. McClurg in November, 1922.


Plot introduction

John Carter's descendants

In this novel Burroughs focuses on another a younger member of the family established by John Carter and Dejah Thoris, protagonists of the first three books in the series. The heroine this time is their daughter Tara, princess of Helium, whose hand is sought by the gallant Gahan, Jed (prince) of Gathol. Both Helium and Gathol are prominent Barsoomian city states.[1]

Plot summary

When meeting Martian Princes, Gahan of Gathol in her home city of Helium, Tara is initially unimpressed, viewing him as something of a popinjay, and not much of a man, either. Later she takes her flier into a storm, loses control of the craft and the storm takes her far away from home to an unfamiliar region of Barsoom. After landing and fleeing from a pack of ferocious Banths (Martian lions), she is captured by the horrific Kaldanes, an intelligent non-human race like a crab in appearance, consisting almost entirely of a head with a powerful brain able to move with the aid of tiny legs. The Kaldanes have bred a complementary symbiotic race of headless human-like creatures called Rykors, which they can attach themselves to and ride like a horse. While imprisoned, Tara manages to win over one of the Kaldanes, Ghek, with her lovely singing voice.

Gahan, having lost his heart to Tara, sets out to find her, only to get caught by the same storm. He goes overboard after a valiant rescue attempt of one of his crew. Through sheer coincidence he manages to reach Bantoom, the realm of the Kaldanes. He manages to rescue Tara and together with the disaffected Kaldane, Ghek, they flee in Tara's crippled flier. Gahan, no longer dressed in princely finery and worn from his ordeals, is not recognized by Tara. In light of her earlier reaction to him, Gahan thinks it unwise to reveal his true nature and assumes the identity of a Panthan (warrior) called Turan.

They manage to reach the isolated city of Manator. Craving food and water, Gahan as Turan ventures into the city only to find himself tricked and entrapped by the inhabitants. Soon after, Tara and Ghek are also captured. Manator subjects captives to a fight to the death in the arena in a modified version of Jetan, a popular Barsoomian board game resembling Chess; the living version uses people as the game pieces on a life-sized board, with each taking of a piece being a duel to the death.

Throughout the novel, Gahan is forced to prove himself in the approved heroic manner of all Burroughsian protagonists in his effort to win Tara's heart. As always, the heroine must be rescued from numerous perils and sticky situations.


The novel was written during 1921, from January 7 to November 12. It was a particularly inventive and broad piece of imagination, including many details of the traditions, beasts and characters featuring in the novel. While working on the piece, Burroughs created a worksheet with 70 entries relating to architecture, locations, equipment and geographical locations. Of these, probably the most remarkable, is his creation of Jetan, the Martian version of Chess, played with living people. Burroughs was a keen chess player, and played games with his assistant, John Shea, while writing the novel, which he invariably won. Burroughs, as he had done in prior Barsoom novels, cast himself as John Carter's nephew, entrusted with Carter's manuscript of another Martian tale. He actually mentions these games with Shea in the opening pages of the novel.[2]


The novel can be classed as a planetary romance.[3] This genre is a subset of science fiction, similar to sword and sorcery, but including scientific elements.[4] Most of the action in a planetary romance is on the surface of an alien world, usually includes sword fighting, monsters, supernatural elements as telepathy rather than magic, and involves civilizations echoing those on Earth in pre-technological eras, particularly composed of kingdoms or theocratic nations. Spacecraft may appear, but are usually not central to the story.[3]

Major characters

  • Gahan of Gathol: A prince of the Martian kingdom of Gathol who falls in love with Tara of Helium and is initially spurned by her when revealing his feelings. He later disguises himself as Turan, a mercenary, after rescuing her from the valley of the Kaldanes, revealing his true identity at the conclusion of the tale, by which time Tara has fallen in love with his assumed identity.[1]
  • Tara of Helium: A Princess of Helium, daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris.
  • Ghek: A Kaldane, unusual among his kind in his ability to appreciate emotion, dissatisfied with Kaldane society who is charmed by Tara's singing, and joins Gahan of Gathol and Tara of Helium in their escape from the valley of the Kaldanes.[1]



Scientific basis

Burroughs vision of Mars was loosely inspired by astronomical speculation of the time, especially that of Percival Lowell, who saw the planet as a formerly Earthlike world now becoming less hospitable to life due to its advanced age,[5] whose inhabitants had built canals to bring water from the polar caps to irrigate the remaining arable land.[5] Lowell was influenced by Italian astronomer, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, who in 1878, had observed features on Mars he called canali (Italian for "channels"). Mistranslation of this into English as "canals" fuelled belief the planet was inhabited.[6] The theory of an inhabited planet with flowing water was disproved by data provided by Russian and American probes such as the two Viking missions which found a dead, frozen world where water could not exist in a fluid state.[5]

World of Barsoom

A million years before the narrative commences, Mars was a lush world with oceans. As the oceans receded, and the atmosphere grew thin, the planet has devolved into a landscape of partial barbarism;[7] living on an aging planet, with dwindling resources, the inhabitants of Barsoom have become hardened and warlike, fighting one another to survive.[8] Barsoomians distribute scarce water supplies via a worldwide system of canals, controlled by quarreling city-states. The thinning Martian atmosphere is artificially replenished from an "atmosphere plant".[9]

It is a world with clear territorial divisions between White, Yellow, Black, Red and Green skinned races. Each has particular traits and qualities, which seem to define the characters of almost every individuals within them. Burroughs concept of race in Barsoom, is more similar to species than ethnicity.[10]

Specific settings in the novel

Bantoom, Valley of the Kaldanes

A hidden valley. Dwelling place of the Kaldanes, which are mostly brain, and the Rykors, headless bodies that the Kaldanes use as vehicles. The Kaldanes mostly live in tunnels below the ground. It is ruled by a king Kaldane, with exceptional telepathic powers. Tara of Helium ends up in Bantoom after her flier is blown off course by a massive storm.[1]


A technologically backward Red Martian civilization, which has no firearms or fliers, survives by raiding caravans and prevents anyone from leaving their society. They have two distinctive traditions, firstly a habit of displaying the dead, covered in ornaments, and secondly playing a live version of the Martian chess, Jetan. Gahan of Gathol, Tara of Helium and Kaldane, Ghek, discover the location while fleeing the valley of the Kaldanes.[1]

Excessive intellectualism as a theme

While Burroughs is generally seen as a writer who produced work of limited philosophical value, Burroughs wrote two Barsoom novels, which appear to explore, or parody the limits of excessive intellectual development at the expense of bodily or physical existence. The first was Thuvia, Maid of Mars, in which Thuvia and Carthoris discover a remnant of ancient White Martian civilization, the Lotharians. The Lotharians have mostly died out, but maintain the illusion of a functioning society through powerful telepathic projections, and have formed two factions, which appear portray the excesses of pointless intellectual debate - one faction, the realists believes in imagining meals to provide sustenance, another, the etherealists, believes in surviving without eating. The Chessmen of Mars is the second example of this trend.[11]

The Chessmen of Mars introduces the Kaldanes of Bantoom. Their form is almost all head but for six vestigial legs and a pair of Chelae. Their racial goal is to evolve towards pure intellect and away from bodily existence. In order to function in the physical realm, they have bred the Rykors, a complementary species composed of a body similar to that of a perfect specimen of Red Martian but lacking a head. When the Kaldane places itself upon the neck of the Rykor, a bundle of tentacles connects with the Rykor's spinal cord, allowing the brain of the Kaldane to interface with the body of the Rykor. Should the Rykor become damaged or die, the Kaldane merely climbs upon another as an earthling might change a horse.[1]

The Kaldanes have sacrificed their bodies to become pure brain, but although they can interface with Rykor bodies, their ability to function compared to a normal people, with an integrated mind and body, is ineffectual and clumsy.[11] The Kaldanes, almost pure brain, are also, while highly intelligent, ugly ineffectual creatures when not interfaced with a Rykor body. Tara of Helium compares them to effete intellectuals from her home city, with a self important sense of superiority, and Gahan of Gathol muses that it might be better to find a balance between the intellect and bodily passions.[12]

Jetan and its influence

Front cover of the 1963 Ballantine Books paperback edition of Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Cover illustration by Robert Abbett (Illustrator).

The game of Jetan is a Martian variety of chess. The board consists of 100 black and orange squares, laid in an alternating pattern. Both black and orange players are given 20 pieces. In the novel it is played at life size, at the arena in the Barsoomian location of Manator, with actual living people, who are dressed to appear the same as the pieces they represent. The game is a fight to the death, when a warrior is moved into one of the squares, and a warrior of the opposing color occupies the space, the two must engage in mortal combat.[13] The game is intended to portray a battle between the Black Martians of the south and the Yellow Martians of the North and hence the board is traditionally orientated to these directions.[14] While criminals and slaves are usually used as pieces, nobles also participate on occasions.[1] It is played in Manator to win a beautiful woman, usually an exceptionally comely slave. It undoubtedly originates from Burrough's own fascination with Chess.[13]

On August 6, 1922 Burroughs received a letter from a prisoner, Elston B. Sweet, an inmate of Leavenworth Prison. Sweet and another inmate had used the references to Jetan in the novel to make a Jetan set, with carved pieces, after which they had played numerous games, and the game had become popular with other prisoners. Burroughs wrote back on August 16, 1922 to inform the pair they had created the first ever actual set. Interest in the game from fans was high, consequently he included the rules in an appendix[13], entitled "Jetan, or Martian Chess"[15], when the novel version was published. A chapter on the game was included in the 1968 book Chess Variations by John Gollon.[13] Gollon made a Jetan set, curious about the game principally as a novelty and played with it; he was surprised by how much he enjoyed the game, and even described it as a 'respectable game'.[14]

The concept inspired imitation by authors of later planetary romances influenced by Burroughs, each of whom felt compelled to invent their own extraterrestrial version of chess to be fought with human beings. Instances of such homage include:

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone provides a rare instance of its use in fantasy, in a scene in which her three protagonists Harry, Hermionie, and Ron must play as pieces in a life-like game of Wizard's Chess.


The copyright for this story has expired in the United States and, thus, now resides in the public domain there. The text is available via Project Gutenberg.

Preceded by
Thuvia, Maid of Mars
Barsoom series
The Chessmen of Mars
Succeeded by
The Master Mind of Mars


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Bleiler, Everett Franklin; Bleiler, Richard (1990). Science Fiction, the Early Years. Kent State University Press. p. 99. ISBN 0873384164.  
  2. ^ Porges, Irwin (1975). Edgar Rice Burroughs. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press. p. 163. ISBN 4500-30482.  
  3. ^ a b Westfahl, Gary (2000). Space and Beyond. Greenwood Publishing Groups. p. 37. ISBN 0313308462.  
  4. ^ Harris-Fain, Darren (2005). Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 147. ISBN 1570035857.  
  5. ^ a b c Baxter, Stephen (2005). Glenn Yeffeth. ed. "H.G. Wells’ Enduring Mythos of Mars". War of the Worlds: fresh perspectives on the H.G. Wells classic/ edited by Glenn Yeffeth (BenBalla): 186–7. ISBN 1932100555.  
  6. ^ Seed, David (2005). A Companion to Science Fiction. Blackwell Publishing. p. 546. ISBN 1405112182.  
  7. ^ Bainbridge, Williams Sims (1986). Dimensions of Science Fiction. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 132. ISBN 0-674-20725-4.  
  8. ^ Sharp, Patrick B. (2007). Savage Perils. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 94. ISBN 080613822X.  
  9. ^ Slotkin, Richard (1998). Gunfighter Nation. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 205. ISBN 0806130318.  
  10. ^ Slotkin, Richard (1998). Gunfighter Nation. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 203–205. ISBN 0806130318.  
  11. ^ a b Scholes, Robert; Rabkin, Eric S. (1977). Science Fiction: Story.Science.Vision. Oxford University Press. pp. 13–14. ISBN 0-19-502174-6.  
  12. ^ Holtsmark, Erling B. (1986). Edgar Rice Burroughs. Boston: Twain Publishers. p. 29–30. ISBN 0-8057-7459-9.  
  13. ^ a b c d Porges, Irwin (1975). Edgar Rice Burroughs. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press. pp. 348–9. ISBN 4500-30482.  
  14. ^ a b Porges, Irwin (1975). Edgar Rice Burroughs. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press. p. 351. ISBN 4500-30482.  
  15. ^ Reneau, Reneau; Reneau-Santiago, Rius (2003). Misanthropology. Don Lazaro Translations. p. 199. ISBN 0972954902.  
  • Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. p. 66.  

External links

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

The Chessmen of Mars
by Edgar Rice Burroughs


PD-icon.svg This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.


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