The Tarzan Novels Of Edgar Rice Burroughs
#5: Tarzan And The Jewels Of Opar
Part 1: On The Road To Opar
I have put off reviewing this Tarzan several times. I like it but I find it difficult. This may have been the first Tarzan book I read, probably in 1950. While I have always liked Tarzan And The Ant Men and Tarzan The Terrible, Opar was always my favorite.
Of course in 1950 one's choice was limited to eight or ten, not including the first, so I read the later novels only recently. Tarzan And The Lion Man is my current favorite. Opar was written in 1915 about a year after the commencement of The Great War, the occupation of Haiti and war scares with Mexico.
This was also after ERB's first spurt that ran from 1911-1914. The latter year emptied the pent up reservoir containing the residue of his early reading and experiences. That period may be described as ERB's 'amateur period.' The latter part of 1914 began what may be described as his professional life as a writer. The spontaneous automatic period was over; he had to think out his stories. That meant he had to do some new reading. Opar coincided with his completion of reading Gibbon's Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. What effect that may have had on Opar I'm not sure.
At the foundation of ERB's approach to his stories are the three titles of Twain's Prince And The Pauper, Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy and Wister's The Virginian. After 1914 he would refer to Jack London and write a series based on the style of Booth Tarkington. While he continued to produce during the twenties, the period was also one of intense reading that produced the magnificent stories of the early thirties. That need not concern us here.
While his favorite three books were the rock on which he built his church, the Oz stories of Baum contribute to the superstructure as they do so prominently in Tarzan And The Jewels Of Opar. The second chapter is even titled: "On The Road To Opar." ERB only left out the yellow brick and changed the Emerald City to Opar. It is clearly indicated that Opar is based on the Emerald City.
Rather than being emerald Opar is red and gold. La, the high priestess of Opar can be considered a combination of Baum's Ozma and Rider Haggard's She.
The Baum connection is strengthened by the fact that, as I believe but can only conjecture at this point, Burroughs visited Baum at his Hollywood home during ERB's residence in Southern California in 1913. One guesses but it is probable that ERB got some pointers from Baum on how to keep the Tarzan series going as Baum was producing volume after volume of Oz stories. In point of fact Baum had run out of ideas in 1910 attempting to close off the series. He was compelled to restart the series in 1913 at the insistence of his fans.
Burroughs had effectively closed the Tarzan series with The Son Of Tarzan. Son is a favorite of a lot of people but for me it's pretty much a rehash of the first three stories; I call the four The Russian Quartet after the villains of the series. Tarzan was already old in Beasts Of Tarzan but by Son he had to come out of retirement. There was no future then, so the Big Bwana had to be reborn. The old Tarzan ended with Son; the new Tarzan began with Jewels Of Opar. A fine new beginning it was.
The Ballantine edition of 1963 prefaces the story with a quote titled: "In Quest Of A Lost Identity," that might easily be changed to "A Search For A New Identity," for in fact, Burroughs' old identity had been lost when he gained success and riches. ERB wanted to go forward not back:Tarzan staggered to his feet and groped his way about among the underground ways of Opar. What was he? Where was he? His head ached, but otherwise he felt no ill effects from the blow that had felled him. He did not recall the accident, nor aught of what had led up to it.Tarzan loses his memory at great stress points in Burroughs' life. They take place at Opar in underground caverns surrounded by a wealth of gold. One might think then that they are related to Burroughs' financial success and through La to his sex life.
At last he found the doorway leading inward beneath the city and temple. Nothing spurred his hurt memory to a recollection of past familiarity with his surroundings. He blundered on through the darkness as though he were traversing an open plain under a noonday sun.
Suddenly he reached the brink of a well, stepped outward into space, lunged forward, and shot downward into the inky depths below. Still clutching his spear, he struck the water and sank beneath its surface…
One must bear in mind that ERB came into the beginnings of his success just as he was edging into the mid-life crisis. Given a reasonable amount of money in 1913 he reacted in a nouveau riche manner. Remembering back to 1899 and his private railcar trip to NYC and back he tried to relive it with Emma. His trip with Frank Martin troubled his memory. He recalled it 1914 when he took the job on the railroad in Salt Lake City. In 1913 he packed the family aboard with all his belongings and rode out to Los Angeles and San Diego. He may very well have rented a whole Pullman car for himself and family that would be equivalent to a private car but we don't know for sure at this time. We only know that he was fixated on a private car and that he rode first class.
We can be sure that he was realizing all his dreams as fast as he could earn the money to pay for them or perhaps before he had the money.
He was moving through uncharted territory thus "he blundered on through the darkness as though he were traversing an open plain under a noonday sun."
ERB has his eyes wide open but the unfamiliar demands being placed on him were equivalent to darkness: he couldn't be sure whether he was making the right decisions. "What was he? Where was he." This is a dilemma of the newly successful. And then by late 1914, early 1915 he realized that he was in over his head.Suddenly he reached the brink of a well, stepped outward into space, lunged forward, and shot downward into the inky depths below. Still clutching his spear, he struck the water and sank beneath the surface…What? Of course. McClurg's released the first Tarzan as a book in 1914 treating the release in what seems a peculiar way. The contract had been signed, apparently perpetual and unbreakable, ERB, Inc. only bought it out in the fifties, so he must have realized that he had been had. He committed the same error in 1931 when he signed his contract with MGM so he didn't learn much over the years.
His contract would certainly have been a contributing factor but there may have been other sources that put him in over his head. It is significant that Tarzan didn't drop his spear; he was still capable fo defending himself.
Now, one would have to believe that Burroughs was at least famous in Chicago. By 1917-18 Tarzan was a household word recognized it seems by everyone. It would be odd indeed if sexual temptations weren't placed before him. Literary groupies surrounded authors then as groupies did musicians in the '60s.
La herself is a repressed sexual image while the novel abounds in sexual images. Perhaps signficantly when the rutting elephants charge the priests of Opar Tarzan takes refuge in a tree high above the ruckus. Even then the rutting elephants try to uproot his tree to bring the Big Bwana to earth but do not succeed. One may infer that while temptation was strong ERB remained faithful to Emma.
However by 1918's Tarzan The Untamed, note the title, Jane is killed while Tarzan's eye immediately wanders forming a near dalliance with another woman. It was also at this period that ERB walked out on Emma. As told in Tarzan The Terrible, note the title, and Tarzan And The Golden Lion Tarzan and Emma were separated through those two novels and Tarzan The Untamed.
So, Jewels of Opar may be describing the dark side of success when the master tempter attacks you at your most vulnerable plus Burroughs was in full blown mid-life crisis by 1914-15.
The forces of change were shaking him like a terrier shaking a rat. His situation was terrible and wonderful at the same time. So, with Tarzan And The Jewels Of Opar he launched himself on his career as a professional writer.
The novels of Burroughs previous to Opar had flowed from his experience and early reading. The reading had provided the framework that ERB fleshed out with his interests, ideas and experience in essentially an allegorical form. David Adams quite justly points out that Burroughs relies quite heavily on a fairy tale format although it took me a long time to recognize it. ERB's wonderlands are lands of enchantment as much as that of Mallory's and Pyle's Arthurian England. That is certainly clear in this book.
Now Burroughs has to actually invent and construct a story from scratch. Once again he relies on his reading. The first chapter titled "The Belgian And The Arab" encapsulates his reading and perhaps watercooler discussions of the Belgian administration of the Congo with the depredations of the Arab slaver Tippu Tib as gleaned from Stanley's two tremendous adventures, Through The Dark Continent and In Darkest Africa.
In the first Stanley encountered Tib on the upper Congo, Lualaba he calls it, when Tib was just beginning to extract the Congo tribes for slaves. A few years later Stanley encountered Tib on his way across the Congo from the West to East. By that time Tib was halfway across the Congo basin toward the West depopulating it on his way. In this story Achmet Zek is based on Tippu Tib while Albert Werper, the Belgian, meets him well into the Congo moving up river as in Stanley's In Darkest Africa.
Werper, as a Belgian, epitomizes King Leopold of Belgium's administration of the Congo. For a few decades the entire Congo Free State, as it was then known, was his personal possession Tippu Tib or no. As such he had to make it pay and make it pay he did. Rubber was the engine of that prosperity. As the tree was not yet cultivated as Firestone would in Malaya, the Africans were required to collect balls of rubber from the wild. Not naturally inclined to collect rubber some harsh disciplinary measures were required to give them incentive. One method if they failed to bring in their quota was to cut off their right hand. Seemingly counter-productive it was nevertheless effective although there were a lot of Africans walking around with only a left hand. In Leopold's defense the method was suggested by Africans themselves.
Leopold made money but incurred the hatred of Africans while giving himself an atrocious reputation in Europe and America. The Belgians removed the Free State from his administration after which it became known as the Belgian Congo. Thus Burroughs unites two men of evil reputation in the Belgian Albert Werper and the Arab Achmet Zek. They naturally conspire evil.
ERB also leans on Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness for his opening episode. Heart Of Darkness was Conrad's most famous work and it may be said his reputation has been founded on it. A sensation when published it is or was still widely read today.
The opening scene takes place at the Stanley Pool where the Congo begins its descent from the plateau. Perhaps the post was the nascent Stanleyville. Werper commits his crime then flees into the jungle where he is captured by the Arab Achmet Zek/Tippu Tib.
The Belgian and the Arab are two of a kind forming a natural partnership with Zek being the senior partner. Zek may have been able to carry on his depredations without hindrance except for the Great White Lord of the jungle, Tarzan. Thus Burroughs rectifies the situation in his imagination. Prior to Werper Zek had no way to reach the Big Bwana but with the European Werper he has an entree.
Jane, of course, will be captured to be taken to the North to Algiers or Tunis to be sold into a Moslem harem. That would have been a nifty trick from the Congo to the Mediterranean. The walk alone might have taken a year or more.
So, as the chapter ends the plan is to kill Tarzan giving Zek a free hand and capture Jane.
Chapter two "On The Road To Opar" introduces what will be a recurrent theme in Tarzan's life -- insolvency. In this case the Big Fella has made a bad investment, not unlike Burroughs' habit, and been wiped out. Being now impoverished he has to recruit a new fortune by taking several hundred pounds of gold from the vaults of Opar.
Tarzan justifies himself:…the chances are that they inhabitants of Opar will never know that I have been there again and despoiled them of another portion of the treasure, the very existence of which they are as ignorant of as they would be of its value.Thus, the Zen question, are you stealing from someone if you take what they don’t know they have or its value somewhere else? I would be interested in ERB's justification of what seems to be a felony. After all Tarzan isn't going to show up with a brass band and waving banners; he's going to sneak in and out hopefully unnoticed. It's too late to ask now.
The raid on Opar may have reflected ERB's financial condition after 1913-14's stay in San Diego. He had to write another Tarzan novel to recoup his finances.
As Tarzan is about to leave, Zek and Werper have concocted their plan. Werper is to gain admittance to the household under guise of being a lost great white hunter and prepare the way for Zek. Werper, posing as the Frenchman Frecoult, overhears Tarzan and Jane discussing Opar quickly realizing there is more at stake here than killing Tarzan and selling a White woman into a Sheik's harem in the North.
He warns Zek while following Tarzan on the road to Opar.
Chapter 3 is titled "The Call Of The Jungle." As "On The Road To Opar" reflects Baum's Oz stories so "The Call Of The Jungle" resonates rather well with Jack London's Call Of The Wild. The jungle that Tarzan inhabits is a wonderful place, no bugs, no mosquitoes. In Africa, the land of fevers that would still be unknown if Europeans had not invaded the continent, Tarzan never has one. We know that ERB read Stanley. That explorer speaks of no romance of the jungle. For him it was a dark dank horrible place he couldn't get out of fast enough. He not only suffered terrible fevers but so did everyone else. Yet in Burroughs' imagination the jungle becomes a paradise.
Perhaps that might reflect the lost paradise of America conquered by industrialism and cities. Perhaps in its way it represents the White City of the Columbian Exposition as opposed to the Black City of industrial Chicago. Idaho vs. Chicago; something of that order.
Now hungry Tarzan kills a deer with his favored bare hands method plunging Dad's knife deep into its heart. Dad's knife and plunging it into the heart of its victim. There's an image. ERB had a terrible relationship with his father. Perhaps he visualized the relationship as his father killing him with heartaches. Haven’t actually worked out the meaning yet. Interrupted by a lion he retreats to a tree with a haunch between his strong white teeth. Another sexual image. Now, here we have another psychological problem. Tarzan is a very unforgiving guy, petty even. Having been disturbed in his dinner which surely must have been a frequent occurrence in the jungle, he is not going to let the lion eat his kill in peace. Up in his convenient tree he finds another tree nearby bearing hard fruit. Not the soft mushy kind but hard. He bombards the lion until it leaves the kill.
The lion slinks off after his own game, a lone African witch doctor. Tarzan doesn't care if the lion kills the African but just as his dinner was disrupted he wants to punish the lion by depriving him of his. So just as the lion mauls the African Tarzan jumps on the lion's back and kills him merely for interrupting the Big Guy's dinner. You know, that's capital punishment for a very minor offence. This is a little excessive to my mind.
What does it say about ERB's own state of mind? Was he also unforgiving and draconian in his revenges? ERB himself mostly stood in his relationships as the African to the lion. There is a certain irony in the symbol of MGM being Leo The Lion. In his last major confrontation with MGM, Leo mauled ERB pretty badly. There was no room left for revenge in that struggle.
The mauled witch doctor had appeared in Tarzan Of The Apes. He recognized Tarzan but was unrecognized by the latter.
In his youth he would slain the witch-doctor without the slightest compuncition, but civilization had had its softening effect on him even as it does upon the natives and races which it touches though it had not gone far enough with Tarzan to render him either cowardly or effeminate. From this we may infer that ERB believed Europeans and Americans to have become effeminate and cowardly. Perhaps so.
The witch doctor reminds him of Mbonga's village of the old days when they made Tarzan the god Munango-Keewati and now he makes a prophecy:…I shall reward you. I am a great witch-doctor. Listen to me, white man! I see bad days ahead of you…A god greater than you wil rise up and strike you down. Turn back, Munango-Keewati! Turn back before it is too late. Danger lurks ahead of you and danger lurks behind; but greater is the danger before. I see…And then characteristically he croaks. Werper was behind and Opar ahead. But what was danger to the Big Bwana; danger was his life. Of course ERB could have been talking about himself as well. Certainly by this time ERB must have realized that success and fame was going to be no bed of roses. He needed more money to continue his new life style. Could he get it now that his first spurt was finished. He had been warned by his editor Metcalf that most pulp writers had success for a couple years but then exhausted their sources. He must have feared that he was already there.
A new period of anxiety loomed before him, probably debt behind. As Tarzan is about to lose his memory, stress may have been addling ERB’s brain. Nevertheless impelled by necessity- onward.Continued in Part II
Part 1: On The Road To Opar
Part 2: Reliving Past Crimes And Humiliations
Part 3: From Opar To Achmet Zek's Camp
Part 4: From Achmet Zek’s Camp To The Recovery Of The Jewels
Part 5: Conclusion
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