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Nkima's Chattering From The Shoulder #37
Edgar Rice Burroughs was a novelist noted for his convoluted plots. He was so fond of tangling his yarns into an almost inextricable mass of plots and subplots, then untangling the gigantic mess (often with a series of unbelievable coincidences) that one might say that this WAS his method of writing.
Tarzan and the Golden Lion, his ninth Tarzan novel, was no exception to this rule. It is a veritable jungle of twisted intrigues, which often come to blind alleys as much as genuine cliff-hangers, so that one wonders if Burroughs himself knew how his story would turn out in the end. One gets the impression that he was simply writing it as he went along without a clear vision of the winding of separate threads until he was forced to come up with some method of clever untangling. It seems to me this haphazard method of writing by the seat of his pants is the reason for his all too often need to resort to coincidences.
TGL begins with a good idea of having Tarzan train up a lion cub as a companion, but when he goes to Opar (for the third time in the series) he simply leaves this interesting character behind. The poor beast escapes from his cage in chapter four, but is not seen again until chapter 14 when he arrives on the scene as a deus ex machina to save Tarzan and his friends in the city of the Bolgani. It seems disingenuous to me that Burroughs should have created such a good character in Jad-bal-ja (even naming the novel after him) then keeping him as a sort of not too subtle secret he expects us to forget until he suddenly appears out of the blue. To me, this is a fatal flaw that mars the entire novel from the beginning, making it not much more than a convoluted piece of fluff when it could have been a major advancement in his writing.
Tarzan himself was an invincible character, so the addition of a trained lion would not have really altered the balance of forces against any potential foes. To my way of thinking, the loss of potential interesting chapters of Tarzan moving through the jungles and meeting La WITH his lion is incalculable. Even in future novels including Jad-bal-ja, Burroughs USED him in this shabby fashion, and I believe missed out on creating a truly memorable man-beast relationship.
In order to provide villains for Tarzan to overcome, Burroughs raids his own plot from Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar by providing unscrupulous lusters after the gold horde of Opar that for some reason seems to be Tarzan's personal cornucopia. It's fine for him to steal from the treasure vaults, and anyone else is an interloper who deserves our scorn. This time ERB provides a handful of nastys, two (count them) English ex-pugilists, a fat German, who always complains about how much the expedition is costing him (he was a Jew in the magazine version) and of all things, a Russian dancer. The leader of this motley crew is Flora Hawkes, who was once a housekeeper for the Greystoke family in London. She has learned the location of Opar, presumably because Tarzan was in the habit of discussing the precise location of the city in his casual conversations. And to top matters off, she has found a Spanish actor to impersonate Tarzan in furtherance of her nefarious plans. This group of bungling Keystone Cops are Tarzan's foils in a novel that one can only imagine that Burroughs must have intended to be a grand jest, whereas it comes off as a confusing farce of minor proportions.
ERB's great hero, Tarzan does not fare much better. He manages to get himself rendered unconscious by knock-out drops in his coffee when he first encounters Flora's clowns in chapter 5. He awakens as a prisoner of renegade Oparians in chapter 7 and has to be rescued by La, whom he promptly loses to the Bolgani. When he tries to rescue her, he ends up being trapped in the Palace of Diamonds, but is saved by Jad-bal-ja. As they flee the city, he is saved by a group of Gomangani who arrive just in time to overthrow the gorilla men. One can only hope that Tarzan managed to use the right fork at the banquet in Opar after La had been replaced upon her throne.
If Tarzan seemed to be a failure in this novel, the villains did even worse. O yes, they do manage to rifle the gold from the vaults of Opar, but Esteban Miranda and an conniving native by the name of Owaza steal it from the others, so they decide that the next logical step is to take the ivory from a group of Arab slavers. Not real bright for these babes in the woods, but then they are not exactly a squad of trained guerrillas.
Chapter 15 "The Map of Blood" has to be one of the most remarkably crabbed chapters ever penned by mortal man. I present it here in outline to try and give you some idea of ERB's fantastic plot:
Esteban and Owaza decide to buy trade goods with a single bar of their stolen gold to hire porters to carry the rest of the horde to the coast. Esteban makes a map of the gold site upon his leopard skin with the blood of a rodent.
Meanwhile: Jane is in London visiting her sick father. Discovering upon her arrival that her father is well, she returns to Africa to find the Waziri have returned from Opar without Tarzan. She immediately goes in search of him with the same bungling 50 warriors after persuading her son, Korak, to remain behind. This, after Korak had just saved them all in previous novel, Tarzan the Terrible.
When Esteban and Owaza do not return to the Hawkes party, Luvini, who now acts as head-man, convinces them that they have deserted to attack the Arab slavers on their own, so they head for the raiders camp. First, they send ahead a runner to warn the raiders about Esteban and Owaza, who are actually upon a completely different course. (This is a half-baked plan of Carl Kraski, who hates Esteban. The Hawkes party is floundering and making ridiculous nefarious plans according to changing circumstances.) When they reach the Arab camp a week later, the Arabs are suspicious, having seen nothing of Esteban and Owaza.
[Meanwhile: Jane's safari camps a mile from the Arab camp.]
Luvini plans to betray the whites by killing the Arabs AND the whites and hustling Flora for sale to a black sultan of the north. However, her little negro boy warns her of the plot, and they leave the Arab camp just as the mutiny of the black slaves begins. After killing the Arabs, Luvini follows them into the jungle with his band of ex-slaves.
The truly amazing thing is the fact that this summary actually clarifies the text of this chapter. The plot becomes so entangled at this point that it actually does require a map written in rodent's blood to keep track of the various subplots and inept characters rummaging around in the jungle.
I can't think of another novel even by ERB in which a writer has been able to write two opening chapters with such promise only to throw his entire premise away to a botched patchwork of messy meandering. Tarzan of the Apes has a reputation as a heroic figure, but this novel does nothing to enhance his stature, nor does this novel raise the confidence of the readers of his tales that Burroughs could tell a decent story.
The most amazing thing about Tarzan and the Golden Lion is that it comes immediately after Tarzan the Untamed and Tarzan the Terrible, two of his very best Tarzan efforts. This novel was followed by The Moon Maid (Part One) which is another ill conceived effort, then by Beware!/The Scientists Revolt, which is surely one of the nadirs of his entire career. 1922 was not a good year for Edgar Rice Burroughs. 1923 saw the creation of The Bandit of Hell's Bend, another poor novel, then Tarzan and the Ant Men, which does show some improvement.
I notice that Bill Hillman's ERB Chronology for February 10 - May 31 of 1922 states that Tarzan and the Golden Lion was dictated on his new Ediphone -- probably not the best way to come up with a solid plot no matter how much story-telling talent you possess. Burroughs himself judged this effort to be "rotten," and confessed that he felt himself "written-out" with his Tarzan.
It is not too difficult to criticize the writing of ERB. He had no high literary pretensions, but it is those times that seem as though he had no literary skills at all that are the most exasperating. Burroughs wrote a lot, and his work was uneven, as one might expect, but these magnificent duds are the most annoying of all. Tarzan and the Golden Lion began with a good premise, then fell into an abject mediocrity. Somehow it seems there is no excuse for a writer to sink this low with so much wealth at his fingertips. That this "Master of Adventure" could move the pieces around on the chessboard in a haphazard manner makes one impatient with his lack of concentration, his idle dreaming when he could be employing the full forces of his considerable skills.
Despite everything I have written above, I would not want to do without Tarzan and the Golden Lion. As I said, perhaps too many times already, the two opening chapters of the finding and education of Jad-bal-ja are magical. We also discover that Tarzan likes coffee (a passion of my own) and the description of his entry into and investigation of the city of the Bolgani is on a very high level indeed. When ERB penned scenes viewed through the eyes of his ape-man, he always wrote with an inspiration unmatchable by any other writer. There is enchantment about Chapter XI - "Strange Incense Burns" that puts the reader into Tarzan's skin so that he is living the adventure as well as reading about it. "When darkness had finally settled Tarzan approached the gate, and throwing the noose of his grass rope over one of the carved lions that capped the gate posts, ascended quickly to the summit of the wall, from where he dropped lightly into the garden below." The adventure begins! Dim lights from the tower windows, an unlighted chamber, a door leading to a corridor in a circular hallway -- here ERB entered the body of the jungle hero and we move with him through the Palace of Diamonds filled with strange, muttering gorilla-man, holding our breath in the shadows. It is for these magical moments that we come to Burroughs again and again, despite his shabby plotting. Who cares how we got here? We ARE here, and we LIVE the adventure, slipping through the incense scented halls of a mysterium.
December 24, 2001
David Arthur Adams
David "Nkima" Adams'
to see the navigation chart of all of his
Chattering From the Shoulder columns
and other appearances in the Hillman ERB Cosmos
ERBzine 0121: Tarzan the Untamed Compendium Introduction
ERBzine 0123: The Lions of War by David Adams
ERBzine 0124: Tarzan the Untamed ~ St. John Art with Commentary by David Adams Pt. I
ERBzine 0125: Tarzan the Untamed ~ St. John Art with Commentary by David Adams Pt. II
ERBzine 0239: Sacred Icons of J. Allen St. John by David Adams
ERBzine 0240: Numa's Lair
ERB C.H.A.S.E.R. Online Encyclopedia
ERB C.H.A.S.E.R. Tarzan and the Golden Lion
ERB C.H.A.S.E.R Tarzan and the Golden Lion (Movie Edition)
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