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ERB’S RABBIT HOLE:
TARZAN AND THE ANT MEN
A Commentary By
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall.
And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall,
Tell ‘em a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
When she was just small.– Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit.”While reading Tarzan and the Ant Men, the similarities with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, come immediately to mind, especially the duel between the shrinking man and a black widow spider in the man’s basement. Moreover, the martial point of view of the Ant Men is very similar to the permanent war standard on Barsoom, as well as the presence of Mad Scientists.
Many critics have totally misunderstood this story, attributing the anti-feminist point of view of the Alali to ERB’s own philosophy, as well as the permanent war standard of the Ant Men. These were extremist points of view that ERB found amusing and useful for plot development. All he did was reverse the popular myth of the cave man hitting a woman over the head with a club and dragging her away to cook his food, and thus it is meant to be satire. In truth he was a Republican and a fervent patriot, believing in equal rights for women and after WWII, he came to regard war as an evil to be avoided. As Henry G. Franke III notes in his Afterword to the Authorized Edition recently published by ERB Inc.:
“Burroughs, libertarian in outlook, resented too much government interference in his life. As a landowner and businessman, taxes were a bane. The Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified on February 3, 1913, gave Congress the right to impose a federal income tax, just when Burroughs started to earn a substantial income for the first time in his life. Tax schemes and theories abound in Tarzan and the Ant Men. Burroughs had taxes on his mind at the time; the author had just established Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., on March 26, 1923, as a means to reduce his tax burden.” (Afterword, p.246.)
I do, however, disagree with Mr. Franke on his understanding that the views expressed in the story are the actual views of ERB himself, especially his views toward women and war. Like I said, they were extremist views that he was playing with; although, he was in agreement with Teddy Roosevelt’s, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick,” philosophy.
At first the story seems ludicrous, beginning with Tarzan’s first solo flight in a bi-plane that he crash lands in the Great Thorn Forest, a previously unexplored region of Africa, and ending at Tarzan’s bungalow on his African estates, concluding with another mistaken identity finale, just like in the previous novel. This story is essentially a sequel to Tarzan and the Golden Lion, taking off where the latter leaves off: the village of Obebe, the cannibal.
As we shall see, ERB introduces us to another Lolita figure, fourteen year old cannibal, Uhha, dressed only in a G-string, who falls victim to the power of the bag of diamonds stolen from Tarzan. Merriam-Webster’s online definition of a G-string is “an article of clothing that consists of a thin strip of cloth covering the genitals with the back portion made up a string-like piece of fabric that passes between the buttocks and connects with a very thin waistband”; but we already knew that, didn’t we?
Then we have sentence streams full of weird and funny names, like Uhha from the cannibal village of Obebe, on the Ugogo River. Yes, the names are all humorous in this book, especially in the Lilliputian land of the Ant Men, where pronunciation of the names is hilarious, meaning that this novel can be read out loud to an audience to maximum affect. But nothing is really lost when you read it silently to yourself. Just pause for a few seconds and slowly pronounce their names and you will see what I mean. As Richard A. Lupoff recommends in the Forward in the Authorized Edition:
“I will offer one word of advice, though. Keep a pencil handy once Tarzan enters the world of Minunia. Jot down the characters’ names. There are a lot of them, and if you can keep track of Who’s Who in this country, you’re a lot cleverer than I am. Just make a note of each city’s name, and it’s ruler, and of each other character as they’re introduced.” (Tarzan and the Ant Men [Tarzana: ERB Inc., 2021], page xv.)
ERB wrote this story in 1923, and it was published in 1924, the same year his wife, Emma, told him that he was never to touch her again. One can only wonder what brought that domestic tranquility to an end, but I suspect it was another woman. All the women lust after Tarzan in this story, and at the time, ERB was at the height of his popularity, and spending a lot of time in Hollywood, where morality is a joke and only a subject in the silent flicks.
I am using as my text the newly published hardback, ERB Inc.’s Authorized Edition of Tarzan and the Ant Men, with an introduction by Richard A. Lupoff and an afterword by Henry G. Franke III, with a splendid archival appendix; cover art and frontispiece by Joe Jusko. It was Lupoff’s high praise of this story in his Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, that got me first interested in it. Ant Men is a wonderful exercise of the imagination, making impossible science seem plausible and almost unpronounceable names seem normal.
So without further adieu, let us return to the village of Obebe, the cannibal, and the Great Imposter, Obebe’s prisoner, Esteban Miranda.
Chapter One: The River Devil
In the filth of a dark hut, in the village of Obebe the cannibal, upon the banks of the Ugogo, Esteban Miranda squatted upon his haunches and gnawed upon the remnants of a half-cooked fish. About his neck was an iron slave collar from which a few feet of rusty chain ran to a stout post set deep in the ground near the low entranceway that let upon the village street not far from the hut of Obebe himself.
For a year Esteban Miranda had been chained thus, like a dog, and like a dog he sometimes crawled through the low doorway of his kennel and basked in the sun outside. Two diversions had he: and only two. One was the persistent idea that he was Tarzan of the Apes, whom he had impersonated for so long and with such growing success that, like the good actor he was, he had come not only to act the part, but to live it – to be it. He was, as far as he was concerned, Tarzan of the Apes – there was no other – and he was Tarzan of the Apes to Obebe, too; but the village witch doctor still insisted that he was the River Devil and as such, one to propitiate rather than to anger.
It had been this difference of opinion between the chief and the witch doctor that had kept Esteban Miranda from the flesh pot of the village, for Obebe had wanted to eat him, thinking him his old enemy the ape-man; but the witch doctor had aroused the superstitious fears of the villagers by half-convincing them that their prisoner was the River Devil masquerading as Tarzan, and, as such, dire disaster would descend upon the village were he harmed. The result of this difference between Obebe and the witch doctor had been to preserve the life of the Spaniard until the truth of one claim or the other was proved – if Esteban died a natural death he was Tarzan, the mortal, and Obebe the chief was vindicated; if he lived on forever, or mysteriously disappeared, the claim of the witch doctor would be accepted as gospel.
After he had learned their language and thus come to a realization of the accident of fate that had guided his destiny by so narrow a margin from the cooking pots of the cannibals he was less eager to proclaim himself Tarzan of the Apes. Instead he let drop mysterious suggestions that he was, indeed, none other than the River Devil. The witch doctor was delighted, and everyone was fooled except Obebe, who was old and wise and did not believe in river devils, and the witch doctor who was old and wise and did not believe in them either, but realized that they were excellent things for his parishioners to believe in.
Esteban Miranda’s other diversion, aside from secretly believing that he was Tarzan, consisted of gloating over the bag of diamonds that Kraski the Russian had stolen from the ape-man, and that had fallen into the Spaniard’s hands after he had murdered Kraski – the same bag of diamonds that the old man had handed to Tarzan in the vaults beneath the Tower of Diamonds, in the Valley of the Palace of Diamonds, when he had rescued the Gomangani of the valley from the tyrannical oppression of the Bolgani.
Here, ERB Inc., has inserted a footnote at the bottom of page 2 that reads: “See Tarzan and the Golden Lion, now available in the Edgar Rice Burroughs Authorized Library.”
For hours at a time, Esteban Miranda sat in the dim light of his dirty kennel counting and fondling the brilliant stones. A thousand times had he weighed each one in an appraising palm, computing its value and translating into such pleasures of the flesh as great wealth might buy for him in the capitals of the world. Mired in his own filth, feeding upon rotted scraps tossed to him by unclean hands, he yet possessed the wealth of a Croesus, and it was as Croesus he lived in his imaginings, his dismal hut changed into the pomp and circumstance of a palace by the scintillant gleams of the precious stones. At the sound of each approaching footstep he would hastily hide his fabulous fortune in the wretched loincloth that was his only garment, and once again become a prisoner in a cannibal hut.
Croesus was the King of Lydia from 560 B.C. until his defeat by Cyrus the Great in 546 B.C. He was renowned for his great wealth.
And now, after a year of solitary confinement, came a third diversion, in the form of Uhha, the daughter of Khamis the witch doctor. Uhha was fourteen, comely and curious. For a year now she had watched the mysterious prisoner from a distance until, at last, familiarity had overcome her fears and one day she approached him as he lay in the sun outside his hut. Esteban, who had been watching her half-timorous advance, smiled encouragingly. He had not a friend among the villagers. If he could make but one his lot would be much the easier and freedom a step nearer. At last Uhha came to a halt a few steps from him. She was a child, ignorant and a savage; but she was a woman-child and Esteban Miranda knew women.
Yes, he was a womanizer and a rapist, an all around great guy. In Tarzan and the Golden Lion, he had kept Flora Drinov in bondage, raping her at will – referring to her disparagingly as a “glove” for his penis! I am of the opinion that Uhha’s age was not an obstacle to Esteban’s plans for her, which I am sure involved some sort of rape or another.
“I have been in the village of the chief Obebe for a year,” he said haltingly, in the laboriously acquired language of his captors, “but never before did I guess that its walls held one as beautiful as you. What is your name?”
Uhha was pleased. She smiled broadly. “I am Uhha,” she told him. “My father is Khamis, the witch doctor.”
It was Esteban who was pleased now. Fate, after rebuffing him for long, was at last kind. She had sent to him one who, with cultivation, might prove a flower of hope indeed.
I believe among the pedophiles that is called “grooming”, and the flower of hope being something contemplated as a “deflowering.” Stanley Kubrick believed that the elites of the world were practicing pedophiles, so we should not be surprised at Esteban’s interest in the girl.
“Why have you never come to see me before?” asked Esteban.
“I was afraid,” replied Uhha simply.
“I was afraid –” she hesitated.
“Afraid that I was the River Devil and would harm you?” demanded the Spaniard, smiling.
“Yes,” she said.
“Listen!” whispered Esteban; “but tell no one. I am the River Devil but I will not harm you.”
“If you are the River Devil why then do you remain chained to a stake?” inquired Uhha. “Why do you not change yourself to something else and return to the river?”
“You wonder about that, do you?” asked Miranda, sparring for time that he might concoct a plausible answer.
“It is not only Uhha who wonders.” said the girl. “Many others have asked the same question of late. Obebe asked it first and there was none to explain. Obebe says that you are Tarzan, the enemy of Obebe and his people; but my father Khamis says that you are the River Devil, and that if you wanted to get away you would change yourself into a snake and crawl through the iron collar that is about your neck. And the people wonder why you do not, and many of them are commencing to believe that you are not the River Devil at all.”
“Come closer, beautiful Uhha,” whispered Miranda, “that no other ears than yours may hear what I am about to tell you.”
The girl came a little closer and leaned toward him where he squatted upon the ground.
“I am indeed the River Devil,” said Esteban, “and I come and go as I wish. At night, when the village sleeps, I am wandering through the waters of the Ugogo, but always I come back again. I am waiting, Uhha, to try the people of the village of Obebe that I may know which are my friends and which my enemies. Already have I learned that Obebe is no friend of mine, and I am not sure of Khamis. Had Khamis been a good friend he would have brought me fine food and beer to drink. I could go when I pleased, but I wait to see if there be one in the village of Obebe who will set me free. Thus may I learn which is my best friend. Should there be such a one, Uhha, fortune would smile upon him always, his every wish would be granted and he would live to a great age, for he would have nothing to fear from the River Devil, who would help him in all his undertakings. But listen, Uhha, tell no one what I have told you! I shall wait a little longer, and then if there be no such friend in the village of Obebe I shall return to my father and mother, the Ugogo, and destroy the people of Obebe. Not one shall remain alive.”
The girl drew away, terrified. It was evident that she was much impressed.
“Do not be afraid,” he reassured her. “I shall not harm you.”
“But if you destroy all the people?” she demanded.
“Then, of course,” he said, “I cannot help you; but let us hope that someone comes and sets me free so that I shall know that I have at least one good friend here. Now run along, Uhha, and remember that you must tell no one what I have told you.”
She moved off a short distance and then returned.
“When will you destroy the village?” she asked.
“In a few days,” he said.
Uhha, trembling with terror, ran quickly away in the direction of the hut of her father, Khamis, the witch doctor. Esteban Miranda smiled a satisfied smile and crawled back into his hole to play with his diamonds.
Khamis the witch doctor was not in his hut when Uhha his daughter, faint from fright, crawled into the dim interior. Nor were his wives. With their children, the latter were in the fields beyond the palisade, where Uhha should have been. And so it was that the girl had time for thought before she saw any of them again, with the result that she recalled distinctly, what she had almost forgotten in the first frenzy of fear, that the River Devil had impressed upon her that she must reveal to no one the thing that he had told her.
And she had been upon the point of telling her father all! What dire calamity then would have befallen her? She trembled at the very suggestion of a fate so awful that she could not even imagine it. How close a call she had had! But what was she to do?
She lay huddled upon a mat of woven grasses, racking her poor little brain for a solution of the immense problem that confronted her – the first problem that had ever entered her young life other than the constantly recurring one of how most easily to evade her share of the drudgery of the fields. Presently she sat erect, galvanized into statuesque rigidity by a thought engendered by the recollection of one of the River Devil’s remarks. Why had it not occurred to her before? Very plainly he had said, and he had repeated it, that if he were released he would know that he had at least one friend in the village of Obebe, and that whoever released him would live to a great age and have everything he wished for; but after a few minutes of thought Uhha drooped again. How was she, a little girl, to compass the liberation of the River Devil alone?
“How, baba,” she asked her father, when he had returned to the hut, later in the day, “does the River Devil destroy those who harm him?”
“As the fish in the river, so are the ways of the River Devil – without number,” replied Khamis. “He might send the fish from the river and the game from the jungle and cause our crops to die. Then we should starve. He might bring the fire out of the sky at night and strike dead all the people of Obebe.”
“And you think he may do these things to us, baba?”
“He will not harm Khamis, who saved him from the death that Obebe would have inflicted,” replied the witch doctor.
Uhha recalled that the River Devil had complained that Khamis had not brought him good food nor beer, but she said nothing about that, although she realized that her father was far from being so high in the good graces of the River Devil as he seemed to think he was. Instead, she took another tack.
“How can he escape?” she asked, “while the collar is about his neck – who will remove it for him?”
“No one can remove it but Obebe, who carries in his pouch the bit of brass that makes the collar open,” replied Khamis, “but the River Devil needs no help, for when the time comes that he wishes to be free he has but to become a snake and crawl forth from the iron band around his neck. Where are you going, Uhha?”
“I am going to visit the daughter of Obebe,” she called back over her shoulder.
The chief’s daughter was grinding maize, as Uhha should have been doing. She looked up and smiled as the daughter of the witch doctor approached.
“Make no noise, Uhha,” she cautioned, “for Obebe, my father, sleeps within.” She nodded toward the hut. The visitor sat down and the two girls chatted in low tones. They spoke of their ornaments, their coiffures, of the young men of the village, and often, when they spoke of these, they giggled. Their conversation was not unlike that which might pass between two young girls of any race or clime. As they talked, Uhha’s eyes often wandered toward the entrance to Obebe’s hut and many times her brows were contracted in much deeper thought than their idle passages warranted.
“Where,” she demanded suddenly, “is the armlet of copper wire that your father’s brother gave you at the beginning of the last moon?”
Obebe’s daughter shrugged. “He took it back from me,” she replied, “and gave it to the sister of his youngest wife.”
Uhha appeared crestfallen. Could it be that she had coveted the copper bracelet? Her eyes closely scrutinized the person of her friend. Her brows almost met, so deeply was she thinking. Suddenly her face brightened.
“The necklace of many beads that your father took from the body of the warrior captured for the last feast!” she exclaimed. “You have not lost it?”
“No,” replied her friend. “It is in the house of my father. When I grind maize it gets in my way and so I laid it aside.”
“May I see it?” asked Uhha. “I will fetch it.”
“No, you will awaken Obebe and he will be very angry,” said the chief’s daughter.
“I will not awaken him,” replied Uhha, and started to crawl toward the hut’s entrance.
Her friend tried to dissuade her. “I will fetch it as soon as baba has awakened,” she told Uhha, but Uhha paid no attention to her and presently was crawling cautiously into the interior of the hut. Once within she waited silently until her eyes became accustomed to the dim light. Against the opposite wall of the hut Obebe lay sprawled upon a sleeping mat. He snored lustily. Uhha crept toward him. Her stealth was the stealth of Sheeta the leopard. Her heart was beating like the tom-tom when the dance is at its height. She feared that its noise and her rapid breathing would awaken the old chief, of whom she was as terrified as of the River Devil; but Obebe snored on.
I do not know if ERB suggested something sexual in this passage instead of just suspense since he points out that the old chief snored “lustily,” meaning that his dream was perhaps sexual in nature. We must not forget that the only clothing in the village consisted of G-strings. If the dream was indeed sexual, then we are not wrong in imagining that he had an erection, which would have been plainly visible even in the dim light of the hut.
Uhha came close to him. Her eyes were accustomed now to the half-light of the hut’s interior. At Obebe’s side and half beneath his body she saw the chief’s pouch. Cautiously she reached forth a trembling hand and laid hold upon it. She tried to draw if from beneath Obebe’s weight. The sleeper stirred uneasily and Uhha drew back, terrified. Obebe changed his position and Uhha thought that he had awakened. Had she not been frozen with horror she would have rushed into headlong flight, but fortunately for her she could not move, and presently she heard Obebe resume his interrupted snoring; but her nerve was gone and she thought now only of escaping from the hut without being detected. She cast a last frightened glance at the chief to reassure herself that he still slept. Her eyes fell upon the pouch. Obebe had turned away from it and it now lay within her reach, free from the weight of his body.
She reached for it only to withdraw her hand suddenly. She turned away. Her heart was in her mouth. She swayed dizzily and then she thought of the River Devil and of the possibilities for horrid death that lay within his power. Once more she reached for the pouch and this time she picked it up. Hurriedly opening it she examined the contents. The brass key was there. She recognized it because it was the only thing the purpose of which she was not familiar with. The collar, chain and key had been taken from an Arab slave trader that Obebe had killed and eaten and as some of the old men of Obebe’s village had worn similar bonds in the past, there was no difficulty in adapting it to its intended purpose when occasion demanded.
Uhha hastily closed the pouch and replaced it at Obebe’s side. Then, clutching the key in a clammy palm, she crawled hurriedly toward the doorway.
That night, after the cooking fires had died to embers and been covered with earth and the people of Obebe had withdrawn into their huts, Esteban Miranda heard a stealthy movement at the entrance to his kennel. He listened intently. Someone was creeping into the interior – someone or something.
“Who is it?” demanded the Spaniard in a voice that he tried hard to keep from trembling.
“Hush!” responded the intruder in soft tones. “It is I, Uhha, the daughter of Khamis the witch doctor. I have come to set you free that you may know that you have a good friend in the village of Obebe and will, therefore, not destroy us.”
Miranda smiled. His suggestion had borne fruit more quickly than he had dared to hope, and evidently the girl had obeyed his injunction to keep silent. In that matter he had reasoned wrongly, but of what moment that, since his sole aim in life – freedom – was to be accomplished. He had cautioned the girl to silence believing that the surest way to disseminate the word he had wished spread through the village, where, he was positive, it would have come to the ears of someone of the superstitious savages with the means to free him now that the incentive was furnished.
“And how are you going to free me?” demanded Miranda.
“See!” exclaimed Uhha. “I have brought the key to the collar about your neck.”
“Good,” cried the Spaniard. “Where is it?”
Uhha crawled closer to the man and handed him the key. Then she would have fled.
“Wait!” demanded the prisoner. “When I am free you must lead me forth into the jungle. Whoever sets me free must do this if he would win the favor of the river god.”
Uhha was afraid, but she did not dare refuse. Miranda fumbled with the ancient lock for several minutes before it at last gave to the worn key the girl had brought. Then he snapped the padlock again and carrying the key with him crawled toward the entrance.
“Get me weapons,” he whispered to the girl and Uhha departed through the shadow of the village street. Miranda knew that she was terrified but was confident that this very terror would prove the means of bringing her back to him with the weapons. Nor was he wrong, for scarce five minutes elapsed before Uhha had returned with a quiver of arrows, a bow and a stout knife.
“Now lead me to the gate,” commanded Esteban.
Keeping out of the main street and as much in rear of the huts as possible Uhha led the fugitive toward the village gates. It surprised her a little that he, a river devil, should not know how to unlock and open them, for she had thought that river devils were all-wise; but she did as he bid and showed how the great bar could be withdrawn, and helped him push the gates open enough to permit him to pass through. Beyond was the clearing that led to the river; on either hand rose the giants of the jungle. It was very dark out there and Esteban Miranda suddenly discovered that his newfound liberty had its drawbacks. To go forth alone at night into the dark, mysterious jungle filled him with a nameless dread.
Uhha drew back from the gates. She had done her part and saved the village from destruction. Now she wished to close the gates again and hasten back to the hut of her father, there to lie trembling in nervous excitement and terror against the morning that would reveal to the village the escape of the River Devil.
Esteban reached forth and took her by the arm. “Come,” he said, “and receive your reward.”
Uhha shrank away from him. “Let me go!” she cried. “I am afraid.”
But Esteban was afraid, too, and he had decided that the company of this little girl would be better than no company at all in the depths of the lonely jungle. Possibly when daylight came he would let her go back to her people, but tonight he shuddered at the thought of entering the jungle without human companionship.
Uhha tried to tear herself free from his grasp. She struggled like a little lion cub, and at last would have raised her voice in a wild scream for help had not Miranda suddenly clapped his palm across her mouth, lifted her bodily from the ground and running swiftly across the clearing disappeared into the jungle.
Behind him the warriors of Obebe the cannibal slept in peaceful ignorance of the sudden tragedy that had entered the life of little Uhha and before them, far out in the jungle, a lion roared thunderously.
Yeah, I’m sure he kidnapped Uhha just for human companionship, hehehehe. I have a feeling I know what kind of reward he has in store for the little cannibal girl. And isn’t there something ominous about that lion roaring in the background?
A really interesting fact discussed by Mr. Franke in his Afterword, is that ERB’s publisher, Bob Davis, wanted to remove the Esteban Miranda passages from the story, but ERB insisted that they stay.
“Apparently to Davis the character’s presence diluted the story. Burroughs rejected this; he had no interest in any revisions, and certainly not such a major cut requiring both time and a lower income with the lost word count.” (Id., p. 251.)
This latter point was crucial to ERB, whose writing style was influenced by how many words he could use to convey an idea, and he could use many because of his immense vocabulary. And of course we are glad that he did for this is a great subplot. But we must wait until we return to the fate of Esteban and his cannibal cutie. First we must move to the main plot of the story, which is Tarzan’s first solo flight and its aftermath.
See you in Chapter Two.
TARZAN AND THE ANT MEN
ALL THE WOODROW NICHOLS FEATURES IN ERBzine
ERB’S RABBIT HOLE: by WOODROW NICHOLS
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