Friday, April 20

Tarzan the Untamed (1919-1920)

Painting by J. Allen St. John
By Edgar Rice Burroughs, originally published as two stories: Tarzan the Untamed in Red Book Magazine (Mar – Aug 1919) and Tarzan and the Valley of Luna (20 Mar – 17 Apr 1920); published as one book, Tarzan the Untamed (1920)

This is the seventh volume in ERB's Tarzan series. I read it at least once in my youth – perhaps twice. I know I had two of the Ballantine Books paperback editions – the 1969 printing with the cover painting by Robert Abbett (shown below), and the 1976 printing with the cover by Boris Vallejo (shown further below). The latter depicts one of the most memorable scenes in this story. Tarzan, crossing a barren desert, is almost overcome by the heat, dehydration, and starvation. He feigns death to lure down the only living creature in sight, a vulture that has been wheeling above him – and when it's in reach, he snatches it and makes a meal of it. The revolting scavenger's rancid flesh and foul blood sustain him long enough to complete his trek to more hospitable terrain. Wow!

That's not the only image that has stuck with me across the years. Just as memorable is the sequence that opened the book. Tarzan desperately racing cross-country in British East Africa, having just learned of the outbreak of war with Germany, determined to remove his beloved wife, Jane, from their African estate to a more secure location – and finding himself too late. The Germans have already attacked the plantation, massacring Tarzan's faithful Waziri guards – crucifying Jane's bodyguard Wasimbu against a wall and leaving Jane's corpse for Tarzan to find, burned beyond recognition, identifiable only by her wedding band.

At which point, Tarzan is at war – not just with the German soldiers who perpetrated the atrocity, but in his mind with the German race as a whole. This affords Burroughs the opportunity, in the context of the world of the Great War and its immediate aftermath, to indulge and express the typical American view of the “Bosch,” the “Huns” (the working title for the book was indeed, “Tarzan Against the Huns”), etc. Tarzan the Untamed is quite jingoistic. Tarzan's quest for vengeance that wreaks havoc on the Germans in East Africa occupies about a quarter of the book during which he moves stealthily and at will back and forth across the battle-lines, at one point unleashing a starving lion into the German trenches, at another discovering that there is a female German spy in the ranks of the British command.

Eventually, the despoilers of his half-civilized life with Jane destroyed, he determines to make the long trek to western Africa where he will live out his life at his father's cabin, done with the world of man. It's during that journey that the passage through the desert takes place – but once through although still far east of his destination he discovers that native soldiers under German command have rebelled and made their way to the same isolated jungle he has found, along with their captive, that same female German spy. The innate racism of the age when this story was written comes through here, because although she is an enemy there is no way the noble jungle lord can leave a white woman in the hands of the black savages. Further adventures ensue – the German woman, Bertha Kircher, is absolutely taken with the manly Tarzan despite his palpable hatred. When he – along with a downed British aviator, Lt. Harold Percy Smith-Oldwick – are captured by the natives and are to be burned alive for the natives' feast, Kircher manages to communicate Tarzan's plight to some of the great apes with whom he had taken up and leads them on a rescue raid! At length, Tarzan and his charges find themselves in another of ERB's many lost cities that pepper the dark continent – Xuja, whose people are insane masters of a subspecies of black-pelted lions and worshippers of parrots and monkeys. Along the way, Tarzan rescues and befriends one of the black lions which later comes to their rescue, allowing them to hold out against the denizens of Xuja until the clatter of machine-guns signals the arrival of a search-and-rescue party that had been sent for Smith-Oldwick.

In the end, Bertha Kircher is revealed not to be a German spy at all – but rather a British double-spy, Lady Patricia Canby; she and Smith-Oldwick are engaged; but best of all Tarzan has discovered that German documents she had been carrying all the time reveal that his beloved Jane is in fact still alive, that he has been the victim of a cruel hoax while she has been captive of the Germans all along. But the search for Jane will have to wait for the next book, Tarzan the Terrible.
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My reading of Tarzan the Untamed this time was in one of the free Kindle editions. It does not have any cover illustration, so I reverted to that of the first book publication for the post heading. You can't go wrong with J. Allen St. John's paintings!

A few comments, to supplement those included above in my short synopsis:

I believe those two powerful, memorable scenes from this book to which I refer at the beginning were combined by Robert E. Howard in his Conan novella, A Witch Shall Be Born, into the scene that made it into the Arnold Schwarzeneggar movie – Conan, crucified on a tree, tormented by vultures, killing one with his bare teeth!

“Tarzan desperately racing cross-country in British East Africa, having just learned of the outbreak of war with Germany, determined to remove his beloved wife, Jane, from their African estate to a more secure location – and finding himself too late.” – Reading this so soon after seeing John Carter as I did this time, I have to wonder if the creators had this passage in mind when they formulated the addition of John Carter's back-story for the movie. Whether they did or not, the scenes resonated for me. They were similarly powerful, even though since this was a reread of Tarzan the Untamed I knew that here we would ultimately have a happier ending.

Just as the racism and jingoism of the age informed ERB's writing, so did some then popular (and not now entirely dispelled) pseudo-scientific theories linking physical appearance with mental ability and character. ERB was an adherent of the theories of phrenology and physiognomy holding that the shape and measurement of an individual's skull and facial and bodily features reflected and expressed innate personality and character traits. To wit, the Xujans, insane because of centuries of inbreeding in their isolated little valley, sport yellowish skin, wiry black hair, receding foreheads, prominent canine teeth, and a generally wild-eyed aspect which leaves ERB's characters with no doubt from the instant they see them that they are maniacs.

There's one aspect of Xujan feminine fashion that brings to mind the current lawsuit by ERB, Inc., against Dynamite Entertainment. Besides the charges of copyright and trademark infringement which seem to me quite fuzzy since the early books of both the John Carter series on which Warlord of Mars is based and the Tarzan series on which Lord of the Jungle is based (including Tarzan the Untamed) are in the public domain (under US law, at least), ERB, Inc., alleges that Dynamite's portrayal of the characters in Warlord of Mars is pornographic. (See especially the Warlord of Mars:  Dejah Thoris series covers here.)  The definition of “pornography” being somewhat in the eye of the beholder (and Dynamite's practice of releasing “risqué” variants of some of its covers notwithstanding), the counterargument in the case of the Warlord of Mars covers is easy, that the portrayal of scantily-clad or even naked women is perfectly in keeping with ERB's written descriptions, which have the Martians wearing nothing but jewelry and ever-present harnesses to carry their weapons – filtered through the modern comic book artistic convention that more often than not has those women sporting breasts the size of cantaloupes (the appropriateness of which is itself a separate debate). Anyway, what has this to do with Tarzan the Untamed? Well, here we have ERB clearly and explicitly describing the women of Xuja as clad only in diaphanous scarves that wrap around their bodies from below their breasts and down – leaving the breasts explicitly exposed. Forced into this garb to join the Xujan king's harem, Bertha Kircher takes exception! Since Tarzan the Untamed is in the public domain, assuming Dynamite is able to withstand the legal onslaught (which may or may not be driven by the even more famously litigious Disney with its infinitely deep pockets and ability to get intellectual and creative property laws rewritten to its advantage seemingly at will) and continue publishing Lord of the Jungle, if they follow what seems to be the developing precedent of Warlord of Mars then within a few years they will be adapting this book into their comics. Whereas the description of Martian female fashion is ambiguous enough to allow the “jewelry” to conceivably include what Dynamite represents as basically golden pasties covering Dejah Thoris' nipples, I don't think there's any such ambiguity about Xujan female fashion. Were Dynamite to choose to go full broke and represent it as ERB describes (doubtful, but go along with me for the sake of argument), would ERB, Inc., then see that portrayal as “pornographic”?

I noticed something in reading this novel regarding ERB's practice in giving names. More often than not, he tends to use full names where most writers would just use their first or last name. Bertha Kircher is almost if not always “Bertha Kircher,” not “Bertha” nor “Kircher.” The same with the British aviator Lt. Harold Percy Smith-Oldwick is repeatedly called just that – although in this case “Smith-Oldwick” eventually suffices for most of the story. Repeatedly typing all four names must have become burdensome very quickly. This is the first of ERB's non-Martian novels that I've read in many years, and I had believed such repeated use of the characters' full names was a distinctive feature of that series, reflecting the alien culture ERB was trying to portray, but it seems rather to have been a more general feature of ERB's style. I still don't think “John Carter” and “Dejah Thoris” would either of them address or refer to the other with anything less than that full name, however.

Anyway, this was a great read which has me wanting to expand my rereading of the Tarzan series – I'm particularly looking forward to delving into Tarzan the Terrible, the renewed search for Jane that takes Tarzan to yet another lost African world – with dinosaurs! – and even to read some of the volumes I never read as a youth. Unlike the Mars series, all of which I read, I think I only read about half of the two dozen or so Tarzan books. I'm particularly curious how different my reaction to some of the books might be as a fifty-year-old from what it was as a fifteen-year-old. There were a couple of the Tarzan books that, for whatever reason, I did not like at all – most memorable in my own mind being the third, The Beasts of Tarzan. Eventually … Tarzan the Terrible will be next, however, which I remember loving as a kid. But I have the last of the “Christian Adventures of Doc Savage” before it in the queue, so it will be a while.

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!

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