Saturday, August 9, 2014

Edgar Rice Burroughs - Tarzan the Untamed

“You were not born and reared in the jungle by wild beasts and among wild beasts, or you would possess, as I do, the fatalism of the jungle.”

Ballantine Books, cover art by Boris Vallego 
Somber words for a rather dour Tarzan if you ask me. This isn't the Saturday matinee movie star Tarzan, but rather the existential loner that is the Tarzan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 7th Tarzan adventure, Tarzan the Untamed.

Tarzan has plenty of reason to be grim in this novel. In the opening pages we witness him returning home to his estate only to find it burned and razed to the ground by a patrol of German soldiers that were lost in the jungle. Tarzan is aware of the recent start of the World War (WWI), and has rushed home to his estate to stay with his mate Jane, unaware that Jane has already unknowingly welcomed a band of German soldiers and their guides into their estate during his absence. When Tarzan arrives, he finds evidence of a deadly struggle between his faithful servants and the German soldiers. Vultures circle overhead above the dead bodies of servant and soldier alike. Tarzan rushes into what’s left of the home’s foundation to discover Wasimbu, Jane’s Wasiri body guard, crucified to a wall, and Jane’s charred corpse lying in their bedroom. Stripped of his European trappings Tarzan reverts to the jungle beast he was raised as, and swears vengeance on all German soldiers that trespass within his continent.

The earliest chapters of the novel move quickly as Tarzan tracks the surviving soldiers to a German camp where he manages to infiltrate by night to hear the officers discuss their war plans against the British. He hears a few of the men brag about a captain who’d lead a company of men into the “English Lord’s” estate, killing members of the Wasiri tribe there, crucifying their leader, and raping and murdering the lady of the estate. Tarzan waits to catch one of them alone, pounces on him like a jungle cat and demands from him the names of Jane’s killers. It was Hauptmann Schneider and Under-lieutenant von Goss, his hapless victim replies. Then Tarzan takes the man by his throat, and wrings him by the neck three times in the air before hurling his lifeless body into the jungle. Armed with the names and a single-minded determination to kill all Germans, Tarzan thus begins his “untamed” adventure.

It’s the setup for a fairly straightforward plot, you’d think. But as the novel progresses the reader is taken on events that veer wildly from the mission of vengeance that Tarzan originally embarks upon. Yes, Tarzan gets to kill plenty of Germans in aide to the British soldiers he encounters on his search for Schneider and von Goss. He also dispatches a handful of savage cannibals and a slew of inhabitants of the lost city of Xuja. Yes, there is a lost city in this novel! There is also a beautiful German double agent named Bertha Kircher and a dashing British aviator named Harold Percy Smith-Oldwick to complicate Tarzan’s untamed adventures.

The main plot of vengeance for Jane’s murder is soon cast aside for a series of adventures involving chases, rescues and escapes featuring Bertha Kircher. Tarzan constantly reminds himself that he hates Bertha because she is German. Still, he is unable to kill her outright or leave her to the mercy of the jungle because she shows a remarkable level of courage and resourcefulness. And because she is a white woman! Yes, if you’re going to read a novel that is nearly a hundred years old featuring a savage and untamed Africa during a world war, you’re going to get a dose of racial (and cultural) stereotypes. Also, the novel was originally serialized in two separate publications as “Tarzan and the Huns” and “Tarzan and the Valley of Luna” before appearing in the present novel format as Tarzan the Untamed.

One fascinating aspect of the lost city of Xuja is that it’s inhabited by a race of lunatics. Simple and childlike one moment, gibbering and maniacal the next. As we’re told, one can immediately tell they’re maniacal imbeciles because of the shape of their heads and by their abnormally long canines. Bertha Kircher and Smith-Oldwick are kidnapped and swept deep within the walled city of Xuja. Smith-Oldwick is thrown into a lion pit while Bertha is taken before Xuja’s Queen Xanila.

As Bertha Kircher’s eyes alighted upon the occupant of the room the girl gave a little gasp of astonishment, for she recognized immediately that here was a creature more nearly of her own kind than any she had seen within the city’s walls. An old woman it was who looked at her through faded blue eyes, sunken deep in a wrinkled and toothless face. But the eyes were those of a sane and intelligent creature, and the wrinkled face was the face of a white woman.

Queen Xanila than tells Bertha of her capture by the Xujan’s from a band of Arabian slave raiders that had become lost in the “desolate and arid waste” that surrounds and protects the hidden valley of Xula. There they were attacked and killed by a patrol of Xujans and Xanila was brought before the palace of Xula’s ancient king where she was wedded to him against her will. For sixty years Xanila has remained confined within the palace walls, outlasting a series of Xujan kings, until the day Bertha is brought to her as a potential replacement.

Meanwhile, Smith-Oldwick is trapped in a lion pit, while Tarzan is outside the walled city of Xuja, planning yet another rescue before he can then abandon all vestiges of modern society and return to his childhood home among the great apes.

I have to say, I've yet to be let down by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s ability to churn out an exciting suspenseful tale. With tons of suspense, rescues, blood and gore, Tarzan the Untamed, wild and loosely plotted as it may be, was just as engrossing as the other novels I've devoured by ERB. It’s been a number of years since reading one, and who knows when I’ll get around to another Tarzan adventure (maybe sooner than later) but this one is a fine example of Burroughs delivering at the peak of the Tarzan saga. 

Oh yeah, and as for Jane's demise...well come on, you got to know that she's not going to be offed like that, so early in the game!

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