Thoughts: Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Here we are again! I found Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar a lot easier to read than The Son of Tarzan for various reasons, among which was that I didn’t spend the entire time rolling my eyes at how great the Wesley Crusher of Tarzan was. Another reason is that there was a black character who was… not described using weird backhanded descriptions???

Let’s dive in and find out more.

As everyone probably knows, I’m a ridiculous amateur writer, and it’s hard when reading to turn off the analytic brain – ehhh partly because I don’t want to. I like seeing how things work, and how people manage to accomplish the things that I find hard. And Edgar Rice Burroughs does insane twisty plots and drama well (and I absolutely do not), so I will give him those props.

Jewels of Opar was kind of a mixed bag for me, in that on one hand, Burroughs is slowly putting more effort into female and non-white characters, and on the other hand, there were some pretty egregious dropped plot threads here.

Opar itself, for instance, and all its weird denizens, is framed initially as being a major antagonist, what with the Atlantean high priestess La having unfinished romantic business with Tarzan, but it gets resolved relatively quickly and is then never mentioned again. Which is a shame, because La is pretty fun to read (though a giant Problem, constantly vacillating between madonna and whore, or as Burroughs phrases it, “virgin” and “wanton”). If you don’t think too hard about the implications of the high priestess being the only woman in Opar and also the only human-shaped one because something something only the female descendants of one specific ancient Atlantean princess something. Anyway. We aren’t thinking too hard about that.

The actual main antagonist is Werper, a Belgian desertee who went briefly mad and shot his superior officer and then falls in with some of the evil Arab men who populate half of Burroughs’s Africa (oh yeah, points for mentioning an actual location in this one – the Congo Free State). A plan is developed to kidnap Jane for a handsome ransom, and Werper, as a token white man, is sent in to befriend the Claytons and infiltrate the household.

So farzan, so Tarzan.

Later, Tarzan goes to the ancient city of Opar to get some gold to… prop up a failing business venture? It’s not important why, it’s just important that he needs the gold, and Werper follows him to the city. Once the gold is all out, there’s an earthquake and the ceiling smacks Tarzan on the noggin and erases all his memory of being civilised. A classic plot device, and I won’t hear a word against it.

Werper falls somewhere between the Evil Russians Rokoff and Paulvitch of The Return of Tarzan/The Beasts of Tarzan/briefly The Son of Tarzan, and the Effete Englishman (I cannot for the life of me remember his name, and nor can anyone else on the internet, seemingly) from The Son of Tarzan, being definitely evil but also sort of redeeming himself very slightly in the end in the same way as the Effete Englishman did. Namely, he wanted to mistreat a lady, and after being stopped by outside circumstances and absolutely not his own conscience, realised what he was going to do, and dug deep and found it within himself to be a better man. For a while, anyway.

We get more of that sweet sweet female point of view that we got in The Son of Tarzan, in the form of La, high priestess diva who only wants to live forever in Tarzan’s ape-man embrace, and also Jane, separated from Tarzan (who’s forgotten her anyway), kidnapped, trying to survive among a whole host of competing evil forces (something Burroughs is great at). And you know what, he doesn’t do half bad. She makes informed choices, her naiveté isn’t a result of some feminine nonsense but Werper’s cunning, and she happily escapes into the jungle when she can. That said, she also gets referred to as a “girl” even though last time we saw her she had an adult married son.

He also dials it back a hell of a lot on the exhausting race stuff, though it’s not exactly great (please quit it with the Big Bwana and Lady nonsense please). We get some alone-time with Mugambi, large strong Waziri guard, and then immediately the evil Arabs attack and kill all the Claytons’ guards, set the house on fire and kidnap Jane. I was about to flip a table: this was the vaunted change in Burroughs’s writing about race? But it’s OK, Mugambi shares the mutant healing factor of Tarzan and Wesley Crusher, and survives. He does… remarkably little. He travels slowly and painfully, survives in the jungle, performs a plot device switcheroo and is robbed by one of Tarzan’s ape compatriots, and thus is his part in the story done, until he shows up at the ending reunion.

It felt faster than The Son of Tarzan, and I’m not sure if it was genuinely shorter or what – the collection I have on Kindle doesn’t seem easily separable by book, only by chapter, which is driving me mad – but it was a pretty painless, fun read. The most fun part was probably in the beginning, when Tarzan tells us how he Really Feels about civilisation, which is, namely, that it is all about a “cowardly greed for peace and ease and the safe-guarding of property rights”* and art/literature/etc have “endured despite civilisation”**.

Words to live by, lads.

*Unlike all animals, whose instincts of course do not lead them to the way of least resistance, and who never avoid violence or energy-costly action unless as a last resort.
**As we know from all the art and literature animals make every day.

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