I started reading Tarzan Triumphant yesterday, and once again Burroughs has managed to blow me away. The setup is so entirely unexpected, especially given what one always hears about Burroughs and the pulps and the “toxic masculinity” of the era and eeeeeevil colonialism and all of that. But it’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from Burroughs.
Burroughs is always very deliberate in his writing. Nothing is wasted, and there’s meaning and purpose to his prose, so the order in which he establishes things is important. The stories he tells often are comprised of many threads that eventually weave together to tell a tale, and the suspense in a Burroughs story is when those threads threaten to become frayed or unwoven — what must come together seems to come apart until, at last, everything is tightly and neatly tied up where it should be. It is unsurprising he begins this tale with a prologue with the words “Time is the warp of the tapestry which is life,” and aims to pursue this analogy most directly in this work.
It is important when Burroughs chooses to first establish his story’s heroine, second establish his hero, thirdly bring in his villain, and finally Tarzan. Yes, the protagonist of Tarzan Triumphant is a woman, Lady Barbara Collis; her try-hard love interest shall be the young Lafayette Smith, who will clearly need to bootstrap his way up to being awesome enough; the villain shall be Leon Stabutch, the vile cats-paw of Stalin; and at last we know that Tarzan will at some point aid both Barbara and Lafayette while protecting Africa from filthy commies.
AS far as I know the first Earl of Whimsey has nothing to do with this story, and so we are not particularly interested in the fact that it was not so much the fine grade of whiskey that he manufactured that won him his earldom as the generous contribution he made to the Liberal party at the time that it was in power a number of years ago.
Being merely a simple historian and no prophet, I cannot say whether we shall see the Earl of Whimsey again or not. But if we do not find the Earl particularly interesting, I can assure you that the same may not be said of his fair daughter, Lady Barbara Collis.
The African sun, still an hour high, was hidden from the face of the earth by solid cloud banks that enveloped the loftier peaks of the mysterious, impenetrable fastnesses of the forbidding Ghenzi Mountain range that frowned perpetually upon a thousand valleys little known to man.
From far above this seeming solitude, out of the heart of the densely banked clouds, there came to whatever ears there might be to hear a strange and terrifying droning, suggesting the presence of a preposterous Gargantuan bumblebee circling far above the jagged peaks of Ghenzi. At times it grew in volume until it attained terrifying proportions; and then gradually it diminished until it was only a suggestion of a sound, only to grow once again in volume and to again retreat.
For a long time, invisible and mysterious, it had been describing its great circles deep in the concealing vapors that hid it from the earth and hid the earth from it.
Lady Barbara Collis was worried. Her petrol was running low. At the crucial moment her compass had failed her, and she had been flying blind through the clouds looking for an opening for what now seemed an eternity of hours to her.
She had known that she must cross a lofty range of mountains, and she had kept at a considerable altitude above the clouds for this purpose; but presently they had risen to such heights that she could not surmount them; and, foolishly, rather than turn back and give up her projected non-stop flight from Cairo to the Cape, she had risked all in one effort to penetrate them.
For an hour Lady Barbara had been indulging in considerable high powered thinking, intermingled with the regret that she had not started thinking a little more heavily before she had taken off, as she had, against the explicit command of her sire. To say that she was terrified in the sense that fear had impaired any of her faculties would not be true. However, she was a girl of keen intelligence, fully competent to understand the grave danger of her situation; and when there loomed suddenly close to the tip of her left wing a granite escarpment that was lost immediately above and below her in the all enveloping vapor, it is no reflection upon her courage that she involuntarily caught her breath in a quick gasp and simultaneously turned the nose of her ship upwards until her altimeter registered an altitude that she knew must be far higher than the loftiest peak that reared its head above any part of Africa.
Rising in a wide spiral, she was soon miles away from that terrifying menace that had seemingly leaped out of the clouds to seize her. Yet even so, her plight was still as utterly hopeless as it well could be. Her fuel was practically exhausted. To attempt to drop below the cloud banks, now that she knew positively that she was among lofty mountains, would be utter madness; and so she did the only thing that remained to her.
Alone in the cold wet clouds, far above an unknown country, Lady Barbara Collis breathed a little prayer as she bailed out. With the utmost meticulosity she counted ten before she jerked the rip cord of her chute.
We often hear about women being relegated to background roles, being there to prop up the big strong men, etc. etc. Not so, here!
While one might argue that Burroughs starts with his protagonist’s father, his dismissal of him is very important. The prologue speaks of the far reaching importance of long ago events and individuals well known and obscure; in the opening of his first chapter, Burroughs is simply reminding us that it is Barbara who is important.
No damsel, but a true dame – smart, clever, capable… but in a bit of a scrape, else there’d be little drama to unfold. This budding Amelia Earhart has parachuted into danger and adventure, where the first person she meets and bonds with will not be a man but another clever woman who sees this lady-from-the-skies as an opportunity to get out from under the thumb of the zealous old codgers of her tribe, but I’m getting ahead.
At that same instant Fate was reaching out to gather other threads—far flung threads—for this tiny fragment of her tapestry.
Kabariga, chief of the Bangalo people of Bungalo, knelt before Tarzan of the Apes many weary marches to the south of the Ghenzi Mountain.
In Moscow, Leon Stabutch entered the office of Stalin, the dictator of Red Russia.
Ignorant of the very existence of Kabariga, the black chief, or of Leon Stabutch or Lady Barbara Collis, Lafayette Smith, A.M., Ph.D., Sc.D., professor of geology at the Phil Sheridan Military Academy, boarded a steamship in the harbor of New York.
Mr. Smith was a quiet, modest, scholarly looking young man with horn rimmed spectacles, which he wore not because of any defect of eyesight but in the belief that they added a certain dignity and semblance of age to his appearance. That his spectacles were fitted with plain glass was known only to himself and his optician.
Graduated from college at seventeen the young man had devoted four additional years to acquiring further degrees, during which time he optimistically expected the stamp of dignified maturity to make itself evident in his face and bearing; but, to his intense dismay, his appearance seemed quite as youthful at twenty-one as it had at seventeen.
Lafayette Smith’s great handicap to the immediate fulfillment of his ambition (to occupy the chair of geology in some university of standing) lay in his possession of the unusual combination of brilliant intellect and retentive memory with robust health and a splendid physique. Do what he might he could not look sufficiently mature and scholarly to impress any college board. He tried whiskers, but the result was humiliating; and then he conceived the idea of horn rimmed spectacles and pared his ambition down, temporarily, from a university to a prep school.
For a school year, now, he had been an instructor in an inconspicuous western military academy, and now he was about to achieve another of his cherished ambitions—he was going to Africa to study the great rift valleys of the Dark Continent, concerning the formation of which there are so many theories propounded and acclaimed by acknowledged authorities on the subject as to leave the layman with the impression that a fundamental requisite to success in the science of geology is identical to that required by weather forecasters.
But be that as it may, Lafayette Smith was on his way to Africa with the financial backing of a wealthy father and the wide experience that might be gained from a number of week-end field excursions into the back pastures of accommodating farmers, plus considerable ability as a tennis player and a swimmer.
We may leave him now, with his note books and seasickness, in the hands of Fate, who is leading him inexorably toward sinister situations from which no amount of geological knowledge nor swimming nor tennis ability may extricate him.
Now we are introduced to the man who will inevitably become the love interest. Here we have the “adorkable” male lead, the Milo from Atlantis, the Dr. Jackson from Stargate: a glasses wearing pointdexter whose peers and colleagues don’t give him what he feels is his due. He is smart, perhaps brilliant, and more fit than his fellow nerds, but Burroughs reminds us that smart and fit aren’t going to be enough on a jungle adventure. A veritable leitmotif of Burroughs’ Tarzan stories is “The Jungle Makes You A Badass Or You Die”. So we know Barbara is a cool customer who will become badass. And Smith is strong, smart dude who will eventually have to become badass enough to be worthy of Barbara over the course of his jungle adventure.
Now, on to our villain!
When it is two hours before noon in New York it is an hour before sunset in Moscow and so it was that as Lafayette Smith boarded the liner in the morning, Leon Stabutch, at the same moment, was closeted with Stalin late in the afternoon.
“That is all,” said Stalin; “you understand?”
“Perfectly,” replied Stabutch. “Peter Zveri shall be avenged, and the obstacle that thwarted our plans in Africa shall be removed.”
“The latter is most essential,” emphasized Stalin, “but do not belittle the abilities of your obstacle. He may be, as you have said, naught but an ape-man; but he utterly routed a well organized Red expedition that might have accomplished much in Abyssinia and Egypt but for his interference. And,” he added, “I may tell you, comrade, that we contemplate another attempt; but it will not be made until we have a report from you that—the obstacle has been removed.”
Stabutch swelled his great chest. “Have I ever failed?” he asked.
Stalin rose and laid a hand upon the other’s shoulder. “Red Russia does not look to the OGPU for failures,” he said. Only his lips smiled as he spoke.
Leon Stabutch needs little introduction. He is a commie. He is working for Stalin, the super evil commie grampa who plans on carrying out all sorts of evil commie plans in Africa to the detriment of the African people.
Tarzan is going to have to fight commies and you just know it’s going to be awesome. But he’s going to have a lot of other things to deal with first. You know he’s going to be tangled up with Barbara and Lafayette somehow. So, let’s see how!
That same night Leon Stabutch left Moscow. He thought that he left secretly and alone, but Fate was at his side in the compartment of the railway carriage.
As Lady Barbara Collis bailed out in the clouds above the Ghenzi range, and Lafayette Smith trod the gangplank leading aboard the liner, and Stabutch stood before Stalin, Tarzan, with knitted brows, looked down upon the black kneeling at his feet.
“Rise!” he commanded, and then; “Who are you and why have you sought Tarzan of the Apes?”
“I am Kabariga, O Great Bwana,” replied the black. “I am chief of the Bangalo people of Bungalo. I come to the Great Bwana because my people suffer much sorrow and great fear and our neighbors, who are related to the Gallas, have told us that you are the friend of those who suffer wrongs at the hands of bad men.”
“And what wrongs have your people suffered?” demanded Tarzan, “and at whose hands?”
“For long we lived at peace with all men,” explained Kabariga; “we did not make war upon our neighbors. We wished only to plant and harvest in security. But one day there came into our country from Abyssinia a band of shiftas who had been driven from their own country. They raided some of our villages, stealing our grain, our goats and our people, and these they sold into slavery in far countries.
“They do not take everything, they destroy nothing; but they do not go away out of our country. They remain in a village they have built in inaccessible mountains, and when they need more provisions or slaves they come again to other villages of my people.
“And so they permit us to live and plant and harvest that they may continue to take toll of us.”
“But why do you come to me?” demanded the ape-man. “I do not interfere among tribes beyond the boundaries of my own country, unless they commit some depredation against my own people.”
“I come to you, Great Bwana,” replied the black chief, “because you are a white man and these shiftas are led by a white man. It is known among all men that you are the enemy of bad white men.”
“That,” said Tarzan, “is different. I will return with you to your country.”
And thus Fate, enlisting the services of the black chief, Kabariga, led Tarzan of the Apes out of his own country, toward the north. Nor did many of his own people know whither he had gone nor why—not even little Nkima, the close friend and confidant of the ape-man.
After his early years, Tarzan has normally followed the prime directive when it comes to getting involved with native conflicts. There are tribes he works with, who are under his protection, and those tribes will often go to bat for him. Heck, the deus ex machina of Tarzan at the Earth’s Core was the crack-team of African riflemen showing up to save the day, because dinosaur-riding snakemen and stuck-in-the-16th-century-pirates are no match for 20-odd blacks with modern long-barrel rifles.
But Tarzan hates the colonial exploitation of the indigenous African peoples, so when he hears that it’s white folks who are causing problems for the Bangalo, he is ready to strip down to his loin-cloth and spring into action!
So, right in the first chapter, we have a lot of stuff we constantly hear about old works flipped on its head; the story starts with female lead, and after these introductions, continues with her; the “adorkable” male hero, often thought to be a much more recent modern trope, is described in his dorkiness and we are shown how he will grow through the listing of what he lacks; Tarzan is going to fight communists – this is 1931, and Papa Joe is shown to be a cold, calculating and evil man who needs to be stopped – this isn’t Cold War spooks, Burroughs knows Stalin’s a rotten dude; Tarzan is anti-colonial – we always hear about the colonialist attitudes of the pulps, or that the pulps failed to examine and address colonialism, but we’re straight up told that Tarzan doesn’t want white dudes exploiting and messing with the tribes in Africa.
Anyway, Tarzan Triumphant is available from Gutenberg Australia. I’m only a couple chapters in, but I can already tell this is gonna be at least as awesome as the other three Tarzan novels I’ve read.
What better way to celebrate Tarzan’s birthday week than with a story about Tarzan fighting to stop a Commie plot?