Through Whitest Africa: Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar by Philip José Farmer and The Song of Kwasin by Philip José Farmer and Christopher Paul Carey [Guest Post by J. Comer]

Few writers are as closely associated with the pulp tradition in SF and fantasy as the late Philip José Farmer (1918-2009).  Best known as the author of the Riverworld and World of Tiers series, Farmer penned five dozen novels and over a hundred short stories, winning three Hugo Awards across a writing career more than fifty years long.  He was the first major SF writer to deal with sexual themes as graphically as the mainstream authors of his time (The Lovers, 1952), carried to extremes with the horror-porn A Feast Unknown (1969), one of sixteen Farmer novels in which characters based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan appear. 

     The mention of Tarzan brings us to an aspect of Farmer’s work of interest to Cirsova.  Farmer was fascinated by the pulps and by classic adventure literature. He constantly pastiched their style and included characters referring to them, even linking many major pulp heroes and heroines into a “Wold-Newton Family” lineage.  Tarzan so intrigued Farmer that he deconstructed the science behind the ape man (Lord Tyger, 1970)  and wrote a ‘biography’ of His Lordship (Tarzan Alive (1972) as well as narrating the ultimate fate of Tarzan as a time traveler (Time’s Last Gift, 1972). 

     One aspect of Tarzan’s adventures is his penchant for discovering or finding lost cities and otherwise unknown civilizations.  Opar, which appears several times in Burroughs’ Tarzan tales, is one such, a city in the Congo whose men are hairy beasts and whose women are lovely Caucasians, such as the priestess La, modeled on Rider Haggard’s Ayesha.  Farmer could not help but be fascinated by questions about Opar’s origin and development, and pursued them in Tarzan Alive.[1]

     In Hadon of Ancient Opar he presents a tale of the Ice Age in Africa. Some readers will not care for the earthy, rough sexuality which still has the power to shock and disturb, despite the passage of decades.  Willy Ley’s “Chad Sea” and “Congo Lake” (Engineer’s Dreams, 1954) are present here as Mediterranean-like basins, while cities of a Jakob Bachofen-type matriarchy (Mother Right, 1861) flourish all around. Hadon, a sports champ/gladiator, is to become king but is instead sent on a deadly mission, and we’re off into whitest Africa, with Rider Haggard’s characters Laleela and Paga appearing alongside the Hercules-like Kwasin and the mysterious “grey-eyed god” Sahhindar; it will require very little effort on the reader’s part to realize who the ‘god of time’ is intended to be.

     While a place oddly near the actual Bantu homeland (Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, 1997) is designated as a black urheimat, the people of this ancient Africa are Caucasians or beast-people (Neanderthals and so on) and various crossbreeds.  While numerous black characters appear in Farmer’s work, the black erasure in these books is questionable to say the least. This reviewer understands the presence of Neanderthals in Europe and Asia, but even when Farmer wrote these books, it was pretty clear that the Neanderthals, adapted to glacial conditions, would never have been numerous in a warm climate.

     The pulpy fun continues in Flight to Opar. The crew needs to reach Hadon’s home city for the birth of his daughter, and aren’t deterred by religious war, a usurper king, and graphic descriptions of sewage being dumped. As always Farmer’s grasp of action writing is a pleasure. Finally the motley bunch reunites with Hadon’s aged father and beloved brother, and the wild action comes to an end.

     And so did Farmer, who lived to be ninety-one and a beloved great-grandfather. He left unfinished work behind, including The Song of Kwasin, a novel about Hadon’s Goliath or Hercules-ish cousin.[2]  Christopher Paul Carey finished the book and published it in Gods of Opar (2012), which collects Farmer’s Opar novels and some addenda. Kwasin becomes King of one city, with Hadon’s scheming ex and the invading army of the Sun God to keep him busy. Minruth, the usurper king, attacks the city. Kwasin is captured and humiliated, with the great Queen Awineth, tortured and enslaved, with the Atlantean doom of Khokarsa looming nearer.  The ending neatly reverses the ‘lost continent’ version of Atlantis and returns the narrative to Hadon. Carey wrote two more Hadon novels and a Khokarsa prequel, which are really outside the scope of this review.

     Ten thousand years later, La, priestess-queen of Opar, met Lord Greystoke, Tarzan of the Apes. The unrequited love between them clearly appealed to Burroughs as to his successors. La was mortal, or she wasn’t, but by and by she faded away, as the mystery of Africa faded into the twentieth century.

     What can we come away with, from Opar? A lost city, lost not only in Congo rainforest, but in lost colonialism? (Opar kept “Negro slaves” per Burroughs, who don’t play a part in the Hadon books.)  Who can resist a lost city of white matriarchs and bestial ape-men, a city crammed with gold?  Well, Wilbur Smith’s The Sunbird (1972) was probably the last novel about such a place, and in that novel the city was a Zimbabwe-like ruin, seen in a dream. La has appeared in Disney’s Tarzan cartoon as well as in several of the many, many Tarzan films, but seventy years after Burroughs’ death, what is left of his lost Africa?

     According to Farmer and to Carey, good clean fun. Leslie Fiedler called Farmer the best SF writer; Dr Isaac Asimov simply said that Farmer was “a far more skillful writer than I am.”[3] While pastiche was central to Farmer’s work, his books are both well-written and fun, and in some cases more carefully thought out than the ‘originals’. In the case of Opar, the original idea of homage to Burroughs almost vanishes behind the vast worldmaking, but a Burroughs adventure rife with gold, battle and love-hate is the result.  Recommended to pulp fans.


[1] Super-fan Den Valdron presents Oparian Fanon here; NSFW:  https://www.erbzine.com/mag19/1937.html

[2] An additional Kwasin piece finished by Carey, “Kwasin and the Bear God,” was not available to the reviewer. A future printing of Gods of Opar would do well to include this novella.

[3] This reviewer believes Dr Asimov’s remark to derive from Farmer’s well-known skill as an action writer with a penchant for sex; Asimov was infamous for writing neither of these very well.

One response to “Through Whitest Africa: Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar by Philip José Farmer and The Song of Kwasin by Philip José Farmer and Christopher Paul Carey [Guest Post by J. Comer]

  1. Pingback: Sensor Sweep: Viking Bikers From Hell, Lovecraft & Hemingway, Hadon of Ancient Opar – castaliahouse.com

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