Jane Porter, Southern belle, is engaged to John Clayton, a good guy whom most of the world believes to be the legitimate Lord Greystoke, even though she loves Tarzan the Ape-Man, the real Lord Greystoke. Tarzan spends months on an ocean liner and in Paris, hanging out with his naval officer buddy D'Arnot, reading books and going to art exhibits, attending the opera and drinking absinth. Sounds like the good life! But Tarzan is lonely, missing both Jane and his jungle life. And of course he gets involved with some Russian spies.
Russian beauty Olga is married to a French government minister, and both seem like good sorts, but Olga's brother Nikolas is an unscrupulous jerk off who is always trying to use Olga's position to steal some French government secrets to sell to the czar or maybe some other foreign power. When Tarzan foils his various schemes to blackmail Olga or her husband, Nikolas hires ten thugs to murder Tarzan in a disreputable part of Paris. Tarzan outfights these creeps hand to hand and declares that this is the only entertainment he has had since he left the jungle! Are you forgetting the opera, Tarzan?
His time spent in civilization provides Tarzan numerous opportunities to put on his misanthrope cap and opine that the jungle is safer, and jungle beasts more admirable, than civilized human beings. You can only imagine what Tarzan is going to say about us civilized people when we've got World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, World War II and the Holocaust under our belts. You don't like civilization now, Tarzan? We're just getting started!
In Chapter 7 Tarzan is in North Africa on an espionage mission for the French government, disguised as an American hunter. Burroughs, who in Chapter 6 informed us that Frenchmen are impulsive, lets us know in Chapter 8 that "if there is one thing an Arab despises, it is a talkative man." Luckily our man Tarzan is a man of few words, and he makes several valuable Arab friends. In fact, Tarzan prefers the Arabs ("stern and dignified warriors") and their lives ("filled with danger and hardship") to the "effeminate civilization of the great cities he had visited." Tarzan, are you dissing the opera?
Tarzan gets on a ship for South Africa, and the Russian spies toss him overboard. Tarzan is of course a great swimmer, and luckily the Russians threw him overboard close to the very jungle where he grew up! Tarzan is thrilled to be back home, and even makes friends with a tribe of elephant hunters. The Africans in Tarzan of the Apes were all cannibals with filed teeth whom Tarzan would kill out of hand, but the members of this tribe, the Waziri, are a better sort. Evincing an attitude that today might land Tarzan (or Burroughs) in sensitivity training, Tarzan notes that these blacks don't have flat noses and thick lips like the "typical West African savage." (This actually reminds me of something Henry Miller says about W. E. B. DuBois in The Rosy Crucifixion.) It turns out that this tribe arrived down here a generation ago, fleeing from Arab slavers.
The Waziri guide Tarzan to the lost city of Opar, which is full of gold and a race of degenerate men; luckily the women of Opar have not degenerated, and are still sexy. The high priestess of Opar protects Tarzan from the men, and gives Burroughs a chance to take a dig at religion - the high priestess is a sham who does not believe her own religion, and even says in Chapter 22, "The more one knows of one's religion the less one believes...."
While Tarzan is busy with the Waziri and the high priestess of Opar, the bulk of the remainder of the cast - Jane, her father and servant, Clayton and Nikolas - gets shipwrecked on the West African coast. I thought the scenes in the boat, with everybody starving and considering cannibalism, effectively macabre. Once they make it to the jungle Jane is so disappointed in Clayton's inability to fight lions that she calls off their marriage. The Oparians, looking for the fugitive Tarzan, capture Jane, and Tarzan rescues her. Clayton dies of a fever, D'Arnot's ship arrives to rescue everybody and arrest Nikolas, and Tarzan steals a bazillion dollars worth of gold from Opar, so the way is paved for Tarzan and Jane to be married in the final chapter, Chapter 26. This book has a high body count, but still a happy ending for our hero and his "mate."
Return of Tarzan is a great adventure story, with a surfeit of exotic locations and people, beautiful girls, monstrous villains, and plenty of fights with men and with beasts (Tarzan really puts a dent in the lion population in this one.) Part of the book's charm is in how appealing a character Tarzan is. Burroughs does a good job with the fish out of water aspects of Tarzan's character, even using it as a source of jokes, like this one in Chapter 10:
He longed for a friend who loved the same wild life that he loved. He had learned to crave companionship, but it was his misfortune that most of the men he knew preferred immaculate linen and their clubs to nakedness and the jungle. It was, of course, difficult to understand, yet it was very evident that they did.I am skeptical of comic relief in adventure stories, as it is often distracting and diminishes the tension that I think is an important element of a good adventure story, but this kind of joke doesn't take you out of the story, and is entirely based on the character, and even helps give you a feeling for the character and his emotions.
(We get an example of a distracting joke when Jane's father, the absent-minded professor, while stranded on the West African coast, suddenly recalls there is a book he wants to read and gets in a row boat and tries to row his way to a New York library.)
Tarzan is also appealing because of his passion, his big emotions, his enthusiasm about life. Burroughs conveys how much Tarzan enjoys the hunt, enjoys fighting, enjoys eating the raw meat that he himself has brought down. Tarzan several times is compared to a child; each time a new adventure comes his way Tarzan is eager to embark on it, like a child discovering a new toy. Tarzan (in the jungle at least) is not only free of laws and social obligations, but is free to express his emotions: when Olga is in his arms he impulsively kisses her, when Jane is in danger he explodes in a furious rage, when he defeats a foe he puts his foot on the cadaver's neck and lets loose a triumphant animal scream, announcing to the world that he is still alive, a survivor and a winner. So much of the time we have to follow the rules, do what we are told, stifle or hide our emotions, that it is exciting to see someone who need not do so.
Return of Tarzan isn't without problems. As Gore Vidal points out in his article "Revisiting Tarzan," Burroughs uses too many incredible coincidences. Everything seems to happen when Tarzan is around: the slavers have not attacked the Waziri in decades, but they attack right after Tarzan joins the tribe; Jane and Tarzan are apart for months, and then the exact minute Jane is about to be killed by a lion or as a human sacrifice is the minute Tarzan comes on the scene. Some people may be dismayed by the book's racial, class and gender politics. (Women are always falling in love with Tarzan; when the survivors on the boat vote on what to do, Jane doesn't get to vote!) I didn't find it difficult to just shrug these things off; fiction is full of wacky coincidences, and Burroughs has admirable as well as despicable Russians, Arabs, and blacks, and Jane and other women sometimes display bravery and level heads in danger.
Return of Tarzan is great fun, and I am looking forward to the third Tarzan caper, Beasts of Tarzan.