Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Followers of my thrilling twitter feed who have photographic memories will recall that in 2019 my brother back home in New Jersey, greatest state in the union, sent me all the Edgar Rice Burroughs books he had accumulated since I left home, along with all those I had acquired in my Garden State youth, and that in 2015 I purchased a stack of Tarzan paperbacks at an Iowa antique mall.  So I have two Ballantine printings of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, one from the 1970s with a Neal Adams cover and one from the '60s with a Richard Powers cover.  These texts of these books seem to have been printed from the same plates, so presumably they will have all the same typos, so I guess it doesn't matter which one I read.  I'd be curious to see the 1963 Ace edition with the Frank Frazetta cover; maybe I should keep my eye out for it at Wonder Book.

Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar was first exposed to the public in 1916, as a five-part serial in All-Story Weekly magazine, and of course has been reprinted many times in many forms.  Check out the commendably enthusiastic and charmingly amateurish cover illustration to the 1943 Romanian translation,  apparently published while the nations of the novel's author and main character were at war with Romania, below. 

Belgian army officer Albert Werper has psychological problems.  He has a tendency to, when under stress, act impulsively, to break the rules most of us just follow as a matter of course.  Rules like, "Don't kill your co-workers for no reason."  In the Congo one day, bitter over having been sent to Africa as punishment for an infraction back in his beloved Brussels, jungle life getting on his nerves, he just murders another officer, blasting him in the chest with his revolver without any provocation.  Good grief!  Werper flees into the jungle, murdering a black soldier on his way out.  

In the jungle, Werper is captured by Achmet Zek, one of the most notorious slavers and poachers in the area, and he joins Zek's band of marauders.  After Werper has aided Zek in numerous crimes, the Arab invites Werper to be his partner in in a desperate scheme to get rich--gthe kidnapping Jane Clayton, Lady Greystoke!  The Arab figures they'll ransom the wife of Tarzan or, failing that, sell to some Muslim ("Moslem" here in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar) potentate to be the crowning glory of his harem.  So, Werper, in disguise as a French big game hunter, pays a call on Tarzan at the vast African Greystoke estate.  Eavesdropping on the Lord and Lady, Werper learns that one of the Greystoke business ventures has gone belly up, and so Tarzan is going to return to the lost city of Opar to seize some gold--this is how Tarzan got rich in the first place back in the second Tarzan book, The Return of Tarzan.  When Tarzan marches off to Opar at the head of a party of his loyal retainers, the brave and resourceful Waziri, Werper follows them.

The subterranean treasure store of Opar is accessible by a secret passage that lets out some distance from the ruined city; after seeing Tarzan go in and out of the place Werper creeps in there himself.  A cave-in traps the Belgian in there, as well as knocking Tarzan out and separating him from the Waziri.  Werper's only means of egress is through the other end of the passage, into the ruined city, where live the degenerate race of hideous male Oparians and their beautiful female leader, La the high priestess.  Opar was a colony of Atlantis, and La and her crooked people the descendants of Atlanteans crossbred with the sort of highly intelligent apes who raised Tarzan.  They worship the sun, and Werper is seized and about to be sacrificed to old Sol when the ceremony is interrupted by a lion attack.  (Lions are always attacking people in these Tarzan books.)  The Oparians flee from the great cat, except for La, who faints where she stands over Werper, sacrificial knife, an artifact of Atlantis of great religious significance to the Oparians, in hand.  Tarzan arrives just at the moment the lion is about to charge Werper and La; Lord Greystoke is suffering amnesia from a blow to the skull suffered in the cave-in--he doesn't remember where he is or even that he is married!  Fortunately, one of the things he does remember is how to kill a lion.  (Not fortunate for the lion, I guess.)

La is a sort of avatar or caricature of men's hopes, fears, and cynical assessments related to women.  Startlingly beautiful, she is also irrational and erratic; one minute she is tender and vulnerable, driven by love and desire, and willing to lay down her life for the one she loves, but the next minute she is furious and despotic, eager to avenge perceived slights by shedding blood.  She is duty bound to produce a high priestess to succeed her as ruler of the Oparians, but the Oparian men are so hideously ugly she does not relish the prospect.  She fell in love with the hunktastic Tarzan, the first outsider she had ever seen, back in Book 2, and now when he reappears in her life in Book 5 she hopes he has come back to accept her desperate love.  Tarzan, even though he doesn't remember Jane, blows La off and he and Werper fight their way out of the city into the jungle.  La regroups her crooked and stunted people and, with some apes to act as guides and trackers, pursues the two men.  Not only is La driven by love of Tarzan, and a desire to murder him for scorning her, but Werper has her sacred knife!

Burroughs' narrative switches among the various cast members, chronicling their adventures; there's Werper, Tarzan, La, Jane, and Mugambi, the African to whom Tarzan entrusted authority over the rest of the Waziri who are back at the estate.  Mugambi is intelligent and a ferocious fighter, and has spent time with Tarzan in London, so, like his employer, has a foot in both the savage world of the jungle and the sophisticated milieu of London.  Achmet Zek's band of Arab and black bandits attacks the Greystoke estate, and though Jane with a rifle and the noble Waziri with archery slay many of the attackers, eventually the Waziri are wiped out and Jane dragged off--the looted Greystoke estate burns behind them.  Mugambi, left for dead by the raiders, recovers consciousness and follows them, hoping to rescue Jane and get his revenge.   

Werper sneaks away from the amnesiac Tarzan, swiping from a sleeping Lord Greystone a pouch of priceless jewels our hero pocketed while lost in the labyrinth below Opar.  The Belgian ne'er-do-well reaches Achmet Zek's village just after Jane has been imprisoned there and just before Mugambi sneaks in.  Werper stupidly lets Zek see the pouch of jewels and is forced to flee for fear Zek will murder him for this treasure.  The same evening that Werper escapes, Jane, on her own steam, herself escapes--Mugambi busts into Jane's place of confinement in hopes of rescuing her only to find her gone. 

La and her army of twisted freaks catch up to Tarzan and she again begs him to love her, and he again refuses.  An elephant attack interrupts the ceremony in which Tarzan is about to be sacrificed to the sun god, and Tarzan generously rescues La from the pachyderm--the elephant, normally Tarzan's best friend, is running amok because it is mating season, like he's a Vulcan or something.  I guess Burroughs is setting up a parallel between La and the elephant here, reminding us that lust can drive us all batty.  

Tarzan sends the Oparians back to their lost city, then, pursuing Werper, sees Jane and decides to seize her to be his mate.  (Wasn't there a story recently in the media about some guy with Alzheimer's who had forgotten his wife but fell in love with her when she came to visit him in the old folks' home and so they got married again?)  But our hero gets distracted and an ape, who also desires Jane, captures and carries her off.  Before this ape has a chance to consummate his relationship with Jane, a lion attacks and kills it.  Meanwhile, Werper eludes capture by Zek after getting himself a horse--the horse belonged to an Arab but at an opportune (for the Belgian) moment one of the lions who are constantly attacking people in Burroughs' fantasy version of Africa unhorsed the Arab, leaving the horse for Werper to mount.  (Burroughs uses lion attacks as a deus ex machina numerous times in this book.)  Werper also meets a force of Abyssians, and manages to get these guys to fight Zek's band.  In an exciting showdown, Werper kills Zek, and then the Belgian captures poor Jane through guile (throughout the novel Lady Greystoke gets captured and escapes only to get captured again and again.)

Werper forges an insincere alliance with Zek's lieutenant, Mohammed Beyd, now in charge of the remnants of Zek's band of raiders, but both of the men conceive an irresistible lust for Jane and fight over her--to the death!  It is Werper who comes out of this scrape alive, and the decency of Jane Clayton, who hasn't yet realized how crooked the manipulative Werper is, works a change in him and he abandons his project of raping her and helps her escape the Muslim band.  These two get separated, and Jane gets captured by the Abyssinians, who think to take her back to their emperor, and Tarzan finally catches up to Werper.  Werper helps Tarzan regain his memory, and then a Belgian force, which has been chasing Werper for ages, captures both of them.  Apes answer Tarzan's call and rescue the two men, while yet another lion attack disrupts the Abyssinian camp not far off, facilitating Werper's escape from Tarzan and Tarzan's rescue of Jane.  Like Jane, the pouch of jewels has passed among divers hands, but Werper ends up with them, only to die of unknown causes off screen; on the last page of the book, months later, after their African estate has been rebuilt, Tarzan and Jane find Werper's skeleton and the pouch of jewels.

Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar is a wild and fun adventure story.  I liked the villains in the book; La, whom I have already described, is great, and I found Werper, who is driven by readily comprehensible desires and fears and suffers mental instabilities, easier to identify with Tarzan, who is not only fearless and invincible but eats bugs and raw meat and casually rejects the sexalicious La.  Lord Greystoke is a man of iron!  I was kind of rooting for Werper as he pursued his foul and convoluted designs and navigated, via deception and disguise, his perilous relationships with formidable white, black and Arab opponents, and as he again and again quaked in fear when exposed to danger only to survive yet another brush with death thanks to dumb luck.  Of course I wasn't rooting for him to accomplish his schemes of murdering Tarzan or raping Jane or anything like that, but I was hoping he'd live to scheme another day and I certainly didn't feel bad when he shot down Achmet Zek and then Mohammed Beyd or when he got away with the jewels.  One of the things Burroughs brings to Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar with Werper, as well as with Mugambi, is suspense--we know Tarzan isn't going to get killed and we know Jane isn't going to be sold into sex slvery, but Tarzan's friends and enemies get killed all the time, so we don't know if Mugambi or Werper is going to make it to the last page of the book, inspiring our curiosity to find out what happens next and keeping us reading.    

The chases and fights in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar are good, and I enjoyed Burroughs' extravagant descriptions of Tarzan's attitudes and proclivities during his bout of amnesia, when he reverts to beast mode, and his amazing abilities (e. g., Burroughs explains in detail how he can follow a trail two days old); I also liked the melodramatic speeches people would sometimes deliver:

"Dog of a Christian," he whispered, "look upon this knife in the hands of Mohammed Beyd!  Look well, unbeliever, for it is the last thing in life that you shall see or feel.  With it Mohammed Beyd will cut out your black heart,  If you have a God pray to him now--in a minute more you shall be dead...." 

I guess if you can't embrace the spirit of the thing you might find the endless lion attacks and the convoluted plot in which Jane, a bag of jewels and a pile of gold bars (which I haven't even mentioned) change hands again and again exasperating, but I totally dug it.  Thumbs up for Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar.  I've got my fingers crossed that La, High Priestess of Opar, will appear in future Tarzan books along with a villain as effective as the lamented Werper. 


  1. Aha ! Those old Tarzan paperbacks........the ones with the Neal Adams covers are real treasures ! 'Jewels of Opar' inspired Philip Jose Farmer, the ultimate Tarzan Fanboy, to write a companion novel, 'Hadon of Ancient Opar', in 1974 for DAW. Be interesting to see what you think of it.........

    1. That sounds interesting, though I already have scores of books I want to read that I haven't gotten to yet. Have you seen the DAW printing of Farmer's Hadon of Ancient Opar? It includes a bunch of illustrations by Roy Krenkel that you can see at the Spanish-language blog at this url:

      The illos suggest that, like so many Farmer productions, Hadon of Ancient Opar has sex as a prominent element. I'll never forget, no matter how hard I try, Farmer's "The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol."

      And of course I remember your review of Farmer's sex-filled Tarzan/Doc Savage pastiche A Feast Unknown.

  2. Great post! I thought The Jewels of Opar was a heck of a lot of fun. To answer your questions:

    Yes, La does return in the later Tarzan books, more than once.
    A villain as Werper...that might be a matter of opinion, but there are some classic villains in the later Tarzan books. It's worth reading them all, including Fritz Leiber's Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, which is quite good.

    Thanks for the review!

    1. Thank you! I will look forward to the next La episode. I just finished Jungle Tales of Tarzan and the hermit witch doctor with the hyenas was a pretty good villain as well.