Perhaps the most well-known fictional creation of the 20th century, Tarzan celebrated his official centennial in October 2012. First appearing in the pulp publication All-Story Magazine as a complete novel in October 1912, Tarzan of the Apes proved so popular that its creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, wasted little time in coming up with a sequel … the first of an eventual two dozen! That sequel, perhaps inevitably titled The Return of Tarzan, was first seen in the pages of the short-lived pulp New Story Magazine (cover price: 15 cents); unlike its predecessor, it was published serially, in the June – December 1913 issues, and first saw book form in 1915. This is a tremendous continuation of the initial, now-classic story, and does what all good sequels SHOULD do: expand on what we already know while deepening characterizations … and leaving us wanting still more!
The Return of Tarzan is a direct continuation of the earlier novel, at the end of which Tarzan was seen nobly renouncing his aristocratic title so that his lady love, Jane Porter, could comfortably marry his cousin, William Cecil Clayton. Picking up scant weeks later, the sequel finds a despondent Tarzan mulling over his lot while on a steamer to Paris, where he resides with his good friend Paul D’Arnot. He becomes involved with the affairs of a troubled couple, the Count and Countess De Coude, while on ship and after returning to Paris; it seems that the Countess’ brother, the cravenly Russian agent Nikolas Rokoff, will do virtually anything to blackmail the couple into giving him some top-secret government papers. After these episodes (and the book certainly must be deemed “episodic”), Tarzan becomes a secret agent for the French government (!), has some remarkable adventures in the desert of Algeria (again coming up against Rokoff), is thrown off a mid-ocean steamer by Rokoff and his henchman, Alexis Paulvitch, and fetches up in his native Africa. Once on his home turf, Tarzan’s veneer of civilization is quickly sloughed off as he rises to the kingship of a native tribe, the Waziri, leads them in battle against a band of ivory hunters, and discovers the Haggardian lost kingdom of Opar, along with its treasure horde of gold. As you can tell, the novel is just crammed with incident and adventure; Burroughs throws quite a bit into this one to guarantee the reader a rousing good time. And I have not even mentioned the trials that poor Jane and her party go through after a terrible shipwreck and marooning. Readers won’t be bored, that’s for certain!
While no one would ever call Burroughs an elegant writer, he sure was a compelling one, and The Return of Tarzan really is quite impossible to put down. With two story lines alternating for our attention, and its chapters arranged cliffhanger fashion, the book is compulsively readable. It also goes far in deflating the charges of racism that have been leveled against Burroughs in the first book; here, the Waziri are portrayed in a very winning light, and Tarzan often ponders how much more decent they are than some “civilized” folks whom he has encountered (still, the book’s Manyuema cannibals are naturally shown in anything BUT a decent light!). The novel features some lovely romantic interludes that should have the lady readers sighing, while of course dishing out enough gun battles, fights with wild animals, cloak and dagger antics, and lost-world elements to keep the most jaded action fan happy. And although Burroughs had never visited Africa — and thus could not impart the “Dark Continent” authenticity that H. Rider Haggard engendered so easily in his own books — his research goes far here in filling in the blanks; for example, who has ever heard of alfa (esparto) grass before, ropes of which are used to bind Tarzan in the Algerian desert? Put simply, the book is a gas, from start to finish.
Still, it is a far from perfect affair, and Burroughs must be held accountable for several goofs that a careful reading will spotlight. Egregiously, he mentions that Tarzan’s ape mother, Kala, had been killed by a spear that “found [her] vitals.” In the initial novel, however, it is clearly stated that Kulonga’s spear merely “grazed her side;” rather, it was a poisoned arrow that did her in. The author tells us that Bou Saada, Algeria, is south of Sidi-bel-Abbes, whereas a quick look at a map will reveal that it is east. And he tells us that Tarzan’s vessel was sailing “east” from Algeria to get to the Strait of Gibraltar, whereas that should of course be west. Perhaps worse than these oversights, which should actually have been caught by Burroughs’ editor, is the overdependence on coincidence with which the author advances his plot. By coincidence, Tarzan’s first assignment in Africa involves his enemy, Rokoff; by coincidence, the sheik who befriends Tarzan is the father of the dancing girl who later rescues him; by coincidence, Tarzan meets Jane’s best friend, Hazel Strong, on a steamer at sea; by coincidence, the marooned Tarzan washes up on the African shore right at the cabin where he was born (!); by coincidence, Hazel bumps into Jane in Cape Town; and by two more coincidences, the lifeboats of the aforementioned shipwreck also fetch up on the African shore within five miles of Tarzan’s cabin. Small world, and all that! The first Tarzan novel was also dependent on coincidence, but not nearly as absurdly so as its sequel. But you know what? The story is so entertaining, so much fun, and told with such dash and vigor, that none of these things seems to matter. While one part of the reader’s mind is saying “Oh, come on!” the other part is making those pages flip, anxious to see what comes next. To demonstrate this point, I find that, despite having dozens of other books clamoring for my attention right now, I yet HAVE to read the second Tarzan sequel, The Beasts of Tarzan, next. Flaws and all, even after 100 years, these books CAN prove highly addictive…