In Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar we find our favorite ape man wandering around Africa with amnesia. This will not be the last time Tarzan suffers from this malady as it certainly makes it easier to explain his absence from Jane, “Wife, what wife?” Also of note is that in this fifth installment of the Tarzan series, published in 1916 in the pages of All-Story Cavalier Weekly, Burroughs has moved from the serialized continuity he had with the first three books and settled down to making more standalone adventures, though some continuity between books will remain. Jane is still a key character here but unlike the later books the aforementioned amnesia allows Tarzan a little more freedom from marital bliss. And don’t ask me what happened to Korak The Son of Tarzan as he’s not even given a mention in this book. I guess we can assume he moved back to London so he could show Meriem the sights.
In Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar we are first introduced to Lieutenant Albert Werper, a Belgian officer who instead of being court-martialed for various infractions, family connections spare him this, was sent to an outpost in the Congo. Werper does not like this direction his life has taken and after a little brooding he ends up killing his commanding officer. To escape the firing squad Werper runs off into the jungle where he meets up with Achmet Zek, an Arab raider that is not a fan of Tarzan (this because Tarzan tends to stop villainous acts in his part of Africa), and they decide to team-up to kidnap Jane for ransom. This seems only slightly less idiotic than people who try and kidnap Lois Lane. In fact they only succeed in the kidnapping because Werper was able to infiltrate the Clayton household in the guise of a white hunter and while there he learns that Tarzan is planning a trip to the lost city of Opar to get some more gold (some kind of financial calamity having wiped out their fortune), and this allows Achmet Zek and his men to hit the homestead while Tarzan and many of the Waziri warriors are away.
Now having overheard Tarzan talking of the fabulous riches of Opar Werper decides to follow Tarzan and the Waziri so that he can learn the location and then return later with Achmet Zek and his men so they themselves can rob the vaults of Opar. Things do not go exactly according to plan. After carrying out a hundred ingots of gold from the vaults an earthquake strikes and this is where the amnesia comes into play. Tarzan is hit in the head from falling debris and loses all memory of his life beyond his early days of living with the apes. The Waziri try and dig out their master but after uncovering several of their own dead they come to the conclusion that Tarzan must be dead as well, but of course he is quite alive and now wandering around the dark corridors of Opar, and this is also where he comes across the titular jewels (which he thinks of as just pretty pebbles). Unfortunately for poor Werper he was also trapped by the Earthquake and while trying to escape is captured by the Atlantean priests. Soon he finds himself tied to the altar of the Flaming God and about to be sacrificed by the High Priestess La, but Lady Luck decides to make an appearance (she makes many appearances in the Tarzan books) for just as the knife is about to come down and remove his heart a lion enters the chamber and proceeds to tear apart the priests. Before the lion has a chance to munch on either Werper or La the mighty Tarzan makes an entrance and he spears the lion. La, who had swooned at the approach of the lion, awakes, spots Tarzan and proceeds to profess her undying love for the ape man. And who can blame her? It’s not like she has many marital options in Opar.
The High Priestess La is one of my favorite reoccurring characters. She is at once a villain of the series but also a tragic figure. She has lived her entire life amongst ugly ape-like priests who she will one day have to mate with. A godlike Tarzan is certainly a better option than that. He had spurned her advances in The Return of Tarzan because even though Jane and he had not officially hooked up he was still in love with her, but now even with amnesia Tarzan still cannot say “Yes” to the beautiful La. So somewhere in his subconscious he must still remember his true love and thus is able to turn down this appealing offer of La’s. Yet even after being spurned again La can’t seem to shake the love she has for this jungle god. After Werper and Tarzan escape Opar they are followed by an enraged La and her gnarled ape-like minions and they are captured. Tarzan once again finds himself under the knife of the High Priestess who at the last minute still offers Tarzan life if he will just chose her as his mate. He says no. You got to give Tarzan props for his sticktuitiveness.
Lady Luck makes another appearance this time in the form of Tantor who is currently suffer from some form of animal sexual insanity (Elephants in heat are apparently very dangerous even to Tarzan). Despite La’s actions Tarzan can’t stand the idea of her dead beneath the feet of Tantor and he rescues her while the elephant stomps the hell out of her priests. He even brokers a peace between her and her disgruntled priests (they are kind of upset at her constantly wanting Tarzan over them), and sends them all back to Opar. Here is a nice excerpt that sums up Edgar Rice Burroughs’ view of the high priestess La quite well…
“A strange anomaly was La of Opar – a creature of circumstance torn from conflicting emotions. Now the cruel and bloodthirsty creature of a heartless god and again a melting woman filled with compassion and tenderness. Sometimes the incarnation of jealousy and revenge and sometimes a sobbing maiden, generous and forgiving; at once a virgin and a wanton; but always a woman. Such was La.”
But what of Jane you ask? Well Achmet Zek attacks the Clayton homestead and despite the valiant stand of the remaining Waziri she is captured. In this book Jane is still much a “damsel in distress” character but occasionally we will get a glimpse of her badass self that she will later become. During this attack Jane does not cower behind her husband’s warriors but stands on the veranda firing round after round from her rifle at the horde or Arab raiders. Unfortunately the brave Waziri are outnumbered and one by one they fall, and Jane’s badass image is tarnished a tad when she ends the fight by swooning. Women tend to swoon a lot in books by Burroughs.
The remainder of the book could be considered a game of musical chairs as characters are constantly running around the jungle searching to kill one another, rescue each other, or escape the clutches of one or the other. Jane escapes and is re-captured several times, by more than one villain, before eventually being reunited with Tarzan. Werper spends most of his time trying to figure out how to get the jewels of Opar away from Tarzan and then to keep the knowledge of their existence away from Achmet Zek. Brain addled Tarzan spends much of his time trying to track down Werper for stealing his “pretty pebbles” and chasing after men or apes who steal this “blonde woman” who holds some strange attraction to him.
Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar begins the formula that will pretty much carry itself throughout the series with but a few exceptions, and as formulas go it is a good one. Lost cities, villainous bastards, beautiful woman and a hero with muscles of iron, what’s not to love?