Tarzan has taken on many villains over the years, and in most cases, they are fictional creations from lost cities or are villainous treasure hunters, but in Tarzan and the Leopard Men, we get our hero tangling with a secret cult that actually operated in West Africa in early-to-mid 20th Century. Published as a six part serial in The Blue Book Magazine from 1931 to 1932 Tarzan and the Leopard Men not only has the jungle man take on a dangerous cult but he also must deal with his old nemeses amnesia and gravity.
The book opens with a violent storm wreaking havoc through the jungle, and it’s this storm that sets key dominos in motion. A young white woman, who we will know simply as Kali Bwana for most of the book, is almost raped by one of her native porters. She manages to wing him with a shot from her revolver, but being almost raped will consistently be a problem for her. While this is going on Tarzan and Nkima take shelter in a large tree, but unfortunately it’s not large enough to survive a tornado; thus Tarzan is knocked from his perch and pinned by one of its branches when the tree is uprooted. This leads to him being found by Orando, the son of a local chieftain. At first, Orando thinks of immediately killing this white stranger but when he discovers the trapped man has no memory he decides to free him from his predicament. Shortly the two come across the brutally murdered body of Nyamwegi, a close friend of Orando, and he vows revenge. From the inhuman wounds found on the corpse, even an amnesiac Tarzan can deduce that the culprits are those of the sadistic cult of the Leopard Men.
That Tarzan has no memory of who he is, and that Orando sees this stranger communicating with a little monkey, the superstitious native at first believes Tarzan to be a demon but soon comes to believe that he is in fact must be his muzimo (a guardian spirit) and that the monkey must be Nyamwegi’s ghost. With no other memories to contradict this Tarzan goes along with it. Later Nkima tries to convince Tarzan of his true identity as Lord of the Apes, but why the little monkey waits that long could only be understood by Nkima. Of course, during a major battle with the Leopard Men Tarzan will get hit in the head and regain his memories as that is how amnesia is always cured in fiction.
The other key players in this tale are two white men, known only as Old Timer and The Kid, who are down-on-their-luck ivory poachers. Having no luck finding elephants to kill the two split their safari in the hopes of bettering their odds, and because Africa is such a small place Old Timer runs into Kali Bwana, who had been deserted by her native guides. Old Timer is a “Woman Hater” and he came to Africa to escape some horrible romantic tragedy, which causes him to hold all women accountable, but even a woman-hater can’t leave a white woman all alone in Africa so he decides to become her guardian. After being curt and rude to the poor woman he leaves one of his native porters to guard her while he goes off to find an elephant to shoot, but while stewing in the jungle he comes to the conclusion that she owes him for the pain his woman caused him, and so he decides to go back and rape her. He becomes enraged when he returns to the camp to discover the native porter brutally murdered and the girl was gone. The Leopard Men have stuck again.
The character of the Old Timer is certainly a strange protagonist, and easily one of Burroughs’s more complicated ones, we never find out exactly what the woman in his past did to him that caused such hatred of all women, but I can’t see many readers finding his justification of rape all that palatable. That the woman in question is constantly being abducted by one group of villains or another is the only reason he isn’t able to act on his base desires, and that these two actually end up falling in love is really bizarre. To be fair Kali Bwana only knew Old Timer as a rude and dirty jungle bum, and being rescued can make one overlook such flaws, but she is not able to read his mind or intentions so she never learns that she is going to marry a guy that at one point had planned sexual assault on her person.
The rest of the book is full of Tarzan and his dealings with the Leopard Men, and most of those dealings are with extreme prejudice. Now the cult of the Leopard Men consists of secret members, who if their own village members knew of their involvement it would result in immediate and messy death, so much of the story is Tarzan exposing traitors in the midst of the native community, with either him or the villagers administering jungle justice. This is all great stuff, even when Tarzan gets his memory back the locals still work with him to defeat this hideous blight on their jungle home, and Tarzan does kick some serious butt. Often we have seen Tarzan using the local’s superstitious fears against them but rarely do we see Tarzan actually becoming one of those mystical beings, even if it’s only in his head. Overall some really great stuff here.
Note: I did mention earlier that not only does amnesia once again plague our hero but gravity does as well. Our jungle hero finds himself on an unstable branch (Are there any other kind in this jungle?) above the enemy, and when it breaks he falls into their clutches. I think Tarzan falls out of the trees almost as much as George of the Jungle. At this point, I’m wondering if he should maybe be wearing a helmet.
Tarzan and the Leopard Man does have some great action, the Leopard Men are a suitably treacherous threat, and his time as a supposed Forest Guardian Spirit is quite fun, but the stuff with Old Timer and Kali Bwana teeters between creepy and interesting. Old Timer does heroically throw himself into danger in several attempts to save the woman, but his lascivious motives kind of taint the whole thing, and her finally declaration of love, when she invites the man to return with her to America, “Because I love you, you will come” may be one of the series’ weaker endings. Still the great stuff with Tarzan battling the Leopard Men easily offset one of Burroughs’ worst love stories.
Tarzan and the Leopard Men
Book Rank - 6/10
Edgar Rice Burroughs loves to work a love story into all of his books but in Tarzan and the Leopard Men, he chose a rather unorthodox union that almost taints the whole project.