Thursday, May 10, 2012

I sorry--WHOM did you say got LOST in the JUNGLE?

Read/Watch ‘em in Order #16: Tarzan at the Earth’s Core (serialized in Blue Book Magazine—1929/30)

Remember that at the end of Tanar of Pellicidar, Jason Gridley was going to organize an expedition to Pellicidar to rescue David Innes, who was being held prisoner by the pirate nation of Korsar.

He recruits Tarzan to lead the expedition. The two men then arrange for the design and construction of an advanced model of zeppelin, christened the 0-220. With a crew of volunteers that include the German crew and 10 of Tarzan’s Waziri warriors, the 0-220 enters Pellicidar through the recently discovered opening near the North Pole.

All this gets this slam-bang novel off to a great start. The whole idea of the zeppelin (described in detail in the first chapter) is cool and the fact that the craft doesn’t play a direct part in the action through much of the novel is actually a mild disappointment.

By the way, the zeppelin achieves lift through the use of large vacuum tanks rather than hydrogen or helium. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make any real-life sense at all, but who am I to doubt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ veracity as a historian?

Anyways, the expedition reaches Pellicidar and Tarzan goes off alone through the primeval jungle landscape to look around. And he gets lost.

Yes, the super-competent Lord of the darned Jungle gets lost in the jungle. Pellicidar’s lack of a moving sun, moon, stars or other more subtle indications of direction that Tarzan instinctively depends on don’t exist in the world at the Earth’s core. So, Tarzan gets lost.

Jason, one of the zeppelin’s officers and the Waziri go searching for him. They blaze a trail as they go, but are scattered when they get caught in a huge stampede. This is, by the way, one of Burroughs’ best action sequences—hundreds of huge herbivores are being chased by hundreds of huge carnivores, which culminates in a mammoth surrounded and locked in a fight to the death against a pack of saber tooth tigers.

Though the Waziri and the officer are now also lost, Jason manages to find his way back to the 0-220 and opts to go out on another search, this time employing the bi-plane they had packed along. But—as planes in a Burroughsian lost world are wont to do—his plane gets attacked by a pterodactyl and he’s forced to bail out. He just happens to land pretty much right next to a damsel-in-distress. This is the mind-numbingly beautiful Jana, who is being menaced by thugs from a rival tribe on one side and hungry hyenodons on the other.  Jason’s pistol evens the odds a bit.

From here, the novel takes up the usual form of plot construction that Burroughs used whenever he split the action between two heroes, ending chapters at cliffhanger moments while switching the point-of-view for awhile.

Tarzan befriends some natives and has a series of adventures, including a mid-air fight with a pterodactyl that snatches up the Ape Man for lunch. Also, there’s a truly exciting fight against a cave bear. Jana and Jason fall in love and have their own adventures. They get separated and each thinks the other is dead. Tarzan meets Jana. Jason meets one of the natives Tarzan had befriended, who also happens to be Jana’s brother. Everybody eventually runs into a race of carnivorous reptile men who wield long lances and ride big lizards. Finally, Tarzan and Jason join up in what might possibly Burroughs’ most shameless (but also most entertaining) use of coincidence. I won’t spoil it for you—you gotta read it to believe it.

It’s not until the end of the novel--when Tarzan, Jason, their friends and the Waziri (they’ve found them as well) are picked up by the 0-220—that they finally get around to rescuing David Innes from the Korsars. This is accomplished quickly and—to be honest—a little bit anti-climatically.

Which should have ended their adventures in Pellicidar. But there’s still a missing member of the expedition. An officer named Wilhelm von Horst disappeared mysteriously while traveling with the Waziri. So Jason stays behind in Pellicidar to organize yet another expedition, this time to find von Horst.

That leads us directly into the next Pellicidar novel. Burroughs wouldn’t get around to writing it until 1936, but when he did, we would learn just what happened to the lost German. We’ll take a look at Back to the Stone Age soon.

Tarzan at the Earth’s Core is made of 97.5% pure fun. Burroughs is able to take Tarzan out of his usual setting and pit him against creatures and other dangers he wouldn’t normally encounter. It’s obvious that the whole “David Innes is a prisoner” device is just an excuse for getting the Ape Man and his friends to Pellicidar and tossing them into the typical cycle of battles, captures and escapes that Burroughs always makes entertaining. And, despite this leading to a mildly anti-climatic ending, it proves to be a good thing. Aside from the stampede scene and the cave bear fight, notable action scenes include a battle between the Waziri and the reptile men & a mid-river attack on a boat of Korsar pirates by those same reptile men.

Also, the book has one of Burroughs coolest and most delightful Research Failures. At one point, Jason and another character are attacked by a stegosaurus. And the stegosaurus attacks them by jumping off a cliff and spreading out his spine plates in order to become a living glider!!! (Also, the attack implies that Burroughs thought the stegosaurus was a carnivore.)  I don't care how silly this is--it's a simply awesome moment.

Besides, I love that Burroughs managed to produce a cross-over novel linking his various series together. As I think I wrote in the last “In Order” entry, I wish he’d done it more often.

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