Tarzan and the Leopard Men

by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Series: Tarzan 18
Reviewed date: 2021 Jun 29
Rating: 1
192 pages
cover art
cover art

This is a perfunctory Tarzan story. Tarzan is rootless, just a roving jungle demigod.

Amnesia with no purpose
A falling tree knocks Tarzan on the head and gives him amnesia, but conveniently he still acts precisely as he would have had he not lost his memory. When he recovers his memory later, "he marvelled at the coincidence of later events that had guided his footsteps along the very paths that he had intended treading before accident had robbed him of the memory of his purpose." So there is no reason for the amnesia plot.

Dread society of Leopard Men
Tarzan's purpose in this part of the African jungle is to find and destroy the Leopard Men. This secret society terrorizes many villages and tribes through ritual murder and cannibalism. The members gather secretly, don disguises of real leopard skins, ritualistically murder their victims, and eat their flesh. Hidden deep in the jungle is their secret temple where they worship the Leopard God.

An aside: the real Leopard Men
It happens that the Leopard Men were a real phenomenon found across western Africa. They did dress like leopards and murder people. Details are scarce, but from what I can tell, the societies operated more like hired hit men who propped up local warlords than a secret religious society. The reports indicate there was some ritual cannibalism, but how true that was I am unable to ascertain. This wasn't deep in the jungle, either, it was in towns, mostly in west Africa. (I've heard Nigeria, Congo, Gabon, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Liberia.) Many Leopard Men were arrested, tried, and hanged by the colonial governments. Dr. Vicky L. M. Van Bockhaven has written a thesis on the subject of the Leopard Men in Eastern Congo (which are distinct from the Leopard Men in other parts of Africa), which I found informative: The Leopard Men of the Eastern Congo (ca. 1890-1940): history and colonial representation. Given the dates, I suspect it was the reports of Leopard Men murder in Congo (around 1930) that prompted Edgar Rice Burroughs to feature them in this Tarzan story (published 1932-1933.)

Kali Bwana and the ivory poachers
Also wandering the jungle is a young while woman referred to only as Kali Bwana, who is hunting for someone named Jerry. Also there are two luckless ivory poachers, referred to as The Kid and Old Timer. Edgar Rice Burroughs keeps their names and true identities secret so he can spring a hoary old surprise at the end of the book, but it's not a stretch to guess that The Kid is the "Jerry" that Kali Bwana is searching for. Nor is it a big surprise that Kali Bwana is Jerry's sister, or that Old Timer and Kali fall in love.

The apes
Edgar Rice Burroughs writes himself into a tight spot, so he has Tarzan call for help from the mangani. It is not the laziest writing in the world, because ERB does set it up beforehand to be believable, but it's pretty transparent.

Colonialism and racism
It should go without saying, but I'll say it again: the Tarzan books are pretty racist and colonialist. Things get better when there are long-lost pocket civilizations like the Ant Men, or the lost Roman colony. But when it's just Tarzan, a few other white people, and various groups of African tribesmen roaming the jungle? Oh man, it gets rough. That's why I prefer to read his Barsoom books or the Pellucidar stories: they have all of the best creativity that Burroughs has to offer with less of the patronizing colonialist attitudes that permeate the Tarzan stories. In Tarzan and the Leopard Men we don't even get much of Edgar Rice Burroughs's creativity. It's a boring and perfunctory adventure.

I found it unsatisfying. It may be the blandest and most disappointing Tarzan adventure so far.

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