Celebrating Tarzan’s 101st anniversary by walking through Scott Tracy Griffin’s Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration.
Burroughs had moved around a lot as a kid and often lamented having to repeat the same Greek and Latin classes over and over again as a result of changing schools so often. The classical education came in handy though in the spring of 1928 when he wrote Tarzan and the Lost Tribe, a novel that was eventually re-titled Tarzan and the Lost Empire.
Though Lost Empire is the next official novel after Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, there are two more Tarzan stories in between those books. People don’t count them because they’re children’s stories: The Tarzan Twins and the crazylong titled Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins with Jad-bal-ja, the Golden Lion, which are sometimes reprinted together as Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins. Griffin covers them later in their own section, but they’re important to Lost Empire because they introduce the character, Dr. Von Harben, a missionary who reappears in Lost Empire to solicit Tarzan’s help.
Von Harben’s son has gone missing while looking for a lost tribe in the mountains, so Tarzan goes looking for the young man. Tarzan’s accompanied by a small monkey named Nkima – who makes his first appearance in this novel – and the two of them track the younger Von Harben to a hidden valley populated by the descendants of a lost, Roman outpost who have perfectly preserved the ancient culture, including colosseums and gladiator games. Somewhere along the way the outpost divided into two, rival cities, so Tarzan has to escape the slave pits of the one to find Von Harben in the other.
This may have been the first Tarzan novel I ever read; it’s certainly one of the earliest five. I remember thinking that Nkima was so much cooler than Cheetah from the Tarzan movies, which – because they included him – is one of the reasons I loved Filmation’s Saturday morning cartoon Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle so much. As I got older, I appreciated Cheetah’s antics more and more, but I still have a soft spot for Tarzan’s smaller, literary pal.
Griffin acknowledges the rivalry in a supplemental chapter, “Nkima Versus Cheetah.” He covers the history of Cheetah’s appearances in the MGM Tarzan films, from being the only live ape in the first couple of Tarzan movies (the rest of Tarzan’s ape family were played by costumed actors) to stealing the show in later installments. Burroughs never so much as mentions chimpanzees in his Tarzan stories. He lets Nkima serve the same purpose as Cheetah though: a cute ally and useful friend who can run for help when Tarzan’s in trouble.
It’s interesting to me that Burroughs never gives Nkima an origin story. In fact, in reading this chapter by Griffin I was surprised to learn that Lost Empire was Nkima’s first appearance. It’s impossible to tell from the novel that he and Tarzan haven’t been buddies for years.