Weird Marvel Tales Volume Three:
SHE-FIENDS of the DARK CONTINENT
in the Works of
H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard:
A Monograph by Gilbert Colon
in the Works of
H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard:
A Monograph by Gilbert Colon
Last time around we examined Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Atlantis and Opar and their possible influence upon Robert E. Howard. Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle #3’s cover bore the blazon “Introducing Tarzan’s Most Deadly Foe-- LA of OPAR!,” and this evil “Queen and High Priestess” appears towards the end of that issue, her presence continuing in Tarzan #4-6.
|La of Opar|
“La of Opar!” bears a striking resemblance, in function and personality, to Queen Nakari, ruler of the last surviving Atlantean colony of Negari, in Robert E. Howard’s short story “The Moon of Skulls” (first published in the June-July 1930 issue of Weird Tales and ambitiously adapted as a three-part series in Savage Sword of Conan #34, #37, and #39.)
At first glance it would seem that REH is indebted to ERB, whose novel Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar was published in 1918, but both may be drawing inspiration from H. Rider Haggard and his 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure.
The Mark of Solomon
Deepening – or recognizing – the connection, scripter Roy Thomas inserts a hint of Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines into Marvel’s Tarzan series – on page 23 of issue Tarzan #3, Albert Werper exclaims upon seeing the African treasure room horde of Opar, “[A] treasure even King Solomon never dreamed of!,” a line absent from ERB’s novel. However King Solomon is indicated in Haggard’s She when the queen of the title, her name Ayesha, blasphemously boasts that she is even wiser than the ancient Israelite monarch himself:
“I, all powerful, I, whose loveliness is more loveliness of the Grecian Helen, of whom they used to sing, and whose wisdom is wider, ay, far more wide and deep than the wisdom of Solomon the Wise,—.”
Earlier “She-who-must-be-obeyed” asks Professor Ludwig Horace Holly, the first-person narrator of She,
“And does the Temple that the wise king built stand, and if so, what God do they worship therein? Is their Messiah come, of whom they preached so much and prophesied so loudly, and doth He rule the earth?”
Holly “answered with reverence” that although the “Messiah came” and though “crucified... His works live on, for He was the Son of God, and now of truth He doth rule half the world,” yet Solomon’s Temple is gone, “Judæa is a desert,” and the Jewish people live in Diaspora. Ayesha, still bearing the scars from when the Israelites tried to stone her to death at Jerusalem’s Temple Gate millennia ago, cruelly laughs at the fate “of those Jews whom I hated, for they called me ‘heathen.’” If La is anything like Ayesha, it is no wonder ERB’s “jungle lord” coldly turns his back on her advances in Tarzan #4, saying, “Tarzan does not desire you.”
|Nakari of Negari|
REH’s “The Moon of Skulls” makes no mention of King Solomon, but that yarn’s Puritan swashbuckling Solomon Kane character does bear the ruler’s name, and for much of the series he also wields King Solomon’s ancient rod with which the Biblical sovereign “drove forth the conjurers and magicians and prisoned the efreets and the evil genii!” The “holy and terrible staff” has a backstory rooted in ancient Egypt, like Ayesha (“I say to all of thy seed who come after thee, till at last a brave man be found among them who shall bathe in the fire and sit in the place of the Pharaohs,” says the Sherd of Amenartas). While Kane’s staff once belonged to the priests of the Egyptian goddess Bast, it was later used by Moses to challenge the priests of Pharaoh. Before even that, it was borne by the “strange, dark pre-Adamite priests in the silent cities beneath the seas” and “nameless Atlantean kings,” making it a weapon the Atlantis-descended priests of La of Opar and Nakari of Negari would theoretically recognize.
Fire of Beauty
Actual fire is another motif common to Haggard’s Ayesha and ERB’s La, though less so REH’s Nakari. (Nakari is addressed by one of her warriors as “Fire of Beauty,” one prisoner says how the queen “suspended me over slow fires,” and the land of Negari’s “lesser, native priests” were charged with “keeping the holy fires,” but that is the extent of it.)
In ERB’s novel, La and her “priests and priestesses” conduct rites “in the ecstatic hysteria of fanaticism, the first gush of their victim’s warm blood...filling their golden goblets [from which they] drink to the glory of their Flaming God.” Is this perhaps why REH’s Nakari is called “the vampire queen of Negari”? Kane does say,
“[T]he prophecies of Isaiah come to pass. They were drunken but not with wine. Nay, blood was their drink and in that red flood they dipped deep and terribly.”
|Ursula Andress as "She"|
ERB’s novel and comics contain no details of precisely who or what La’s “vile Flaming God” is, but the goblets, “the sacrificial knife,” and “an altar!” for “some obscene, bloody ritual old as time!” are knowledge enough to make a justifiably harsh judgment. As explored in the Tarzan #3 coverage of Atlantis-Opar, La intones “KLO YARADA VALKA!” while wielding the sacrificial dagger, though the pagan god Valka is nowhere mentioned in the ERB novel (or Haggard’s novel, for that matter). Thomas, again, must be aware of the connections between ERB’s La and REH’s Nakari, for in “The Moon of Skulls,” it is mentioned that the Atlantean remnants
“worshipped Valka and Hotah, Honen and Golgor. Many virgins, many strong youths, died on their altars and the smoke of the shrines blotted out the sun.”
One such young girl whom Kane has come to rescue weeps aloud, “Nakari and her Starmaidens came to prepare me for the rite.”
In the chamber, Kane confronts “the savage queen in her barbaric finery, one arm still lifted to the cord, the other hand holding the dagger in front of her—the imprisoned girl cowering on the floor.” After “Africa’s greatest queen...offer[s Kane] her love and the empire of the world—and [Kane] revile[s] her!,” all hell breaks loose. Feeling as spurned by Kane as La is by Tarzan, Nakari threatens to have the “slave girl...hung up by her wrists, naked, and whipped until she swoons!” Will this be Jane Clayton’s fate at La’s hands? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially a “devil-woman.” (Or, as Nakari’s chief of the guards says to his queen early in the story, “Great and Terrible One, let not the fire of your fury consume your slave.”)
In Haggard, Ayesha “showed to us the rolling Pillar of Life that dies not, whereof the voice is as the voice of thunder; and she did stand in the flames, and come forth unharmed, and yet more beautiful” – fire as the source of her immortality and ageless allure.
Nakari,“the vampire queen,” is called “a deathless queen” in REH’s poem “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming,” adapted in Savage Sword of Conan #20. In “The Moon of Skulls,” Kane identifies her as “Lilith—that foul, lovely woman of ancient legend” – Lilith, immortal demoness in Hebraic folklore. (ERB’s La, however, does not seem to be an eternal or timeless being.)
Land of Skulls
“The Moon of Skulls” of REH’s story is named for “the full of each moon” when “a virgin dies on the Black Altar before the Tower of Death” – “built into the cliff and projects above it” – to “honor...the god of Atlantis.” The skull is no mere metaphor, however, but is that of “Nakura[,] the last great wizard of Atlantean Negari” worshipped by savages. This “skull of evil, the symbol of Death that they worship,” is set “[h]igh in the Tower of Death,” and “from the face of the tower...leers down the skull of the renegade wizard, and the people believe that his brain still lives therein to guide the star of the city.” One victim marked for human sacrifice, “bound on the Black Altar,” sees that “behind the Tower of Death the rising moon was beginning to glow,” and then, “as in a dream I saw the glowing skull high on the tower.” In “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming,” the English swordsman calls “the Land of Skulls” named Negari “a city old as Death, / Where towering pyramids of skulls her glory witnesseth.”
In Haggard’s novel, the professor “stare[s] at the rock...edged with the fire of the growing light behind it” before “perceiv[ing] that the top of the peak, which was about eighty feet high by one hundred and fifty thick at its base, was... the round skull” that is “so odd that now I believe that it is not a mere freak of nature but gigantic monument fashioned, like the well-known Egyptian Sphinx, by forgotten people out of a pile of rock.”
There is also the matter of purity of stock and tangled bloodlines in Haggard, Burroughs, and Howard, undoubtedly an artifact of the Darwinian thinking of the day. The Oparians of ERB are the most prominent example of this:
“From these and their degraded slaves and a later intermixture of the blood of the anthropoids sprung the gnarled men of Opar; but by some queer freak of fate, aided by natural selection, the old Atlantean strain had remained pure and undegraded in the females descended from a single princess of the royal house of Atlantis who had been in Opar at the time of the great catastrophe. Such was La.”
In REH, the situation is reversed as Nakari, “slave and the daughter of a slave!,” transcends her ignoble origins to usurp throne and altar. Before her, Atlantis’ “rulers were warriors, scholars, priests, artisans” whose slaves they “mixed with...more and more as the race degenerated until at last only the priestcraft was free of the taint of savage blood.” But then “these fierce slaves revolted and slew all who bore a trace of the blood of Atlantis, except the priests and their families” who became their “secret masters.” Languishing in a dungeon, the last of the Atlantean priests laments to his cellmate Kane that
|Weird Tales June, 1930|
“[i]n the last century [the priest caste] mixed with their rulers and slaves, and now—oh, the shame upon me!—I, the last son of Atlantis, bear in my veins the taint of barbarian blood. They died; I remained, doing magic and guiding the savage kings, I the last priest of Negari. Then the shefiend, Nakari, arose.”
Haggard has the villainous Ayesha dabble cruelly in what would be described today as eugenics. Of the inhabitants of her land she says, “[T]hese people are savages, and know not the ways of cultivated man,” telling Holly that her handmaids are “deaf...and dumb, and therefore the safest of servants” because “I bred them so—it hath taken many centuries and much trouble.” A previous experiment proved not to her satisfaction because “the race was too ugly, so I let it die away,” and in another “I reared a race of giants, but after a while Nature would no more of it, and it died away.”
Throughout these stories there is even the hint of newer, more virile bloodlines to be born, sprung from the loins of its heroes – La desires Tarzan as her mate (“Stay- - and all Opar shall be yours!”); Holly’s ward Leo may be “the man that She was waiting for”; and Nakari wants Kane’s love and for him to “[s]it by me on the throne of Negari!” Most explicitly, in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, if the Lord of the Apes does not give in to La, she is doomed to take one of “the grotesque and knotted men of her clan” with whom she “must mate sooner or later that the direct line of high priestesses might not be broken.”
|Dell 339, 1940|
Though some have tried, it would be unfair to read racism into these stories on the level of Nazi Germany or the Ku Klux Klan when accepted men of science of the time like Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”) were positing “no rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes the average Negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man” (Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews, 1870). Eventually in 1925, John Scopes was being hailed a hero for teaching from evolutionary textbooks like A Civic Biology (1914) that said “[t]here is a greater difference between the lowest type of monkey and the highest type of ape than there is between the highest type of ape and the lowest savage.” This type of talk polluted the air of the era, promulgated by leading and respected scientists of the day and, tragically, absorbed by learned men traveling in intelligentsia circles.
A passage in Burroughs should count as some exoneration, as well as speak to better attitudes: “Lord and Lady Greystoke with Basuli and Mugambi rode together at the head of the column, laughing and talking together in that easy familiarity which common interests and mutual respect breed between honest and intelligent men of any races.” Similar sentiments can be found in the writings of Haggard and Howard for those who dare or care to look.
It should be noted that two of the savage African queens of these stories are not even native to the region. Ayesha is described as an Arab “white as snow.” Several times La’s face is described as “white and drawn.” (Nakari is admittedly “[a] black woman…young and of a tigerish comeliness,” yet she is poised to become the tyrant and terror of the African continent, ready to subjugate and enslave all its indigenous peoples.) It all could be read as a commentary on colonialism and imperialism, if one felt compelled to go down that dead-end route that today is so de rigueur.
|Dell 339, Back Cover|
So immortal and enduring a character is Ayesha that she spawned a cycle of stories – Ayesha: The Return of She, She and Allan, and Wisdom’s Daughter – from Haggard’s pen, as well as many film adaptations. Most pertinently for Marveldom, in 1977 Marvel Classics Comics #24 adapted the original novel She. Nakari features in only one epic Howard story, but was indelible enough to merit a mention in one of his poems. Burroughs’ La, no less compelling than “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” returns in numerous Tarzan novels.
One letter-writer in Savage Sword of Conan #24’s “Sword and Scrolls” page by the name of Mark Ryan of St. Louis, MO requests an article that “[c]ompare[s] and contrast[s] the works of REH to those of Edgar Rice Burroughs; compare Tarzan to Conan.” Beyond those two main characters, the commonalities are marked. Did this ever happen? If not, it should have. Should Mr. Ryan still be among the living today, maybe this essay, and the Atlantis-Opar one, will slake his thirst for bloody pulp until a better one comes along.