Adventure Tales: Or Why I Like Haggard, Talbot Mundy, and Burroughs

Short version: because they have fun, or at least you get the sense that they were having fun when they wrote their stories. Tarzan, Athelstane King, Alan Quartermain, none of them spent long hours pondering the meaning of existence and the shallowness of bourgeois society. Nope, they explored, fought, played the Great Game by Asia’s own rules and won, dared to pursue the beautiful woman and won her hand and her respect, stood up for their honor and kept their word. And the books are a romp that leave you feeling better and dreaming of your own adventure when you finish.

When I was very young, my parents went to India, then to a swath of southern and eastern Africa (South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia). They brought back wooden animals, pictures, and stories that meshed perfectly with the Kipling tales and fairy stories they read to me at bedtime. And I kept reading those as I grew older, hunting stories, histories, novels like The Night Runners of Bengal and eventually The Far Pavillions, King of the Khyber Rifles and King Solomon’s Mines, and the first four Tarzan books. Why? Because they were fun! I love “Boys’ Own” adventure stories. The characters take the world on its own terms and either beat it, or lose, learn, and come back wiser and still willing to fight. Good guys win and evil loses.

The writing style is often tight but not simple. The writers weren’t Dickens by any means, but they used long words and complicated structures when they fit, and expected readers to meet or rise to their standards. And I certainly did, as several generations before me did. Descriptions can be rich or spare, as needed, but the pictures remain clear in my mind years later. There were lost worlds and hidden civilizations, dastardly plots lurking in the dark places, and a sense of wonder and exploration.

Why do I call them “Boys’ Own” stories? I think I picked the term up either from M. M. Kaye or from someone similar. It refers to a magazine, sort of an uplifting pulp for young readers, published in Great Britain that had school-boy tales, adventure stories, how-to pieces for Scouts, and that demanded gripping writing to a moral code. But that wasn’t preachy, most of the time. Boys’ Life was a US imitator. Not that the books and stories all appeared there, but the tone summed up a certain British flare for adventure and fair-play. These were the readers who grew up to play the Great Game (or their sons), who snuck into Tibet and other places, who found traces of lost civilizations scattered around parts of Africa and South America, and in a few cases made Alan Quartermain look like a stay-at-home lazybones (Gen. Roberts, Baden-Powell, the oldest Nicholson brother in South Asia during the Sepoy Mutiny). Americans roamed and popped up in odd places as well.

One of the things that appealed to me, and still does, is how the protagonists learn to blend in with the culture around them. They respect it enough to learn all they can, and then hide inside the Thugee cult (The Deceivers) or among Pashtu tribesmen on the Northwest Frontier (The Far Pavillions). Or the scene where King has his brother use walnut stain to hide the white on his face left by the British helmet’s chinstrap, the tell-tale flash that has given so many men away, in King of the Khyber Rifles. And how King hides his feelings at seeing his brother’s head while he is passing as a tribesman, but still gets his revenge. Only in one story that I recall, The Far Pavillions, does the British character finally go purely native, and even then, well . . . I won’t spoil it for those who might be interested. But you never get any sense of patronizing or talking down to locals in these stories. Unlike certain “great works of lit’rature” *APassagetoIndia* cough.

And none of the protagonists spent too much time contemplating the purported sins of their forebears and the guilt of white privilege. They were too busy dodging man-eating critters and ticked-off priestesses like She, Who Must be Obeyed. Tarzan may be a little different, but he fought when he needed to and thought when he had time. Safe spaces meant concealment and cover from incoming fire/spears/ravenous tigers. Most of the time, once saved from immediate danger, the women proved to be as resourceful and strong as the men, in their own womanly ways.

So a toast to Boys’ Own adventure stories and the people they inspired! Long may they flourish in their own entertaining ways, luring the unwary into reading and learning.

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