Jungle Girl is a 1933 lost world tale by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Given that Burroughs was the creator of Tarzan of the Apes you might expect this to be a female Tarzan-type story but it isn’t. It does however have a jungle setting and a jungle girl, of sorts.
Gordon King is a young American exploring the jungles of Cambodia. King was trained as a doctor (which will later prove crucial to the story) but being a wealthy young man he has decided that archaeology might be more fun than practising medicine. He is hoping to discover traces of the vanished Khmer civilisation, perhaps even something as exciting and significant as the ruins of Angkor Wat. Being a city boy with no experience of trekking through forests he is soon hopelessly lost. And then he stumbles over a rock with some curious and unquestionably ancient inscriptions. He is still lost however and is on the point of giving up and just patiently waiting for death. When he sees an old man dressed in a yellow tunic and carrying a red parasol he assumes he has become delirious. Even in his (supposed) delirium he manages to shoot a tiger that is about to make supper out of the old man. He also sees a party of soldiers dressed in bronze armour and an elephant with a howdah and a beautiful girl in the howdah. Obviously more delirium dreams.
Having passed out from hunger, exhaustion and despair he wakes up to find himself in a small stone building. The stone hut is home to a hunter and his wife and child, and the wife nurses Gordon back to health. Gordon may be a city boy but he is a natural athlete, having been a champion track-and-field competitor. His specialty was throwing the javelin, a sport at which he set a world record. This skill makes him a fine hunter and he is soon accompanying the husband on hunting trips.
There is a major surprise in store for Gordon King. He will discover that the old man with the red parasol, the bronze-clad warriors and the girl on the elephant were not symptoms of delirium. The old man was the high priest of Lodidhapura. The girl, Fou-tan, was on her way to join the harem of King Lodivarnam. He has stumbled upon something far stranger than the ruins of the ancient Khmer civilisation. He has discovered that this ancient civilisation still exists, hidden deep within the jungle, entirely cut off from the outside world. The people of Lodidhapura believe that their jungle comprises the entire world, and that there are only two cities in the world, their own and the neighbouring city of Pnom Dhek.
This lost civilisation knows nothing of anything that has happened in the outside world for many centuries, possible even for a millennium. It is however a thriving civilisation in its own way. King Lodivarnam can put into the field many thousands of warriors and hundreds of war elephants. The city itself is vast and splendid, the king’s palace is large and magnificent.
And what of the girl Fou-tan? She is a girl of Pnom Dhek who had run away to escape a forced marriage, was captured by the soldiers of King Lodivarnam and is now destined to be his latest concubine. This prospect fills her with despair, for King Lodivarnam is not only known for his cruelty he is also a leper!
This is not the only reason that Fou-tan does not wish to share the king’s bed. She and Gordon King have fallen in love.
Gordon King’s determination to somehow save Fou-tan will involve him in a series of thrilling adventures, and thrilling adventures were the sort of thing Edgar Rice Burroughs was very good at. He was also remarkably good at what science fiction and fantasy fans call world-building - the ability to create complex and fascinating imaginary worlds. The world of Lodidhapura is certainly complex and fascinating. There is more to King Lodivarnam than is at first apparent - he is a man who has been dealt a tragically poor hand by fate but he will turn out to be more than a simplistic villain. There are villains in this story but most of the characters are more complicated than this and they have reasons for doing the things they do.
Lodidhapura is neither a utopian paradise nor a city of evil. It is a society bound by tradition, for both good and ill. Its citizens have the usual array of human frailties, and human strengths. The major characters are on the whole neither wholly good nor wholly evil.
Gordon King belongs to the square-jawed action hero tradition but he is not infallible nor is he a super-man. He is brave, reasonably intelligent and determined. His love for Fou-tan inspires him to perform heroic deeds, and while a hero motivated by old-fashioned decency and by love for a beautiful and spirited girl might be an old-fashioned sort of hero that is in my opinion no bad thing.
The 1941 Republic movie serial Jungle Girl was advertised as being based on the Burroughs novel but it actually has no connection whatsoever with the novel apart from the title. Republic bought the rights to the novel purely in order to get the title (which was obviously a great title for a 1940s movie serial).
Edgar Rice Burroughs is a writer who is somewhat unfairly neglected these days. He had a talent for writing stories that combined high adventure with some very intriguing ideas. His ability to create highly original imaginary worlds can be seen to full advantage in his Carnak stories (beginning with The Land That Time Forgot), his Pellucidar novels (beginning with At the Earth's Core) and his Martian novels (such as A Princess of Mars). Jungle Girl is perhaps less ambitious and certainly less fantastic but it is nonetheless a very fine novel of adventure and a very satisfying lost world tale. Highly recommended.