When the Sleeper Wakes, A Story-Telling Technique

John "Bridge" Martin


In "The Monster Men," first published in 1913 under the magazine title of "A Man Without A Soul," Professor Maxon, on a remote South Seas island, tinkered with the idea of creating life in the laboratory.

At the same time, the saga's author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, was busy tinkering with a story-writing technique.

The technique, a plotting device that we shall call "the sleeper," was used a bit tentatively in "Monster Men" but Burroughs polished it and employed it with greater skill and effectiveness in three of his Tarzan novels.

The term "sleeper" is used in espionage to describe a spy who poses, perhaps for years, as a solid citizen of another country. The sleeper "awakens," or goes into action, at precisely the time his country of origin needs him, to carry out whatever mission he is assigned.

Similarly, in literature, a sleeper can be a character whose relationship to the rest of the story may seem a bit pointless. But, at just the right time, "the sleeper awakens" to play a key part in the consummation of the tale.

In "The Monster Men," the sleeper is a young man named Townsend J. Harper Jr. He is introduced to us in the first chapter of the story in a six-paragraph segment in which he admires the lovely Virginia Maxon from a distance and announces to a friend that he is going to find out more about her.

That's the last we hear of this sleeper – until the end of the story. Then we find out that Mr. Harper indeed followed Miss Maxon until, for reasons that are never explained, he ended up an amnesia victim in a boat next to Maxon's island. Sing Lee, an employee of the professor, found the dazed man and substituted him for the latest mass of monster flesh the scientist was brewing up in his lab.

Throughout the book, Harper and almost everyone else (including, the author hoped, a lot of his readers) believe him to be one of the professor's creations. Only in the end, after he wins the love of Virginia Maxon, does the sleeper "awaken."

Sing Lee reveals the true identity of Bulan, the name given to the professor’s 13th "monster"; Harper's memory itself gets jogged shortly thereafter, and he, too, remembers who he is, and everyone lives happily ever after, especially Virginia who, though admirably professing love for someone based on his character and not on his supposed origins, can breathe easier with the knowledge that the man she has pledged herself to is real human flesh and blood after all.

But the reader, perhaps, may feel a bit cheated. He wants to know more about Mr. Harper. It would have been nice to have even a few other details, such as what circumstance led to him leaving his ship in a small boat, and what further calamity resulted in him being abandoned by his boatmates under the spell of amnesia.

Indeed, the technique of using the sleeper seems to work much better when it is referred to more than just once at the beginning of a long story. The clever author dares to mention the sleeper several times, usually concealing the sleeper's true identify, and the reader must wonder just who or what this sleeper really is and what role it may play in the tale.

Usually, the author plays mind games with the reader by mentioning the sleeper every couple of chapters or so and then, midway in the book, no further mentions! The sleeper is completely dropped from the story at that point. No more is the reader teased by mentions of him. In fact, it is the author's hope, from that point on, that the reader will be so caught up in the pace of the rest of the story that he will forget all about the sleeper.

Then, when the author "awakens" the sleeper and brings him to center stage in the thrilling climax of the story, the reader can enjoy two competing emotions at once:

First, the enjoyment of a surprise ending. Just when it seemed darkest for the hero or main characters, the sleeper awakens to save the day.

Second, the enjoyment of being able to say, "Just as I expected!" As the surprise ebbs, the reader reflects back on the many times he was clearly told of the sleeper's presence in the story and begins to credit himself for having the intelligence to know that the author was "up to something."

Burroughs didn't fully follow the above pattern in "The Monster Men," but he employed the technique to perfection in three rousing Tarzan stories.


The sleeper is introduced at the end of Chapter 2 as Tarzan, searching for his kidnapped Jane, lays plans to seek her out in the city of A-lur. We read: "And at that same moment, a hundred miles away, a lithe figure, naked but for a loin cloth and weapons, moved silently across a thorn-covered, waterless steppe, searching always along the ground before him with keen eyes and sensitive nostrils."

Of course, we think that this must be Korak. Who else would run around the jungle – dressed that way, using his nose – besides Tarzan's son? And yet, the last time we heard of Korak was four books ago. Maybe it isn't Korak after all!

Wily Burroughs won’t satisfy our curiosity as he continues to write his story. But he delights in keeping us guessing.

The frequency with which the sleeper is mentioned is as follows: After chapter 2, he's found in three chapters in a row (4, 5 and 6), then in every other chapter (8, 10 and 12). At the start of Chapter 4, he's actually referred to as a "sleeper" when Burroughs writes of "the figure of a sleeper upon a distant, thorn-covered steppe." In chapter 5, we're told how he used his bow and arrow in preference to his rifle and ammo and Burroughs teases us with: "for what, for whom were these death-dealing bits of metal preserved? In all the world only he knew."

The drop-off comes in Chapter 12. Here, for the last time in a 25-chapter book, the sleeper is referred to in his unidentified state. The sleeper comes into contact with a people befriended earlier by Tarzan and, after spending some time with them and winning their confidence, they point to the City of A-lur and say, "There is Tarzan-jad-guru."

From that point on, the young man is not mentioned and we follow the adventures of Tarzan and Jane for the next 11 chapters.

Burroughs does take pity enough on us to give us a clue, however. In chapter 21, after Tarzan and Jane are finally reunited, Jane asks, "And Jack, where is he?"

"I do not know," replied Tarzan. "The last I heard of him he was on the Argonne Front."

The unidentified youth whose progress we followed over the first half of the book is not mentioned at all…just a mother and father talking with concern about their son Jack (Korak). But the reader learns their son, having been in battle, would have been familiar with rifles…and didn't that unidentified young man have one?

The awakening comes at last in Chapter 24. Tarzan is captured. He's about to be killed. The evil Obergatz raises the sacrificial knife. Nothing can save Tarzan now!

Then – "…a sharp staccato note rang out above the silent, spellbound multitude." Tarzan’s enemies start falling to the ground. Jane sees the stranger, who slings his weapon over his shoulder and runs to embrace her. "Jack," she cried, sobbing on his shoulder. "Jack, my son!"

The sleeper has awakened.


"Tarzan the Terrible" was the eighth book in the Tarzan series. Burroughs gave the sleeper technique a rest for 11 years before using it again in the 15th book about the Jungle Lord, "Tarzan Triumphant."

The sleeper this time is given a name, Lord Passmore, but he is still a man of mystery as Burroughs doesn't tell us anything about him. We read simply, in the first part of Chapter 4, of several groups of people heading toward the Ghenzi Mountains, among them, "…from the South, an English big game hunter, Lord Passmore…." The two other groups mentioned are the parties of, from the west, Lafayette Smith and "Gunner" Patrick and, from the east, Leon Staubutch.

But Burroughs had planted a sly clue back in Chapter 1. There also Staubutch and Smith were mentioned, but no Lord Passmore. Instead, we find another English Lord, Tarzan himself, setting out north toward the Ghenzi Mountains. Could there be any connection between these two Englishmen, both headed in the same direction?

The frequency: Lord Passmore's safari is mentioned in chapters 4, 5, 7 and 13 in the early part of the book. He is quite the English gentleman. In Chapter 5, we see him "faultlessly attired in dinner clothes…dining, his native boy, standing behind his chair, ready to anticipate his every need."

At the end of Chapter 13, he is mentioned only in passing. "One of their men had seen Lord Passmore’s safari…."

The dropoff: The topic of Lord Passmore is then dropped for nine chapters.

The awakening: In this novel, Burroughs has the sleeper wake up gradually, rather than with a clanging alarm.

In Chapter 22, Tarzan escorts Lady Barbara and Lafayette Smith to the safekeeping of Lord Passmore, although the pair are never introduced to their gentleman benefactor, but rather cared for by his "splendid looking" men (Chapter 23).

In Chapter 23, we are told "…scouts had located the camp of Lord Passmore, and now the shiftas were discussing plans for attacking it on the morrow." There’s a major clue in Chapter 24: Passmore's safari men transform themselves into a fighting force as they pick up modern rifles and bandoleers of ammunition. Additionally, "White feathered headdresses were being adjusted and war paint applied to glossy hides." Anyone who has read the previous Tarzan book is thinking: Waziri!

The sleeper becomes ninety-nine per cent awake after the climactic battle at the end of Chapter 25. After Tarzan and his Waziri warriors rescue "Gunner" Patrick and Jezebel from their captors, the "Gunner" asks if' he's "seen anything of old Smith."

"He is safe at my camp," Tarzan replied.

Well, since we know that Smith and Lady Barbara were left at the camp of Lord Passmore, we now know he and Tarzan are the same person.

But just in case anyone needs it spelled out, it is so spelled in the last chapter when Tarzan returns to the safari, and Lady Barbara asks the whereabouts of their elusive host.

"I am 'Lord Passmore'," said Tarzan, and for the first time Burroughs uses quotes around the Passmore name to show that it is an alias…of Tarzan of the Apes.

The sleeper has awakened.


Burroughs didn't waste any time using the sleeper again. He employed it for his very next Tarzan book. The ape-man journeys alone along adventure trail, but just as in "Tarzan the Terrible," there's another who is heading a similar direction.

The sleeper shows up in Chapter 2 as "Far to the south a lion rose from his kill…. There were the pride and bearing of royalty in the mien of this mighty beast; and to add to his impressiveness were his great size, his yellow, almost golden, coat, and his great black mane."

Of course, the reader will immediately recognize a description of Jad-bal-ja, the Golden Lion, picked up as an orphaned cub as Tarzan, Jane and Korak made their way back home from Pal-ul-don.

But is this really Jad-bal-ja or is it another lion and Burroughs is teasing us? We don’t really know for sure, because Burroughs doesn't say.

But we know this is a lion with a mission. In Chapter 3 we're told the beast, known so far only by the name of Numa, "continued toward the north along the mysterious trail he had been following for many days."

The frequency of appearances by the sleeper is about every third chapter. We follow the progress of the lion in Chapters 2, 3, 6, 9 and 13. In chapter 9, we find the great cat temporarily distracted. "He paced rapidly first in one direction and then in another; his movements were erratic; sometimes his nose was near the ground and, again, it was in the air as though he were searching for something or some one…"

The dropoff is at the start of Chapter 13. This time our sleeper seems to have found his way again: "…he moved on with a certain assurance that betokened no sign of doubt."

After this passage, Burroughs will pick up the pace of the story and carry us swiftly over six chapters without mentioning this determined lion again, until…

The awakening: It is the last chapter of the book, Chapter 19. Tarzan, long a semi-prisoner in the City of Cathne, the lion-worshipping City of Gold, has rebuffed the advances of temperamental and somewhat mad Queen Nemone one too many times, and now he is to die beneath the fangs of Nemone's favorite lion, Belthar.

Just before the fateful moment when Tarzan is to run down the gauntlet of warriors, pursued by the slavering Belthar, Burroughs has a sudden attack of mercy for us and gives us a hint that something just may intervene to save the ape-man:

"In a hollow near the river that runs past Cathne a lion lay asleep in dense brush, a mighty beast with a yellow coat and a great black mane. Strange sounds coming to him from the plain disturbed him… Numa was awake, but he wanted to sleep….he knew that if they came closer he would have to get up and investigate, and that he did not want to do; he felt very lazy."

I suppose we'd be lazy too if we'd made a trip like he'd made. So what has all this been for? Is Tarzan to die beneath the fangs of one lion while another lion snoozes nearby?

Tarzan turned to face the pursuing Belthar, ready to go down fighting, but "…a tawny body streaked past the ape-man, brushing his leg as it came from behind him; and as Belthar rose upon his hind feet fell upon him, a fury of talons and gleaming fangs, a great lion with a golden coat and a black mane – a mighty engine of destruction."

Within two paragraphs, Belthar lies dead and the victorious lion "…slowly backed to where the ape-man stood and stopped beside him, and Tarzan laid his hand upon the black mane of Jad-bal-ja, the Golden Lion."

The sleeper has awakened!