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Nkima Speaks

The Search for Nkima

David A. Adams

David A. Adams © 1999

Although it may seem rather obvious, I will point out that the ape is the central animal in the Tarzan Series. The reason for this banal statement dripping so glibly from my pen is the fact that I have argued extensively that the lion is Tarzan's totem animal, however the relationship with that particular beast must be viewed as the successful end of a psychological quest. It is a basic relationship with apes, or with ape-like creatures, that must be considered absolutely fundamental to a complete understanding of Tarzan and, perhaps in some ways, an understanding of the entire Burroughsian world. (An ape is in this sense what Jung would call "the anthropoid—man as an archaic fact" (Jung 131). Under this rubric we may include all of Burroughs' cave-man types, which it may be argued include many of the main characters created by ERB.)

I note at the very beginning that Tarzan's ape tribe, the mangani, are a specialized kind of ape, a breed apart from the usual zoological classifications. However for the purposes of this study, I am forced to search among the generic terms for "ape," since the mangani are unknown to the normal scientific world.

"The true apes—gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutan, and gibbon—are distinguished from the monkeys by their large size, their lack of a tail, their relatively large brains, their ability to swing from their long arms, and a host of other characteristics" (Reynolds 25)

Now, I don't know how much swinging gorillas do, but Reynolds does set monkeys apart from the apes, and this paper is about a manu, a monkey, by the name of Nkima.

Tarzan was close to many apes. Among the mangani it was Kala, Teeka, Akut, and Go-yad, to name only a few. But after a certain point in the stories, the little manu, Nkima, becomes his closest companion.

The ape is the image of man in his baser, more primitive, elements. The ape can only "ape" the actions of the higher creature. Yet in ERB the mangani are closer to Tarzan than humans. Tarzan thinks of himself as a mangani, an ape.

"The simians generally symbolize the baser forces, darkness or unconscious activity, but this symbolism - - like that of legendary fabulous beings—has two sides to it. If, on the one hand, this unconscious force may be dangerous, while it may degrade the individual, nevertheless it may also prove a boon—like all unconscious powers—when least expected. This is why, in China, the monkey is credited with the power of granting good health, success and protection, being related in this way to sprites, sorcerers and fairies" (Cirlot 202).

I think Nkima is a special case. He comes late into the series, in fact, at the point when Tarzan has achieved his final union with the lion in Tarzan and the Golden Lion.

From this point on, Burroughs takes Tarzan on a personal odyssey through many lost cities. On some of these journeys, he is accompanied by Nkima.

Nkima was corrupted in many of the Tarzan movies into the comic chimpanzee, Cheetah. According to Burroughs, Nkima was more than comic relief—acting in the novels like the comic episodes in Shakespeare—providing another view of a serious situation.

One might conjecture that Nkima reveals Tarzan's dark side, the fearful one: the little boy lost in the wilderness raised by animals—the fearful-of-humans feral child—the fearful-of-everything battered child. (Yet this viewpoint is far from Burroughsian in relation to his Tarzan character.) Yet he is more than this.

Nkima saves Tarzan in several novels. He remains in control when Tarzan loses his memory. So in one sense, Nkima is a higher consciousness (not a baser one)—a reminder of reality. He may also be considered a conscience figure—a reminder of duty when Tarzan starts to wander off. The symbolism of riding on Tarzan's shoulder is certainly suggestive of a conscience figure: a little man-like being who talks in Tarzan's ear in a language only he can truly understand.

Nkima is closer to Tarzan than any other animal because of this physical contact, clinging, baby-like. Tarzan is a parent figure to Nkima. Here Burroughs paints a lovely image of Tarzan as a great, sheltering tree.

"In the dark a man crouched in the shelter of a great tree, protected from the full fury of the wind by its hoary bole. In the hollow of one of his arms something cuddled close to his naked hide for warmth. Occasionally he spoke to it and caressed it with his free hand. His gentle solicitude for it suggested that it might be a child, but it was not. It was a small, terrified, wholly miserable little monkey" (Burroughs, Leopard Men 9).

Nkima is often thought to be an example of a cowardly figure. Indeed, Nkima is fearful, yet at times he shows great courage when Tarzan is in danger. In a way, he is one of the most courageous figures in all of Burroughs because he acts boldly in the face of his fear. Tarzan is often described as fearless—not knowing fear while Nkima is the picture of the way a normal person might feel in the face of danger.

Nkima is described as having a big heart.

"Because hearts are measured by content of love and loyalty, rather than by diameters in inches, the heart of little Nkima was very large—so large that the average human being could hide his own heart and himself, as well, behind it..." (Burroughs, Invincible 10).

In Egyptian iconography we find a physical and psychological linking of man and beast relevant to Tarzan's relationship with Nkima.

"Horus, the divine Heart, was represented in sacred art in the form of a falcon. From the time of the fourth dynasty, about 2575 to 2465 B.C., he appeared under this symbol; for instance, on the beautiful stature of Chephren in the Cairo museum, the sacred bird leans his heart, his whole body, against the nape of the pharaoh whom he protects and inspires, and whose head he enfolds with his spread wings. The singular attitude of the falcon god means very much more than just an attendance on the pharaoh, the back of whose neck he covers and warms at the very sensitive spot which neurology calls the "Bridge of Varolius," which puts him into almost immediate contact with the cervical nerve ganglion that certain anatomists have named the "Tree of Life." Could it not be said that by means of this warm touch the divine Bird, symbol of the heart of the deity, in some way fecundates Chephren's spirit in the brain, in that hostelry where, according to the sages of that epoch, the thoughts conceived and born in the heart stay a while before they can be sent out into the world by the movement of the tongue and the opening of the lips, in the utterance of words?" (Charbonneau-Lassay 42-43).

This picture of the falcon is the perfect image of the little manu, Nkima.

However, if we want to limit ourselves to apes, we must recognize the Egyptian god, Thoth. "Thoth was the baboon, or again he was represented outright as an ape" (Jung 133). "...we have seen the cynocephalus or dog-headed baboon associated with Thoth-Hermes, the highest among the apes known to the Egyptians, that its godlike affinities make it an equally appropriate symbol for that part of the unconscious which transcends the conscious level" (Jung 137). This certainly fits in with the idea of Nkima attempting to restore Tarzan's conscious memory.

I must quote Jung again, even though the ideas may seem a bit obtuse to one not familiar with his work, because the statement is so revealing of the fundamental ideas at hand.

"The symbolism of the rites of renewal, if taken seriously, points far beyond the merely archaic and infantile to man's innate psychic disposition, which is the result and deposit of all ancestral life right down to the animal level—hence the ancestor and animal symbolism. The rites are attempts to abolish the separation between the conscious mind and the unconscious, the real source of life, and to bring about a reunion of the individual with the native soil of his inherited, instinctive make-up" (Jung 134-137).

It can be clearly seen that this view of things describes the Burroughsian novelistic quest as a whole. It is the psychological reason for the power of ERB's writing, and, incidentally, reveals the meaning behind the Nkima image as well.

We as readers of fiction identify with the obvious heroes. In the Tarzan Series, it is as a Tarzan that we swing through the trees. And yet Nkima is the smaller image of Tarzan himself. They are both already unified with their instinctive make-up, and it is only we who seek identification—a whole identity like our heroes -- since it is we who are incomplete, civilized, torn from our native soil.

We could do worse than imitating Tarzan, or Nkima. Yet one might wonder if this is simply aping the apes, going backwards into primitivism. Jung answers this question as well.

"Such a sacrilege might easily lead to the dangerous supposition that the leftward movement is a diabolica fraus and the gibbon the devil—for the devil is in fact regarded as the "ape of God." The leftward movement would then be a perversion of divine truth for the purpose of setting up "His Black Majesty" in place of god. But the unconscious has no such blasphemous intentions: it is only trying to restore the lost Dionysos who is somehow lacking in modern man (pace Nietzsche!) to the world of religion" (Jung 142-143)

Jung has such an interesting discussion about apes that one more quotation surely will not be out of place. It will be noted above that the linking of apes with religion has already occurred; however, one must realize that Jung is in the process in this opus of combining medieval alchemy with modern psychology -- and religion sometimes gets comically in the way.

"As a glance at the history of the medieval mind will show, our whole modern mentality has been moulded by Christianity. (This has nothing to do with whether we believe the truths of Christianity or not.) Consequently the reconstruction of the ape in the sacred precincts as proposed by the dream comes as such a shock that the majority of people will seek refuge in blank incomprehension. Others will heedlessly ignore the abysmal depths of the Dionysian mystery and will welcome the rational Darwinian core of the dream as a safeguard against mystic exaltation. Only a very few will feel the collision of the two worlds and realize what it is all about. Yet the dream says plainly enough that in the place where, according to tradition, the deity dwells, the ape is to appear. This substitution is almost as bad as a Black Mass" (Jung 150).

Jung's tongue-in-cheek is as pointed as ERB's own. And yet, a truth is revealed to the discerning. The power of the ape is psychologically compelling, and it is this power that dances at the core of ERB's mythic writing.

Yet I seem to have lost track of little Nkima. I do not propose an essay on good-apes and bad-apes here. A discussion of the Bolgani must come later or by another hand.

Nkima was a good manu. Brady reminds us that:

"Tarzan sent him to get the Waziri when he was trapped in the Colosseum dungeons of Castra Sanguinarius... He performed a similar function when Tarzan went to Opar to stop the Zveri expedition... and was with Tarzan for the entire duration of his 1931 adventure among the Leopard Men, constantly upbraiding the amnesiac ape-man to try to make him remember his identity, which finally succeeded. He later saved Tarzan from the Betete pygmies by summoning Zu-tho and Ga-yat to Tarzan's aid (T18). In 1934, he accompanied Tarzan on his quest to rescue Buira from the dreaded Kavuru tribe, and his "monkey-see-monkey-do" antics actually alerted Tarzan to Jane's danger by getting a note to him from her. He was rewarded for his faithful service by being given a share of the Kavuru immortality pellets, making him the world's first immortal monkey (T19) (Brady 237).

Nkima appeared in the following novels:

Let's look at them one by one and see if more can be ascertained.

Tarzan and the Lost Empire

The novel opens with Nkima.

"Nkima danced excitedly upon the naked, brown shoulder of his master." (3)

He is first presented as a fearful little monkey. Tarzan notes:

"Nkima thinks everything wants to kill him, and yet he has lived many years and is not dead yet." (26)

Nkima is a little bloodthirsty.

"Go and see the Gomangani. Go and kill them. Nkima does not like the Gomangani." (26)

[Burroughs notes in Tarzan the Invincible: "Nkima was bloodthirsty, which made it fortunate for the peace of the jungle that he had not been born a gorilla." (173).] He is able to muster up a little courage and bragadoccio when he is with Tarzan.

"Nkima is not afraid," blustered the little monkey. "He will go and fight the Gomangani with Tarzan of the Apes." (27)

Nkima is inadvertently responsible for Tarzan's fall from a cliff face (33), who is knocked unconscious but does not lose his memory. Tarzan uses Nkima as a ghost figure to frighten his Bagego captors.

"The ghost of my grandfather!" he exclaimed. "I saw him again. He came out of the mouth of the white man who calls himself Tarzan" (88), which confirms the Horus image in the quotation above.

Nkima leaves Tarzan (114) and returns with Muviro and the Waziri (272) to affect Tarzan's rescue, which was a spectacularly intelligent and courageous act for a little monkey. We must assume that Tarzan and Nkima were constant companions or the natives who could not speak the language of the mangani would hardly have followed a screaming monkey on such a long search.

Muviro notes: "Many times we would have turned back thinking that he was mad, but he urged us on and we followed him..." (273). This implies an enormous amount of trust in a little monkey and/or a tremendous imagination on the part of the Waziri that Tarzan would be in some sort of trouble.

Burroughs acknowledges the debt to Nkima by ending the novel with the name that began it. "Do not thank me, my friend," said the ape-man. "Thank little Nkima!" (313).

Tarzan the Invincible

The title of the first chapter is "Little Nkima". Nkima's philosophy of life is presented in full.

"The world into which little Nkima had been born seemed a very terrible world, indeed, and he spent most of his waking hours scolding about it, in which respect he was quite as human as he was simian. It seemed to little Nkima that the world was populated with large, fierce creatures that liked monkey meat. There were Numa, the lion, and Sheeta, the panther, and Histah, the snake—a triumvirate that rendered unsafe his entire world from the loftiest tree top to the ground. And then there were the great apes, and the lesser apes, and the baboons, and countless species of monkeys, all of which God had made larger than He had made little Nkima, and all of which seemed to harbor a grudge against him" (9).

And yet, like humans, he could be distracted from this constant pain.

"But fortunately for the little Manu his mind was so ordered that it might easily be distracted even from a great sorrow. A butterfly or a luscious grub might suddenly claim his attention from the depths of brooding, which was well, since otherwise he might have grieved himself to death" (10-11).

Nkima was so linked to Tarzan that he was a part of the great totem lion, Jad-bal-ja. This is demonstrated by the fact that he was not afraid of riding on the lion's back even when Tarzan was not present. This friendship has a mythic quality quite beyond the natural order of things. It is extremely suggestive to see Nkima and Jad acting in harmonious consort without the presence of Tarzan. Burroughs was fond of telling us that "a lion is always a lion." Yet Nkima, the most fearful of creatures drops upon the mane of Jad-bal-ja without hesitation (22). It is a key moment in the understanding of Nkima's nature and role in the Tarzan Series.

Even Tarzan approaches Jad-bal-ja with some caution a few pages later (33). Perhaps it should be mentioned that Tarzan spoke to Nkima and Jad in the same language.

"He did not speak in any language of man. Perhaps the medium of communication that he used might not properly be called a language at all, but the lion and the great ape and the little Manu understood him" (34).

We must assume that this was the language of the great apes combined with very subtle body language that gave the animals confidence in him.

Burroughs' instinctive understanding of complex anthropological and mythological concepts is always amazing. As a footnote to several of the ideas above, the following quotation from Eliade's Shamanism will be enlightening.

" Finally, we must take into account the mystical solidarity between man and animal, which is a dominant characteristic of the religion of the paleo-hunters. By virtue of this, certain human beings are able to change into animals, or to understand their language, or to share in their prescience and occult powers. Each time a shaman succeeds in sharing in the animal mode of being, he in a manner re-establishes the situation that existed in illo tempore, in mythical times, when the divorce between man and the animal world had not yet occurred" (Eliade 94).

Nkima was quite single-minded about his importance in the world.

"Where," said Tarzan to Nkima, "are all the many Tarmangani and Gomangani that you told me were in this camp?"

"They have taken their thundersticks and gone away," replied the little Manu. "They are hunting for Nkima."

"Tarzan of the Apes smiled one of his rare smiles" (53).

Nkima fears to enter Opar, so he remains on a rocky hillock as Tarzan enters the city (68). Later he goes back to the jungle (97) and he begins a plan to rescue his beloved master (141).

Nkima works with all the concentration he is able to muster to solve the problem of the missing Tarzan. He is so moved by the situation that tears well in his eyes (141).

Nkima interrupts To-yat and the apes at a Dum-Dum seeking their aid. "Now Nkima and his kind are noted neither for their tact nor judgment" (143). He is promptly threatened by death and chased away.

Later, Nkima is overjoyed to find that Tarzan was not in Opar as he had thought, and they go off together in search of the human invaders of his jungle (170-171). And later still Tarzan sends him on a mission to bring the Waziri warriors for a final rescue mission (196).

Nkima has determination, even though he can be easily distracted, but absolutely no sense of the passage of time. In this respect he is much like his master, who was also of this frame of mind in relation to time.

"Some day Nkima would arrive at his destination. Perhaps it would be too late. If such a thought occurred at all to the ape-man, doubtless he passed it off with a shrug" (196).

Nkima may also be considered a prankster image in the sense that he enjoys hurling both "his jungle billingsgate" [as McWhorter puts it in his Dictionary] and sticks at his real and imagined enemies. In this case it delays his return to Tarzan (265). But finally he arrives in time to chew at the knots holding "his master and his god," bravely in the face of Dango, the hyena.

"You have done well, my children," said the ape-man, "and little Nkima has done well. He bore my message to you, and I find you ready where I had planned that you should be" (285-286).

Nkima leaves this novel upon the bronzed shoulders of his beloved master. We may safely assume that he took part in the final feast of meats and fruits at Opar with Tarzan and La. Perhaps he even cautiously sipped at the "wines so old that no living man knew their vintage. . ." (312).

Tarzan and the Leopard Men

As mentioned above, Tarzan loses his memory when he was struck by a tree branch during a jungle tornado. Fortunately, Nkima is with him (9-10).

Tarzan goes through the first half of the novel as an ancestral, guardian spirit, or Muzimo, according to the judgment of Orando, son of chief Lobongo of the village of Tumbai. Nkima also becomes a spirit in the eyes of the natives. He is called The Spirit of Nyamwegi, a native who was killed by the leopard men. Thus, Tarzan and Nkima pass through an adventure together under assumed names, a case of mistaken identity—a favorite Burroughsian novelistic device.

Of course, these two spiritual beings come into conflict with the witch doctor (Sobito) and, of course, the witch doctor is in league with the evil leopard men.

Nkima does his best to remind Tarzan who he is, but without success. However, Tarzan receives another blow on the head in a battle with the leopard men (103) and regains his memory. From this point Burroughs calls him Tarzan again (107).

Toward the end of the story, Tarzan is captured by cannibal pygmies (after falling from a broken tree branch—he does not have much luck with trees in this novel ) but is rescued by Zu-tho and the great apes. Nkima had previously tried to untie Tarzan; however, he was bound with copper wire which the little monkey was trying to unwrap just as the pygmies returned to the hut in which he was held captive. The scampering monkey was again taken for a spirit by the superstitious natives.

The information on Nkima is not expanded in Tarzan and the Leopard Men. In fact for the most part, it was an adventure that Tarzan himself most likely would have preferred unrecorded.

Tarzan's Quest

Although there is much about Nkima offered here, this search will mention only new information added to his profile.

The story begins with the usual monkey shines—Nkima throwing an overly ripe fruit at Sheeta, hurling "every jungle epithet that he could put his tongue to..." (17) insulting "all living things that came his way" (19).

Later little Nkima continues his usual bragadoccio:

" 'Nkima is not afraid of Sheeta', boasted the monkey. 'Sheeta came into the trees hunting for little Nkima; crouching, he crept; he came close. Little Nkima took a stick and beast Sheeta on the head. Sheeta was afraid, and ran away.'

'Yes,' said Tarzan, 'little Nkima is very brave' " (139).

One new piece of information about Nkima is added -- their long-time friendship extended back to Tarzan's childhood.

"The ape-man seldom spoke unless that which he had to say warranted expression. Ordinarily he kept his thoughts to himself, especially in the presence of men; but he often relaxed with little Nkima and with Tantor, the elephant, for of such were the friendships of his childhood..." (142).

In the chapter called "Nkima Forgets," he tells Tarzan of the plight of the Waziri at the hands of the Bukena villagers, although not right away.

"He did not ask Nkima why he had not told him this before because he knew full well; nor did he scold the little monkey, nor reproach him, for he knew that it would do no good. Little Nkima would always be a monkey; he was born that way; and he would never have the mind of a man, even though in many other respects he was more admirable than man" (144).

Nkima's primary role in Tarzan's Quest was to deliver a message in an envelope on the end of a forked stick. The description of the antics of the monkey playing with an envelope and stick (chapter 16, "The Message") sound suspiciously like ERB had been observing Cheetah in the Tarzan movies. He even finds a lady monkey who enjoys his company (171), although he soon loses her to an alpha male (189).

Nkima's message on the end of the cleft stick travels throughout the story with many strange twists of fate. The message concerns Jane's plane wreck, but it avoids Tarzan's grasp at the last minute (in the chapter, "Nkima Plays A Game") (208). Finally, Tarzan obtains the note (223) and goes in search of Jane. Nkima leads Tarzan back to the site of the camp of the marooned fliers (225); then they race off together to the rescue.

Of course, at the end of the story, Nkima gets to partake of the Kavuru immortality pills, which made him immortal at least for as long as the works of ERB are read. Well, as Brown said at the end of the novel, "He's sure a lot more use in the world than most people" (318).

For some readers the long-lasting efficacy of the Kavuru immortality pills is certainly overrated. But it is to be hoped that Nkima lived as least as long as his master. [According to recent reports from Phil Farmer, it is quite likely they are both alive and well.]

In the final analysis the most telling moment in Nkima's life was when he descended upon the mane of the lion in Tarzan the Invincible.

"Then little Nkima dropped quickly downward through the foliage of the tree, gave a final nimble leap, and alighted upon the thick mane of the king of beasts" (22).

This act demonstrated a Burroughsian unification of symbols which he began in Tarzan of the Apes with the ape-man. Here it is played out in miniature with little Nkima, one who was in touch with his heart.

Works Cited