Weeping Queens on Misty Elephants


by Roderick Long
http://aaeblog.com/?p=6608

Recently I was rereading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Land of Hidden Men (first published in 1931 as Jungle Girl, though Burroughs’ own preferred title – with good reason – was Dancing Girl of the Leper King), which I hadn’t read since I was 12 or so. (I also remember one of my classmates telling me with great excitement the story of the book before I’d yet found a copy.)

The novel deals with the discovery of a lost civilisation in the jungles of Cambodia. The phrase “weeping queens on misty elephants” or some variant occurs several times in the text, and at one point we read:

“Weeping queens on misty elephants!” He had read the phrase somewhere in a book. (Burroughs, ch. 2)

The reference to a book struck me as odd, given that the character speaking has just heard the similar phrase “sad-faced queens on ghostly elephants” from a live interlocutor a few pages earlier. Curious as to whether Burroughs was citing a real book, I googled “weeping queens on misty elephants” and quickly found it in Robert J. Casey’s Four Faces of Siva, a 1929 nonfiction (though stylistically novelistic and unscholarly) account of the real-life ruined cities and temples of Cambodia. It is subtitled: The Detective Story of a Vanished Race, for reasons explained as follows:

Here at Angkor was the finest metropolis in Asia – a town whose barbaric splendor is permanently embossed in temple wall and tower and terrace. It was the perfect expression of a race of conquerors and must have been as wealthy as Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar. And yet, for some cause at which the archeologist can only guess, the populace walked out of it and never came back. The jungle moved in and engulfed it for five centuries. (Casey, ch. 2)

This mystery must sound even more chilling to us, in the wake of the Khmer Rouge’s attempted depopulation of Phnom Penh, than it did to Casey.

In any case, I tracked down the book, and as I read through Four Faces of Siva it became clear that I had found not just Burroughs’ source for a particular phrase but his inspiration for the entire novel. In detail after detail – from the red parasols of the royal court and the stylised dances of the apsaras to the fearsome ogrelike Yeacks of the forest and the way in which the king contracts leprosy – as well as in the lush atmosphere that pervades both books, Burroughs appears to be following Casey’s model. Indeed, I suspect that having his protagonist attribute the phrase “weeping queens on misty elephants” to a book rather than to the person he’d just heard it from was Burroughs’ way of tipping his hat to Casey for the idea behind his whole story. The engaging way in which Casey’s book is written makes it unsurprising that its poetic descriptions of towering structures abandoned in forgotten jungles should have captured Burroughs’s imagination – and it is surely owing to the information in Casey’s book that Burroughs’ portrait of an imagined lost Khmer city bears greater verisimilitude and wealth of detail than most of the other lost cities (mostly in Africa) with which he peppered his novels.

For illustration of Casey’s likely influence on Burroughs, note the following passages from Four Faces of Siva:

The Cambodian scout had said that the iron mine trail was not a very good road. This lane, to which the darkness gave the appearance of a moraine between the trees, answered the description to the letter. It was hardly a road at all. Some one had chopped down the tees. But here and there the stumps stood out of the sand and in numerous places the logs lay where they had fallen. … The grass was growing two feet high in the so-called road …. A gully running between steep walls of black rock stretched at right angles across the trail. And that was the finish of the route so far as motor travel was concerned. … The coolies averred that there was no other way across and that there was no real object in looking for one as nothing but jungle lay beyond. …

The guide was summoned from the car. He came reluctantly. The suggestion that the trip be completed afoot struck him as another of those humorous vagaries that one may expect in all of the Pale Ones. He shook his head.

“There are tigers in the jungle,” he said. “There are many tigers there, and wild elephants, and jungle cats that creep up from behind you and kill you. …

And then, too, there is the road. You get lost in the bamboo and nobody ever finds out what happened to you.” (Casey, chs. 24-25)

“Do you know anything of this district? Would you act as our guide if we were to pay you many measures of rice?”

Chan shook his head.

“No,” he answered slowly. “It is not good to go into the woods. The woods are filled with mysterious things. The tiger that hunts by night and the panther that hunts all the time are bad enough. It is not good to affront My Lord the Tiger. … But there are worse things back in the bamboo thickets. The woods are full of ghosts that lead one astray and strike him down with deadly fevers. … There are thousands of them … kings and princes and weeping queens on misty elephants … and priests in robes of gold and soldiers in brass, and millions of men and women and little children driving southward through the jungle. … Armies of them, and they make no sound. … The curse of the high gods is on this forest as it has been for hundreds of years. As far back as my people can remember there has been a curse on the forest. … Else why should the great cities be standing there empty? Why should the people who built them be lying there under the stone mounds asleep?” (Casey, ch. 1)

“Hundreds of years ago,” said Yin, “my people were Khmers. They lived here in this delta – millions of them – and they founded the greatest nation in the world. Up in the north end of the Mekong Valley they built the cities …. Then they were cursed and driven out. They were condemned to walk the face of the world and never to come back. … Here all about us these people lived and tilled the soil and went out to battle on elephants. Millions of them died and were burned and their ashes were strewn endlessly over this region. … Once I had the fever in Saigon and for days I could see the Khmers coming back along this road …. They were thin and weary and naked and had deep string eyes. … I see them again every time I pass this way through the shadows. …” (Casey, ch. 5)

One might have expected tall trees and deep shadows and a refreshing breeze stirring through the bamboo.

Instead there came more gullies and black stagnant pools with rotten logs to clamber over before one could take the risk of crossing them. … And, where the trail persisted, it was merely a dim opening in the woods with the reeds growing up in it so densely that it could hardly be followed. … And low marshy flats, open as a desert, where hot humidity was in the air and lumpy going underfoot … And dusty snake grass beating across one’s face …

There was plenty of animal life in the forest. Red birds circled overhead, screaming at the sight of a white man. … But when one stopped short in the brush the whistling ceased instantly. … Gibbons hurled themselves through the treetops, and now and then came down to examine this new specimen …. Four times in the tortuous maneuvering through the grasses cobras slipped silently across the people, paused long enough to swell out their hoods and decided to give no battle. …

Back in the jungle were crashing noises – falling trees, perhaps, or elephants. Now and then, over the flats, came the smells of the cat house at the zoo – dense as a cloud, a choking, unpleasant wave that recreated every atavistic fear of the tiger and his lesser brethren. (Casey, ch. 25).

And now compare these passages from the opening of Dancing Girl of the Leper King:

“My Lord, I may go no farther,” said the Cambodian.

The young white man turned in astonishment upon his native guide. Behind them lay the partially cleared trail along which they had come. It was overgrown with tall grass that concealed the tree-stumps that had been left behind the axes of the road-builders. Before them lay a ravine, at the near edge of which the trail ended. Beyond the ravine was the primitive jungle untouched by man.

“Why, we haven’t even started yet!” exclaimed the white man. “You cannot turn back now. What do you suppose I hired you for?” …

“There are wild elephants, my lord, and tigers,” replied the Cambodian, “and panthers which hunt by day as well as by night. … There are other things deep in the jungle, my lord, that no man may look upon and live.”

“What, for example?” demanded King.

“The ghosts of my ancestors,“ answered the Cambodian, “the Khmers who dwelt here in great cities ages ago. Within the dark shadows of the jungle the ruins of their cities still stand, and down the dark aisles of the forest pass the ancient kings and warriors and little sad-faced queens on ghostly elephants. Fleeing always from the horrible fate that overtook them in life, they pass forever down the corridors of the jungle, and with them are millions of the ghostly dead that once were their subjects. We might escape My Lord the Tiger and the wild elephants, but no man may look upon the ghosts of the dead Khmers and live.” …

King shrugged his shoulders, stamped out his cigarette and picked up his rifle. “Wait for me here, then,” he said. “I shall be out before dark.”

“You will never come out,” said the Cambodian.

Beyond the ravine, savage, mysterious, rose the jungle, its depth screened from view by the spectral trunks of fromagers and a tangle of bamboo. … The jungle that had at first appeared so silent seemed to awaken at the footfall of the trespasser; scolding birds fluttered above him, and there were monkeys now that seemed to have come from nowhere. They, too, scolded as they hurtled through the lower terraces of the forest.

He found the going more difficult than he had imagined, for the floor of the jungle was far from level. There were gulleys and ravines to be crossed and fallen trees across the way …. The tall grasses bothered him most, for he could not see what they hid; and when a cobra slid from beneath his feet and glided away, he realised more fully the menace of the grasses, which in places grew so high that they brushed his face. …

To his right and a little ahead sounded a sudden crash in the jungle. … Wiping the sweat from his face, he continued on his way …. The air was filled with strange odours, among which was one more insistent than the others – a pungent, disagreeable odour that he found strangely familiar and yet could not immediately identify. Lazy air currents, moving sluggishly through the jungle, occasionally brought this odour to his nostrils, sometimes bearing but a faint suggestion of it and again with a strength that was almost sickening; and then suddenly the odour stimulated a memory cell that identified it. He saw himself standing on the concrete floor of a large building, the sides of which were lined with heavily barred cages in which lions and tigers paced nervously to and fro or sprawled in melancholy meditation of their lost freedom; and in his nostrils was the same odour that impinged upon them now. However, it is one thing to contemplate tigers from the safe side of iron bars, and it is quite another thing to realise their near presence unrestrained by bars of any sort. (Burroughs, ch. 1)

While Casey’s book sheds light on Burroughs’, it raises puzzles of its own. Much of it is written in the style of personal reminiscence, but with careful (even ingenious) avoidance of the first-person pronoun, making it extremely difficult to tell when Casey is reporting his own experiences and when he is reporting, or imaginatively reconstructing, those of others.

In particular, chapters 24 through 26, on the most natural reading, appear to record the author’s own “discovery” of a ruined structure in the Cambodian jungle. (I scare-quote “discovery” for two reasons: first, he located the structure by following native reports, so he wasn’t really the first finder; and second, given some uncertainty about maps, he admits it’s unclear whether he was even the first non-native finder.) But all self-reference is omitted; journeys are begun, distances are traversed, monuments are discovered, but the agency behind these actions is coyly veiled from view, disappearing either into the passive voice or into a metonymy (as lagging feet turn or sweat-blinded eyes seek). The vanishing trick is achieved with beautiful artistry, but its purpose is mysterious and its effect maddening. The absence of the protagonist from the scene of his own actions is as much an enigma as the absence of the Khmer city-builders from their abandoned structures; and I’ve been unable to find any information as to whether his “discovery” was ever confirmed or identified.

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2 responses to “Weeping Queens on Misty Elephants

  1. Just reading this blog made we want to read the books mentioned. Lovely and informative. Made my day, poor soul that I am.

    Is it me or was writing more understandable and informative in the past? I do not do fiction, but some of the older books read so much better than more contemporary literature – even old political and historical books of an older generation seem more articulate than some of the main steam writings. I think we have dumbed down thanks to political spaghetti writing and political correctness interference to our literature outlet.

  2. Angkar Wat is an amazing place. My late dad took reels of photos when he visited it in the ’60s. I was reminded of Kipling’s “Letting in the jungle.” My parents retired to Burwash, Sussex, where Kipling had his home “Batemans.”

    Tony