Mundy Monday: The Ivory Trail

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Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, 22 June 1923: "I found your first letter waiting for me when I got back, also the Talbot Mundy books.  I got them Monday.  I've read 'King of the Khyber Rifles,' 'The Ivory Trail,' 'The Winds of the World' and have started on 'The Eye of Zeitoon.' [22 June 1923 was a Friday.] How do you like Talbot Mundy?  Ranjoor Singh ('Winds of the World,' 'Hira Singh'), Rustum Khan ('The Eye of Zeitoon') and Mahommed Gunga ('Rung Ho!') are my favorite characters, native, that is; a Sikh and two Rangar Rajputs.  Did you ever read 'The Man That Came Back' by Kipling?  In it a phrase is used, 'Rung Ho! Hira Singh!' which is the titles of two of Talbot Mundy's books." 

The Ivory Trail was Talbot Mundy’s fifth novel and his most widely reviewed book up until that time.  It was serialized in Adventure magazine in early 1919 under the title On the Trail of Tipoo Tib and then published in book form by Bobbs-Merrill later that year.  It received a largely positive reception but was quite different from his previous books in that it was set entirely in East Africa, amid Mundy’s old hunting grounds.  In fact, many of the events that impact the narrator of the story were things that the author said had happened to him in his time in that same area.  You can find The Ivory Trail in any number of collections or here, at the esteemed Roy Glashan’s Library.

The Ivory Trail is the story of four friends, soldiers-of-fortune, and their adventures across Portuguese, British and German East Africa in the year 1900.  While in quarantine on Zanzibar for cholera, they get wind of a great treasure, a huge cache of ivory hidden away by the notorious Tipoo Tib, slave trader and ivory merchant.  They have something of a reputation, these adventurers, and their inquiries regarding the old slaver unleashes a torrent of speculation and rumor that attracts attention of some of the most dangerous people in East Africa.  There is the Greek rascal Georges Coutlass, who has somehow managed to gain both British and American citizenship and who has no scruples whatsoever.  There is the Lady Isobel Saffren Waldon; hard, beautiful and a spy for the Germans.  There is the German ethnologist Schillingschen, who is both brilliant and an experienced explorer but also a sadist so ruthless that the natives fear him as much as they fear Tipoo Tib.  They all want the ivory, said to number as many as a million tusks and worth at least $250 million, but there is more.  While the adventurers want the ivory for their own gain, the Germans want the tusks to fund their grand plan of forcing the British out of central and southern Africa.  If they succeed, then everyone from Khartoum to the Cape of Good Hope will bow before the Kaiser!

The heroes of the story, three Englishmen and an American, journey from Zanzibar to Mombasa to Nairobi and then inland to Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria, every step of the way dogged by their rivals and/or enemies.  There are long-range duels with rifles and a brush with a Masai raiding party, but the real threat is Africa itself.  The author does an effective job of describing a countryside that is hot, harsh, wild and beautiful but always dangerous.  There is a scene where a bull rhino has an argument with a train car (it’s a tie), there are others where the party is threatened by hippos, leopards, crocodiles and a climactic elephant stampede, but the one scene that stands out is the fight between two male lions over a lioness with the loser eventually killing one of the party’s enemies.

The arrival of the dim moon seemed to give the lions their cue for action. The lioness turned half away, as if weary of waiting, and then lay down full-length to watch as one lion sprang at the other with a roar like the wrath of warring worlds. They met in mid-air, claw to claw, and went down together—a roaring, snarling, eight-legged, two-tailed catastrophe —never apart—not still an instant—tearing, beating —rolling over and over—emitting bellows of mingled rage and agony whenever the teeth of one or other brute went home.

Even as shadows fighting in the shadows they were terrible to watch. They shook the very earth and air, as if they owned all the primeval bestial force of all the animals. And the she-lion lay watching them, her eyes like burning yellow coals, not moving a muscle that we could see.

Iron could not have withstood the blows; the thunder of them reached us in the tree! Steel ropes could not have endured the strain as claws went home, and the brutes wrenched, ripped, and yelled in titanic agony. Their fury increased. Wounds did not seem to enfeeble them. Nothing checked the speed of the fighting an instant, until suddenly the lioness stood erect, gave a long loud call like a cat’s, and turned and vanished.

She had seen. She knew. Like a spring loosed from its containing box one of the lions freed himself in mid-air and hurtled clear, landing on all-fours and hurrying away after the lioness with a bad limp. The other lion fell on his side and lay groaning, then roared half-heartedly and dragged himself away.

Be warned that this is not a politically correct novel, the author uses the language common to the day, and makes no bones about his opinions of the races encountered, especially the Germans.  I found it interesting to note that aside from the four companions, it is the faithful gun-bearer Kazimoto who is the most heroic character in the book.  He is introduced to the heroes by another character who is a direct homage to H. Rider Haggard!  The heroes are aided more than once by a man by the name of Frederick Courtney, who is the spitting image of Allan Quatermain, Haggard’s great white hunter, right down to the old wound from a lion that bothers the hunter at certain times of the year.  It appears that Talbot Mundy was a fan of H. Rider Haggard, who was an immense influence on the field of adventure fiction.  I recommend The Ivory Trail; it is a vivid look at East Africa at the turn of the 20th century. We will be seeing its four heroes again in the next novel by Talbot Mundy: The Eyes of Zeitoon.


*Please note that a movie serial version of The Ivory Trail was released under the name Jungle Mystery in 1932 and was thought to be lost.  A copy of it was found and there is currently a petition to Universal Pictures to release the restored film on DVD; if you would like to add your name to the petition, the link is here.  Be aware that they will want your mailing address as well as your e-mail address if you sign the petition.


John E. Boyle is the author of Queen’s Heir and Raven’s Blood, the first two books in the Children of Khetar fantasy series.