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 Eye of Zeitoon was Talbot Mundy’s sixth novel and the sequel to The Ivory Trail. It was serialized in Romance magazine in early 1920 under the title The Eye of Zeitun and then published in book form by Bobbs-Merrill in March of that year. It received mixed reviews and did not sell well, possibly because it was darker and more tragic than his previous novels. You can find The Eye of Zeitoon in any number of collections or here, at the invaluable library of Roy Glashan.
The Eye of Zeitoon is the story of four friends, soldiers-of-fortune, and their adventures in the Ottoman Empire just before the start of the Italo-Turkish War in 1911. It begins in Tarsus, where one of the three Britons in the group, Fred Oakes, is undergoing treatment for malaria in the American Mission. With the leader of the group (Monty whose full title is the Earl of Montdidier and Kirkudbrightshire) conferring with the British Consul twenty miles away in Mersina, it is up to Will Yerkes (the American in the group) and the unnamed narrator to keep an eye on the recuperating Oakes while familiarizing themselves with the locals and the surrounding country. While not adverse to big game hunting and investigating possible business opportunities, the group is here mainly to help Monty look into finding whatever might be left of his ancestral castle, built centuries ago when the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was the ally of the Crusader kingdoms founded by the First Crusade.
They encounter an unusual fellow named Kagig whose wishes to enter their service so that he can lead them to great hunting grounds around Zeitoon, northeast of Tarsus in the eastern Taurus Mountains. Naturally suspicious of the fellow, they stall him until they can pickup the mostly-recovered Oakes and head to Mersina to find out what Monty’s plans are. It’s a short trip, but even so the rumors of trouble are impossible to ignore; it appears that another of the periodic persecutions of the Armenians by the Turks is about to burst like a storm over Cilicia. In Mersina, they find their leader and the British Consul depressed and distracted; Monty has a lead on the ruins of his ancestral holding but both men are fully aware that Armenian blood is about to be spilled by the Turks and there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do to stop it. The nations of Europe won’t get involved with Turkish internal politics, mainly because Germany will oppose any interference with their allies and German plans for the rail line that will link Berlin to Baghdad. Unless…
Monty is technically a member of the Privy Council and although he has no power, his connections are enough to guarantee an official response if his life were endangered by say, bandits. The Turks often blame the bloodshed on banditry, with their catspaws the Kurds providing cover for them. If Monty and his companions were to travel into the heart of Little Armenia hunting big game and send a message to the British Consul pleading for help, it would be enough to get Great Britain to intervene. Such intervention wouldn’t prevent atrocities in other parts of Turkey, but it might be enough to save the lives of twenty to thirty thousand people here and now in Cilicia.
On the strength of this hare-brained idea, the party sets off. They need a guide who can be trusted, and who shows up but this fellow Kagig, whom the Consul knows to be trustworthy and who has a bullet scar from a wound that should have killed him to witness his courage. He is the titular ‘Eye of Zeitoon’, the guardian of the Armenian town of Zeitoon and he has a bunch of gypsy followers. These include one of the most vivid female characters that Talbot Mundy has penned yet, Maga Jhaere: beautiful, cunning, violent, fearless and whose dance scene is electrifying.
Monty ends up with a follower of his own; Rustum Khan is a rangar (a Muslim whose ancestors were Hindus) Rajput who served with Monty in India. A Muslim, he is journeying to Mecca by way of Persia and Turkey but finds the Turks less godly the more he sees of them, and he is more than happy to throw his lot in with Monty, whom he trusts and admires, and against the Turks and Kurds, whom he has grown to despise. Their mission is given added urgency when they learn that one of the women from the American Mission is traveling to the mission station in Marash and will be caught up in the bloody events that are unfolding around them. This is Gloria Vanderman, the other female character and an interesting heroine in her own right, and the party splits up to find her (and Will Yerkes falls for her like a ton of bricks). The search party is caught up in the flood of refugees who flee the Turks and their Kurdish henchmen as the slaughter begins and eventually wind up at Zeitoon, a refuge in the mountains that has become a target for the Turkish authorities and which is the site of the ruins of Monty’s ancestral castle. They send an entire division against Zeitoon, under the command of one of their cruelest and most ambitious commanders, Mahmoud Bey; Kagig and Monty lead the defense and the rest of the party join them in a fight for their lives and that of the refugees.
That defense is made more desperate by treachery that is either perpetrated or inspired by the enigmatic Maga Jhaere:
There is an epic fight in defense of the town and a hard-won victory that results in the deaths of Monty and Rustum Khan, who are buried together in the crypt beneath the old Crusader keep. The survivors split up; they made the Turkish Bey come to terms but they know the Turks will want to make anyone who aided the Armenians pay. The last part of the novel is a plea from Kagig for Will and Gloria to return to America and tell their countrymen the truth, not that Armenians are helpless victims but free people willing to fight and who can win with the aid of Americans.
The Eye of Zeitoon is a very grim novel, especially compared to Talbot Mundy’s earlier books. It is well written but not what I would call light reading; it feels doom-laden because the reader learns that Monty is going to die in the first chapter of the book and the author pulls no punches when describing the atrocities perpetrated by the Turks and their bloodstained servants, the Kurds. Although it is set a few years before the Armenian Genocide, it is effectively a polemic aimed at the Ottoman Empire for that slaughter and a call to action by Americans to help Armenia free itself from Turkish rule. Robert E. Howard would have been 17 years old when he read this book; I can’t help but think that the events described in this novel and Hira Singh had an impact on his view of the Ottomans.
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.