First published by DAW Books in 1974, Hadon of Ancient Opar is one of numerous Philip Jose Farmer pulp adventures that many readers take much too seriously. For the new Titan edition, for example, readers get a new introduction by Christopher Paul Carey who explains how the saga of Haydon connects to the later stories in the Wold Newton books featuring the “actual” Tarzan, Doc Savage, and other such heroes. Carey also authored a new “Afterword” which is an index of characters, races and geography that join a batch of other addenda helping establish the wider mythology of the Wold Newton “prehistory.”
That’s a lot of scholarly apparatus to give a rather two-dimensional character in an adventure yarn. To be fair, few novelists have created a richer interlocking of times, places, and characters than Philip Jose Farmer. In addition, there’s no question Farmer was equally adept at creating a detailed milieu in which his cast of characters operate. For example, Hadon of Ancient Opar is set Twelve thousand years ago when the great lost city of Opar was a thriving regional capital and not the collection of ruins discovered much, much later by one Lord Greystoke a.k.a. Tarzan of the Apes. Created by the ancient
Khokarsan society, Opar is a matriarchy in jeopardy of losing its traditional values. The current king, Minruth, wants to subvert this system which would force an incestuous relationship with his daughter, the current high priestess, Awineth.
Into this palace intrigue comes Hadon, a local hero who will compete in the games to determine who should be the priestess’s new consort. We see Hadon leave his home, row boats to the games, and then fight to the death his challengers in a series of Olympic’style contests. After his grueling and painful battles, Hadon approaches the throne prepared to be crowned king, only to hear Minruth wants him to go on a dangerous quest that clearly is designed to assure his death.
From that point forward, we see Hadon leading a small army on this journey, including the comically fierce Kwasin. He’s as indestructible as Jaws from the Bond films and able to take out small armies all by himself. Hadon meets and falls in love with Lalila, the foreign “White Witch from the Sea.” Learning of this, Minruth uses her as a pawn in his power grab, but a savage civil war breaks out which threatens to destroy the entire Khokarsan civilization. Perhaps it does. The book ends with a cliff-hanger setting up the sequel, Flight to Opar. Perhaps even there we don’t get all the answers as, according to Carey’s introduction, Farmer never completed the series.
In the best tradition of modern myth-makers, Farmer borrows elements from world culture for his setting. There are bards as in Celtic legends, as well as the shamanism of Native American lore. Hadon is the typical small-town king in the making, a man from humble beginnings who shows his prowess with both fighting skills and his leadership ability. At first naïve about the wider world, Hadon becomes more and more experienced as he fights in relatively controlled games before his jungle battles with the stakes rising the further he goes.
All of this is fine entertainment, but it really is just a vivid comic book. By comparison, even in the cartoonish Lord Grandrith books (Farmer’s name for the “real” Tarzan), we see inside the character as much of his story is told in the first person. So we hear what Grandrith thinks and desires and feels even if his extended penis is typically protruding unashamedly for all to see. Hadon doesn’t have this affliction, and we rarely know anything going on inside him. He moves from scene to scene as an archetypal stock character. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there is a reason Hadon never found a place in popular culture alongside characters like Conan, Luke Skywalker, or Tarzan and Doc Savage. There’s simply nothing to distinguish him.
Again, if you’re looking for a fast-paced action-adventure yarn in the pulp tradition, Hadon of Ancient Opar is light reading. It’s just lighter than all the supplementary material would lead you to expect.