Saturday, June 25, 2011

(Closing in on) 100 years of Tarzan of the Apes

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes was first published in All-Story Magazine in 1912, which means that we’re closing in on 100 years of the iconic jungle hero (wow!). Tarzan of the Apes proved so popular among All-Story’s readers that it spawned two dozen sequels, several movies, and stacks of comic books.

Yet somehow I’ve managed to avoid reading the original story that started it all—until now.

Shame on me, because was I missing out. Tarzan of the Apes is a lot of fun and I highly recommend it. It’s a lean novel but packs a big story into its 245 pages (paperback—I own the Ballantine Books authorized edition, pictured here). It’s chock-full of action and violence, the clash of animal vs. animal, man vs. animal, and man vs. man in the savage jungles of darkest Africa. There’s some really manly, barbaric stuff going on in here, like Tarzan’s battle with the great ape Kerchak for possession of Jane in a clash with prehistoric echoes:

Jane—her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration—watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman—for her.

As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.

Although I hadn’t read Tarzan of the Apes previously I knew the story well enough through exposure to movies and the comics. Aristocratic English couple John and Alice Clayton, the Lord and Lady Greystoke, are marooned in western Africa following a violent mutiny aboard their ship. Alice’s delicate constitution can’t handle the shock of the jungle and its terrible denizens and she dies after giving birth to a son. Her husband is mauled to death by a great ape shortly thereafter. A female member of the ape tribe, Kala, takes the then six-month old infant John to her breast and raises him as a member of the tribe.

Named Tarzan (which means “White Skin” in the language of the apes), the young Lord Greystoke attains near-superhuman levels of agility and strength through his rough upbringing among the great apes. Though he never attains the full strength the bull males possess, Tarzan is more agile, smarter, and equipped with a hunting knife and rope which he uses as an accurately thrown noose from the treetops. Soon he becomes the fiercest beast in the jungle, rising to the top of his tribe. Eventually Tarzan finds his parents’ abandoned cottage and manages to teach himself to read. Through the printed word and encounters with civilized visitors he discovers his humanity and his ancestry and finally returns to England.

Like A Princess of Mars which I recently re-read after a span of many years Tarzan of the Apes is not without its flaws. Edgar Rice Burroughs has been described as a great writer of ideas, but not necessarily great in the execution of said ideas. I tend to agree. A more patient, careful writer than Burroughs might have turned the transformation of savage into man into something even more powerful and beautiful than we see in Tarzan of the Apes, and ultimately, in a more believable fashion (in the novel Tarzan transforms from savage ape-man to courteous, timid love interest in a span of a few pages, which I found hard to swallow). Burroughs is a writer of boundless imagination and energy but I think he suffered from turning out his stories at a white-hot pace.

But these criticisms are ultimately minor. As I said before I enjoyed Tarzan of the Apes a lot, even more than A Princess of Mars. More than just action, Tarzan of the Apes offers a thoughtful, multi-faceted view on the nature of civilization. In general it’s roughly equivalent though slightly more positive than we find in Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. Howard wrote in “Beyond the Black River” that “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” Likewise, in Burroughs’ universe being raised among the animals in the wild seems to trump city life. Tarzan is not only far physically superior to civilized men, but he’s morally and spiritually superior as well. Tarzan views black cannibals and white murdering pirates with an equal degree of disgust. Back in England he’s able to see through the schemes of the gentleman Robert Canler, who is little more than a finely mannered animal. He judges with clarity man’s capacity for not just sub-human, but sub-animal behavior (“for it has remained for man alone among all creatures to kill senselessly and wantonly for the pleasure of inflicting suffering and death.”)

But again the novel is not that black and white. Too much city life may make us weak and dissolute, but living in the jungle isn’t fit for a man. Education and civility are a good thing and man (or more accurately, cultured, aristocratic man) is more than animal, a superior creation. Though he’s lived among brutes and feasted on raw flesh, Tarzan still treats Jane with a natural sense of chivalry. But unlike a gentleman his attitude is unfeigned and not a scheme to maneuver her into bed.

Yet Jane, though attracted to Tarzan’s vitality and stunningly good looks, is simultaneously repelled by this man-ape. She’s reluctant to marry him and risk severing her place in the social order. I found the Tarzan-Jane dynamic to be one of the book’s chief strengths.

“Could she find anything in common with a husband whose life had been spent in the treetops of an African wilderness, frolicking and fighting with fierce anthropoids; tearing food from the quivering flank of fresh-killed prey, sinking his strong teeth into raw flesh, and tearing away his portion while his mates growled and fought about him for their share?

Could he ever rise to her social sphere? Could she bear to think of sinking to his? Would either be happy in such a horrible misalliance?

Read Tarzan of the Apes to find out.


Long Haired Spider said...

I also have never read this book, though I'm not sure why! I just grabbed the free version for my Kindle and will start it today.

How do you think Burroughs compares to HR Haggard in writing style? Haggard was another author I had never read as a kid (though I've always loved adventure stories), but after picking up Red Eve a few months ago, I've been making my way through every free book of his I can find.

Brian Murphy said...

Great, I think you're going to like Tarzan of the Apes! I did.

I can't give an accurate assessment of Burroughs vs. Haggard, because I haven't read enough Haggard. I will say this: I like Burroughs a lot, and he had a flair for action and brightly-painted characters and situations, but he's never written anything quite as good as Eric Brighteyes.

David J. West said...

I'm gonna have to start this and make it one of my July reads.

Anonymous said...

You neglect to mention that it's really a two-book novel, like Lord of the Rings is a three-book novel. It's even more fluid from one to the next than A Princess of Mars and its two sequels.

Tex said...

Brian, which printing of the Ballantine paperback did you read?

It's important, because while it may be authorized it might not necessarily be complete.

(BUNDOLO censors!)

Brian Murphy said...

You neglect to mention that it's really a two-book novel, like Lord of the Rings is a three-book novel. It's even more fluid from one to the next than A Princess of Mars and its two sequels.

Good point, it does have a wide-open "ending," though with my ignorance of much of the series I wasn't sure if the second book served as an immediate sequel.

Brian, which printing of the Ballantine paperback did you read?

It says it's an Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc, Authorized Edition, Sixth Printing, November 1972 (first printing was July 1963).

According to the article you posted, Tex, I have the edited/censored text. Esmerelda's dialect has definitely been altered.

Rich Lee said...

i have been trying to figure out who did the cover art to that ballantine paperback you show as the first image to illustrate the article. anyone know? doesn't seem like st. john or any that i usually see...

Tex said...

Rich, the artist is Robert K. Abbett.

Scroll down about 2/3rds of the page for the picture here...

(who HAS to know such things)