Tarzan of the Apes (Signet Classics)
The work of Edgar Rice Burroughs should interest and inspire author and reader alike. As a pencil salesman, he sold pencil advertisements in the pulp fiction publications of his day. He found the published stories not very good and thought he’d try his hand at writing. After all, if they were publishing such drivel, why not his drivel? Amazingly, he sold his first piece, which began the John Carter of Mars series. Shortly thereafter, he began what made his fortune and allowed him to name his own town Tarzana after Tarzan of the Apes.
The character of an Englishman of noble birth, raised in the wilds of Africa by great apes captured the imagination of many and deservedly so. Tarzan is one of the seminal fictional characters and has never been depicted as well as Burroughs imagined him.
Raised as an ape, he speaks and understands their language, which is also spoken by monkeys and baboons. His sense of smell is highly developed and he is taught to hunt and kill to eat. When a great ape makes a kill, he lets forth with a terrifying howl of victory that lets the rest of the jungle know. It’s a fearsome sound and nothing like Johnny Weissmuller’s glorious yodel. After killing the great ape that was his stepfather, he sets out on his own and discovers the cabin his real father made after being marooned on the African coast.
Inside the cabin, he discovers the skeletons of his parents as well as his father’s knife, which will serve him through the rest of the series. Also inside the cabin are books that were meant for a boy’s instruction. In a fascinating and ingenious sequence, he teaches himself to read and write English without knowing how the language sounds. After rescuing a French soldier from cannibals, he learns French before English.
Among his enemies are Numa, the Lion; Sheeta, the Panther; Hista, the Snake and cannibals. Enemies are what help define protagonists and through the series, there are enemies galore. There are Germans, Swedes, Russians, Communists, Arabs, Shiftas (bandits) and Japanese who find themselves up against the Ape-Man.
Tarzan is fluent in French and English as well as the language of the beasts and the native African tribes who have learned to fear and respect him. He becomes king of the Waziri and them, his loyal subjects and armed force.
The Johnny Weissmuller films are filled with scenes of Tarzan calling for hordes of jungle beasts to charge white hunters and whatever enemy is on the horizon destroying his jungle paradise. Unlike Weissmuller, Tarzan is quite articulate. In the books, the only scene with an animal charge (other than when Tantor is employed) is when Tarzan persuades a baboon king to send his horde of baboons to attack his enemies. Otherwise, his power over animals is limited. Tantor, the Elephant, is Tarzan’s friend and is happy to carry him on his back to wherever he wishes to go.
However, in The Beasts of Tarzan resides an extraordinary sequence, where after becoming the chief of a tribe of great apes and saving a panther from a trap that would otherwise have cost it its life, the beasts join Tarzan in his quest to recapture his bride, Jane. Together with marooned sailors, the apes row a hollowed-out tree to the coast of Africa while Sheeta, the panther drools over the sailors but will not eat them out of loyalty to the Lord of the Jungle. Not so, the fate of Jane’s abductors. Any mention of animal loyalties would be amiss without mentioning the Golden Lion, Jad-bal-ja, whom Tarzan raised from a cub to become his ally and watcher. More than one enemy is vanquished by Tarzan’s loyal avenger, who will not attack any of Tarzan’s friends.
In the first part of Tarzan Returns, he wears clothing, fights off killers in Paris and is hired by the French government to go undercover in North Africa. He’s more like James Bond and quite skilled with a gun in his hand in addition to his superior physical prowess.
One of the major threads that runs through the novels are the lost worlds hidden in the Dark Continent. The first of the worlds is Opar, a city and civilization originally from Atlantis and its queen, La. Opar and La figure in several subsequent novels.
Lost worlds are a throwback to the 19th-century writings of H. Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne. Among the lost worlds Burroughs imagined are two warring Roman cities, warring Crusaders who took a wrong turn returning from the Holy Land, warring civilizations of cat people, warring religious fanatics among many others.
The novels are at their best when focusing on Tarzan and his Waziris, his son, and wife, Jane.
The series lost momentum after shifting focus to lost worlds rather than keeping sharp focus on Tarzan. He even cross-fertilized Tarzan with the Pelucidar series sending the Ape-Man to the Earth’s Core. The stories are at their best when focusing on Tarzan himself. Burroughs created one of the great and most enduring characters of fiction. He revolutionized science fiction and fantasy. He predicted many medical advances and probably inspired discoverers and inventors with his audacious fiction.
One barrier for many modern readers is the language used in 1912. There are many archaic terms and descriptors used, but as the series progresses the language evolves and is less off-putting.
One note on the version I read. The later novels were digitized utilizing Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software because there are missing periods and abbreviations that don’t make sense otherwise. The letters “Ms” are in place of where it should have read “his” for example among many other artifacts. The edition I read cost 99 cents for 25 complete novels. Figuring out what the word should have been should be easy enough for the reader and well worth the minor extra effort.
Burroughs pulls the series out of the lost world rut in Tarzan and the Lion Man where he infuses the story with science fiction ideas usually found in the Barsoom series. A mad scientist has created a race, crossing gorillas with men. It’s a thrilling entry to the series with brilliant elements of horror in it. That novel was written in 1933-34 with a subplot involving a Hollywood production of a Tarzan-like feature filmed on location in Africa. References to Burroughs’ success in Hollywood continue as characters refer to Lord Greystoke as “a regular Tarzan” not knowing who he really is. Once we reach World War II in Tarzan and the Foreign Legion, Lord Greystoke is a British Army Colonel who reveals his true identity to the band of warriors fighting the Japanese on the island of Sumatra.
No discussion of Burroughs’ Tarzan novels would complete without mentioning the “Tantor” in the room: race. It’s important to keep in mind that Burroughs was a product of his time and his writing reflects what were many prevailing attitudes and ideas of the day. The essential idea of a British nobleman raised by apes only to realize the promise of his superior genes is rightly regarded today as racist. Tarzan hates the black tribes he first meets but one must keep in mind that they were also cannibals. There is liberal use of what is now referred to as the N-Word throughout the books. Tarzan himself doesn’t use the word but many of the white characters do and most of those are Tarzan’s enemies. Throughout the novels, Tarzan is frequently predisposed to help a person because they are white and is callous to the fate of the black tribesmen he encounters.
In Tarzan’s defense, he frequently prefers the law of the jungle to the law of man. He would rather be eaten by a lion or a tiger or gored by a rhinoceros than have the knife of a duplicitous man stab him in the back. The books are replete with wry observations of Tarzan’s preference for the savage natural world over civilization.
Burroughs gradually evolved his regard for the black tribes. By the time the novels mature, Tarzan relies on a tribe of blacks known as his Waziri and its chief, Muviro. They become the source of many a deus ex machina while coming to his rescue. They are noble, beautiful and strong. He infuses them with loyalty, self-sacrifice, intelligence, and great courage. They love Tarzan and Tarzan loves them. We could all use allies such as these.
By the time we reach Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins with Jad-Bal-Ja the Golden Lion, most of Tarzan’s most beloved characters play a part in the resolution of the tale. Tantor is here as well as Nkima, the monkey and his loyal Waziri facing down the half-men of Opar, descended from gorillas.
Edgar Rice Burroughs created one of the most fascinating and enduring characters in literature and was wildly successful in his lifetime. None of the film adaptations captured the essence of the author’s vision but Burroughs was more than happy to laugh all the way to the bank. The novels are high adventure with romance and impossible situations (with sometimes ridiculous storylines) but holding all together is the audacious imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who arguably created modern science fiction and infused many of those fantastic situations from what was one time called The Dark Continent, a place of mystery and limitless possibilities that launched many a fantasy adventure. Most of the writers of more recent science fiction were inspired as boys and girls by the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The physical courage of Tarzan is something all boys aspire to. Cast off, naked and alone with nothing but our wits and wills to be engines of our survival, there is a part of every person alive who ought to wish to emulate Tarzan.