Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tarzan of the Apes (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

   In 1965 Richard A. Lupoff made a bad prediction. In Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, Lupoff wrote that of the three great supermen of modern fiction (Sherlock Holmes, Superman and Tarzan), Tarzan perhaps had the best chance to live forever. As of 2013, Sherlock Holmes and Superman are as popular as they ever have been. Both are thriving on TV, in the movies, books and comics. Tarzan...not so much. His last successful movie was a Disney cartoon in 1999. The first Tarzan book is easy to find in most bookstores, but not so the over twenty sequels. The only monthly comic is the unauthorized Lord of the Jungle, and that not exactly a bestseller. Tarzan is certainly a name that people still immediately recognize, but I suspect his future as a "literary superman" is in doubt.
   I'm not sure why his popularity has declined so much this century. He certainly is not "politically correct." The racism apparent in the depiction of African natives, in both the books and films, is a big part of it. Perhaps Tarzan slaughtering all those lions and alligators doesn't help. I suspect the biggest reason is that the only memory most people have of Tarzan is as a barely legible muscleman in very old movies.
   That is a shame, because Tarzan is the most complex and intelligent character that Edgar Rice Burroughs ever created. In the novels, Tarzan is a brilliant literary creation, one that deserves to live forever. True, the series did decline in quality as time went on. Burroughs wrote novels about Tarzan long after he had said everything he had to say about him. The first dozen or so, however, were very good.
   Tarzan of the Apes begins in 1888, with Lord and Lady Greystoke being abandoned on the coast of Africa. The crew had mutinied aboard the ship upon which they had been passengers. The Greystoke's situation is made worse because Lady Greystoke is pregnant. John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, builds a small cabin and does his best to ensure the safety and survival of his wife and child. Sadly, a year after the birth of their child, Lady Greystoke dies in her sleep and John Clayton is killed by apes.
   Kala, one of the apes, has recently lost her own baby. She takes the Greystoke's baby and raises it as her own. He is given the name Tarzan (it means "white skin" in ape language) and he must somehow survive and grow up in a savage African Jungle. Luckily, Tarzan is both brilliant and strong, so he thrives. He finds some old books in his father's cabin and after a number of years even teaches himself to read. He also finds his father's hunting knife, a weapon that helps him tremendously through several jungle battles.
   His first exposure to human beings is when a native African murders Kala, his ape foster mother. Tarzan hunts him down, kills him, and discovers a village of Natives (cannibals as it turns out). Later a party of Europeans and Americans are dumped off on the coast near Tarzan's cabin. They are more victims of mutineers. Among them is, of course, Jane. The rest of the novel tells of Tarzan helping the castaways and falling in love with Jane. Eventually, he follows her back to America.
   This bare outline can't capture the breakneck speed of the narrative or the brilliant development of Tarzan's character. This is, at heart, a novel about Tarzan's noble nature overcoming the circumstances of his childhood. The other characters are also finely drawn; from the brave young Jane, to the loyal friend, D'Arnot, to the good man, William Cecil Clayton, who is torn by petty jealousy.
   Sadly, the dated racism in the book is pretty hard on modern readers. The noble Waziri do not show up until the second book, so the only native Africans in this one are all savage, brutish cannibals. The one American black woman in the book is presented even worse. Poor Esmeralda, Jane's maid, is played for comedy relief and sounds like she just walked out of an old copy of Uncle Remus.
   Edgar Rice Burroughs, like almost all white men of his generation, did hold racist attitudes. Henry James did too, but then he didn't set his stories in Africa. It is a good thing the antiquated racism shocks us so. It reminds us that, even though racism is still all-to-prevalent in our society, we have come a long way.
   Regardless, this novel is a classic of adventure that deserves to live on.

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