Thursday, December 10, 2015
EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS' TARZAN OF THE APES
This is Edgar Rice Burroughs' original novel about the famous Tarzan of the Apes. After a mutiny on the ship they are voyaging on, Lord and Lady Greystoke are forced ashore in Africa, where they build a cabin. The couple die, and the infant Greystoke is left alone, whereupon he is taken by the ape Kala, whose own baby has just died. Tarzan educates himself by reading the books left behind in the cabin, and grows up believing that Kala is his natural mother. Using his human intelligence, he is able to survive conflicts with the other gorillas (a fictional breed) but ultimately leaves the group after Kala is killed. Professor Porter, his daughter Jane, her black maid, Esmeralda, Tarzan's cousin William Clayton (the true heir), and others are also forced ashore (conveniently near the cabin) where Tarzan rescues them time and again from danger. Jane and Tarzan virtually fall in love at first sight, although the former later wonders if she wasn't carried away by the romance and sensuality of the moment even as Tarzan carried the frightened but aroused woman off in his arms. Thinking Tarzan is dead or has forgotten her, Jane returns to Baltimore, but with the help of French officer Paul D'Arnot (who teaches Tarzan the language -- yes Tarzan speaks French!), whom the ape man has rescued, Tarzan manages to get to America where Jane is about to marry someone else. The ending is a bit of surprise, with Tarzan and Jane recognizing that they don't make the best match. Tarzan knows the truth about his ancestry, but at this time doesn't reveal it.
Burroughs may never have been a literary stylist, but he could tell a good story, created a very memorable (if rather absurd) character, and his writing pulls one along from episode to episode in compelling fashion. It is odd, however, that the author never describes the strange sensations Tarzan must have been feeling when he enters civilization -- Paris, then the U.S. -- for the very first time and even takes a ride in a motor car. The ape man's impressions are left entirely to the imagination, a strange lapse, but perhaps Burroughs was simply racing to the conclusion of the story. [Burroughs could not have known that the original novel would become so successful that it would engender about twenty-five sequels, not to mention all the movies, comic books, television programs, and even a stage play.] The most harrowing sections of the book have to do with the horrible treatment of white prisoners at the hands and teeth of a tribe of black cannibals; the prisoners are set upon by every one of the natives, including the children, torn apart, and devoured. Tarzan kills one native (admittedly a cannibal) just to get his garments, but later tells D'Arnot "one might as well judge all blacks by the fellow who ran amuck last week, or decide that all whites are cowards because one has met a cowardly white." On a lighter note, Jane's father, Professor Porter, says "tut, tut" about a dozen times too often.
Burroughs' Tarzan was not the grunting, monosyllabic person that was featured in most of the movies. However, he had been raised as a savage beast -- a noble savage, perhaps -- and he had no qualms about taking on any and all comers. Future books in the stories would explore his character in greater detail. NOTE: Burroughs describes Tarzan as being extremely handsome on more than one occasion, but the cover of the 2011 Fall River Press edition [see above] makes him look kind of ugly, if properly bestial.
Verdict: A classic introduction to an iconic character. ***.