Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review - Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Short review: Tarzan is raised from infancy to adulthood by apes and becomes the strongest and smartest man in the world.

Orphaned as a child
Brought up by a band of apes
And then he meets Jane

Full review: Tarzan is the most famous of Edgar Rice Burroughs' creations. In general, however, I find the character to be less interesting, and less believable than many of his others. This seems odd, since Tarzan ostensibly lives in early twentieth century Earth, while for example, John Carter wanders about the red sands of Barsoom, and Julien is a reincarnating individual fighting invaders from our own moon. The problem is that Tarzan is essentially a cartoon of a character. He is apparently the strongest, most agile, handsomest, and most intelligent individual alive - so much so that he almost resembles a Mary Sue character. Tarzan has superhuman strength - apparently all that is needed for that is living in the wild. Wild living also enhances one's agility to superhuman levels, and enhances one's senses to a level that one can track prey by smell and hear whispers spoken miles away. With nothing more than a small collection of books and no assistance at all, Tarzan is able to teach himself how to read despite the fact that he cannot speak English (or any other language other than "Ape").

No real explanation is given for Tarzan's incredible gifts. Most people know the basics of Tarzan's story: A foundling raised by apes in the jungles of Africa who rises to the top of his band of primates and has adventures across the whole of the dark continent. In addition to the couple dozen books featuring him, Tarzan has been the subject of numerous movie adaptations, cementing him onto the cultural landscape like few other characters. As most people have come to know Tarzan through these somewhat watered down movies, the brutality and violence of the Tarzan featured in this book will come as something of a shock to some: Tarzan fights and kills a couple of apes in bloody, graphic combat, there are explicit descriptions of hunting and killing prey in the book, and for a portion of the book Tarzan essentially terrorizes an African village by abducting and killing residents because he thinks it is "funny". (It is apparently okay though, after all, they are only black cannibals - did I mention that the book has some pronounced racist overtones?)

The racism and classism prevalent in the era when the book was written is apparent through the book. All common sailors are presented as little more than criminal rabble kept in line by the firearms carried by their officers. The book gets kind of muddled with respect to Tarzan himself - at turns his brutality is excused as a result of his life in the wild, at others his heritage as the son of an English lord (a lord who is killed when Tarzan is an infant, after which the lord of the apes has no contact with humans until he is an adult) is used to explain his instinctive chivalry and magnanimity. Apparently one's bloodline, rather than one's upbringing, is what makes you treat women well and rescue wayward French officers from evil cannibalistic natives.

The first part of the book is devoted to telling the story of how Tarzan's parents came to be marooned in the wilds of Africa, and how Tarzan came to be adopted by an ape. The second portion details Tarzan's life among the apes as he grows from an infant to a superhuman adult. In the third section of the book, Tarzan's world is turned upside down by the arrival of another band of white castaways (including Jane Porter, the Jane from "me Tarzan, you Jane" fame in the movies). The final section concerns the civilizing of Tarzan, as he is taught French by an officer he rescues, and then travels to Paris and later to the United States.

Tarzan is, in the end, an entirely unbelievable character - more so even than characters who tramp about on other planets or inside the bowels of the Earth. He is also a contradictory character, at times excusably savage, at others improbably civilized. On the whole, it seems odd that Tarzan is the one Burroughs' character who has become the one everyone knows about as he is one of the most absurd of all of them, and since Burroughs' books are pure pulp, that's saying a lot. On the other hand, it may be because Tarzan is so over the top that he has become so popular. In any event, while I found this book to be reasonably good, it was not one of my favorite Burroughs' works.

Subsequent book in the series: The Return of Tarzan

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  1. This is the one book I very much liked. But then I enjoyed those old time Tarzan movies too.

    1. @Julia Rachel Barrett: I think that the Tarzan movies may have, in many cases, improved the quality of the character of Tarzan and the stories surrounding him.