Tarzan of the Apes: A very fine introduction to the original swinger

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy book reviewsTarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Three years ago, the character of Tarzan celebrated his 100th birthday. Making his initial appearance in the October 1912 issue of All-Story Magazine, in the original Tarzan novel Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation proved to be so popular that the author went on to create 25 more novels featuring the jungle swinger. Released in book form two years later, the novel is a perfect introduction to the character who has been called the best-known fictional creation of the 20th century. Like many others, my only previous familiarity with Tarzan was via the Johnny Weissmuller films of the ’30s and ’40s — all dozen of them — and, to a lesser degree, those featuring Bruce Bennett, Buster Crabbe, Lex Barker and Gordon Scott (I have never gotten a chance to see the 1918 silent film Tarzan of the Apes, starring Elmo Lincoln). Thus, my first encounter with the character in his original form, closely following the year of his centennial, has proved something of a revelation for this reader.

In the book, as most of the world has known for over a century now, we encounter a “young English nobleman” whom Burroughs, in an effort to disguise his identity, dubs John Clayton, aka Lord Greystoke. Clayton and his very pregnant wife, Alice, are marooned on the western shore of equatorial Africa in 1888 by a band of shipboard mutineers. A son is born, Alice goes mad and later dies, and Clayton himself is killed when a group of great apes attacks him in the cabin he has built. His 1-year-old son is taken by Kala, a female ape who has just lost her baby, and raised as her own in the tribe. Dubbed Tarzan (ape talk for “White-Skin”), the baby grows to become healthy and self-reliant. Strong enough to fight off gorillas, lions, leopards and the other apes, his fighting skills only improve when he discovers a knife in his dead father’s cabin and when he teaches himself to use a rope, not to mention the poisonous arrows that he constantly steals from the local tribe of cannibals. But Tarzan is much more than just a hunky specimen. Mentally inquisitive, he teaches himself to read and write using some books in his father’s small collection (one of the novel’s more touching sequences), and is thus able to communicate, somewhat, when, 21 years later, another group is marooned by mutineers on this same spot … a group that includes the 18-year-old woman, Jane Porter, with whom Tarzan falls in love…

Tarzan (need it even be mentioned at this late date?) is a marvelous creation, practically a demigod of the jungle, who functions almost as a superhero in the African scenes and as a deus ex machina in the book’s final segment, set in northern Wisconsin, of all places. The remarkably prolific Burroughs was still a tyro writer at this point, and though no one would ever claim that his prose is sparkling or lyrical, it is still highly readable, and his story has great drive and sweep. It is a book nearly impossible to put down, with its chapters arranged in cliffhanger fashion, often with parallel story lines developing at once. Burroughs throws in any number of terrific fights and action scenes to please the reader, a nice romantic subplot (the romance between Tarzan and Jane concludes most realistically and touchingly, paving the way for the first sequel, 1915’s The Return of Tarzan) and some incidental humor (such as the hapless exploits of Jane’s father, the impossibly absentminded Prof. Archimedes Q. Porter, and his assistant, Samuel T. Philander).

The book is pure fantasy, of course (it was deservedly chosen for inclusion in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s excellent overview volume Fantasy: The 100 Best Books), and a far cry from the much more “realistic” African romances of H. Rider Haggard, especially as seen in his 14 Allan Quatermain novels. But then again, Haggard had actually lived in Africa (from 1875 – 1881), and had soaked up the land’s lore and customs (as well as worked as an ostrich farmer), before he ever wrote his first book; Burroughs, on the other hand, had never been to Africa before, and for him, the continent is a land of pure fantasy. Fortunately, he proved to be such an adept writer that his lack of actual experience there became a nonissue. Oh … it has been mentioned that Burroughs was inspired by Kipling’s Jungle Books, as well as by the myth of Romulus and Remus, in his creation of Tarzan. But Burroughs was a fan of Haggard, and it seems very possible to me that it was the Haggard character Hendrika the Baboon Woman, who appears in the 1889 Quatermain novel Allan’s Wife, who may have been the most obvious antecedent. Just a personal hunch…

Tarzan of the Apes, great and classic as it is, is hardly a perfect novel. The author is way too dependent on coincidence to move his plot along, and is guilty of some casual racism as regards his cannibal characters and Jane’s maid, Esmeralda, who functions, in essence, as a 300-lb. female Stepin Fetchit. He makes a few flubs during the course of his story, such as when Jane says that the treasure that is the object of her father’s quest was buried in the early 1500s, “nearly two hundred years ago,” and when Jane tells her French rescuers that Tarzan had returned her to the cabin clearing “two days ago” (it had actually been three). But these are minor matters. The bottom line is that the book is so exciting and touching that minor matters of prose and boo-boos fall by the wayside. It should prove a genuine eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the original Tarzan character. Just as it is startling to see Mary Shelley’s Monster speak perfect English in her 1818 Frankenstein novel, how odd it is to see Tarzan speak in perfect French, use words such as “progenitor” and drive a motor car! I cannot imagine any reader NOT wanting to learn more; for this reader, The Return of Tarzan will surely come next…

The Kindle version of Tarzan of the Apes is free.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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10 comments

  1. I think you hit on the secret of Tarzan; it’s just a big old escapist fantasy. I read the series after seeing a bunch of Tarzan movies and shows as a kid and I remember I was shocked at how badly Tarzan (and Burroughs) treated the native African humans – although the native humans did kill Tarzan’s adopted mother, so all’s fair, I guess.

    Burroughs falls into the same category as Robert E. Howard for me. They weren’t very good prosists, their work was derivative, characters were often stick-figures, but they obviously loved story-tellling and their enthusiasm was catching.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      I think I might have a bit more respect for these guys than you, Marion, lowbrow that I am. And far from being derivative, didn’t Howard almost single-handedly jump-start the entire sword & sorcery genre? Still, their debt to my main man, H. Rider Haggard, IS rather pronounced….

      • I’m sorry. I don’t mean to denigrate either of them. Yes, I was thinking that Haggard and a few others had wrapped up this type of action adventure (no one did “hidden city” books like Haggard). Yes, I will give Howard credit for sword-and-sorcery. I read all the Tarzan books when I was a kid, and all the Conan stories.

        The point I failed to make was that they were masters of entertainment because they wrote, to some extent (Howard did anyway) for their own fun. They dreamed big and wrote huge rollicking adventures, and I liked that.

  2. My first experience with Tarzan that I remember was the TV show with Ron Ely. That Tarzan was closer to the books in that he spoke fluent English (instead of French), was smart, cultured, etc. I was a huge ERB fan in my teens. I liked Tarzan but my favorite character of his was John Carter of Mars. I read those books over and over.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      If you’re interested in the John Carter books, Ray, you’ll be happy to hear that I have reviewed each and every one of them here on FanLit….

  3. This books hold a special place in my heart. I have the whole series that I collected in my early teens. I have the Bantam published ones with great covers by Neal Adams and Boris.
    They were the books that really kickstarted my love of reading and the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Good for you, Greg! I can see how these books might prove addictive….

  4. Great review, Sandy! Sounds like a chest-pounding swashbuckler of a story. I’m still trying to figure out how Tarzan taught himself to read without any help…well, that’s just nit-picking.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Thanks for the kinds words, Stuart! As for Tarzan’s reading, he started with a picture book to associate images with the scribbles and carried on from there. Burroughs somehow makes it seem like a possibility, to his credit….

  5. Also to point out; Tarzan learned to read what the words mean, but he had no idea how the words vocally sounded. So he could not speak English, just read it. He actually learned to speak French before he spoke English if I recall correctly.

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