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In western literature there are many examples of characters and stories that have since their first introduction become part of our everyday popular culture. So when we speak of Frankenstein, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes the vast majority of people know who we are talking about but very few I suspect have ever read the original source material. Another example of this is Tarzan. Tarzan was popularised in the 1930's by the MGM films starring Johnny Weissmuller and seen in countless TV and film adaptations in the 50's, 60's and 70's and through to the present most recently with a Disney animated version. I was one of these people who knew the character from the various films but had never read Edgar Rice's Burroughs's original 1912 novel 'Tarzan of the Apes', well I recently decided to remedy this and picked up a free Kindle version to see if the original story lived up to the ensuing iconic status of Tarzan as a fictional hero.
The first thing to remember when reading the novel is that it was written over a hundred years ago and it describes a world and social attitudes that are very different to those of today. The world of Tarzan is that of the old colonial Africa. To most readers of the time Africa was a mysterious place, wild and dangerous. The expression 'deepest, darkest Africa' conveyed this feeling of remoteness and dangerous fascination that westerners had for this still largely unknown continent. Europe considered Africa as a valuable commodity, its resources to be used to build up its empires and its people to be subjugated not only for the good of Europe's colonial ambitions but also for their own good. A feeling seem to run through western thinking that the native peoples of Africa were not much better than the savage animals that populated the continent. Fitting well into this way of thinking came also the ideas of Darwin and natural selection and with it the idea of the hierarchy of nature and races with the superior white western European race firmly taking its 'rightful' place at the evolutionary summit. Some modern readers may find many of the inherent beliefs underpinning the story and the attitude shown to the indigenous peoples of Africa to be at best old fashioned and laughable and at worst distasteful.
The story starts with John Clayton being born in the jungles of equatorial Africa after his parents John and Alice Clayton the present Lord and Lady Greystoke are abandoned by a mutinous ship's crew on a deserted part of the coast. Despite their predicament John and Alice being of noble birth and possessing all the admirable qualities of the English ruling class do not panic but set about surviving in the hostile environment never doubting that one day they will be rescued. Unfortunately when the child is still only a baby his parents are killed by a ferocious ape Kerchak. Left alone to die the baby is adopted by the she-ape Kala who has just suffered the loss of her own baby. Clayton is now named Tarzan meaning 'White Skin' in the ape language and is raised within the ape colony not knowing anything about his human heritage.
Never quite being able to fit in with his ape peers Tarzan one day accidently stumbles on his parents cabin, where through looking at book left there he first learns about humans and eventually over the years teaches himself to read. As Tarzan grows to manhood he uses his greater intelligence and human cunning to become the new king of the apes and he also begins learn more about humans by observing a tribe of men newly settled black natives in his jungle domain. His world is expanded even further and made more complicated when a group of western explorers including the beautiful Jane Porter are stranded along the coastal regions of the equatorial jungle. Will Tarzan's noble ancestry and human instinct win over his savage jungle upbringing? Will the true heir to the Greystoke title return to England to claim the fortune that is rightfully his?
Taken as a rip roaring, high octane adventure story Tarzan is an excellent read. Burroughs describes the early life of Tarzan amidst the tribe of apes in great detail and we learn about the frightening and dangerous life he lives as a small child among the apes. There are plenty of bloody and violent confrontations between the apes as they vie for supremacy in the group as well as deadly encounters with other dangerous residents of the jungle among them the ape's greatest foe Numa the lion.
"As the body rolled to the ground Tarzan of the Apes placed his foot upon the neck of his lifelong enemy and, raising his eyes to the full moon, threw back his fierce young head and voiced the wild and terrible cry of his people."
The story unfolds at great pace and is certainly a 'page turner', each of the book's chapters concluding on an expectant note probably due to its original publication in instalments in a pulp adventure magazine 'All-Story Magazine'. The description of the savagery of the apes and the brutality of the jungle existence is fascinating to read and Burroughs does a very good job of developing Tarzan's character from puny human boy totally reliant on his adoptive ape mother for survival to the ferocious human 'ape' who eventually learn to use his superior human intellect to gain supremacy over all of his jungle domain. The adult Tarzan is described as a giant amongst men, his years of competing for supremacy with the fierce apes giving him an outstanding physique and a wild savage beauty.
"When Tarzan killed he more often smiled than scowled, and smiles are the foundation of beauty."
It is worthy pointing out that the story is not meant to be an accurate portrayal of the day to day life of apes in equatorial Africa, we have to rely on David Attenborough rather than Burroughs to give us that! Even taking into account the scant knowledge of the time Burroughs takes some great artistic liberties when describing the jungle environment. It is doubtful that even in the early 1900's it was believed that ape colonies had the level of sophistication and the ability to use language in the way Burroughs suggests. Tarzan's colony of apes not only uses a rudimentary ape language but also engage in elaborate ceremonies and ritual execution of their enemies. It is also very doubtful that a human child could teach itself to read using only books without any help from a literate adult. It is also worth pointing out that lions don't prowl around the West African rain forest but are only found on the inland savannah. Yet despite the necessity to suspend ones disbelief at certain aspects of the story the reader is willing to do so in order to fully engage in the excitement and vibrancy of the story.
It is also interesting to examine the story in context of the times in which it was written. To a modern reader the story includes many racist attitudes; the depiction of the black characters in the story is not very flattering. The black tribe that Tarzan encounters (and frankly terrorises with little provocation) are seen as brutal savages practicing cannibalism. They conform to the stereotypes that existed at the time about black natives being uncivilised, superstitious and morally corrupt; the ape colony is treated in a kinder fashion by the author. Jane's black servant Esmeralda is seen as a fickle, weak willed and highly strung young woman where4as Jane although often frightened seems to have the strength of character to maintain her composure. Despite this it would be wrong to say that the author himself was racist, he is simply expounding the mistaken but commonly held views among westerners at the time.
Underlying the story is the idea that breeding and nobility of character will shine through whatever the circumstances. Thus Tarzan even though he is weaker physically than the apes manages to rise above his deficiencies and exert his human dominance over his peers. This is possible not just because of his humanity but because he is of noble birth, a 'lesser' working class baby would probably not have made it to the top of ape society in Burroughs's view of the world. Tarzan's father when faced with the hopelessness of the situation on being stranded in the wilds of the jungle with a pregnant wife doesn't panic but simply gets on with doing what is needed to survive, he has a confidence in his ability to survive and prosper that comes from generations of being part of the ruling class in English society. As he explains to his wife
"Hundreds of thousands of years ago our ancestors of the dim and distant past faced the same problems which we must face, possibly in these same primeval forests. That we are here today evidences their victory. What they did may we not do? And even better, for are we not armed with ages of superior knowledge, and have we not the means of protection, defence, and sustenance which science has given us, but of which they were totally ignorant? What they accomplished, Alice, with instruments and weapons of stone and bone, surely that may we accomplish also."
In the same way Tarzan innately shares his father's innate superiority over others and an inner belief that he is meant to rule over his peers.
The idea of nature versus nurture was very much in vogue at the time, building upon Darwin's ideas of natural selection. Many authors were either directly or subconsciously addressing the idea that if humans were simply just a form of advanced apes then there must exist an instinctive savagery within every man that is kept at bay by the thin veneer of civilisation and self imposed morality. Others would argue that man (predominantly western man in Burroughs view) has transcended his savage ancestry and by breeding been able to evolve away from the animal impulses and brutality of his ape cousins. These ideas were present in many classic works of fiction of around this time such as the likes of 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson or 'The Island of Doctor Moreau' (1896) by H. G. Wells and the debate still rages today although maybe on a more enlightened intellectual footing.
So despite its failings, its dubious colonial attitudes, its racist undertones and its scientific inaccuracies Tarzan is still a fantastic thrilling read and well deserves its reputation as one the classic adventure stories of the 20th century.
The story of Tarzan however doesn't end with this book, Burroughs went on to write a further 22 Tarzan adventures before his death in 1950.
If you like the films and want to see where the Tarzan phenomena all started I would urge you to read this book and enjoy the experience.
'Tarzan of the Apes' by Edgar Rice Burroughs is available for free as a Kindle edition or fro £6.99 as a paperback at the time this review was written.
The nature or nurture debate solved forever in 1912; if you dump a baby on an island surrounded by books, it'll teach itself grammatically perfect English, and generally grow up to be a pretty good sort, providing of course, you can distract it from tearing apart raw carcasses with its bare teeth and attempting to lick its own arse clean for long enough. This is, of course, as long as said baby is the offspring of a wealthy British aristocrat. God only knows what would happen if you tried the same thing with a working class baby. Actually, it's probably illegal anyway.
This is the kind of thinking that goes into Tarzan; wild assumptions, flawed logic, sweeping generalisations and unbelievable coincidences. Which, by the way, doesn't stop it being thoroughly entertaining.
The story begins with a young English couple John Clayton (Lord Greystoke) and his pregnant wife Alice Rutherford (Lady Greystoke) on a voyage to British West Africa, where Clayton has just been appointed to a new post investigating the treatment of black British subjects.
Unfortunately, the crew are a bunch of cutthroat mercenaries and the couple end up being left on a deserted island, miles away from civilization.
Lord Greystoke attempts to start a new life for them, building a home furnished with supplies they transported with them on the ship including a variety of books for their as yet unborn child. However they are not alone on the island; panthers, lions and apes roam the area terrifying the young couple with their blood-curdling cries during the night. One of these anthropoid apes attacks Lady Greystoke and, although she manages to escape, the shock sends her insane (that's what women do in this book when frightened, either swoon or go mad). The very same night she gives birth to her child. Unfortunately the after-effects of the ape attack never leave her and she dies a year later.
When Clayton himself is killed by another ape some time later, the baby is left an orphan. However, Kala, a female ape who has recently lost her own son, adopts him for her own.
So for years Tarzan, as the baby becomes known, grows up as an ape, fighting lions, battling for supremacy with apes and generally enjoying jolly jungle japes of all kinds. He gets an inkling into his true heritage when he re-discovers the home of his parents and the wealth of literature therein, and it is here that he learns to read the English language.
This man-ape's life, however, is about to change forever; onto the scene come another group of marooned travellers. One of the trapped landlubbers happens to be none other than the new Lord Greystoke, heir to Tarzan's natural title. To add to this extremely unlikely turn of events, Tarzan falls in love with the same woman as his cousin, a certain Jane Porter (of "me Tarzan, you Jane" fame).
Can Tarzan turn away from his savage upbringing to become the gentlemen Jane craves? Can she face the thought of sharing her life with this man-ape?
Edgar Rice Burroughs is obviously of the view that class is as inherent as is mankind's right to rule nature; here is an aristocrat denied his birthright and any of his natural privileges and still rising to the top. It is a controversial view, but a drum that Burroughs keeps banging, eventually to the detriment of the book. We are told so often how handsome, rugged and intelligent this "godlike creature" is with his aristocratic nature and natural grace, that personally, I was just hoping that one of those bloody vines would snap and he would fall headfirst in a steaming elephant turd. This flawless character, brought up by apes, but possessing charm, humanity and seemingly superhuman intelligence, flies in the face of what conventional wisdom tells us should happen to a child brought up without human contact and is just *too* good to be true.
The book, however, does have a darker side; it would be safe to say that, in a 21st Century context, it can't exactly be seen as a PC novel. Describing himself to Jane as "Tarzan, the killer of beasts and many black men" (I would imagine this is left out of the Disney version!), the book gives an almost uniformly negative and stereotypical view of other races, or in fact anyone who isn't white, upper-class and male. Burroughs' prejudices would now be considered highly offensive but this was a book written in a very different time and perhaps should be cut some slack.
Burroughs' whiter than white portrayal of his protagonist, his two-dimensional characters, his credulity-straining plot devices and certain artistic liberties he takes with the plot are amongst the books major flaws. Tarzan has been slated critically (although generally well-loved by readers), and it is true that Burroughs is certainly not a great writer. In fact, Rudyard Kipling said that his reason for writing the book was to "find out how bad a book he could write and get away with it."
Despite all these fundamental flaws, however, it can't be denied that Burroughs actually tells a pretty good story; vivid, colourful and imaginative. Tarzan is a pretty readable and enjoyable yarn, not a classic in the traditional sense but still an exciting, breathless page-turner. True, some of the set pieces are pretty repetitive and disposable, but crucially they never get boring.
Burroughs style of writing, despite being far from technically accomplished, reads pretty well and is easy to understand, despite the age of the text.
Tarzan is a short adventure-packed novel crammed full of drama and romance; treasure maps, shipwrecks, gunfights, cannibals, jungle creatures and love triangles. With more than 20 sequels, countless films, stage shows and other re-interpretations, Tarzan has become one of the most iconic and well-loved figures in literary history; the longevity of his fame is testament to that. The original superhero, Tarzan is resourceful, intelligent, powerful, self-sacrificing and compassionate and every bit as iconic as Sherlock Holmes, Indianna Jones, Ebenezer Scrooge or Count Dracula.
Now available to download for free, or for next to nothing from Amazon, Tarzan is a character that everyone has heard of, but a book that not many these days have actually read. It's certainly worth looking into, as an insight and background into this iconic character and as a fun, if somewhat clumsy, read.