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I AM TARZAN OF THE APES!
Tarzan of the Apes - Edgar Rice Burroughs
Member Name: Mauri
Tarzan of the Apes - Edgar Rice Burroughs
Advantages: Great story, well written, a great read
Disadvantages: Some outdated attitudes. Some inaccuracies.
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.
Summary: Puny white boy becomes king of the jungle swingers!