Thursday, 3 November 2011

Review: Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)

There are a handful of fictional characters who have become so fixed in the public mind that they transcend into folklore and then there are the select who fall into a quasi reality where people believe that they actually exist.  One is Sherlock Holmes, who to this day receives letters addressed to 221B Baker Street.  Another is Tarzan of the Apes, though if anyone is posting him letters, they must be going to "General Deliver, The Jungle, Darkest Africa.

Tarzan of the Apes is Burroughs's first novel in the series and with its sequel Return of Tarzan form some of his strongest if not best work.  It tells the origin of Tarzan that is as well known as that of Superman.  Tarzan is in reality Lord Greystoke, an English nobleman whose parents were marooned by pirates on the jungle coast of west Africa in 1888.  There Tarzan was born and after his parents died, the infant lord was adopted by a great ape who raised the strange little white baby (Tarzan means "white skin" in the ape language) as her own.  At first dismissed and mocked by the apes for his weakness, slow growth and hideousness lack of hair,  However, his greater intelligence and human nobility begins to tell as he approaches manhood and by the time he is 18-years old he has become lord of the apes.

Unfortunately, Tarzan is also lonely.  As he discovers how limited his "fellow" apes are, he discovers that his only relief is from the books he find in his dead parent's cabin from which he learns to read and write, but not speak English.  As to human companionship, the only human beings he encounters are a tribe of fierce cannibals who move into the jungle after fleeing the cruelties of the Belgian Congo and murder his foster mother. Tarzan therefore only visits to take his revenge on by tormenting them with tricks and killing any warriors who try to invade his territory. It isn't until another group of castaways appears that includes American girl Jane Porter that Tarzan's world begins to open up in new and puzzling ways.

You know where this is going.  This is basically a grown-up version of Mowglis brothers with apes instead of wolves, a love interest thrown in, and an opportunity for Burroughs to explore what it means to be human, how nobility asserts itself, and the enervating effects of civilisation that takes man too far from nature.  Burroughs's writing style is easy going and engaging and he is definitely able to capture the growing maturity of the burgeoning apeman.  He's also able to demonstrate how Tarzan is an exceptional individual among apes, but among men as well.

This is also the sort of book that in the 1970s and beyond gets regularly condemned as "racist" because of the author's use of a black stock character in the form of Jane's maid, who looks and sound as if she'd stepped straight off the stage of a music hall.  It's crude characterisation, I'll grant, but in Burroughs's defence, I would state that if he offended blacks, then he offended college professors, English peers, pirates and mutineers just as badly, if not worse.

On a personal note, this was a book that I greatly enjoyed as a boy and I had sitting on my shelf for years after buying a copy because it was a beautifully bound reprint.  I've only reread it now because I just got a Kindle and I resolved that this would be the book and swap over from print to digital to commemorate the occasion.  Verdict:  digital will never replace paper, but at least I don't have to carry my nice books in the car when I'm out and about.

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