This week, I read a book with a barely-clothed guy on the front! Win!
(Although, I have to admit, for the second week running, I did get a few strange glances reading this book on the train to work…)
After the brain-exploding emotional complexity of Sons and Lovers last week, I decided to pick up something a little less challenging this week, when I travelled to 1914.
Well, so I thought. Little did I know, a book I imagined would be a piece of cake would turn out to be so complicated. Writing this review has caused me a great deal of agony. I woke up early this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep because I was too worried about writing this review. I still don’t actually know what I’m going to say. Gulp.
This week’s book was first published in pulp fiction magazine, All-Story, in 1912. Two years later, it appeared as a book. It spawned a whopping twenty-five official sequels – and that’s not even taking into account the various unauthorised works published by other writers after the author’s death.
According to Wikipedia, there are at least 89 movies based on this novel.
It’s a story everyone in the western world is familiar with. Or, rather, they think they’re familiar with.
Grab a banana, put on a loincloth, and I’ll tell you all about it…
Tarzan of the Apes
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Published in 1914
Tarzan of the Apes is a seriously puzzling book. It simply won’t play by the rules. And it’s not the story popular culture might have led you to believe. It’s more brutal than any Disney movie…
Lord and Lady Greystoke are headed to Africa, but are left alone and defenseless on the coast of Africa, when the crew of their ship mutinies. Their situation is made even more desperate by the revelation that Lady Greystoke is with child…
Lord Greystoke lovingly builds a cabin, where their son is born. But they’re both killed a year after their child’s birth, leaving him an orphan.
The young child is adopted by Kala, an ape grieving the loss of her own child, and is taken into her tribe. She names him “Tarzan” – “white skin” in the language of the apes. Kala becomes Tarzan’s surrogate mother, raising him as her own child and defending him from the rest of the tribe – but she never tells him the truth of his parentage.
As Tarzan grows older, it becomes clear that he’s different to the other children of the tribe. The first time he sees his own face, in a reflection on the surface of a lake:
“Tarzan was appalled. It has been bad enough to be hairless, but to own such a countenance! He wondered that the other apes could look at him at all”
– Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes, page 38
But Tarzan’s feelings of inferiority don’t last too long. Discovering one day the cabin his father built, Tarzan, now in his teens, finds books and teaches himself to read and write (more on that later). With the aid of his father’s knife, he becomes a mighty hunter. Before too long, he has defeated his father and the leader of his tribe in battle, and becomes the king of his tribe…but somehow, he feels that there’s something missing…
On the beach one day, a group of newcomers arrive, stranded on the coast of Africa after a mutiny aboard their ship (sound familiar?). Their skin is white, and Tarzan knows that they are his kind – however, he can’t talk to them, as he only knows how to read and write English. He speaks only the language of the apes.
Amongst the white strangers is the new Lord Greystroke – Tarzan’s biological cousin – and, of course, the lovely young Jane Porter. The moment Tarzan sees her, he falls in love.
I’ll leave the rest of the plot for you to discover yourself. But, a word of warning – if you think you know what’s going to happen next, you’d be wrong. There’s no “me Tarzan, you Jane” – our hero eventually learns to speak French, strangely enough. You’ll never guess how Tarzan of the Apes ends. The last scene of the book will leave you reeling – don’t say I didn’t warn you.
When I first started reading Tarzan, I found the writing a little awkward. This bit of dialogue from the first few pages made me wince:
“Duty is duty, my husband, and no amount of sophistries may change it. I would be a poor wife for an English lord were I to be responsible for his shirking a plain duty…”
– Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes, page 11
What?? Who talks like this? Edgar Rice Burroughs’ dialogue is so wooden at times, you could build a log cabin out of it. For ten people. With a six car garage. Ick.
But what really, really irked me are the times when the plot leans a little too heavily on coincidence and suspension of disbelief. Tarzan teaches himself to read and write, just by looking at books? Yeah, right. Later in the book, he learns French in the matter of a month or so. Zut alors! And then, Jane and her father just happen to be stranded on the one beach in Africa where Tarzan’s parents suffered the same fate twenty years ago…and one of their travelling companions just happens to be William Cecil Clayton, the new Lord Greystoke?? What?
A good writer can convince the reader of anything – that’s the gift of the storyteller. But frankly, I’m not sure Edgar Rice Burroughs is a skilled enough craftsman to be able to write about all these unlikely coincidences without making them seem cheesy and contrived.
However, when our hero leaps into action, things change. The writing is clear, quick and compelling. Burroughs rattles off short, simple sentences that allow the action scenes of the novel to unfold effectively. The action scenes in Tarzan of the Apes are cracking. It’s just the bits in between that aren’t so convincing…
Eventually, I simply had to stop taking Tarzan of the Apes seriously. I can’t help but wonder if this was what Burroughs intended. There’s a scene where Jane’s corpulent “servant”, Esmerelda, tries to stuff herself into a cupboard to hide from an attacking lioness, but, finding she can only fit her head inside the cupboard, she faints in a great heap on the ground. The physical humour of this moment had me laughing – but it’s followed immediately by Jane’s decision to murder her servant, then kill herself rather than let the lioness claw them to death – and she nearly succeeds. Awkward reading. Or the number of times when Tarzan murders members of the tribe of native Africans he encounters in cold blood – just because he likes it? That’s not cool. If this is a comedy, it’s not consistently a comedy.
And talking of awkward, uncool things, there’s an underlying sense of racism in Tarzan of the Apes that I find disturbing. Edgar Rice Burroughs portrays Tarzan as naturally superior. Tarzan is desperate for human contact, but why doesn’t he try and communicate with the native tribe? Why does he just assume that anyone black is his enemy? Okay, one of the natives killed his mother, but still…? When Tarzan teaches himself to read and write, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ only explanation for this feat is that because Tarzan is a white, English nobleman, somehow, the knowledge just comes to him naturally. Grr.
But, on the other hand, Edgar Rice Burroughs is aware of the harm that colonialism has done in Africa, and sympathises with the natives. He tells us of the damage that white invaders have done to the tribe. There’s also the fact that Tarzan’s parents were en route to Africa to partake in “a peculiarly delicate investigation” of the working conditions for natives in the colonies…but are they really there to help, or to do more harm?
Something that really interested me about Tarzan of the Apes was a constant thread of inhumanity, running through the whole book. Two ships fall prey to mutiny. The apes battle each other, constantly struggling for power. The natives torture their captives – alive. The powers of Europe oppress the natives. Not even our hero, Tarzan, is always Mr. Nice Guy.
And then, there’s the way that this book simply assumes the theory of evolution. It might display dated racial stereotypes best left in the previous century, but Edgar Rice Burroughs, I imagine, is quite forward-thinking in that he doesn’t shirk from describing humanity as descended from apes. Edgar Rice Burroughs was American – even today, the topic of evolution in America is rife with controversy…and Tarzan of the Apes was written nearly one hundred years ago. Interesting!
In total honesty, I don’t know what to make of Tarzan of the Apes. There were aspects of this book that fascinated me…but other things that disgusted me. However, the fact remains that Tarzan, the character, remains a cultural icon, an amazing 96 years after he first swung into the world. Like it or not, there’s just something enduring about this story; this character. That’s something even the most skeptical reader can’t deny.
I think, when it comes to wrapping my thoughts around this book, the best advice of all is that which Edgar Rice Burroughs gives himself, on the very first page of his story:
“If you do not find it credible, you will at least be as one with me in acknowledging that it is unique, remarkable and interesting”
– Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes, page 1
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Read Tarzan of the Apes if you’re less skeptical than I am; if you’re able to just switch the analytical, annoying side of your brain off for a while and enjoy the ride.
In a word: