Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The awkward first steps of a classic hero
Edgar Rice Burroughs deserves a healthy dose of applause for creating the timeless character of Tarzan. The jungle hero has had an indelible impact on popular culture, becoming a household name through his many incarnations in novels, film, and comics. With such classic literary icons, it’s often interesting and fun to go back and read the original source material from which they sprang. That’s not true in this case, however, as Tarzan of the Apes, originally published in 1912, proves an inauspicious debut. As a fan of classic adventure literature and pulp fiction, I understand that often a reader must suspend disbelief to enjoy a good adventure, but in this novel Burroughs asks for far too much gullibility on the part of the reader, and does not provide enough satisfaction in return.

John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, is on a diplomatic expedition to Africa to investigate the working conditions at some colonial plantations. When mutiny breaks out on the ship in which he and his wife are passengers, their lives are spared, but they are abandoned on a remote beach on the west coast of the dark continent. They eventually die in this harsh environment, but not before leaving behind an infant son. This orphaned boy of noble heritage is adopted by a she-ape and raised as a member of her simian community.

It’s natural that Tarzan, having grown up in this wild and savage environment, would come to possess a physical strength that would be considered superhuman by the standards of civilized men. That’s not enough for Burroughs, however, who also endows his hero with superhuman intelligence. Tarzan finds his parents’ library, and, without any contact with another human being, teaches himself to read and write. If that’s not unbelievable enough, somehow he also, with no knowledge of spoken English, manages to phonetically spell his own name.

When he reaches manhood Tarzan begins to encounter some of the native African people, his first contact with humans. Eventually a party of white people appears on his secluded shores, marooned by mutineers just as his parents were decades before. Though one of them is even a relative of Tarzan, this group of English and American travelers is not out looking for the Greystokes. It is simply an incredible coincidence that they happen to end up in Tarzan’s proximity. Through Tarzan’s interactions with these white people, a series of misunderstandings arises that takes until the end of the book to resolve. For example, despite finding the bodies of Lord and Lady Greystoke and their belongings, it never occurs to any of the slow-witted castaways that this mysterious white jungle man might be their son. For brevity’s sake, I can’t begin to catalog all the convoluted story elements that continually affirm the ignorance of each and every character in this story, but the entire book is spent waiting in protracted frustration for the clueless characters to figure out things that the reader already knows.

There is a fair amount of racism in the book, though not uncommon for its time. Far more offensive are the clumsily constructed plot and the frequent departures from logical reality. The best parts of the book are the action scenes, but after Tarzan kills five or six lions, even that becomes tedious. Burroughs wrote at least 25 Tarzan books. As an advocate of adventure literature, I really hope they are not all as bad as this one. Tarzan of the Apes is a rare case in which the original novel does not live up to the majority of the countless imitators it inspired.

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