Book Review: Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

30 Jun

tarzan1Without a doubt, The Legend of Tarzan is one of the movies I’m most looking forward to watching in 2016. The trailers are stellar and seem to capture the spirit of the original books. Finally, the movie opens this weekend. I’ll be seeing it on Sunday.

So I can think of nothing better to gear myself up for the event that posting my 2009 reviews of the first three books. At that time, I had read only the first few John Carter novels. I had never read a Tarzan book. I was blown away.

Today, is Tarzan of the Apes. Tomorrow is The Return of Tarzan. Sunday is The Beasts of Tarzan. (Saturday is my weekly column at Do Some Damage.)


Can we be honest here? Tarzan is far from forgotten. He’s so well know, in fact, that we all know the story of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Whether it’s from all the movies, the TV series, the comics, the animated movies of Disney, or the Broadway play, Tarzan has entered the collective DNA of popular culture. But how did it all begin? I wanted to know and that’s why I picked up Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan novel.

Again, y’all know the story but I’ll quickly recap. In short, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, and his wife, Lady Alice, get themselves marooned in equatorial Africa. Soon after the birth of their only son, John, they are killed and the child is adopted by the she-ape Kala, whose own child was also killed. Named Tarzan (“white skin”), little John is raised unaware of his human heritage.

As an adolescent, he teaches himself how to read with books found in the cabin his parents built. Eventually, he sees other humans–native Africans–but he still hasn’t seen a person that looks like him: a white man. A group of white men and women soon get themselves marooned *in the exact same place* as his parents. In this group is a young woman named Jane Porter. Tarzan is smitten and the story really takes off from there.

Not that it was ever boring. Tarzan fights rival bull apes, native Africans, lions, and all sorts of jungle denizens. I was happy to note that Tarzan doesn’t always escape his trials unscathed. After a particularly bloody battle, he wears a scar across his forehear that burns with anger whenever the ape man rages. Burroughs basically created a super man, a noble savage who knows right from wrong, cannot be corrupted, and can will himself to do the right thing. The dialogue is a bit stiff and some of the coincidences make you go “Oh, come on!” but they’re not egregious. What surprised me most was the ending. It was a cliffhanger. Pretty bold for a first book.

The stereotypes are present and as you’d expect: Africans are savages, women are frail, and other white men are all out for money and power. Only Tarzan rises above it all. Comparing the stereotypes of King Solomon’s Mines (1875) and Tarzan (1912), not a lot of progress was made in the nearly forty years between the publication of both books.

If you know the Tarzan stories through the movies or radio, then you know the signature thing: his call, yell, what have you. Johnny Weissmuller’s version is the most famous. You can find it here. In the book, Burroughs describes it as a fierce call that chills the blood of those who hear it. What’s better is the way Tarzan looks when he issues the call: after he’s beaten an enemy, he stands with one foot on his kill, and belts out the yell. That’s what I’m talking about.

The setting is the Africa of romance, the Africa of your imagination. It’s fantastic. The violence in the novel is much higher than the older movies could ever show. Oh, and there’s another thing the movies could never show: Tarzan’s nakedness. Up until he meets the whites, he’s naked. But he doesn’t care since that’s how the other apes are–except they have hair–as well as the Africans.

If H. Rider Haggard set out to write a book half as good as Treasure Island (and failed), I can’t help but wonder if Burroughs set out to write a book that captured the exuberance and excitement of Stevenson’s pirate opus. Or just made up for Haggard’s lesser work. If so, he succeeded. Actually, he blew the wall down.

I thoroughly loved this book–though not quite as much as Treasure Island–and can think of no other way to demonstrate my enjoyment than to say this: I’ve already read the sequel. For that, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.

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