Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tarzan of the Apes

The last of the B authors in the Must-Read Fantasy Novel challenge!

In 1912 a former pencil sharpener salesman wrote a book about a nobly born Englishman who was raised by a tribe of apes on the west coast of Africa.

The former salesman was Edgar Rice Burroughs and the book was Tarzan of the Apes. Burroughs would personally pen 23 Tarzan novels and the character would go on to become one of most iconic figures in western culture. Tarzan was the subject of 89 films, making film stars of out of 2 former Olympic swimmers (Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe) in the process and also had a radio and a TV serial made about his adventures.

The story and character in the films is not easily recognizable from the original book. Strangely enough one of the films to follow the book's storyline most closely was Disney's 1999 animated version, although suitably altered for the sensibilities of the younger audience.

While on a mission for the Brirish government John Clayton Lord of Greystoke and his young wife are marooned on the west Africa coast. Lady Alice Clayton gives birth to a baby boy and lives for a year before passing away of an unspecified illness. John Clayton is killed soon after by a band of marauding apes. A she-ape by the name of Kala has recently lost her infant and takes the young Lord Greystoke as a replacement.

The young Englishman is raised by the apes as one of their own and given the name Tarzan. Although no match for his ape playmates in terms of size and strength Tarzan does have intelligence and agility on his side. He uses these attributes to survive and gain status amongst the tribe.

One day Tarzan discovers the cabin his father built and where he had lived with his parents. Unaware that the skeletons in the cabin are those of his parents, Tarzan explores and becomes interested in the books within the cabin. Rather incredibly he teaches himself to both read and write English fluently with the help of the books in the cabin.

Tarzan becomes a hero to the apes by killing some of their enemies such as lions and gorillas, he also has the members of a local village of cannibal natives thinking he is a forest god. Eventually Tarzan becomes the leader of the tribe, after defeating the previous leader in single combat, he leaves the tribe following the death of Kala at the hands of the cannibal tribe.

Not long after this Tarzan sees some newcomers to the west African coast; treasure hunters. Amongst this group are the eccentric American scientist; Professor Archimedes Q. Porter, his associate and friend Samuel Philander, the British Lord (and coincidentally Tarzan's cousin) William Cecil Clayton, the negro maid Esmeralda and Professor Porter's beautiiful and spirited daughter Jane.

Tarzan becomes entranced by the beautiful white woman and largely because of this he assists the party and eventually rescues Jane when she is abducted by one of the apes. Jane is with Tarzan, falling in love with him, when a French ship comes to the aid of the small group and one of their party is captured by the cannibals. After depositing Jane back on the beach Tarzan goes back into the jungle and rescues the French officer; Paul D'Arnot.

D'Arnot contracts a fever, which Tarzan nurses him through and upon discovering that the wild man can read and write English, but not speak it, teaches him French. By the time D'Arnot and Tarzan arrive back at the beach, their ship has sailed.

Determining that Tarzan wishes to learn to live as a man, mainly for the purpose of pursuing Jane and winning her love, D'Arnot takes the jungle raised man to a colonial outpost. Tarzan becomes civilized and goes to the United States to be with Jane.

Unfortunately, believing that they could never be together, Jane has accepted a proposal of marriage from another.

The bittersweet ending is tempered by the news that there will be a sequel. In fact as I stated earlier there were actually 22 sequels.

Despite being an entertaining adventure novel with an interesting premise if Burroughs submitted Tarzan of the Apes to a publisher now I doubt it would be accepted for publication. At best the writing is clunky, many of the characters, with the exceptions of Tarzan and Jane, are cartoonish two dimensional characters, with the tribe of Africans being an offensive racist stereotype even given the less politically correct climate of the early 20th century and the research is almost non existent.

If you can get past the author's obvious failings as a writer you will be rewarded with an interesting and at times gripping adventure story that will give you an insight into the creation of one of the 20th centuries most popular and instantly recognizable fictional characters.

If you liked Tarzan enough to want to keep reading then Burroughs himself wrote numerous sequels, if the concept interested you it would be worth reading the book that may have inspired Burroughs; Rudyard Kipling's classic The Jungle Book, a collection of animal stories about the Indian jungle and it's inhabitants, the best known being the story of Mowgli, the abandoned 'man-cub' raised by a pack of wolves.


  1. I always wondered about this, maybe I'll have to pick it up. Thanks.

  2. It's worth a read if no other reason than to witness the creation of the character.