In Paperback: Tarzan of the Apes
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Fall River Press, 2011
It’s all well and good to enthuse about John Carter of Mars (or any of the other nifty creations to spring from the fervid imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs), but in the savage world of 20th century fictional archetypes, as in the savage jungle, there can be only one king. In 1912, Burroughs introduced the world to that king, and in 1914 he published the novel that would assure his immortality and add an entirely new fictional concept to the world’s mythology. It was ERB who gave us Tarzan of the Apes.
Unbelievably, the copyright for this character has now lapsed into the public domain, so fawning, bowing, and scraping prostrations to the hysterically whimsical powers-that-be over at Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. are no longer required in order to produce a new edition of the seminal first novel, Tarzan of the Apes (nor to produce any other versions of the character; expect new novels and, unless I’m very much mistaken, an epic new big-screen movie or two or three). Fall River Press is just one of many publishers to take advantage of that fact, but in this handy, affordable paperback, they’ve pulled ahead of what promises to become a crowded field.
Reprints invite re-readings, and Tarzan of the Apes holds up remarkably well. The story, of course, is as familiar to Western (or Eastern) readers as Homer was to the Greeks: a mutiny on the Fuwalda strands a young English couple on the coast of darkest Africa in 1888, where they are not alone:
As the boat moved slowly over the smooth waters of the bay, Clayton and his wife stood silently watching their departure – in the breasts of both a feeling of impending disaster and utter hopelessness.
And behind them, over the edge of a low ridge, other eyes watched – close set, wicked eyes, gleaming beneath shaggy brows.
Those shaggy brows belong to one of the ‘great apes’ who inhabit the region, and it’s important to remember that Burroughs’ science fiction in this story starts with these apes, who are themselves nothing known to modern man, “a species closely allied to the gorilla, yet more intelligent.” Burroughs starts early on hedging his bets in order to smooth the way for the remarkable thing one of these great apes, Kala, will shortly do. When Kala finds the infant son of the Claytons after their deaths, she raises him as her own.
Readers at the turn of the last century would have been familiar with this type of story not only from fiction (Kipling’s popular “Jungle Books,” in which the little human boy Mowgli is raised by a wolf-pack in India) but from fact (the celebrated “Wolf Boy of Aveyron” in the previous century) – and in Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs does a fantastic job of blending those two voices. Half the fun of Tarzan has always been thinking the whole thing could really happen.
Burroughs was a thorough romantic – or at least he was smart enough to play one for the reading public. His young Tarzan is not only beautiful (Paul D’Arnot, the Frenchman who repays Tarzan for saving his life by introducing him to human society, considers him the most beautiful man he’s ever seen) but, in the manner of all natural-born heroes, superhuman:
Though but ten years old he was fully as strong as the average man of thirty, and far more agile than the most practiced athlete ever becomes. And day by day his strength was increasing.
Tarzan of the Apes was followed by two dozen sequels of inevitably uneven – and often outright shoddy – quality, books in which Tarzan journeys to the earth’s core, confronts ant-men, monkey-men, leopard-men, ancient Romans, rogue Nazis, lost survivors of Atlantis, and pretty much anything else ERB could think up. The books spawned innumerable plagiarisms, movies, plays, TV shows, and comic books, so it’s perhaps natural that the virtues of the original would get lost in the noise. This neat reprint by Fall River Press (cover artist Daryl Mandryk, while paying winking homage to the dreadlocked Tarzan of the recent Disney movie, gives us a beefier and grittier Ape Man than has been the norm – this cover is the best the book has had since the great Neal Adams did one decades ago) encourages readers to go back to the source and revel in the exuberantly quasi-mythological tone Burroughs brings to his character’s origins:
Often they hunted him, and more often he hunted them, but though they never quite reached him with those cruel, sharp claws of theirs, yet there were times when one could scarce have passed a thick leaf between their talons and his smooth hide.
Quick was Sabor, the lioness, and quick were Numa and Sheeta, but Tarzan of the Apes was lightning.
“None in all the jungle may face Tarzan of the Apes in battle – and live,” we’re assured at one point, but of course the heart of the novel is love, not war: Tarzan becomes enraptured of the first white woman he sees, Jane Porter, and fate eventually brings them together in the deep woods … of Wisconsin.There are improbably chases, heart-tugging conflicts – Jane is promised to another – a situation ape-reared Tarzan, to put it mildly, fails to understand – a rousing climax, and a surprisingly bittersweet ending (the novel’s last line is an adept little masterpiece of the bittersweet). And threaded all throughout the narrative is the contention that Tarzan is the natural man, unspoiled by civilization and therefore superior to it. At one point, back in Africa, he re-enters the jungle that was once his home:
Tarzan had no sooner entered the jungle than he took to the trees, and it was with a feeling of exultant freedom that he swung once more through the forest branches.
This was life! Ah, how he loved it! Civilization held nothing like this in its narrow and circumscribed sphere, hemmed in by restrictions and conventionalities. Even clothes were a hindrance and a nuisance.
This was life! Burroughs’ readers responded to that call in great multitudes. They still do. And until we’re all allowed back into the Garden of Eden, we always will.