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Tarzan of the Apes ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (56)

There are certain books and authors that have an inordinate impact on our lives. Often as not, their particular significance to us as individuals extends far beyond that which they would have to anyone else and sometimes, if we return to them at a different point in our own lives, it can be hard to recapture why they should have seemed so momentous in the first place.  One of the authors who really turned me into a reader was Edgar Rice Burroughs and I am ecstatic to find that his books are just as terrific in real life as they are in boyhood memories.

I still vividly recall the cover of Tarzan and the Ant Men, a book which I read and reread in around 5th or 6th grade.  It was one of those cheesy 50 cent paperbacks (now they would cost you at least $5.99) and it featured the Lord of the Jungle surrounded by spear wielding pygmies,  It was just so ripe with the promise of adventure that, to this day, I can not imagine a human being gazing upon its glory and not being consumed by a desire to read the book.   And once you read one, you were faced with a plethora of riches.  There are 26 Tarzan novels and myriad movies; plus there was an excellent comic book version and a Saturday morning cartoon at that point.  Then there were Burroughs's other series, my particular favorites being the Pellucidar books and John Carter, Warlord of Mars.  You could practically read nothing but Burroughs and go for years before having to start rereading stuff.  But, of course, the great thing about getting a kid hooked on reading is that one author leads to another.  Soon I was mowing down Jules Verne books (see review of Around the World in Eighty Days) and the adventures of Doc Savage, The Avenger, The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, etc., not to mention Tolkein and C.S. Lewis (see review of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe).

So imagine my pleasure when I found this old Ballantine Books paperback of Tarzan of the Apes, with a cover by Neal Adams showing an enraged Tarzan racing towards a screeching great ape who is grasping a seductively disheveled Jane by her flowing blonde locks.  It's amazing, you haven't read a word yet and already your pulse is racing.  Then open the book and, wonder of wonders, it's every bit as thrilling and wonderful as I remembered it.  Shipwrecks, mutinies, buried treasure, lion attacks, hostile tribesmen, and most of all the ape pack and the herculean efforts of one lost little boy to survive in the forbidding wilds of Africa--what more could a reader want in a book?

Tarzan is one of a small group of fictional characters--the others being Frankenstein, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes--created in the last 200 years who have acquired lives of their own, far outlasting their creators to be constantly reprised and reimagined.  If we examine this quartet, they are united by one central theme; each represents man's desire to in some way control nature.  Frankenstein is, of course, an expression of our aspiration towards godhood (see Orrin's review), the dream of creating life.  Dracula expresses the desire to escape death and achieve immortality.  Holmes embodies our hope that pure reason will yield the solutions to life's mysteries.  And Tarzan, in all his Darwinian glory, is an assertion of the inevitability that it would be man who rose to the top of the evolutionary totem pole.  Each, thus, strikes a chord deep in our being.  But what makes them transcendent and fascinating, generation after generation, is the element of uncertainty that each contains.  Frankenstein is obviously an experiment run amok.  Dracula's immortality comes at an unbearable price.  Holmes's hyper-rational mind requires the stimulation of drugs to battle boredom.  And Tarzan is trapped uneasily between the civilized and the savage worlds.  In this context he implicates two issues, one obvious--man's control over nature, the other less so--the effect of civilization on mankind.

As to the first issue, I was pleasantly surprised at the recent Disney version of Tarzan.  In light of films like Pocahontas and Lion King, I just expected it to be politically correct pabulum.  That implicit message of Tarzan--that man naturally and rightfully rules nature, disposing of its bounty at his will--is so anathema to the environmentalist hegemony of our times that you sort of had to assume that Disney would eviscerate the story.  They did alter it substantially, particularly by not having Tarzan fight Kerchak to become leader of the ape pack, but they left enough of the basic tale intact to satisfy all but the most fanatic ERBites.  And, at the end of the day, you can argue about the propriety of man controlling the environment and exploiting nature, but it is pretty hard to argue against the power of Burrough's metaphorical image of the youthful human Tarzan becoming the Lord of the Jungle.  Simply taken as a cultural symbol, Tarzan is fascinating, a modern myth comparable to any ancient one.

On the second issue, Tarzan's unique upbringing and his very role as the hero of these books along with the helplessness displayed by "civilized" whites when they enter the jungle, raises the question of whether civilization is simply a veneer which we could drop if necessary (as London implies in Call of the Wild [see review] and The Sea Wolf [see review]) or whether civilization strips away something primal and valuable in our natures.  In a famous essay on the Tarzan books, Gore Vidal asserts that:

    a good many people find their lives so unsatisfactory that they go right on year after year telling
    themselves stories in which they are able to dominate their environment in a way that is not possible
    in this overorganized society

His snitty point is about domination and what losers the readers of these books must be (of course, he more than likely spent his closeted youth reading Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and look how he turned out), but it is the "overorganized society" part of this comment that is the most interesting, obliquely pointing out the subtext of the weakening influence of modern society on mankind.  If we accept Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest--which we will for the sake of this discussion--then what happens when the threats to our survival are removed, or at the very least reduced?  Tarzan suggests the possibility that the pressures of the fight for survival forge a stronger man than the advances of modern civilization can hope to compete with.

It is with this perspective that we can perceive the irony that Tarzan--the son of an English Lord, raised in Africa--is the quintessential American hero.  Embodying the elements of rugged individualism and self-reliance, he is an archetype in the tradition of Natty Bumpo.  It is no surprise then that this series of books is probably the most successful and popular in all of American Literature.

But enough analysis.  The important thing about these books is that they are genuinely exciting and are enormous fun to read.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica: Your search: "edgar rice burroughs"
    -Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)(kirjasto)
    -Edgar Rice Burroughs (Most Web)
    -TIMELINE: Tarzan Alive  A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke (Philip José Farmer)
    -ETEXTS: Online Literature Library - Edgar Rice Burroughs
    -ETEXT: Tarzan of the Apes
    -ANNOTATED ETEXTS: Edgar Rice Burroughs (Self Knowledge)
    -WEBRING: ERB Ring Home page. This ring is a collection of Web sites dedicated to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
    -ERBzine: Weekly Online Fanzine
    -CHAT: Talk About Edgar Rice Burroughs:   A Guide To ERB Discussion On the Web (Xenite)
    -LINKS: Tarzan of the Internet
    -REVIEW: of  TARZAN FOREVER The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan. By John Taliaferro (David Traxel, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   TARZAN FOREVER: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan. By John Taliaferro (BARBARA LISS, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: Edgar Z. Friedenberg: Patriotic Gore, NY Review of Books
        Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship by Gore Vidal
    -ESSAY: Jungle Love: Tarzan Still Swings (STEPHANIE ZACHAREK, Salon)
    -ESSAY: ME JANE: YOU TARZAN! - A Case of Mistaken Identity in Paradise (Barbara Creed, Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture)
    -ESSAY: Taking Tarzan Seriously  (Marianna Torgovnick, Georgetown)
    -ESSAY: BATMAN AT MIDLIFE: OR THE FUNNIES GROW UP (Mordecai Richler, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY:  DARWIN AND THE EVOLUTION OF FICTION (George Levine, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: D'Artagnan on Ninth Street: A Brooklyn Boy at the Library  (Peter Hamill, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: 'I'M A SUCKER FOR HERO WORSHIP'  (Jerry Griswold, NY Times Book Review)

    -Tarzan Movie Guide
    -Disney's Tarzan