Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: The Return of Tarzan


I'll just skip to the review.

Following his decision to allow Jane Porter to live happily ever after with his cousin, Tarzan sails to France and immediately finds himself an enemy in the form of Nikolas Rockoff, a Russian spy whose schemes-including blackmailing his own sister Olga and her husband, the Count De Coude over a past indiscretion-are foiled by Tarzan. But after almost being killed by De Coude after being framed for having an affair with the Countess (which gets resolved for everyone involved), Tarzan happily leaves Paris on an assignment. But Rockoff is in pursuit, determined to get his revenge. Along the way Tarzan befriends an Arab Kadour ben Saden and his daughter, meets Miss Hazel Strong on a ship, is tossed overboard by Rockoff, finds himself back in the jungle he calls home and gets adopted by the Waziri, a brave tribe that welcomes Tarzan after he saves one of their own. Meanwhile, Jane is having conscience attacks over his upcoming marriage to William Cecil Clayton and keeps putting it off. Eventually a year long trip on the ship the Lady Alice becomes a nightmare when it sinks and she finds herself on a raft with Clayton and Rockoff. Eventually things finally come together as Tarzan and Jane are reunited. That and a trip to Opar and our first introduction to the one and only La...

Back during the release of John Carter, one constant defense for the film's many changes was that Edgar Rice Burroughs' work was episodic, jumping from one event after another without the streamlined narrative that apparently Hollywood and audiences demand (even though they don't seem to care that Harry Potter is extremely episodic). I never felt that way concerning A Princess of Mars because it always had what I felt was forward momentum but after reading The Return of Tarzan I'll concede that this one takes the episodic form to the limit. Jumping from Paris to Africa to Opar, Burroughs has a lot of story going on here and sometimes it just seems there is too much story. Part of that is attributed to the introduction of Rockoff and his various schemes that never seem to work out for him. Coming from the Snidely Whiplash school, Rockoff never really takes off for me as a threat, spending most of his time cackling about how he'll get revenge on Tarzan and then cowering whenever there is a face to face confrontation.

That said it is interesting to look at The Return of Tarzan as a reverse of the first book. Starting out in civilization and then returning to the jungle, Burroughs reveals more about the inner workings of his character. There is an almost child like sense of right or wrong in Tarzan's world view in the opening chapters that eventually gives way to a bitter truth-that civilized man is more dangerous and evil than the beasts of the jungle. Finding acceptance among the Waziri-which for all the complaints of racism in these books are portrayed in a more respectful way than the cannibal tribe in Tarzan of the Apes-Tarzan finds comfort only for that almost to be destroyed in one of the most vivid passages of the book-finding Jane and Clayton in an embrace Tarzan becomes consumed with jealousy and comes close to ending the life of the man who has taken virtually everything from him-until he realizes that he allowed this to happen by not stepping forward and deciding that Jane is better off without him. By the end they end up together-the old love conquers all motif is present-and it shows someone ready to throw off childish behavior and growing up. The jungle is a fantasy land-Tarzan's own OZ or Wonderland or Barsoom-and at the end he accepts grown up responsibility. I'm probably misreading this but that's my own interpretation of it.

Of course let's not forget La. At this point I'm sure you'll find that a vast majority of ERB fans will site La as the best female character in the entire Tarzan series, even over Jane (who in this one does end up living up to the stereotype view of the character as she swoons a lot). Not introduced until chapter 20 La emerges as an interesting character in the series-especially in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar-as she is presented as a woman of power who at the same time has a human side in her love-and rejection of that love-for Tarzan.

As a novel, The Return of Tarzan is a compelling companion piece to Tarzan of the Apes in how it presents the hero's quest and his eventual triumph. It may not be as well written as the first one or filled with the imagination of some of the later books but it still delivers a fun read so if you haven't read it or it has been awhile take another look. Rating ***1/2 out of 4.

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