Thursday, August 16, 2012

Book Review: Tarzan of the Apes

With its 100th anniversary coming up-and having read it in one day-here's my take on the original classic.

Following a violent mutiny John Clayton, also known as Lord Greystoke and his wife Alice are left to fend for themselves on the coast of Africa. After giving birth to a baby boy, Alice dies and John is soon killed by an ape Kerchak. The baby survives though-nursed and raised by the female ape Kala-and is named Tarzan. While growing up in his new surroundings, Tarzan discovers the beauty and violence of the jungle at the hands of his fellow apes and a cannibal tribe and learns thanks to some left over books in the small cabin his parents built how to read and write. Those skills come in handy when a small band, including his unknown cousin William Cecil Clayton, Professor Archimedes Q. Porter and Porter's daughter Jane, are left by treasure seeking thieves on the same coast. Eventually Tarzan must make a choice-to go to America and the woman he loves or to stay in the jungle.

I know I skipped a lot there but I figure most of you know the plot of Tarzan of the Apes at this point. If not, read the book. Even though it may not be the most "perfect" piece of literature ever written, it is a strong and unique novel that brings more to the table than most of its critics will ever admit.

What I discovered in rereading it is how slow paced the book is. Unlike the later Tarzan novels-or most of his other work-Edgar Rice Burroughs spends most of the book's length developing the character of Tarzan. He is at once embarrassed by is un-ape like appearance; cruel and mischievous in his torment of the natives and his adopted father Tublat; heartbroken when he thinks Jane has rejected him and content to leave the civilized world and return home. There is no grand plot, no Macguffin to chase after-even the treasure that Porter and company are looking for doesn't eat up much of the story-but rather a surprisingly well developed and in some cases tender coming of age story of how a boy becomes a man with all of the heartbreak, adventure and emotion that comes with it. I know that sounds silly for what is basically a "pulp" story but there is enough there to cause it to raise above its pulp origins.

The other surprise was the character of Jane Porter. The stereotype view of Jane is that she's nothing more than a damsel in distress, a piece of eye candy for the hero to rescue and the villains to leer at. And true she's not out there fighting lions-even though she takes a shot at one attempting to enter the cabin she's in-she is not a one dimensional character either. In fact the Jane here is a rather forceful character, arguing about remaining until Tarzan returns and showing backbone to Robert Canler (the closest the novel gets to an actual villain even though Burroughs never brought him back) over being "sold" to him in order to erase her father's debts to Canler. The character would grow in the series, to the point in Tarzan's Quest she can handle the jungle herself without Tarzan, and here she shows the same growth. Granted she does resort to speechifying which seems to be the major fault of most of Burroughs' female characters (Dejah Thoris did it quite a bit in A Princess of Mars) but she isn't just a fainting damsel in distress (most of the fainting is reserved for Esmeralda, her nanny who is here as a rather antiquated piece of ethnic comedy relief).

The book does have its failings though. There is too much of the standard ERB "coincidence" plotting: Tarzan just happens to find the cabin and the locket; there just happens to be a book with his finger prints in it from his childhood; there just happens to be a wildfire to rescue Jane from...But at this point you either accept or go off and read something else. Also some of the stereotypes from the time will make the PC police wince. All I can say for them is you have to remember what time period this was written in and how what was acceptable then wasn't now. After all who knows-in a 100 years people might find Harry Potter offensive.

So with all of that wrote up I admit it isn't the most original review I've written. Nor is it probably the most academic or intelligent. But with Tarzan of the Apes-and most of his work-Edgar Rice Burroughs was aiming for entertainment. And while the later books get more wild-lost civilizations, narrow escapes, that hot and horny High Priestess La-this is still the one to read and think about. It isn't just escapist fiction, its a classic. Rating **** out of 4.


steve davidson said...

MCR - would like to communicate with you but can't find an email address to go through. (Amazing Stories & Barsoom issues)


Anonymous said...

There's nothing here I would say that you got wrong, and just a whole lot you got right.

TotA is the one which would be hardest to make as a movie. I'd say sketch over it in 15 minutes and pick up from when the Porters enter the story. That and Return would make a hum-dinger of a movie.

Or you know, they could always #@$& it up.