Last night I finished reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes for the first time. I’ve had the paperback for years, but never read it. Now that I have … wow. Where to begin talking about it? First, I enjoyed the hell out of it. But, that is despite some major, major disagreements with one of Burroughs’ main points.
The writing is mostly very good and quite engaging. The only real complaint I have there is that I didn’t need to be reminded that Sabor was a lioness every time her name was mentioned. Same for the other animals.
My problem is that the book requires too large a leap of faith. I can buy the human baby raised by the apes. What I can’t buy is Tarzan, raised by the apes with absolutely no human contact for at least 20 of his formative years — all the years he remembers — teaching himself to read English. How does he do this? According to Burroughs, it is because Tarzan’s innate breeding as an English nobleman makes him superior to the apes, and most men. To you, sir, I cry, “Bullshit!” His human brain makes him superior to the apes, fine. But his breeding as a nobleman means nothing.
Burroughs seemed to be in love with Victorian ideas of classism, and civilization in general. Ironically, he was writing shortly after the Victorian period, while realists like Jack London were growing in popularity; the success of his Tarzan books would be a little puzzling in that regard if not for the fact they were initially pulp adventure stories. In his defense, Burroughs wasn’t the first to fall back on this sort of idea. Mary Shelly did it in Frankenstein when Victor’s creation taught himself to communicate by learning to read Paradise Lost. I didn’t believe that, either. It’s an obvious plot device put there so the character in question can communicate with other characters. It’s a crutch with neon lights saying, “Look at me, I’m a crutch!”
Put me firmly in the camp of authors like London and Robert E. Howard. Man’s natural state is savage. Civilization is not natural. It’s a cultural box we lock ourselves into and have to be forced to accept. Compare, for example, London’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Both are short books, but it takes almost double the pages for White Fang to become civilized compared to the time it takes for Buck to become wild. Howard was a firm believer in the idea that civilization will always fall, eventually, to barbarism. This is the basic idea behind most zombie movies, too; the civilized people in Night of the Living Dead can’t function together and are overcome by the zombies (or rednecks, in Ben’s case).
The only book where I’ve seen the idea of innate non-barbaric tendencies handled well was in Pierre Boulle’s novel The Planet of the Apes, and even there it was nothing as sophisticated as Burroughs’ idea of noble breeding, but simply a species memory of dominance found in the brains of humans.
So, Tarzan is a case where the movies based on the novels are actually more believable than the source material. At least to a point. Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan’s elephant-driven elevator and bamboo plumbing are pushing it a little. Well, scratch that. The elevator is as believable as Tarzan leaving the jungle and within a few months driving a French car across Wisconsin in search of Jane. However, despite the flaws, Burroughs’ novel was very entertaining and I look forward to reading all the rest of the Tarzan books.
I’m sure this has been hashed over by long-time Tarzan fans and people with Ph.D.’s, but I don’t care to look up their theses and papers. If you want to reply with links to show I’m right (or -GASP- wrong), feel free to do so.
And lastly, let’s tie this into my own books. What does Ulrik offer Shara? The chance to shed her civilized life and return to a savage state through the Gift of lycanthropy. To become a wolf, they first remove their clothes, something Burroughs acknowledges as a symbol of human civilization. When their time as a wolf is over, they must find and don clothes, once more forcing themselves to accept the confines of society. Which state do most of my werewolves prefer? If you can’t answer that, you haven’t been reading my books. For shame!