Tarzan of the Apes (Burroughs, E., R. 1912)

I loved Tarzan when I was a kid. There are old photos of me reading Tarzan during car rides or just sitting around, reading the stories. I'm not certain if I've read every Tarzan story there is, but I'd imagine I've read the vast majority of them. But the last time I've read any of the books through is closer to 30 years ago.

After re-reading Burroughs's Barsoom series in its entirety, I got the hankering to revisit Tarzan stories as again as well. Surely it would be interesting to see how the stories have fared up, considering how I felt about the Barsoom series after my recent poke at them (spoiler: not all of the are that great). After my Barsoom run it felt like I a had new level of sobriety towards the work of Burroughs: while he was a good writer, not everything he wrote was spectacular or even that good. He had a habit of succumbing into a formulaic form and not deviate from it that much in good and in bad. So that in mind, it's Tarzan of the Apes.

The story begins when lord and lady Greystoke are stranded on a beach in Africa after a crew of the ship they're traveling with mutinies and kills off the officers. As the mutiny leader has taken a liking to the Greystokes their lives are spared, but with the cost of leaving them behind.

Despite the mutineers have promised to send out help for John and Alice Clayton, that help never arrives and as Alice is pregnant, she has a baby boy in a cabin John has built for them.  Year later the couple is dead and that little baby boy is adopted by Kala, a female ape, who has just lost her only child.  This boy becomes Tarzan.

The first part of the story is about the stranded Greystokes, trying to survive the hostile environment they're plunged into. The second part is how Tarzan grows up as an adopted son of an ape, unknown of his heritage. Tarzan doesn't only learn how to fight, he also teaches himself to read and write after he finds some baby books from the belongings of his long dead parents. In a way his parents are helping him behind the grave, despite Tarzan himself has known only one mother, the giant ape Kala, during his childhood.

The first people Tarzan sees are a tribe of cannibals, who move to the area where his ape tribe roams. From them he learns new valuable skills, after he spies how they use spears and bow and arrows. He never shows himself to the natives and they come to believe that Tarzan is some some kind of an evil forest spirit after he begins to steal arrows from them and in general messing about by playing pranks at their expense as well as killing them on an occasion if a need arises. During this time he also manages to become a king of his tribe. But as he's so much wiser than his tribe, he soon notices that he longs something more of his life, namely the companionship of other people, so when an opportunity knocks, he resigns and returns to the cabin of his parents.

As a stroke of luck, when he arrives, Tarzan sees how an another party is escorted to his cabin, among which is Jane Porter and William Clayton, Tarzan's cousin. They are also stranded there, after there was a mutiny at their ship (talk about bad luck among the Greystoke family). Long story short, from this point Tarzan keeps saving the first white people he's ever seen and provides food for them, despite he rarely shows himself to them.

Later on, the new party is luckier than John and Alice, when a French military vessel happens upon them, so they're rescued. Tarzan on the other hand has to nurse after a French officer D'Arnot whom he saves from the cannibals. During this time Tarzan finally learns how to speak, but in French, so now he's an Englishman, who knows how the read and write in English, but only speak in French.

Together Tarzan and D'Arnot travel to civilization, as Tarzan is determined to go after Jane, whom he's fallen in love with. D'Arnot on the other hand is determined to solve the mystery of Tarzan's birth and at the same time he teaches him to behave in a more civilized manner.

Tarzan of the Apes doesn't have a happy ending though. When Tarzan arrives to America to see Jane, he learns that she's to be wed to a man her father is indebted to because of expedition they were on in Africa.  Luckily Tarzan has managed to take care of that debt, but Jane, unsure of her feelings towards Tarzan, decides to marry William Clayton instead, as she believes the short moment they had in Africa might not have been real but just a heat of the moment. And thus ends the first tale of the ape man, with a sad note.

I can clearly see why I liked Tarzan so much when I was a kid: it simply is an entertaining and adventurous story of a man, who's taken out from the society and thrown into the wild, where he learns to survive. Tarzan himself is a superhero, a man, who's stronger and more clever than anyone else, but also smart enough to learn how to read all by himself only with a help of a  couple of children's books as well as a dictionary. He also is an honourable man, whom every good man looks up to and whom women swoon over.

Not so surprisingly I had forgotten quite a bit of the story since my last read. While I did recall the overall gist of it, I had forgotten, that for an example the cabin John Clayton build was done on the ground and not in the trees. And that Tarzan hunted by using a lasso as well as poisoned arrows he stole from the cannibal tribe. The final confrontation with Jane in America was also a thing I had largely forgotten, especially her shotgun marriage situation and the whole of the golden treasure sub plot.

Then there's the charcaters themselves I had forgotten a good deal about. The biggest one being the father of Jane Porter, Archimedes Porter and his collegue Philander who both work merely as comedic side kicks into an amount, which feels overly execssive. The same can be said about Esmeralda, overweight servant woman of the Porters, who's not only a comedic side character, but also a pretty thinly written racial caricature of a black woman.

But, is Tarzan of the Apes really a good story? I mean, it's fun an all, but in the end, it's not really a grand piece of literature, even in the pulp standard, nor it is really even a great story in comparison to other Burroughs's stories. What really brings it down is, that it feels very much like Burroughs going through motions he knew people were expecting to see in a story about a wild man. It's a story where we see glimpses of Tarzan growing up at first to be a king of the apes, then later in a thinly civilized man among his peers. It never does manage to feel like a well planned story, especially when it gets closer to civilization, where in tends to feel like Burroughs was running out of pages, so he just kept fast forwarding things until he got to a conclusions. Burroughs also has a bad habit of creating tropes and clinging on them. In TotA one trope is lions, whom try to kill pretty much everyone who happens to enter in the jungle.

From a modern perspective it's pretty easy to poke holes in the  story, like how lions are described or how Tarzan just manages to battle animals much stronger than he is. But then again Tarzan isn't the kind of a story that should be taken too seriously, as it is in the end just a piece of pulp entertainment. Then again, even if you can overlook some aspects of Tarzan, there's some that could be a bit harder to overlook, especially form a modern point of view, the biggest being how black people are described in the story: they're savage and cruel people whom Tarzan sees to be below himself, even lower than the apes.

As I said though, I do think Tarzan of the Apes is still a fun enough read. If you adjust your mind set accordingly, it's an easy story to read, despite it's not necessarily the greatest piece ever written. It's successful in fleshing out the character of Tarzan and unlike in Burroughs's Barsoom series even the women manage to be a bit more than just tropes. Not by much, but Jane does manage to have something of personality. Again though, if you like it or not depends quite a bit from if you already like pulp literature or not. Otherwise it might be just a tad too much, especially considering that as a story it's not the greatest ever written.

If you want Tarzan of the Apes it's easy enough to obtain in e-book format in various collections, or as a real book. Also, as it has fallen into public domain ages ago, there's free versions of it floating around. So there's plenty of choises, if you so desire.


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