There can be no doubt that Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) ranks among the most influential contributors to the modern genre of science fiction and fantasy fiction, right alongside J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. His Tarzan character alone has starred not only in twenty-six novel by Burroughs’s own pen, but also numerous writings by other authors, comic books, and over 200 movies; he has been declared the second-most recurring cinematic character (Dracula being the very first). And that’s not even mentioning similar characters created both by Burroughs himself and legions of emulators throughout the century. My own “jungle girl” heroines draw heavily on archetypes crafted by Burroughs, so it’s only fitting that I take a look at the ultimate source of my inspiration. Plus, the Disney adaptation was my favorite animated movie growing up.
So how does Tarzan’s debut, in Tarzan of the Apes, stack up in my humble opinion?
If you, like me, were first introduced to the character through his Disney adaptation, I must warn you that the original Burroughs novel is extremely different in storyline and spirit. The general idea of an orphaned European baby being adopted by apes and growing up into a vine-swinging, feline-fighting hero in a loincloth is there, but the similarities go little further than those. For starters, Tarzan’s foster family are not predominantly vegetarian gorillas, but a more violent and carnivorous, fictional species called the Mangani. It is their leader Kerchak, not a leopard, who kills Tarzan’s human parents. And while Tarzan’s foster mother Kala is portrayed as a loving and nurturing mother, after her death Tarzan feels so little connection with the other Mangani that he cuts all ties with them and runs off on his own. The Burroughs novel is decidedly not a story about Tarzan’s search for acceptance among his family.
Nor it is a rebuke of industrial-era attitudes towards the natural world and its inhabitants, with Tarzan defending his jungle home from poachers. Far from it; Tarzan himself is said to occasionally hunt for sport by virtue of his human nature, and violence characterizes most of his described interactions with Congolese wildlife (only the elephants are considered his allies). His relationship with nature is portrayed as one of constant antagonism, in keeping with the early 20th-century Western perception of nature as something for “civilized” humanity to struggle against and dominate.
Indeed, that Tarzan of the Apes is a product of its time is inescapable as you read through it. Since he wouldn’t have had our access to modern zoological knowledge, Burroughs populates his Congolese rainforest with animals from different habitats all over the African continent; in an early draft, “Sabor” meant not a female lion but a tiger, since Burroughs didn’t even know tigers were not native to Africa! That his characterization of the local Congolese community as hideous and savage cannibals is similarly caricatured should neither surprise nor comfort anyone. Perhaps the most egregious scenes featuring the Congolese characters are the ones where Tarzan habitually strangles their warriors with a makeshift rope. Given Burroughs’s American nationality and the date of publication (1912), I can’t help but worry he might have been aware of a certain then-current trend associating men of African descent with ropes.
To be fair, there are limits to Burroughs’s racist and Hobbesian-influenced prejudices. He voices too much criticism of European imperialism, even declaring it even crueler that his caricatured Congolese, to be labeled a champion of the “white man’s burden”. And for all that he views the jungle environment through a bloody red-tinted lens, Burroughs through Tarzan’s point of view claims that “civilized” human beings could behave even worse than its native predators! There can be no denying Burroughs was racist, and you don’t need to be “politically correct” to find his industrial-era depiction of African people insulting. But if nothing else, seeing those limits in his ethnocentrism is at least a slight consolation for me as a modern reader.
So far I’ve been very critical of Tarzan of the Apes, but I want to conclude on the most positive aspects. For all that he drew on stereotypes on Africa and its inhabitants, Burroughs undoubtedly had a vivid imagination that helped him build his own world even on that dubious foundation. As mentioned earlier, the Mangani apes who raised Tarzan are his own creation, and he even created an original vocabulary for them that named the creatures in their world (e.g. Tantor for elephant, Sabor for lioness, Numa for male lions, and so forth). In later novels Burroughs would embellish Tarzan’s Africa with even more original creations such as various lost cities, carnivorous ceratopsians, and monkey-like humanoids, among others. And then of course, the concept of Tarzan himself as an athletic superhero moving through the jungle with acrobat-like agility is an awesome evolution of the “feral child” trope if there ever was one. For a man who claimed not to be a good writer and to have gotten into the writing business out of economic opportunism, Burroughs possessive a genuine creativity unexpected for a hack peddler of “such rot”.
As for the writing style, Burroughs does tend to be excessively long-winded at times, so fans of “tighter” modern writing would regard his prose as deep purple. But personally I found most of it decently penetrable, and certainly rich in descriptive detail. And while the omniscient narrative viewpoint might not be in fashion anymore, I think it worked best in the scenes when young Tarzan discovers his parents’ makeshift cabin. The omniscient perspective gives us a perfect look both at how Tarzan perceives the strange things in that cabin and what they really are. Say what you will about a kid teaching himself to read without adult supervision, I have to say I liked Burroughs’s likening of text on a page to bugs on a leaf from Tarzan’s point of view.
In conclusion, even though Tarzan of the Apes shows its great industrial-era age through its portrayal and characterization of the Congolese environment and inhabitants, it still shows a strong imagination on the writer’s part as well as certain limits on his racism. So while it may not be my favorite book, neither is it irredeemably terrible “rot”. I’d give it 3/5.