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recommended for: Sci-fi fans interested in nostalgia.
status: read count: 1
(above) - Tarzan killing yet another of the many, many lions he kills in this book - prompting this reader to ask: "Are there NO OTHER DANGERS in the jungle? Can you at least have Tarzan kill something else? How about a giant snake?"
"Tarzan of the Apes" - By Edgar Rice Burroughs
Since its original publication in 1912, Tarzan remained a cultural phenomenon and iconic hero for the duration of the 20th century.
When I was a kid in the late 70's, I remember watching all the old b/w movies with Johnny Weissmuller on the UHF stations every Sunday morning on "Tarzan Theater." But somehow, I never read this book. So when I saw it for free on "Stanza," I picked it up.
Like a lot of what comes out when writers get paid by the word, "Tarzan of the Apes" is strange mix good writing and bad, of terrific concepts, and uneven execution.
I'll start with the good. First, wow, what a completely awesome idea for character and a story. Throughout the first half of the book, it was very easy to see why Tarzan was a massive hit with tremendous staying power. The most striking part of the narrative for me is the way Burroughs takes a premise that is pretty hard to believe - namely that a human infant could survive being raised by an ape in the jungle long enough to reach "toddler" stage, and makes it believable. He does this by doing what a good writer always does, working his imagination so deeply into the mind of his character, that the reader gets close enough to experiencing the infant's journey themselves to believe it could possibly happen. Little Tarzan, looked upon by all the other apes in his "mother's" tribe as the worst and most useless ape in the jungle - with his lack of fur to protect against the cold, his inability to walk, much less swing from the trees, etc. - is actually pretty funny. And it is clear that if not for the superhuman devotion of adopted mother, Kala, he would have perished almost immediately in her absence at any time during the first few years of his life. But Tarzan's childhood turns out to be a very innovative take on the "ugly duckling."
As Tarzan grows, Burroughs continues with skillful feats of imagination to bring the reader new ideas and perspective. We watch the whole process from the inside as a human being who has never seen another of his kind, who has known nothing other than ape-hood since his first memory, begins to understand that he is different, special, and in many ways, better. Upon finding the old hut, obscured beneath jungle overgrowth, where his human parents had died, new worlds open for Tarzan in a very realistic and human way. He does not have any inkling that this was once his home, even as the skeleton of his mother lay on the bed. To him, it's just another ape skeleton, of which he's seen plenty in the jungle. But it is touching when Tarzan finds the illustrated story books his mother had brought on the perilous journey from England to one day teach her then unborn son to read. And it's also quite fascinating as Burroughs describes the process through which the young Ape-man uses them to teach himself to read English. So when other English speaking people eventually show up, Tarzan can read and write messages for them, but not speak or understand a single word because he had never once heard the language out loud.
Those aspects of the book, and Burroughs' formidable imaginative powers, are great. In many ways they are quite smart. Unfortunately they only account for less than half of the book. There are many problems with the rest of it. For starters, it is a very uneven book. The entire second half, which kicks off when his future love Jane Porter arrives with a boatload of cliche'd characters and situations (absent-minded professors, maps to buried treasure, the aristocratic fiance... and much more...) feels much less crafted than the beginning. In fact, I don't know if Edgar Rice Burroughs had a telephone in 1912, but if he did, I'd swear he was phoning it in.
How many times can you have your Jungle-Man kill a lion and expect people to find it interesting? Well, Tarzan does it quite a lot. Sometime around when the young and more interesting version of Tarzan develops enough skill and cleverness to become leader of the Apes, he kills his first lion. Great. But then a shipment of white people arrive in near constant need of rescuing from lions. Seriously. White man wanders into the jungle, Tarzan kills the lion about to eat him with his bare hands. Next Chapter, Jane about to be eaten by a lion, Tarzan kills it with his bare hands. Next chapter absent minded professor wanders into the jungle - lion, Tarzan, bare hands. After 3 chapters in a row with this (not kidding, its one after another) the reader starts to ask... wtf? Are there NO OTHER DANGERS in the jungle? Can you at least have Tarzan kill something else? How about a giant snake?
Also arriving around the mid-point of the book with all the new white characters we get a second unwelcome theme. Disturbing but probably unintentional racism. I realize that 1912 was a long time ago, and that Burroughs was likely no more racist than many other contemporaries writing for a primarily white audience, but a lot of this book is cringe-worthy for modern readers. Nothing more so than Esmeralda, the ridiculously caricatured female servant of Jane Porter. Without a doubt, Burroughs was going for comic-relief with Esmeralda's many (way too many) scenes. But even if her portrayal wasn't intentionally racist, it was still such a cliche of the bug-eyed, superstitious, easily terrified black servant so often portrayed in the early decades of American cinema... well, I won't go on with this (although the book certainly does), but trust me, even if it doesn't otherwise bother you that her cowardice and incompetence nearly gets Jane killed on more than one occasion (by lions, of course), you would at least find this aspect of the book to be badly written and cliched.
But worse than either of those two points, this book really just falls apart at the end. I won't "spoil" that part for you, but I definitely think it reads like the author suddenly had something better to do with his time and just decided to whip up an implausible and, even more strangely, a completely out of character finish to the story. I found the last 10 pages or so of this book to be its worst ten pages. They read very much like the author stopped giving a damn about it.
So, there you have it. "Tarzan of the Apes" is a pretty interesting read for about half of the book. After that, it becomes an amusing distraction, partially because it starts to get silly with all the bare-hand lion killing and datedly racist attempts at comic relief. Then, toward the very end, it completely falls off a cliff. Recommended for those interested in the origin tales of enormous societal icons (that's why I read it), but not recommended if you are just looking for a great book to read.