Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tarzan at 100

     Forget Johnny Weissmuller. The literary Tarzan -- whose centenary is being celebrated this year -- was more than the musclebound, monosyllabic, verbless (“Me Tarzan, you Jane”) wild man of the films. As written by Edgar Rice Burroughs  -- a man who knew how to spin a yarn, if not the greatest of writers -- Tarzan (also known as Lord Greystoke, a scion of British nobility) was a brilliant man who wrote and spoke at least three languages: English, French and mangani (the language of the apes or ape-like creatures who raised him in the jungles of Africa after his natural parents' death.)
     Burroughs wrote 24 books about Tarzan, but his real genius was at marketing. Burroughs saw the value of licensing Tarzan for other media -- comic strips, radio, movies --  even going so far as to trademark the name.

Tarzan's first appearance, from

     This year marks the 100th anniversary of Tarzan’s first appearance in the All-Story Magazine, Tarzan of the Apes -- the book begins, “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other” -- which details how his parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, are marooned on the coast of Africa after a mutiny, where they build the cabin where Tarzan is born. Tarzan’s mother dies in childbirth, and his father is killed by a mangani. A female mangani whose own child had just died (she was still carrying the lifeless body with her), takes Tarzan to raise as an ape. Although physically weaker than the apes, his intelligence, coupled with a knife he finds in his father’s cabin, soon makes him a mighty warrior. (On his own he discovers or invents the half-nelson wrestling move.) Also in his parents’ cabin, he finds some children’s books and teaches himself to read them. When a member of a nearby cannibal tribe kills his “mother,” Tarzan takes revenge and acquires his foe’s bow and arrows.
     Eventually Jane turns up with her treasure-seeking father, and she and Tarzan are smitten. Tarzan helps them in various ways, then rescues a French soldier who teaches him how to speak “the language of man.” (In one of Burroughs’ demented but brilliant touches, the soldier teaches him French, so at first Tarzan can speak French but only read English.) Then, together, they follow Jane back to civilization, and find proof that Tarzan is actually the rightful Lord Greystoke. By this point, however, Jane has agreed to marry the current Lord Greystoke, Tarzan’s cousin, and Tarzan realizes that if he takes the title and riches from him, he also takes them from Jane. Nobly, he keeps silent. When asked, “how the devil did you ever get into that bally jungle?” he answers, quietly, “I was born there. My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was.”

     It doesn’t seem like Burroughs originally planned a sequel, let alone 23, but the readers and Burroughs’ editor insisted, and Burroughs -- who wrote to support his family, having failed at every other endeavor he tried -- gave in.

Recent edition of The Return of Tarzan from Fall River
     Perhaps Burroughs’ reluctance explains why The Return of Tarzan is such a mess. It reads like an insane mashup of three or four different books, as Tarzan tries to find his way in the civilized world. Tarzan becomes a spy, is almost seduced, is challenged to a duel and eventually thrown overboard by a man who wants the secret plans he was carrying. Fortunately, Tarzan is close enough to the African coast to swim ashore, where he encounters and becomes chief of an African tribe. Even more fortunately, Jane and her fiance -- along with the man who shoved Tarzan overboard! --! are shipwrecked off the shore of Africa, not very far from Tarzan’s tribe. Meanwhile, Tarzan discovers a lost civilization (the first of many in the series) made up of beautiful women and ape-like men. The high priestess finds Tarzan more attractive than the local specimens, and tries to keep him there as her mate. He escapes, in the process discovering a vast fortune in gold forgotten by the city’s inhabitants. He takes enough to be fabulously wealthy in civilization. By the end of the book, the bad guys are defeated, Tarzan’s identity as Lord Greystoke is revealed, and Tarzan and Jane are reunited and married.
     In the 22 novels that followed, Tarzan and Jane have a son who reaches adulthood by the following book and acquires his own mangani name; encounters a valley filled with dinosaurs and prehistoric men with tails; discovers a Liliputian civilization of tiny “ant men” behind an impenetrable thorn forest; goes on a WWI-era German killing spree when he mistakenly believes they have killed Jane (the Germans still haven’t forgiven Tarzan or Burroughs); visits the earth’s core (interacting with the characters from one of Burroughs’ other series); discovers an immortality formula; and even goes to Hollywood where he applies for the role of Tarzan in a movie, but is rejected (as not the right  type for the role). There are also a series of stories about Tarzan’s childhood, including his first love -- a she-ape (mangani), of course.

  The original and most recent covers for Tarzan Alive

      I read 10 of the first 11 Tarzan novels in my youth, plus Philip Jose Farmer’s marvelous Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke, and many different comic book adaptations. I never cared much for the Johnny Weissmuller films, but I enjoyed the first half of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle (and wondered how the second half would have turned out if screenwriter Robert Towne had been allowed to direct it as originally planned). I was somewhat surprised to find that I also liked Tarzan and the Lost City (1998), which features a Tarzan closer than most to the novel in intelligence and demeanor, a Jane who is more active than usual, and an attempt to bring some of the novel’s mythology (the lost city of the title is Opar, the same city that Tarzan encountered in The Return of Tarzan, albeit now dead but full of magic).  
     Disney also had a decent animated version, and there have been several TV series, including Tarzan: The Epic Adventures that had Tarzan interact with other Burroughs creations.
     If you’re curious about Tarzan and want to honor this American original, Project Gutenberg has the first novel online for free. There have also been several books about Burroughs himself, including Richard Lupoff’s Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure

     New books this year include Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration by Scott Tracy Griffin (Titan Books), scheduled for release on Nov. 20, plus an authorized novel from Jane’s point of view, Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan by Robin Maxwell (Tor Books). New editions of the original novels have also been appearing, including a hardcover edition from the prestigious Library off America (who usually packages the complete novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne, tales of Edgar Allan Poe, etc.).


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