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 Erbzine.com|
|Recent edition of The Return of Tarzan from Fall River|
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.
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.).