This one has been a long time coming. I am a fan of pulp novels, but I am still catching up on the truly great ones. Such may always be the case, given the sheer number of them out there. Even so, there is a short list of absolute legends that anyone like myself who claims to be a fan needs to read for themselves. Tarzan of the Apes is one of those novels.
I grew up always aware of Tarzan. I think that can be said for pretty much anyone. He’s one of the most recognizable characters on the planet because his story is told and retold, and ever will be for as long as stories are told. Growing up, I had the old 1940s Johnny Weissmuller films and the TV series from 1966 always playing on reruns. These were pretty standard for their day, and they set many of the stereotypes we think we know about Tarzan, but neither truly honored the story. We’re getting closer all the time, with 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, 1999’s Disney adaptation, and 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan. To my mind, these three versions are about as close as it comes to the spirit of the original. But the more the source material is mined, the more it needs to be known for what it is… and for what it is not.
The basic plot is as follows. Lord and Lady Greystoke are passengers aboard a ship where mutiny is the name of the game, and they are stranded on the African coast with assurance that help will be sent for. Lord Greystoke knows better, and he plans for the long haul. Despite the comforts he is able to provide for his wife and eventually his newborn son, both adults fall prey to the jungle’s native denizens. The infant is spared by the protective motherly instincts of Kala, an ape who suffers from the loss of her own child. Growing up amidst the apes, Tarzan has to adapt to the jungle and its beasts, using the tools and gifts he has merely to survive, let alone to thrive.
Because he is different, he is resented and tested by other apes. Because he lives as one of them, he learns from them and protects them from other threats, such as Sabor the lioness or the native tribes he encounters. All the while, he learns about himself and his people through books left behind at the cabin his father built, growing to straddle the line between ape and man, and ultimately becoming perhaps greater than either one. That is what pulp heroes do, after all. When he finally encounters people like himself, he must distinguish between friend and foe and learn how to adapt to his greatest challenge: his love for a woman.
Tarzan is truly one of the most impressive characters ever created by the pen of man, not because of his marketability, but because of what he represents. He is the pinnacle of everything we as a species can be, both in his own time and in the present day. He is the master of all he surveys because he earned it. At all turns he fought to survive. He’s loyal to those who helped him, and he helps those who are loyal to him. He understands and exemplifies both the natural “law of the jungle” and the “civilized” world of man, with a foot in each world. His nobility is not only his birthright. It is forged in blood, sweat, and bone. Burroughs tells of a man who uses his brains and agility as greater assets alongside those of brute strength or simple weapons such as a knife or a rope. He makes human mistakes, and he learns from them to adapt to his surroundings and situations. He has the ambition to learn more, and thanks to materials left behind by his dead father, he was able to teach himself how to read and write both English and French. He has a sense of humor, but not a sense of belonging. He is able to adapt to culture, but he can never truly blend in. In other words, he stands out for all of the right reasons. He lives on in our collective consciousness as part of the great canon of literature. Not bad for a pulp novel.
But it’s still a pulp novel, and that means that when held for scrutiny under the magnifying glass of greatness, it will still be found wanting. As a product of its time, some of the language and racial portrayals will come across as stereotyped, especially by the standards of over a century hence. Our modern sensibilities have reinforced this idea that we should be embarrassed by such things, but when taken at face value and seen for what it truly is, there’s really not much to be embarrassed about, save for one character who constantly faints in the presence of danger. How she stayed conscious long enough to spout some of the worst dialogue in the novel is truly beyond me. I speak of Jane’s companion, Esmeralda, who is probably written to be comic relief, but it backfires as a result of its insensitivity because we’ve more or less evolved past such things… or so we tell ourselves. The native African tribes people are portrayed perhaps stereotypically as well as noble savages, superstitious, but strong and crafty. No less stereotypical are the white men who are brutal, underhanded, and essentially give pirates their well-deserved reputations as cutthroats, thieves, and mercenaries. Both parties serve as threats to be overcome, to be compared and contrasted, and to give Tarzan something to challenge him. So really, if anyone wants to point fingers, a fair assessment has to be given. Only our core characters, who either hail from noble upbringing or scholarly backgrounds or who happen to be jungle animals, are really given any dimensionality because these are the ones Tarzan spends time with and gets to know. You were, perhaps, expecting in-depth character studies from a pulp adventure novel? BWAH-HAHAHAHAHAHA… Riiiiight…
Taken as a whole, ultimately it is important to remember that the nature of pulps are that they are written quickly, often serialized, and were never meant to stand the test of time the way Tarzan has. And yet, Tarzan has stood that test of time, as a character and as a story, even if the prose of the book has not. There’s something, dare I say, primal about this tale that speaks to us at levels that still affect us, but that civilized society has subdued to the point where it comes out only as explosive violence in a manner that we are ill-equipped to understand or handle. A tale like this reminds us of what each of us are capable of achieving, physically, mentally, and even emotionally. It certainly won’t speak to everyone, and a first reading may come across as a bit silly to some. But like the best of literature, it is a story that lingers with us after the tale has ended. That alone is worth the second look and re-evaluation. Courage, strength of mind as well as body, and inner nobility are the traits that make both Tarzan and his tale worthy of being revisited and retold.