Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tarzan Of The Apes - Edgar Rice Burroughs

 I'm sure the name Tarzan needs no introduction! I stumbled across this, the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs's 24 Tarzan novels, in my library last week. I wasn't really looking as such, and the title just sort of leaped out at me as I passed the B section! Suffice to say I grabbed it and read its 241 pages in two nights. Of course Tarzan spawned any number of film adaptations over the years. In the process he has become iconic cultural figure.

 Born in Chicago in 1875 Edgar Rice Burroughs initially attended several military academy's, but failed the entrance exam to Westpoint. He instead ended up enlisted in a cavalry unit in Arizona, but was later discharged due to a heart problem in 1897. He spent the next few years drifting from one aimless job to another. It was during this time he started to read the then very cheap, readily available, pulp fiction magazines of the period.

A very typical cover.
 These were inexpensive fiction magazines published for about 50 years, from the late 19th Century, into the early 1950's. As such they provided cheap entertainment to the working classes of the times. They were typically seven inches by by ten inches and 128 pages long. The term 'pulp' came from the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed. Magazines printed on better quality paper were called 'slicks' or 'glossies'. The 'pulp' magazines were the successors to the 'penny dreadfuls' and were initially priced at 10 cents ( 'slicks' being 25 cents ). Many respected writers wrote for 'pulp's', but they are best remembered for their lurid and exploitive stories, and sensational cover art. They often featured illustrated novel length stories of heroic characters. The modern super hero comics are considered descendants of these 'pulp heros'.

 After reading these stories Burroughs thought to himself  "....if people are paid for writing such rot as I read in some of those magazines, then I could write stories just as rotten". His first story was entitled Under the Moons of Mars and was published in All-story Magazine in 1912 as a serial. He was paid the princely sum of $400 ( approximately $9000 today!! ). By the time Under the Moons of Mars had finished, he had written two novels, including Tarzan of the Apes. It was first serialised in October of 1912, and first published in book form in 1914. In the process Tarzan became his biggest seller in a writing career that encompassed sci-fi, historical fiction, westerns, etc.

 Tarzan quickly became a sensation and Burroughs became determined to capitalise on this. He planned to exploit Tarzan through comic strips, movies and merchandise. Remember this is before the era of movie tie ins, with the subsequent merchandising we see today. Burroughs was very much a man ahead of his time, even when he was advised against such an undertaking. Hence Tarzan is still hugely popular and successful to this day.

 Interestingly in 1915 or 1919 Burroughs purchased a ranch north of Los Angles, California, which he named "Tarzana". As a community grew around it the citizens in 1927 or 1928 formally voted to adopt the name for the town!! Burroughs went on to form his own company in 1923, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. and began printing his own books. He was living in Hawaii at the time of Pearl Harbour, and despite being in his sixties, applied to become a war correspondent. His request was granted and he was one of the oldest US correspondents of the war. After the war he returned to Encino, California, where he died in 1950 from a heart attack, aged 74. He had written over 70 novels, and has had a crater on Mars named in his honour, Burroughs Crater. 

 So what about the novel?? Well it sure is 'pulp fiction'!!! Burroughs sure took to the idea of writing 'rotten' stories'!! But no seriously Tarzan isn't rotten, it is more extremely dated, with a total lack of factual accuracies. For instance in the novel Burroughs has Tarzan facing a Tiger, which of course are not found in Africa! Also Tarzan throws around coconuts and pineapples, which again are not found in the jungles of West Africa!! And Tarzan kills several Lions, which again are not native to the jungles of Africa!! But this was cheap, quick writing for the masses, so such things were unimportant, and yet to me quite laughable.

 Overall as a novel Tarzan of the Apes is completely implausible. It has dated very, very badly I'm afraid. Yet it is still worth reading. Burroughs was actually an accomplished writer, and the novel is a genuine piece of literature. Whilst the implausibilities stretched me the writing style was a real joy. But I can't escape the feeling that the novel is a mash up of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, William Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and Johann Davis Wyss' Swiss Family Robinson. Burroughs feels to me to have borrowed very heavily from these novels.

 The novel also incorporates a degree of cliche and racism. I mean all the blacks of the African Jungle are just obviously going to be cannibals.......and they are!! But Burroughs adds in his sentiments of blacks being all but sub-humans. He even goes into how the religion of Islam was to blame for the decline of the Moor's scientific and cultural learning's!! ( pg 122 ). It's absurd stuff and reading it today, post 9/11, it is quite inflammatory stuff. I wonder what he would think now about his sentiments is thiserror'?

 The Frankenstein feel comes from the way Tarzan observes the tribe of blacks that come near his cabin. It felt to me like the scene in Frankenstein where the monster is observing the family, while he is hiding in their wood pile ( or was it their shed? ). Burroughs has Tarzan observe and judge the tribe as Mary Shelly did the family through the monster. The Jungle Book feels comes through in the way Burroughs gives all the creatures names as Kipling did. there is Saboy the Lion and Tabor the Elephant for example. And all the apes he lives with are named. I suppose even Tarzan may have his genesis in Mowgli?!! The Robinson Crusoe feel is obvious since the premise revolves round a stranded couple, who die after the birth of their son. Of course this goes for The Swiss Family Robinson, which I thought was an absurd book that took implausibility way too far. Sure it is kids book, but even so!!

 But for all the implausibility Tarzan is still worth reading. It can be a hard slog, especially when you have to buy into Tarzan teaching himself to read, just from the few children's book he finds! But if you realise the 'pulp' background of Tarzan the novel is somewhat more digestible. It wasn't written as a serious novel but as a cheap, easy piece of escapism. To my modern senses it was still difficult to take at times, but i still recommend you read the novel none the less. I mean like so many well known characters our perceptions of them have been shaped by film. The Tarzan story is not the one we think we know unless we read the original source. I found this out with reading Ian Fleming's Bond novels.

 Dated, implausible, but still a recommended, easy read. If anything just to get the 'real' Tarzan story. Oh and if you are wondering, 'Tarzan' translates as 'White Skin' in ape language, of which Tarzan speaks in throughout the novel!

Click here for a website by Edgar Rice Burroughs' late nephew. It is very thorough and goes into greater depth about his writing of the Tarzan novels:

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