Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Review -- Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs


I recently read Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which is in the public domain and is therefore available online for free. The story was originally published in the fall of  1912, and the character has so pervaded American culture that everyone knows who Tarzan is whether they've read the stories or not. I've been doing the Tarzan yell ever since my voice changed in adolescence, but this is the first time I've read even the first Tarzan story.

The century old story holds up well, though it is very much of its own time and with the sensibilities of that time. Tarzan's parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, are marooned by mutineers on the coast of Africa. Lady Greystoke gives birth to a son, John, and both parents die when the child is an infant. He is taken in by an ape bereaved of her own dead infant and raised as an ape. The first part of the story focuses on his life in the jungle living with the apes. He eventually encounters an African tribe, causing him to ponder his difference from the apes that have taken him in.

Obviously, a lot of this is pretty far-fetched even for adventure fiction. Tarzan discovers his parents' cabin and teaches himself to read and write, but not speak, English. Amazingly, his cousin, William Clayton, now Lord Greystoke, is also marooned by mutineers near the cabin with a group that includes Tarzan's famous love interest, Jane Porter. The story gets more far-fetched as it goes along and Tarzan, who saves just about every European in the story from begin eaten by lions, apes or other jungle creatures, saves a French soldier who befriends him and teaches him French. He saves Jane, and they fall in love with each other. Eventually, Tarzan's French friend proves to him that Tarzan is in reality, John Clayton, the real Lord Greystoke. Unfortunately, his cousin is in love with Jane, too, and the story concludes with Tarzan in Wisconsin relinquishing Jane so that she can marry William Clayton, although she does not love him.

One is left with the sense that Tarzan should have gotten the girl and the Lordship, but noble and self-sacrificing, Tarzan is a sad character at the end of the story. Fear not, gentle reader, for Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a bunch of sequels, and a married Tarzan sitting around a manor somewhere in England wouldn't be much fun, now would it?