Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tarzan of the Apes (Edgar Rice Burroughs)

Tarzan of the Apes
(The Tarzan series, Book 1)
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Adventure/Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The Englishman John Clayton, Lord Greystoke by rank, and his wife thought they were on their way to Africa merely on government business. They never intended to die there. A mutiny aboard their ship left them, abandoned by the sailors, on a remote coast in the midst of an uninhabited swath of wildest jungle. Bad enough that they must wait on the increasingly-dim hopes for rescue, but Lady Alice bears Greystoke's heir - a baby boy doomed to die when the wilderness finally claims his parents. Fate, however, has other plans: as his parents lay dead near his cradle, a nearby mother ape, her own baby freshly deceased, hears his cries. Kala takes the babe to her breast, raising him as her own.
Years later, the child Tarzan grows restless. He knows no mother other than Kala, knows no family but the apes, yet deep down he knows he is something different. Even the savage dark-skinned people, who look so similar, are too different in mind and body for him to understand. Then he spies the strange thing floating upon the waters, from which disembark creatures very like his own reflection... and one, the female Jane Porter, whose beauty and love might lure Tarzan away from the only world he has ever known.

REVIEW: Early on, the book was headed for a higher rating. Tarzan grows up like an African Mowgli, only without the Kipling character's annoyingly selfish pigheadedness. He makes certain intuitive leaps - learning how to read and write English while remaining ignorant of spoken human speech, for instance - that stretch credulity, but overall his jungle adventures were fun to read. Even when the cannibals come, setting up a village in his domain and giving Tarzan his first (unpleasant) taste of humanity, I remained interested; as savage as they were, they, too, were victims of white colonists who drove them from their homeland, leaving them an embittered and degraded people. Then came the Great White Man and the Lady Love, and things started going downhill. Unfair as it is for me to judge Burroughs - who, after all, grew up in such a different world, with such a different set of values and prejudices, that I can hardly fathom it - I found myself choking on the stereotypes and assumptions he rammed down my throat. The idea that noble-born white men have an inherent advantage, ingrained in the blood, over the lessers of their own race, to the point where a boy raised in a savage wilderness by animals instinctively displays gentlemanly behavior and grace the moment the opportunity arises to do so... The ridiculously oblivious and arrogant behavior of Jane's father, Professor Porter, and his well-to-do companions... Jane's persistent helplessness over her own life, let alone her own heart... the shamefully stupid antics of Esmeralda, Jane Porter's black maid, who doesn't even have a cannibal's excuse of growing up in a different world than her white employers... I came close to lopping another half-star off the rating. The story itself clunks and hiccups, grinding its gears as it removes itself from the jungle and returns to civilization. The ending is supposed to be bittersweet, but the only one I really felt sorry for was Tarzan, who seems to have chained his heart to a creature too faint and fickle to do his love justice. Once again, while I'm glad I finally got a chance to read the original story, I find myself preferring more modern interpretations of the iconic Tarzan character.

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