Tuesday, October 7, 2014


The image above is that of the first Tarzan paperback I owned. I've a dim memory that prior to this I may have had a hardback version of TARZAN AND THE GOLDEN CITY. I liked the latter quite a bit but somehow it didn't move me to go out and read every Tarzan book available. I bought the paperback because I liked the 1966 Ron Ely teleseries, but I have a dim memory of being disappointed because it wasn't any way like the TV show. Ah, evil publishers, playing on a young boy's vagrant enthusiasms--!

It should go without saying that these days I think a lot more highly of the original 1912 Tarzan story than of any television version. I recently reread both APES and its sequel, RETURN OF TARZAN, and the following thoughts came to me.

Burroughs frequently acknowledges that Black Africans are getting shitty treatment by representatives of European colonialism (American colonialism is not referenced). The original reason that the Claytons, the father and mother of Tarzan, travel to Africa is because John Clayton has been appointed to a post designed to redress "unfair treatment of black British subjects by the officers of a friendly European power." Many chapters later, long after the deaths of the Claytons and Tarzan's adoption by the Great Apes, a tribe of Black Africans moves into the territory of Tarzan's ape-tribe. These natives are explicitly fleeing their mistreatment by Belgians, who have forced them into slave labor.

At the same time, Burroughs was not above a few jabs at superstitious blacks, though the ones he does take are pretty mild. There's no doubt that he plays to the aesthetic preferences of white people from his time period, for in RETURN he describes Tarzan's adopted human tribe the Waziri as not possessing the thick lips and large noses of the average Black African. But then, Burroughs had the habit of conflating moral excellence with physical beauty. Even though he should know that none of Tarzan's ape friends can be held to human standards of beauty, the author can't help describing the hero's adoptive ape-mother Kala as "clean-limbed."

Still, while Burroughs obviously had no knowledge of real African customs and traditions, on balance it's clear that he doesn't hold with the subjugation of the African people. Tarzan becomes allied to the Waziri after he helps them defeat a raiding-party made up of Arabs and other Black Africans. Somehow I can't help thinking that desiring justice for black people is more important than whether Burroughs personally believed that "black could be beautiful."

Back to Tarzan's parents: there's an interesting-- and non-functional-- scene in which the Claytons, having made their home on the edge of the jungle, are surprised by the attack of a hostile ape. The ape runs at Lady Alice, who, fortunately, happens to be armed. She shoots the ape dead, but it manages to blunder into her as it dies. Though Alice is not physically harmed, the trauma causes her to lose her mind, so that she no longer comprehends that she and her husband are stranded in Africa. She expires a few months after successfully delivering a healthy boy, and Clayton's mourning leaves him vulnerable to being killed by another hostile ape. What I find interesting about this scene is that there was no functional reason for Lady Alice to be assaulted and to lose her mind. But the scene does remind me of old wives' tales in which a pregnant mother would be "scared" by some terrifying creature, and would thereafter bear an infant who carried some physical resemblance to the creature, as if it were possible for women to be impregnated through fear. Is it a coincidence, then, that Alice's progeny after being scared by an ape, is a boy who successfully acts the part of an ape?

Burroughs conveniently overlooks a lot of unlikely physical facts: he has Clayton make door-hinges with few tools, and certainly not with a lathe, and little Tarzan, upon discovering pencils in his late parents' cabin, writes interminably without ever needing to sharpen them. The standout is the "earthen drum" that exists in the arena of the ape's dum-dum ceremony. What the "drum" is exactly, Burroughs does not explain; maybe he meant it to be some oversized gourd-plant. Obviously it's there because Burroughs wanted his tribe of anthropoids to dance like "wild Indians," as it were.

Still, the dum-dum ceremony is a brilliant conception. In its first appearance, it's the site to which the Great Apes commit a sort of demi-cannibalism-- which I qualify only because Burroughs tells us that the apes won't eat any of their tribe-brethren, but they will eat apes outside their tribe. One such victim is killed and his meaty parts are separated, but though Tarzan is present, and does try to partake, the reader never sees Tarzan eat ape-meat, for the hero is interrupted and must fight for his life against his nasty foster-father Tublat. Later, upon encountering the first man he ever meets-- the black warrior Kulonga, slayer of Tarzan's mother Kala-- Tarzan kills Kulonga for revenge's sake, and then wonders whether or not he Tarzan should eat him.  The ape-man is preserved by a "hereditary instinct" that makes him nauseous at the attempt to eat the flesh of a fellow human-- not the first or last time Burroughs invokes "nature" over "nurture."

After this meeting with Kulonga, Tarzan effectively terrorizes his tribe, stealing the natives' poisoned arrows and playing juvenile pranks on them. He evinces no sexual interest in the Black African females, though a later story in JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN addresses this lacunae somewhat. He does almost kill one of them when she comes close to catching him during a raid, but luck saves the unnamed female's life.

Naturally, the one female in Tarzan's life is destined to be the blonde American Jane Porter, who gets stranded in Tarzan's territory in much the same way his parents were marooned.  By this time Tarzan has slain both Tublat and Kerchak, the latter being both the chief of the ape-tribe and the slayer of Tarzan's father. Burroughs then introduces Terkoz, the son of Tublat, and in their initial battle, Tarzan's foster-"brother" nearly tears off the ape-man's scalp-- leaving him with a scar that remains part of Tarzan's mythology.  I note in passing that Burroughs also wrote a few stories about Native Americans, though I can't say offhand if any of them reference the human technique of scalping.

Tarzan spares Terkoz's life the first time, and on his advice the tribe expels the violent ape. However, sparing Terkoz leads to the novel's only literal attempt at "ape-rape," for the expelled simian decides that he's going to start a new tribe-- by mating with Jane. One might assert that Terkoz symbolizes all the repressed desires of Tarzan, since even after the hero kills Terkoz, Tarzan is still a perfect gentleman with Jane. Nevertheless, he does take Jane to the dum-dum arena for a while, suggesting an equivalence between the orgy of flesh-eating and that other type of orgy. A couple of times, Burroughs titillates the reader with the possibility that the ape-man and his destined mate will do the dirty right there on the jungle floor-- only to draw back and keep things in the realm of pure love.  To be sure, Burroughs does a nicer job with the romance element here than he ever did again, for in later books he tended to just go through the motions.

There are some moderately interesting soap-opera elements with respect to Jane's fellow castaways, particularly her suitor William Clayton, who is Tarzan's cousin, and who inherited the title of Lord Greystoke when the Claytons disappeared.  However, if Burroughs was somewhat even-handed with Black Africans, he felt in no way constrained to pay respect to Black Americans, for among the castaways is Jane's maid Esmerelda, a ghastly concatenation of every vice attributed to blacks-- cowardly, stupid, and prone to "funny" word-manglings.

The conclusion of TARZAN OF THE APES is a grand renunciation scene, in which Tarzan comes to believe that Jane wishes to marry William-- so he Tarzan keeps quiet about his identity as the real Lord Greystoke. Of course this was simply a setup to the sequel. RETURN is much less unified than APES, in that the lovelorn Tarzan merely bounces about from adventure to adventure.  It's in this book that Tarzan becomes the chief of the Waziri tribe, though again, he never for a moment considers any black women to be his queen. He also encounters the first of many, many lost cities of white people in Africa: that of Opar.

From the first Burroughs pictures the Oparians as divided in terms of aesthetics: the women are all normal humans and naturally gorgeous, while the males are ugly and ape-like. In this novel Burroughs goes so far as to promulgate the idea that some Oparians have actually mated with apes, but later he puts the division down to a crude eugenics program. Burroughs apparently had Opar in mind back when he wrote APES, since Jane's professor-father is said to be seeking an "incredibly ancient civilization." He apparently never brings up the matter again, and Opar, modeled on the Biblical city of Ophir, becomes the source of Tarzan's African wealth. It's also the source of the first of Burroughs' not-so-nice queens, for La, High Priestess of Opar, continues to appear in subsequent novels, always trying to either murder or seduce the ape-man.

The romantic unison of Tarzan and Jane is of course the drawing-card of the sequel, but it's interesting that Burroughs again worked cannibalism into the mix. For a time William, Jane, and the novel's villain Rokoff are stranded at sea in a lifeboat, and before they can starve to death, they flirt with the notion of cannibalism-- with which only the villain has no moral problem. Burroughs may have included this scene-- not strictly necessary from a plot angle-- to emphasize that some modern men could be no less capable of this particular vice than apes and savages.

Many later Tarzan novels cannot be as deeply mythological as these two, as they provide the hero's "origin-story." Nevertheless, it's arguable that Burroughs, however often he repeated certain situations, never lost contact with the deeper symbolic meaning of these tropes, as many authors of lesser merit did.

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