Where Fantasy Is Made

Tarzan

I previously reviewed the first Tarzan movie. Prior to viewing the movie I felt the need to read the first book. My copy is from a volume titled The Complete Burroughs Tarzan Collection, a Kindle edition. This is about the first book in the series, Tarzan of the Apes.

If you watched the early Tarzan movies in black and white, as I did as a kid, you know that Tarzan is man of European ancestry who lives in the jungle of Equatorial West Africa with a bunch of apes. The movies I saw had well-known themes. European hunters, nature observers, movie makers, poachers, military adventurers come to the tropical jungles and eventually encounter Tarzan, who gets involved in their adventures and their intrigues, ultimately helping to resolve a crisis by invoking his power over jungle animals. The themes almost always involve black African natives, who are either porters employed by the Europeans, villagers being exploited by Europeans or by other black Africans, who are, themselves, schemers and adventurers on some nefarious scheme. There is usually a European woman involved and an associated sexual attraction between her and Tarzan. The character Jane, herself a woman of European extraction is often invoked as the love interest or wife of Tarzan. Eventually there is a son named Boy, himself supposedly the offspring of Jane and Tarzan. Early on a juvenile chimpanzee named Cheeta was introduced to provide additional animal interest and also a dash of humor.

Action in the Tarzan movies always involves Tarzan swinging through the trees in ape fashion. The early Tarzan movies employed Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, and his handsome, muscular physique brought a heap of male sexuality to the films. Jane is, of course, attractively feminine, further appealing to audiences’ sexual fantasies. The fact that Tarzan almost never appeared except dressed in the scantiest of groin coverings, and Jane typically appeared in an equally brief shift gives an additional boost to the audience’s blood temperature.

My research is incomplete. Tarzan’s travel through the forest canopy is, in reality, a circus trapeze act, as he swings by a vine from a high tree, over to another, where he catches, sometimes in mid air, another vine, continuing his travel uninterrupted. I never did drill down on the production background to determine whether Weissmuller did these stunts or a circus performer was employed. All Tarzan movies I recall employed these acrobatics, their being a major draw. For sure, Weissmuller did all the swimming sequences, himself, movies had at least one sequence with Tarzan in the water.

It was with the idea to determine the origins and the background of the Tarzan legend that I decided to read some Edgar Rice Burroughs, starting with the first Tarzan book. The background is generally well known. Tarzan was adopted by apes as a baby and was raised without human contact. He is, in reality, a titled Englishman, Lord Greystoke. His father was John Clayton. How he came to be living in the West African jungle with apes is the theme of the book

No background on Burroughs is given in the book, but some basic history is on-line:

By 1911, after seven years of low wages, he was working as a pencil-sharpener wholesaler and began to write fiction. By this time, Burroughs and Emma had two children, Joan (1908–72), who would later marry Tarzan film actor James Pierce, and Hulbert (1909–91). During this period, he had copious spare time and he began reading manypulp fiction magazines. In 1929 he recalled thinking that

…if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.

Yeah, I have thought the same, myself. My initial reading impressed me that Burroughs made the right decision. His prose is clean, characters are convincing, the action moves. On the flip side, some of the pieces don’t quite fit.

Without giving away the store, I will run through the plot and go over some essentials. First, how does the son of an English aristocrat come to be raised in the jungle by apes? The answer is that John Clayton is given the assignment by Her Majesty’s government to head down to the Congo and investigate reports that a colonial empire is abusing the local population—enslaving black Africans. Clayton and his delicate young wife Alice head off to the African Coast on a chartered sailing vessel. Unfortunately, Lord Greystoke pays too little for the charter and gets what he paid for. The crew are a gang of ruffians, and the officers only a hair better. There is mutiny, and all the officers are killed, their bodies thrown overboard. John and Alice are spared, because John previously saved the life of the ringleader. But spared just barely. They are set ashore on an uninhabited stretch of the coast with merely their own belongings (they traveled large) plus some essential weapons and tools. Alice is pregnant.

With no civilization in sight and none likely forthcoming, John sets to work immediately and puts Robinson Crusoe to shame, building a sturdy house on stilts. Then disaster strikes as a band of marauding apes attacks the couple. Alice is stunned by the violence, and gives birth that night. A year later, and Alice dies. Immediately the apes attack again, killing Lord Greystoke. A female ape, who has lost her baby, takes the baby Clayton and nurses him as her own. The little Lord Greystoke grows to maturity knowing nothing of human existence. The first humans he comes into contact with are from a tribe of cannibals who have moved into the coastal region to avoid encroaching colonialists from the east.

In the mean time, Tarzan (White Skin), as he has come to be called by the apes, has found fascination with his human father’s cabin and has obtained a hunting knife, which, with his human brain power, he has come to recognize as a good tool for cutting meat and for killing enemies. He also shaves with it to differentiate himself from the apes. Additionally in the cabin are learning books his father had intended for the newborn. Lord Greystoke teaches himself to read and write English before he learns to speak it!

Then disaster strikes again. Another European party is stranded at the same beach, again by a mutinous crew. The party is headed by Professor Archimedes Q. Porter of Baltimore, on a treasure hunting expedition. He has brought along his enticing daughter Jane. Coincidentally, another member of the party is Tarzan’s cousin, William Cecil Clayton, having since assumed the title Lord Greystoke. The presumed Lord Greystoke has eyes for Jane Porter. Tarzan observes all this and stalks the camp of the new castaways, fascinated by Jane. He saves them all from the apes and the cannibals, taking Jane for a time to his abode in the tree tops. An attraction develops between Jane and Tarzan.

There are further developments. The mutinous crew are overtaken by a French Navy vessel, and they all return to the scene of the crime. A French expedition into the jungle to locate and rescue Jane is ambushed, and the leader of the expedition, Lieutenant D’Arnot, is taken prisoner by the cannibals. Tarzan rescues D’Arnot while he is being tortured in preparation for dinner. Tarzan nurses D’Arnot back to good health, and D’Arnot teaches Tarzan to speak, in French.

Unfortunately, by the time D’Arnot is well enough to return to the beach site, the others, including Jane, have given D’Arnot up for dead and have departed. Also they have looked for the treasure and found it has been previously discovered and removed. However, it was Tarzan who had discovered the treasure and moved it. He shows the find to D’Arnot, and the two of them start on a trek north along the coast to civilization.

Tarzan, now dressed as a human, learns even more French, and D’Arnot teaches him English. D’Arnot has perused the items at John Clayton’s cabin and has guessed Tarzan is actually the real Lord Greystoke. They travel together to Lyons and then to Paris, where D’Arnot gives a copy of baby fingerprints found in the cabin to the police inspector. They also make copies of Tarzan’s prints and leave them with the inspector for analysis while they journey to Baltimore to inform Professor Porter that his treasure has been found.

Unfortunately, Professor Porter has heavily mortgaged the treasure hunting expedition with an unscrupulous person, who has aims on Miss Porter. He has figured the expedition will be a failure, and the profession will be heavily in debt to the mortgage, with only his daughter to offer in redemption. Suffice it to say that Tarzan saves Jane Porter from being sold into marriage, but he returns to Europe, leaving her to marry the presumed Lord Greystoke. Further adventures will commence from there, but in successive books.

Of course, a lot of this is highly improbable. Let’s first get past the idea of a human baby being raised by apes. We need to accommodate that. Keep in mind the genre we are dealing with. This is not Sons and Lovers. It’s not even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s not even Moby Dick. This is meant to be pure fantasy. That established, plot defects still shine through.

Something that popped out early was pineapples:

The march was but a leisurely search for food.   Cabbage palm and gray plum, pisang and scitamine they found in abundance, with wild pineapple, and occasionally small mammals, birds, eggs, reptiles, and insects.   The nuts they cracked between their powerful jaws, or, if too hard, broke by pounding between stones.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (2014-06-21). The Complete Burroughs Tarzan Collection (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 838-840). Running Press. Kindle Edition.

This is a place on the planet that was at the time not inhabited by people. Wild pineapples came from Central America. They were completely foreign to Equatorial West Africa.

Talking about Kerchak, the huge king ape:

Now that he was in his prime, there was no simian in all the mighty forest through which he roved that dared contest his right to rule, nor did the other and larger animals molest him.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (2014-06-21). The Complete Burroughs Tarzan Collection (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 396-397). Running Press. Kindle Edition.

Simians are not apes. Apparently this was not in Burroughs’ early education.

Then there is the matter of coincidence piled on top of coincidence. In the beginning the mutineers dump off the Clayton’s on a remote West African Beach. Much later, Professor Porter and his party are dumped off, again by mutineers, at the same spot and along with Tarzan’s cousin.

Burroughs’ infatuation with oligarchy shows in his explanation for Tarzan’s moral and intellectual superiority. It is because he is descended from English nobility that he is able to self-educate himself and to learn to defeat the most powerful bull apes in combat. Obviously, nobody of low birth could have accomplished what Tarzan did, growing up among apes.

Tarzan’s ape tribe is a creation of Burroughs. They are large apes, not chimpanzees and not gorillas. The species is not identifiable.

I read the first couple of pages of the novel following this one. It shows Tarzan working a criminal investigation in Paris. We know that eventually he must get back together with Jane. And the jungle.

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One thought on “Where Fantasy Is Made

  1. Pingback: Literary Jungle | Skeptical Analysis

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