Literary Jungle

When things get slack (seldom) around the house, I fall back to reading another episode from The Complete Burroughs Tarzan Collection, a Kindle edition. I previously reviewed the introductory title, Tarzan of the Apes.

The first Tarzan book recounted how John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, was born to noble parents in the wilds of West Africa and raised by apes after his parents died. He was named Tarzan (white skin) by the apes, and went through a remarkable transformation after reaching adulthood and coming into contact with Europeans for the first time. He rescued a French military officer, who taught him to speak, in French. Subsequently, on his introduction to 20th century ways, he rapidly learned English and adapted to civilization with remarkable speed. By the end of the book he has gone to Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States, to find Jane Porter, an American woman he rescued from the jungle during his days as an ape. He gets there in time to learn she has traveled to Minnesota, and he gets to Minnesota in time to rescue her from a forest fire and to return her to the arms of his cousin, who has in his absence assumed the title of Lord Greystoke.

All this must leave the reader puzzled, because the second Tarzan book The Beasts of Tarzan, starts off with Tarzan, now the rightful Lord Greystoke, married to Jane, and father of an infant son they call Jack. He is also in Paris, discussing the remnants of a criminal case he helped resolve. The point of that case, the evil Russian criminal, Nikolas Rokoff, has escaped from prison and threatens the Greystoke family in reprisal.

What ensues is that Rokoff is successful in his scheme to kidnap the Greystoke heir, and then Tarzan when he comes to the rescue. Jane is also taken when she arrives late to the intrigue. Rokoff’s scheme for vengeance is to sell the baby Greystoke to a primitive tribe in Western Africa and maroon Tarzan, naked and empty handed, on an island off the coast. The story is all about how Tarzan recovers his defenses in the wilderness environment and teams with a wild panther, a tribe of apes, and also local Africans, to defeat Rokoff and his henchmen and save his family.


I’m not going to tell the story. I will just pick at pieces I have some issues with. Where to start?

First, there is the island prison. It’s in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Africa, out of sight of the continent. On this island he encounters

  • deer
  • a black panther
  • a lion
  • a tribe of apes

and no people. The first question from any educated person is, “How did all these land mammals get from the continent to this remote island?” I’m not thinking Burroughs believed God planted these creatures on the island. I’m thinking Burroughs never gave it a second thought.

Second, it eventually becomes apparent Borroughs is running out of vocabulary. He wants to let us know the region is dark. A good word for dark is Stygian:

1:  of or relating to the river Styx

2:  extremely dark, gloomy, or forbidding <the stygian blackness of the cave>

Past that, Burroughs runs dry. The word is used for darkness no less than four times in this book, numerous other times in the other books in this volume. For example:

Then, dry-eyed but suffering, she rose and followed the Russian through the Stygian blackness of the jungle, along the winding, leafy corridor that led from the village of M’ganwazam, the black cannibal, to the camp of Nikolas Rokoff, the white fiend.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (2014-06-21). The Complete Burroughs Tarzan Collection (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 5035-5037). Running Press. Kindle Edition.

Whatever happened to poetic allusion. It makes a reader yearn for James Weldon Johnson:

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

In this book, Tarzan and his allies encounter many hazards and adventures. Burroughs wants to tell of these adventures. They quickly become the substance of the story rather than elements of support. To keep his not-so-treacherously-deep readers turning the pages, Burroughs finds it necessary to detail the adventures at the cost of plot development. In many places the narration is mechanical:

Even should he reach the river in safety, there was still the danger of his being again attacked before he could effect a safe landing.   Still there was no alternative, and, filling his lungs with the close and reeking air of the chamber, Tarzan of the Apes dived into the dark and watery hole which he could not see but had felt out and found with his feet and legs.

The leg which had been held within the jaws of the crocodile was badly lacerated, but the bone had not been broken, nor were the muscles or tendons sufficiently injured to render it useless.   It gave him excruciating pain, that was all.

But Tarzan of the Apes was accustomed to pain, and gave it no further thought when he found that the use of his legs was not greatly impaired by the sharp teeth of the monster.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (2014-06-21). The Complete Burroughs Tarzan Collection (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 5344-5349). Running Press. Kindle Edition.

Yes, it’s not necessary to spell out all the details. A higher level of the plot structure waits while the author reminds us that a crocodile’s teeth are sharp.

Additionally, it is necessary to ask why Rokoff found it necessary to maroon Tarzan on a remote island and then trek days inland to hand the child off to a primitive tribe. Just to get back at Tarzan (Lord Greystoke) for wrecking his criminal enterprise. All who know the answer may now raise your  hands. It was necessary to do this in order to create another jungle adventure.

Readers are by now getting the idea that all Tarzan adventures are going to involve the tropical forests of Africa. My memory has that some of Tarzan’s movie adventures are set in, for example, South American forests. Tarzan needs to swing through the tree tops and commune with wild beasts in every adventure. We are never going to see Lord Greystoke resolve a sitting room murder mystery by unraveling the intrigues of upper level English society.

More adventures of Tarzan coming. Keep reading.


One thought on “Literary Jungle

  1. Part of the confusion likely comes from the fact that “The Beasts of Tarzan” is the third book in the series. The actual second book, “The Return of Tarzan,” fills in a lot of the gaps between the two books you discussed.

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