One of my favorite past times is haunting used bookstores, looking for out-of-print and forgotten classics. My taste in literature tends to run toward fantasy, science-fiction, and horror, and I find modern novels too often weighed down by bloat and too much world-building. As a consequence, I tend to seek out older books that tend to focus more on ideas and action and move along more quickly. I always liked the “Box of Paperbacks” series at the A.V.Club, so I thought I’d take a stab at something in the same vein.
Tarzan the Terrible
By Edgar Rice Burroughs
Tarzan is one of the great characters of Western civilization, a throwback to the heroes of Greek mythology or a precursor of the superheroes that would dominate the comic books of the 20th century and the cinema of the 21st. Tarzan is an English noble orphaned in Africa and raised by a band of intelligent apes, the Mangani, who are not quite gorillas or chimps and may have been (if Philip Jose Farmer was right) some kind of extant australopithecine. Growing up among the apes, Tarzan gained superhuman strength and senses of smell and hearing, but inherited above average intelligence from his European forebears. Unlike every actual feral child who ever lived, Tarzan not only taught himself to read, but gained perfect facility in French and English, as well as other languages. Defined by his ethnicity (his name is the Mangani word for “white skin”) he can out-Africa anyone in Africa, especially the natives. He is at once delightfully over-the-top, a great deal of fun, completely absurd, and implicitly (too often explicitly) a racist construction. But Tarzan is also part of the Western canon, appearing regularly in books, comics, magazines, cartoons, films, and television since his first appearance in 1912. Yet one senses that Tarzan’s days as a cultural force are long past him.
Still, the novels remain entertaining. Essentially stand-alone, although they do build on one another in general ways, they feature plenty of action, peril, derring-do, and fantastical ideas. Tarzan’s ape tribe is generally the most plausible part of his story, a tale that would grow to encompass lost empires by the truckload, a hollow Earth filled with dinosaurs, miniature people, and other strange notions. Tarzan the Terrible, the eight novel in the saga, is full of those strange ideas.
Originally published in 1921, the events of the novel take place in the immediate wake of the Great War, or World War I as it eventually became known. Jane, Tarzan’s erstwhile mate, has been kidnapped by a German officer and taken into the heart of Africa (a trope Burroughs beat to death over the course of his career: the abducted lover). Tarzan pursues. The trail leads through a perilous, almost impassable (for anyone besides Tarzan, one is made to understand) swamp, into a remote region of Africa that has never been explored by anyone else.
This region, called Pal-ul-don, is populated by not one, not two, but three heretofore unknown species of hominid, identified by Burroughs as “pithecanthropi” (1921’s australopithecines), although unlike actual fossil hominids, these beings have prehensile tails and feet. They resemble monkey-people more than extant hominids, and this being the early 20th century there are of course both black (complete with fur) and white (lacking fur) versions, and the whites are more civilized than the blacks. (There is also a third species with brown fur who is little more advanced than chimpanzees, and largely doesn’t figure in the story). But surprisingly, there is some nuance to the portrayal of these black and white monkey people. The white monkey people have buildings and government and organized religion, but they are also portrayed as morally corrupt, easily swayed by their priests, and both cowed and tricked by Tarzan. The black, furry pithecanthropi are depicted with all the stereotypes of native Africans prevalent at the time, but they are also noble, skilled at the arts of war, take Tarzan at face value, and are treated as equals by the English nobleman. Certainly they fall into the noble savage paradigm, and the whole device is rife with racist ideology, but it’s not as bad as it could be.
Pal-ul-don is also the refuge of dinosaurs called “gryfs.” About the size of a long-necked sauropod, but possessing the horns and neck-shields of a ceratopsian, the gryfs are also carnivorous. Another completely fictional animal, but Burroughs at least presents living dinosaurs for whom evolution has not stopped. They are descended from creatures that went extinct 65 million years ago, but because that much time has elapsed, they have become a new species. Most lost worlds of the time, even the others created by Burroughs himself, presented Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex and their friends frozen in time, unchanged by the passage of millennia.
So there are some interesting ideas mixed in with all the peril, action set-pieces, and racism. Most interesting of all is Burrough’s approach to religion. It is the organized religion of the white pithecanthropi that prove their undoing. First, Tarzan uses their beliefs to masquerade as a divine hero, easily duping these supposedly civilized beings because of their superstitions. Secondly, the main villain of the book is a priest of the Pal-ul-donian religion, whose position as the power behind the throne is threatened by Tarzan, and thus he attempts to kill the ape-man numerous times, including at the book’s climax when he is about to ritually sacrifice both Tarzan and Jane. There’s even a jab at messianic belief, as the German officer (now quite mad) is presented by the priest to his flock as the “real” divine hero that Tarzan masqueraded as previously. It’s a strange critique of organized religion in the midst of this pulpy tale of lost worlds, humans with tails, ape-men, and dinosaurs.
But the book ends with a European man with a gun saving the day – Korak, the son of Tarzan and Jane and a veteran of the Great War, uses his Lee Enfield to end the priest’s threat and rescue his parents. It’s still 1921, after all, and this is how things are done.
I like the Tarzan books, warts and all, and this was a decent one. Burroughs had a talent for propulsive action, ridiculous plots, and memorable characters. He built a publishing empire with those skills and it’s not difficult to see how he did it. But Tarzan, in this day and age, must remain a guilty pleasure. There’s too much in these books that, accepted easily a century ago, can be difficult to accept these days – the dinosaurs being the least of the issues.