by Philip Jose Farmer
“Season One” of this column began with a Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I thought for the return (sporadic as these reviews are likely to be) I would revisit the lord of the apes, albeit obliquely.
Philip Jose Farmer is also no stranger to this column. He was an influential but not bestselling science fiction author of the 20th century, with a noted passion for pulp properties and tropes. In essence, Farmer is the quintessential “Paperback Punk” author. In particular, he was fascinated with Tarzan. He wrote a fictional biography of Burroughs’ hero called Tarzan Alive! which I found a battered copy of one Autumn day in a used bookstore in Seattle, and he also wrote Lord Tyger. While the former is very much a celebration of the property, the latter is more of a deconstruction. It is small wonder that Alan Moore alludes to Lord Tyger in his introduction to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, because Lord Tyger is in prose everything that Alan Moore has done in comics.
We meet Ras Tyger at the age of 18, a jungle born hero with a god for a father and an ape for a mother, a tanned and Herculean figure expert with bow, spear, or noose, capable of slaying a leopard single handed or surviving being struck by lightning. He lives in a remote African valley, where his family consists of his foster father Yusufu and his mother Mariyam. Their closest human neighbors are the Wantso, a small tribe of horticulturists. Sometimes, the Bird of God thrums by overhead, emerging from a stone tower in the center of a lake. And at the other end of the valley, through a swamp, lie the Sharikkt, another people who live in stone houses and are ruled by a king who wields an ancient sword.
But everything that Ras Tyger believes about himself, about his world, about his family and his place among everything is a lie. He is a living embodiment of the Tarzan story, but he is also the subject of a twisted experiment to create such a being. And the novel is the exploration of how Ras comes into his own, navigates the revelations, and sees his whole universe shattered.
Its brutal stuff. Ras is a heroic figure physically, but he’s a savage in the truest sense of the word. He has an older brother who was left with actual gorillas, but that experiment didn’t work. The boy grew up to be little more advanced that a gorilla himself, his brain never creating the neural pathways for language as a child. So for Ras, a troupe of Ethiopian dwarfs were brought in to act as the “apes” to raise him. Yusufu and Mariyam are the only two who survive the first 18 years of Ras’ life. In this way Ras learns several languages (including Swahili-accented English) and how to hunt and fight, read and write, all the stuff attributed to Tarzan. And of course he’s given a knife – and whenever he loses one, his father the god leaves another for him via lightning strike.
But when Ras is 18 two things happen: Mariyam is killed and all evidence points to the Wantso, leading Ras to a brutal vengeance; and a plane carrying an anthropologist couple is shot down by one of the helicopters that fly over the valley, the only survivor the woman Eeva Rantanen. These two events set in motion Ras’ journey through the small valley, which eventually turns out to be a remote part of Ethiopia, and his discovery of just who he is and how he came to be, and what madman set all of this insanity in motion.
I’ve spoiled a lot of this book, intentionally so, because as much as I’d like to recommend it, I really can’t bring myself to do so. Typical for a Farmer novel, there’s frank discussion of biological processes and also a lot of sex. But Ras, not growing up in any kind of civilization, experiments with bestiality. As a child he plays sex games with both boys and girls of the Wantso, and then as an adult proceeds to rape virtually every human woman he meets, including Eeva eventually. And it’s that particularly odious myth of rape where after coercing or threatening each woman into sex, it turns into enthusiastic participation once the act is begun. Ras is a monster. That he is the result of a horrible experiment doesn’t absolve him from his actions and he never receives any kind of comeuppance for any of it.
This was a difficult book to read because there are very few sympathetic characters in it, and those that can be described as such also suffer the most throughout. If you have a taste for deconstruction, Lord Tyger is pretty amazing stuff, actually, but if you have little stomach for brutality, it’s not worth the effort to track it down and read it.