When I was 10 or 11 years old, I discovered Tarzan of the Apes. Some of you know that the discovery of the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs (there are 24—see this earlier post for a detailed list of the books) “rescued” me from remedial reading, where, as I recall, we were reading about the exciting life of a opossum! Ever since then, the Tarzan books have held a special place in my life. It has been years since I read one of the books, but this summer I picked up The Return of Tarzan, which is volume two in the series. Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan belong in one volume, as they are the continuing love story between Tarzan and Jane Porter—I know, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”
But, it’s not like that. Tarzan is the child of Lord and Lady John Greystoke, both of whom died when they were marooned on the shores of Africa. Tarzan, found by the great apes (fictional race of apes1) was raised by them and was an ape, in his eyes and the eyes of his tribe. He found the cabin where his parents died (his father, at the hands of the apes) and taught himself to read.
By–and–by, along comes Jane Porter and her family, exploring Africa. Tarzan and Jane fall in love and Tarzan discovers his true identity, but allows another Greystoke to assume his role and even be engaged to Jane Porter (it’s complicated). So ends the first book.
Tarzan, long–suffering over Jane, ends up in Paris with his friend and is eventually sent on a mission to Africa. There are a couple of Russian characters who have it out for Tarzan and one of them—Nikolas Rokoff—throws Tarzan overboard. Tarzan makes it to shore, washing up near the original cabin of his father and mother—how convenient. Meanwhile, Jane Porter and company are also shipwrecked (along with Rokoff, who told Jane that Tarzan was dead) near the cabin—unbeknownst to Tarzan, of course. Tarzan is captured by the residents of the ancient city of Opar and almost dies on their sacrificial altar. He escapes; finds Jane, but doe not reveal himself. Jane is kidnapped by the Oparians and Tarzan, at the last minute recuses her and they get married in the ancestral cabin. So ends the second book.
Yes, the books are somewhat predictable—often Jane is in distress (usually because she has been kidnapped) and Tarzan has to rescue her. Even so, they are fun to read and are good adventures. I have not read the later books (like I said, there are 24), but I have heard that the plots and writing are not as good. My favorites include: Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan the Untamed, Tarzan the Terrible (a continuation of Untamed), Tarzan and the Golden Lion and Tarzan and the Lost Empire.
I recommend them to anyone looking for a good yarn with plenty of adventure and thrills. Start with the first two, as they are foundational.
As might be expected, revenge and the law of the jungle dominate these narratives. Tarzan often takes the law into his own hands and becomes judge, jury and executioner. The reader is usually okay with this, as the villain seems to deserve their fate.
Tarzan can be reasoned with, as at the end of Return he is persuaded to let French justice prevail on the the Russian villain, Rokoff, instead of taking his own revenge. And so there are glimpses of grace.
God is seldom, if ever, mentioned and I don’t think you’ll find the name of Jesus anywhere in the books.
In other words, aside from being good adventure stories, there is little that is redeeming in these novels. Tarzan is always in the right and his judgment is sure, reliable and correct.
I will continue to read these from time–to–time, but now after 50 years, they do not hold as much sway with me as they once did.
1 Despite how they’re usually portrayed in adaptations, Burroughs always acknowledged that his version of Africa was a fantasy version and that included Tarzan’s apes, who are sort of a cross between chimpanzees and gorillas, but more intelligent than either.