Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The evolution of the rippling bicep…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Lord Greystoke and his young wife Lady Alice are on their way to take up a new colonial appointment in Africa when the crew of the ship they are on mutiny. The mutineers drop their passengers off on a wild coast, far from civilised habitation, but close to the jungle. For a while they survive, long enough for Lady Alice to bear the son she was already carrying. But when disaster strikes, leaving the baby all alone in the world, he is adopted by a tribe of apes and grows up learning their ways, unaware of his own heritage. However, when he discovers the hut his parents built and all their belongings including their books, he realises he is different from the other apes. And then more white people are marooned in the same place by another bunch of mutineers, and he sees the lovely Jane…

Johnny Weissmuller played the role many times…

Basically, this is simply a romping adventure story that is as enjoyable now as when it took the reading public’s imagination by storm back in 1912, when it was first published in the pulp magazine The All-Story. There’s something about the way Burroughs tells stories that makes them great fun despite all the many ways he transgresses modern sensibilities. It’s a sort of innocent charm – I feel sure he’d be amazed and appalled if he thought he’d offended anyone. He so truly believes that white Anglo-Saxons are the pinnacle of evolution and that women will forgive any little character flaws (like cannibalism, for example) so long as a man has rippling biceps and the ability to fight apes single-handed. (Both jolly good attributes in a man, I admit – I wonder if Rafa fights apes…)

Evolution was still a relatively new idea when Burroughs was writing this, and many authors were exploring the subject in different ways. Burroughs’ ideas may seem pretty shocking to us now, but they were fairly mainstream at the time. He shows a kind of pyramid of evolution starting with real apes that we would recognise as such. Then there’s the tribe that adopt Tarzan, who are a kind of link between ape and man, with the beginnings of a verbal language and some basic forms of ritual, such as…

the fierce, mad, intoxicating revel of the Dum-Dum.
….From this primitive function has arisen, unquestionably, all the forms and ceremonials of modern church and state, for through all the countless ages, back beyond the last, uttermost ramparts of a dawning humanity our fierce, hairy forebears danced out the rites of the Dum-Dum to the sound of their earthen drums, beneath the bright light of a tropical moon in the depth of a mighty jungle which stands unchanged today as it stood on that long forgotten night in the dim, unthinkable vistas of the long dead past when our first shaggy ancestor swung from a swaying bough and dropped lightly upon the soft turf of the first meeting place.

Burroughs’ depiction of the ape society is great – he humanises the apes just enough so that we see them as individuals and like or dislike them accordingly, but he ensures that even the “good” ones never stop being wild, brutal beasts. I found them utterly believable as a type of proto-human.

Next on the ladder are the black “savages”, along with Jane’s black maid. Oh dear, this is where you have to keep reminding yourself that it was the times! The maid is the traditional figure of fun – the black mammy who continued to appear in American culture well into the ‘50s, or maybe even later, so poor old Burroughs can’t be condemned too harshly. The savages – well, it’s not so much their savage lifestyle that’s the problem; many writers from Kipling to Conrad via Rider Haggard et al have depicted the indigenous African tribes just as problematically to modern eyes. It’s more the suggestion that they’re actually another link in the evolutionary chain – less intelligent, less resourceful, a lower form of life altogether than the white man.

Book 39 of 90

Tarzan is the zenith of the evolutionary heap. Not only is he a perfect physical specimen of rampant manhood, but he’s so intelligent he actually manages to teach himself to read and write without ever having heard a human speak. But also his prime pedigree as an English aristocrat can’t be hidden for long…

…and so he rose, and taking the locket in his hand, stooped gravely like some courtier of old, and pressed his lips upon it where hers had rested.
….It was a stately and gallant little compliment performed with the grace and dignity of utter unconsciousness of self. It was the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.

Christopher Lambert in the 1984 movie version, Greystoke

It goes without saying that women aren’t quite so evolved, though obviously white women outrank black women. But frankly, girls, when you have Tarzan looking out for you, how evolved do you need to be?

….Jane Porter – her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration – watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman – for her.
….As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.

The racist and sexist aspects are so overblown and unintentional that personally I found them hilarious rather than offensive. And while many aspects of the story are a bit ridiculous if you stop to analyse them too deeply, it’s so full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama that it swept me along on a tsunami-sized wave of fun. Highly recommended!

* * * * *

(I reckon Rafa should play Tarzan in the next film. I shall of course be auditioning for Jane…)

….He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses.
….For a moment FictionFan Jane Porter lay there with half-closed eyes. For a moment – the first in her young life – she knew the meaning of love.

Ooh, I say!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

35 thoughts on “Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

  1. I loved Burroughs as a teen especially John Carter of Mars and Tarzan of the 🦍. I read at least half of the 30 or so Tarzan stories, in a cheap paperback publisher that fell apart after the first three or four reads. And yes, there was an offensive evolutionary hierarchy rampant in the stories but with damsels to rescue and villains to vanquish I confess i guiltily read on with barely a nod to this. And if the females had to be repeatedly rescued, the accompanying males didn’t compare well next to the Apeman either.

    • I missed him entirely in my teens – don’t know why. But that means I get all the joy of discovering him now! Yeah, sometimes racism and sexism bothers me in older books and sometimes not, and it’s quite hard to know why. With these, I just felt as if he was simply going along with what most people believed at that time and wasn’t setting out to be insulting. I think on the whole I enjoyed the Barsoom books more but this was a great romp too… 😀

    • I have long thought Rafa is higher up the evolutionary scale than most men! Certainly his biceps are, anyway… 😉 You should – they’re great fun! So are the John Carter of Mars series. 😀

  2. You know, I can definitely see Rafa in that role, FictionFan! In all seriousness, it’s interesting how this story has captured our imagination for over 100 years. There is just something about the story, isn’t there? It is, purely and at its core, an adventure – an exotic adventure. What’s not to love?

    • His stories are so over-the-top and incredible but somehow he makes them work, and I love all that kinda camp high drama of the romances. It’s part imagination and part the fact that he’s actually a very good writer – which I think sometimes gets overlooked amidst all the adventure aspect. The descriptions of the apes interacting is so well done…

  3. Rafa definitely qualifies!
    Great review!
    Burroughs is a testimony to how good an imagination can be if it’s exercised. And we get that through reading! 😀 It makes me sad when people proudly proclaim they don’t read books. But when asked to tell even a basic story, they don’t know where to start. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox.

    • He would be the perfect Tarzan, wouldn’t he? I couldn’t help imagining him in the role while I was reading… 😀

      Absolutely! And also a testament to the fact that it’s not always necessary for books to have a message or deep meanings – sometimes a romping adventure is enough!

  4. This and the Cowboy and Indian stories of Winnetou were my childhood fodder. I did play the damsel in distress scenario for my little male friends to rescue me in my unenlightened youth (I found it quite restful not to have to run around quite as much and fight etc., merely yell for help).

    • I don’t know why I missed out on him in my youth but I’m having lots of fun reading him now – maybe even more than I would have because I find his over-the-top style so funny! Hahaha – I do think we women have to be careful not to become toooo equal – I feel fighting apes should always be left to the men… 😉

  5. Well, the chief saving grace of this is that lovely photo of Rafa! That said, I’m not entirely sure I want to wade through the black mammy, apes, and such. I suppose this is good for “mindless entertainment,” but it’s not really my cuppa. By the way, did you get ICE?? The Weather Channel showed a photo this morning of some spot in your part of the world that was frozen over!

    • Haha – but it’s so much fun imagining Rafa every time he describes Tarzan’s amazing biceps and sinews and thighs… 😉 It is freezing here! We had freezing fog for most of the day – T&T point-blank refused to go out in it – and the paths are really treacherous after yesterday’s snow being iced over. But I don’t know if it’s expected to last – hopefully not!

  6. This was one of my first downloads when I got my original Kindle (it was free, I think), yet I’ve never bothered to read it. Perhaps I should! 😂 I’m not easily offended, so I’m sure I’d find much of it hilarious, too.

    • You should!! I read a few of his John Carter books a couple of years ago and loved them – they’re silly, as is this, but there’s still great fun to read and they do make me laugh (and fantasise about Rafa… 😉 )

  7. Great review! It is interesting that even with all the racism and sexism, the story of Tarzan keeps being remade and retold. It would seem that humans really want to believe that there’s something innately superior about ourselves.

  8. I really don’t know what to say – I’m breathless!
    What a wonderful review of a book I simply would not have considered reading and yet, you somehow convinced me that this is a massive error on my part! What I do like is your pragmatic approach to the elements that are obviously more problematic now than when the book was written and of course in particular the killer phrase – But frankly, girls, when you have Tarzan looking out for you, how evolved do you need to be?

  9. Wow! I have to admit that I laughed rather loud at reading some of those segments from the book. It almost reads like what I imagine a modern parody would be.

    I’ve never actually read anything by Burroughs. I was never sure if I quite dared, but perhaps I have been missing out. 🙂

  10. Brilliant review FF but this still isn’t for me, I’m far too entrenched in my 21st century views! I can read older books and get enjoyment from them but this is all a bit much (and I can see the bit-muchness is what makes it enjoyable too 😀 )

    In other news, I was in your neck of the woods this week and my love for your beautiful city remains undiminished, even in winter! I’ve been googling ‘moving to Glasgow’ since my return 🙂

  11. I so loved reading this review, FF. I wish I had time to read all of them!

    I have to agree with you – I often find the sexism in older books hilarious rather than offensive. Might as well laugh at it!

  12. I have read it numerous times without getting bored. When it comes to pulp, Burroughs is difficult to beat. I have an old copy of the book. The new Oxford World’s Classics cover looks so awesome.

    • I only discovered Burroughs a couple of years ago – don’t know how I missed him till now! So I’ve been having a lot of fun reading the Barsoom books and now this. Sometimes all you really want from a book is an exciting story and a bit of fun, and Burroughs is brilliant at providing that! Yes, I love the cover too. I love the OWC books altogether – the little introductions they provide give just enough information for my taste.

  13. Great review! Having read a few of these during the summer I’m fascinated by how much trouble Jane manage to get into. You would think that if Tarzan was such a great protector he would at least occasionally be able to save her before she is kidnapped…

    • Thank you! Hahaha – but then where would the fun be? 😀 I haven’t read any of the other Tarzan books yet, but I love his John Carter/Barsoom books – have you tried them? If anything, they’re even more ridiculously over-the-top than Tarzan… 😀

      • I have read a few of them and find the world better but the main character less interesting. However, I think both series have an interesting beginning but gets less interesting when the core idea (e.g. English lord raised in the jungle by apes) is no longer new.

Leave a Reply to Cathy Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.