Wednesday, July 06, 2011

I Read Books: Tarzan of the Apes

I am not in love with origin stories. When you introduce me to your hero I want you to tell me something worth hearing. It should be the most interesting, the most awesome, the most important, maybe the most horrible or the funniest thing that happened to them. It should be their best[1] story. If not why are you wasting my time? "Wait a minute" you say. "I need to tell you where my hero comes from to make the story worth hearing!" Sometimes this is true. But sometimes you begin at the beginning for the sake of beginning at the beginning. YOU ARE WASTING MY TIME.

Tarzan of the Apes is the first Tarzan novel, and is, of course, his origin story. You know this story, of how Lord and Lady Greystoke are marooned on the coast of Africa, they die and their son is brought up by anthropoid apes, how he becomes the most fearsome killer in the jungle and then saves a group of Americans[2] and is introduced to civilisation. So why am I wasting your time with this review?

Mostly because this is not quite the origin story you know. Tarzan, as it turns out is a superhero[3]. After some experimentation, his standard method of lion-killing involves a noose and a hunting knife[4], but at one point he gets one in a wrestling hold and unable to let it go, for obvious reasons, breaks it's neck. He can also swing through the trees, (from branch to branch rather than pendulum-like on vines as in films) with a full grown man over his shoulder. His athleticism is not the most extraordinary thing however.

Brought up by ape-men, he learns their language. When he discovers his parents' cabin, he then teaches himself to read and write English from the illustrated dictionary and other children's primers and books. This despite being unable speak English. Having the shyness of a wild beast, he rescues various Americans and Europeans, but as he cannot understand them leaves them notes[5]. This makes them think there are two men in the forest; one the silent "Forest Lord" and Tarzan of the Apes, a literate but invisible man.

Eventually they are rescued by a French cruiser and leave, while Tarzan is caring for a French Officer who has been injured by a local tribe. This officer teaches Tarzan to speak, although he teaches him French. They return to civilisation, leading eventually to Tarzan rescuing Jane, his love[6], first from a forest fire in Wisconsin, then from marrying a man who her father owes a debt of honour. Jane, scared by her feelings, then decides to marry William Clayton, Lord Greystoke. At this moment evidence arrives proving Tarzan is the son of John Clayton, which makes William Clayton his cousin and Tarzan Lord Greystoke. And so Tarzan...

Says nothing and tells no one and the book ends.

Tarzan's life as a beast is fascinating. He has no introspection, and exists in the moment and hardly knows what he is doing, let alone why. The other characters are less interesting. The comic relief comes from Professor Archimedes Q Porter (Jane's father) who is an absent minded professor and Esmeralda (Jane's servant/companion) a "Negress" who weighs 280 pounds, is sure they'll all be killed[7], speaks in slang and "hilariously" mispronounces words. It is not very funny. The mutineers and blacks who provide the villains are mostly undistinguished, and are the scum of the earth and savage cannibals respectively.

Jane Porter, the love interest is not entirely passive - when left behind by the men and a lioness tries to invade the cabin she tries to shoot it, and then decides to shoot Esmeralda and herself - but mostly exists to be rescued and loved. D'Arnot, the Frenchman who Tarzan rescues and then teaches Tarzan to be civilised, is little more developed.

If the novel has a moral it is an old fashioned one - breeding will out. Tarzan is tempted to eat a (black) man he kills, but doesn't because he is the son of an English Lord. Jane is kidnapped by an ape and will suffer a fate "a thousand times worse than death" and is rescued by Tarzan who is then overwhelmed by feelings he "barely understood". He then builds a bower for her and, to assuage her fears gives her his knife and sleeps outside as a guard with the chivalry of an English Lord.

So it is old-fashioned, and exciting, and has many bad characters, and a really good character who is almost characterless, and is full of incident, and tells us that the status quo is good and true, and we have a hero who is undefeatable, who gives away the only things he wants. This is not a great novel, but it is a good one, and an entertaining one, and an interesting one. It is not a waste of my time.

Read This: If you want to read an old-fashioned tale of adventure with the original character who popularised the tension between savagery and civilisation.
Don't read this: If casual racism, sexism and classism offends you, or you have no interest in ape-men and rescues and all that.
More Tarzanry on Night of the Hats - in which I criticise one passage in The Beasts of Tarzan, the third novel in the series.

[1] Or most filmic if you are making a film.
[2] And an English lord.
[3] He is referred to as a "Forest God" and the captain of the French cruiser uses the term "super-man" to describe him. Clearly a fan of Nietzsche.
[4] Which he stabs into the (savage) breast a dozen time. This is his standard method of dispatching dangerous animals. Frankly most of the time he ought to cut their throat; one or two slashes ought to do it.
[5] Signed Tarzan of the Apes. He can't speak English and doesn't know what it sounds like, but still manages to spell his name (meaning "White-skin" in Ape language). This is the not mere impossibility of other events in the novel, but a logical paradox.
[6] And not coincidentally the first white woman he has ever seen. Mere days before meeting her Tarzan takes to wearing a breechcloth, because it's fine to be nude for the first 20 years of your life as long a white woman doesn't see your tackle.
[7] They've been marooned by mutineers on the uninhabited coast of West Africa. It is not unreasonable to be afraid.
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