Title: Tarzan of the Apes
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Kid Friendly Rating: 11+ Parents may (or may not be) surprised to learn that the original work contains considerably more violence and racism than expected for a pop-culture touchstone. Click here for the Common Sense Media Guide!
A cruel twist of fate cursed the English lord John Clayton and his pregnant wife to be stranded in the wild jungle of the southern African coast, with little hope of rescue. Miraculously, the young couple gives birth to a healthy baby boy, but further tragedy strikes, and the child is left alone, abandoned and parent-less.
When a grieving mother ape happens upon the young boy, she adopts him as her own, names him Tarzan, and raises him among the ape tribe. As Tarzan grows both in stature and intelligence, he begins to question his place in the world. In his adulthood, a chance meeting with a marooned group of English people sets Tarzan upon a course of self-discovery, heroism, and romance.
Typically, I would hesitate to write a review for a hundred-year-old book, but as I read this one, I couldn’t help but notice that this book either directly or indirectly inspired many of the massive summer blockbusters and comic books of today. Tarzan of the Apes predates the late 1930’s debuts of popular DC comics like Superman and Batman by over a quarter century. While he is not the first “superhero,” having been predated at least by Spring-heeled Jack, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Burroughs’ own John Carter of Mars, he is certainly among the earliest and most enduring literary hero figures.
But is Tarzan truly a superhero in the traditional sense? The answer, to me, is unequivocally yes. Tarzan’s abilities manifest at two different levels, depending on his company. Among the apes, he is physically outmatched, but he is as quick and agile as any ape due to both his quick reflexes and his ability to process information quickly. His advanced mental acuity saves him from several sticky situations with rival apes. This first occurs when, as a child, he teaches himself how to swim, to the astonishment of other apes who are typically afraid of water. The divide between man and ape irrevocably widens when Tarzan discovers knives and rope, and quickly becomes the most fearsome hunter in the jungle.
It takes other humans to arrive in the jungle for Tarzan and the reader to realize his superiority over fellow man. While Tarzan’s intellect and intuition still appears remarkably strong (although raw) among other humans, his real advantage over other people is his prodigious strength, coupled with his intimate knowledge of the jungle animals and tribes. Fellow characters observe Tarzan’s incredible strength and grace with awe, as Tarzan rescues people time and again. At one point, Captain Dufranne, a hardened sailor in his own right, refers to Tarzan as a “superman,” long before this word entered the popular lexicon.
Of course, as with any superhero story, there are moments that defy logic for the benefit of the narrative. Tarzan rather improbably teaches himself to read, progressing from observing “little bugs” in children’s books he finds to becoming a rather adept reader before he ever meets an Englishman. Despite being unable to understand spoken English, he somehow manages to piece together how to spell “Tarzan,” the name given him by his ape mother.
Nevertheless, it is very easy to overlook these little details for what is a very readable and interesting story. Burroughs excels at describing tense moments of action in vivid detail. Tarzan’s jungle fights are violent, bloody, and merciless. As action abounds throughout the story, it is mostly fast-paced, although it takes a few chapters for the narrative to really hit its stride.
Some readers may be turned off by a few racist passages, particularly regarding Jane Porter’s servant Esmeralda, and the African tribe that frequently runs afoul of Tarzan in his adventures, but the story is not aggressively racist. These brief moments largely seem to be a product of the less-enlightened time in which the book was written.
Overall, I found this book to be a truly enjoyable read. For me, this was the type of surprise, in terms of the readability and action, that keeps me returning to well-known older books periodically. These books are just sitting out there, waiting to be read, for free! You never know what you might fall in love with.
I give it 4/5 stars.
The book is available to read for free at Project Gutenberg; free Audiobook versions at Gutenberg and Librivox; and if you have a Kindle or the Kindle reader, you can find a free no-hassle version onAmazon.
Tarzan of the Apes is set for yet another movie adaptation, this one a live-action release scheduled for July 1, 2016, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, and Christoph Waltz. Read the original work now so you can watch it come to life!