A Trip to Burroughs’ Jungle

I had a running joke with one of my English professors at USF; he could never fathom my attachment to Edgar Rice Burroughs.   And I was never willing to relinquish said-attachment.  It’s not that I don’t think my professor had some valid points; Burroughs’ books are not without flaws.  But nevertheless, if you’re looking for beautiful prose and a ripping good yarn (that’s really the only way to put it), Burroughs is the best.

In discussing Burroughs, I feel like I have to start with Tarzan of the Apes.  He has others I like better, but that’s certainly his best known–and one of his best.

I think everyone has an idea of the basic plot of Tarzan–a child is raised by apes, becomes Lord of the Jungle, and romances Jane.  So far, true.  Before going further though, two Tarzan concepts to clear up.

He never says “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”  Before he ever meets Jane, he has taught himself how to read English, but can’t speak any.  They’re separated for a while, and by the time they meet again, he’s completely fluent in both English and French.  (That’s a usual Burroughs Implausability–he likes to throw people from totally different cultures together, but he needs them to talk to each other, so in Burroughs’ world it takes about two weeks to learn a foreign language fluently.  You just have to go with it.)

Second, Tarzan doesn’t shriek while swinging on vines.  He does swing on vines.  And he does shriek–but that’s the cry of the Great Bull Ape after a kill.  He doesn’t do both at the same time.

Now that we cleared that up…Tarzan of the Apes follows Tarzan from birth, to his adoption by the Great Ape Kala, how he grows up among the apes, becomes Lord of the Jungle, and, eventually, how he romances Jane.  Along the way, I lose track of how many lions and gorillas and other apes he fights.  Burroughs’ books are nothing if not exciting–there will be blood.  But it’s not graphic.  There will be heart-pounding action, obstacles to surmount, and lots of hand-to-hand combat.  And, of course, some romance.

All of it is against the backdrop of Burroughs’ African jungle.  Along with his prose, one of his great strengths is in creating bizarre and fascinating landscapes–the surface of Mars, the interior of the moon, the interior of the Earth.  And I include the jungle as one of his landscapes, because it’s not accurate to Africa.  But I think it’s the way everyone who doesn’t know the jungle (me included) imagines it, with great vaulting canopies of trees, dangerous beasts lurking behind every bush, and adventure always at hand.

So the great virtues of Tarzan, and most Burroughs books, are the prose, the action, and the landscape.  I should probably warn you of the most prevalent flaws as well, at least as relevant to Tarzan.  If you want a strong heroine, you’ve got the wrong writer.  Jane spends a lot of time being carried off by people–literally.  There are also some racist parts about the African natives.  Without condoning that, I think we also have to accept that Burroughs was a product of his time.  We can’t expect 2010 enlightenment in a novel written in 1912.  I’ve never found it severe enough to interfere with my enjoyment of the story.

That’s all, really.  And trust me, the positives of the story make it worth it.  Two more practical things to note, before you pick up Tarzan.  I have a used copy of the book–I can’t remember where I got it anymore, but it’s missing the first 12 pages.  This doesn’t bother me, because, despite being completely action-packed later on, Tarzan starts slow.  My advice is, if you feel like it’s dragging, just skip to the last page of chapter 3.  In the first three chapters, John Clayton (also known as Lord Greystoke) and his wife are on a ship; there’s a mutiny; they end up set ashore in Africa; he builds a cabin and she has a baby; she dies of an unspecified illness when the baby is a year old.  That’s all you need to know.

And if you get to the end, and think–wait, that can’t be the end!–you’re right.  They ought to just publish The Return of Tarzan in the same volume, because the story continues.

Author’s site: http://www.tarzan.com/

4 thoughts on “A Trip to Burroughs’ Jungle

  1. Dennis

    Your blog captures the essence of a great American storyteller who is just plain fun to read. An observation on Burroughs’ racism: First, you’re right that it’s definitely there. Blacks in the Tarzan books are often cannibals and sometimes noble savages. Jane’s maid servant is a likable buffoon in the Stepin Fetchit tradition. The one thing they never are is the equal of white Americans and Europeans. But perhaps we should read Tarzan, not in spite of the racism, but in part because of it. Like Mark Twain, Burroughs gives us a window on attitudes that were prevalent in a bygone era. We should know about those attitudes so that we can make sure they don’t crop up again. And while we’re at it, we can be glad for how far we’ve come.

    1. Thank you for that perspective on racism in Burroughs books–not something to accept but to observe, both for historical interest and as a benchmark. An interesting comparison to make to Mark Twain, as I think Twain was able to portray racism and know that that’s what he was portraying, while Burroughs thought he was being normal…which doesn’t mean he can’t also show us something valuable, even if he lacked Twain’s level of enlightenment.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Diane

    Very nice summary and review of a classic series of books. And you don’t even refer to Disney’s version, which I’m sure is different from the story Burroughs actually wrote.

    1. I saw the Disney Tarzan once when it first came out, and haven’t felt obliged to see it again…I think it’s probably a decent movie, but it doesn’t have much to do with Burroughs. Thanks for reminding me about it! A few notes of comparison–in the book, Clayton is a good guy, and Jane is not anywhere capable enough to get along living in the jungle. One thing Disney did do well, if I can remember it well enough, was emphasizing the relationship Tarzan had with his ape-mother, which was also key in the book.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review–thanks for commenting! 🙂

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