Saturday, April 16, 2016

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes; and The Return of Tarzan


Opening Passages: From Tarzan of the Apes:

I heard this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own skeptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the tale.

From The Return of Tarzan:

"Magnifique!" ejaculated the Countess de Coude, beneath her breath.

Summary: John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, is dispatched to British West Africa to investigate complaints that blacks are being mistreated; he goes with his young wife Alice, who is pregnant with their child. They never make it to their intended destination, however, and find themselves on a jungle-touched shore, many, many miles from civilization. Being resourceful people, they survive for a while, building a cabin and bringing their son into the world; but it is a hard thing, and they both die. The son is saved due to the compassion of an ape named Kala, whose only baby has just died; she takes the boy as her own, defending his place in her ape-tribe, where the apes call him 'White Skin': Tarzan. A human boy is more helpless than any ape; but if the point can be reached where the boy's survival can be reasonably assured, the boy has something that outmatches any ape. The fortunes of Tarzan are tied with this, human reason, by which a single man with a tiny bit of leisure can have more ingenuity than an entire civilization of apes. He discovers his father's cabin, not knowing its relation to himself, and by innate curiosity and years of study teaches himself to read and write English, a language he cannot speak.

One day a new group of people is marooned on the same coasts, including William Cecil Clayton, who has become Lord Greystoke in the absence of the rightful heir to the title, and Jane Porter, an American girl from Baltimore. Through his help, they survive to be rescued. Tarzan in the meantime saves the life of a French officer, Paul D'Arnot, and from him learns to speak his first human language: French. With D'Arnot's friendship Tarzan learns the ways of civilization and sets out to find Jane again. He discovers that she has promised her hand to another, and because of it, he renounces any attempt to reclaim his title, returning instead to France, not knowing what he will do with himself alone in white man's civilization.

Which, indeed, proves to be an interesting question as we pick up in the sequel, since Tarzan soon discovers that civilization can be more perilous than the jungle as he finds himself thrust into the middle of a seamy world of blackmail, espionage, and assassination, facing off against the Russian villain, Nikolas Rokoff. This eventually leads him to Algeria on a mission for the French war ministry, and then off to Cape Town. On the way to Cape Town, however, he is pushed overboard by Rokoff and marooned again in his old haunts. He is adopted into the native Waziri tribe and discovers an ancient outpost of Atlantis, called Opar, where the human race has begun to degenerate into bestial ways, or, indeed, worse, since (as we discover throughout The Return of Tarzan) the ingenuity of human reason does not confine itself to good.

In the meantime, Jane, Clayton, and Nikolas Rokoff (under an assumed name) find themselves marooned not far from where everyone, it seems, is always marooned. Jane's life is again saved by Tarzan, who has completed the "cycle of evolution" by living again with his original tribe of apes. The sequel ends with a marriage as the first book had ended with the threat of a marriage, and we see Tarzan returning once more to civilization.

Burroughs writes by what may be called the method of inversions; he delights in turning things upside-down. The English aristocrat is raised by apes. Civilization is more dangerous than the wild. Beasts are more noble and honorable than most men. The perfection of manhood is achieved among the animals of the jungle. The last representatives of what was once the greatest of all civilizations have become degraded to something hardly recognizable as human. Jane, having survived the jungle, goes back home to live in Wisconsin, which, indeed, is in some ways about as opposite to the African jungles of Tarzan as one can imagine.

Burroughs is often criticized for trying to drive stories by coincidences, as witnessed, for instance, by the multiple maroonings of obviously connected people in the same place at convenient times, but I think to some extent this ignores an important feature of all these fortunate and unfortunate happenstances. In general they tend to be doublings that intensify the inversions. Kala is the double of Alice and also her inversion. Lord Greystoke is the contrasting double of Lord Greystoke; at the same moment that the real Lord Greystoke is eating raw flesh in the jungle, the other Lord Greystoke is sending his steak back for being undercooked. The two maroonings of Tarzan of the Apes are contrasted by the presence of Tarzan to assist the second marooned party; the two maroonings of The Return of Tarzan create an inverted double of the originals. The Arabic girl and the Oparian girl are doubled inversions of the others, each assisting Tarzan, one honorably and nobly, and the other selfishly. The first book ends with threat of marriage, the second book ends with marriage -- and a double marriage, at that. Exotic Opar inverts exotic France in civilization and is its double in peril. Through the course of the two books, Tarzan rises from ape to primitive man to civilized man, then descends from civilized man to primitive man to ape; the relation between Jane and Tarzan in the one book is the inverted double of their relation in the other. This is not a mere accident of these two books alone; doublings are extremely common throughout all the Tarzan books, and the very nature of the character, the ape-man, the civilized savage, would guarantee the existence of inversions throughout, even if it weren't the case that the author was obviously enjoying all the paradoxes.

I had thought that I had never read The Return of Tarzan before, but enough of it was familiar that I must have at some point. In any case, Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan are best read together; they form a completed circle and make for an integrated story, particularly as the latter begins soon after the former ends and it is the latter, not the former, that really brings us to a point suitable for an ending.

The Greeks often recognized three parts to human life: reason, thymos, and desire. Civilization in these books knows plenty of reason and plenty of desire, but of thymos it knows very little. Thymos is that in us which rises to the difficult challenge; and civilization tends to limit the opportunities for the development of this. Indeed, it may well produce Men without Chests, to borrow C. S. Lewis's phrase for it, who, in the end, are merely cunning manipulators out for selfish ends. Tarzan is raised above the beasts of the jungle by reason, but ironically it is thymos, learned from the beasts of the jungle, that raises him above merely ordinary men. Human greatness lies not merely in civilization but in heroism; and we find a heroism civilizaton cannot teach in Tarzan of the Apes.

Favorite Passages: From Tarzan of the Apes:

When in a short time they had reached the beach, only to find no camp in sight, Philander was positive that they were north of their proper destination, while, as a matter of fact they were about two hundred yards south of it.

It never occurred to either of these impractical theorists to call aloud on the chance of attracting their friends' attention. Instead, with all the assurance that deductive reasoning from a wrong premise induces in one, Mr. Samuel T. Philander grasped Professor Archimedes O. Porter firmly by the arm and hurried the weakly protesting old gentleman off in the direction of Cape Town, fifteen hundred miles to the south. (p. 131)

From The Return of Tarzan:

Jane Porter shuddered. "The mysterious jungle," she murmured. "The terrible jungle. It renders even the manifestations of friendship terrifying." (p. 192)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes, Signet (New York: 2008).

Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Return of Tarzan, Ballantine (New York: 1992).

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