Tarzan of the Apes
written by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Reading Tarzan of the Apes proved to be an experience.
I don’t know when I first heard the story of Tarzan. I assume that I acquired it from the aether of having grown up in a well-read household. It is a fun archetype: A child, orphaned and abandoned far from humanity, is raised in the wild by animals and grows up strong and clever.
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, written in 1894, has the same basic premise. There are a number of more recent books with the same premise, although they tend to add telepathic communication to the mix. I’d watched movies and cartoons of these classic stories, and read reworkings of the archetype many times before I ever got around to reading Tarzan of the Apes, as written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912.
I don’t consider myself an easily offended reader, and I wasn’t even offended, precisely, by reading this book. Astounded, maybe. Appalled. Intrigued in the way of watching a train wreck. It is, I think, the single most prejudiced book I have ever read. If there’s a prejudice you can think of, it’s in there.
The characters aren’t so much prejudiced as living in a world created by the author where certain prejudices are appropriate. Up is up, down is down, and some people are better than others.
It is, in this world, completely appropriate for the British to be rulers of all because they are better—smarter, stronger, more moral—than everyone else. The French are good enough to associate with; the Germans are not. The Russians are automatically villainous. Every other nationality is essentially on a level with the apes by whom Tarzan was raised. Presumably Tarzan wasn’t as bad off as all that, being raised by apes, since that was the equivalent of having a black nanny.
Aristocrats have naturally bred themselves to be better in all ways then those of the lower classes, so even if an aristocratic child is abandoned in the wilderness he can use his natural aristocratic abilities to rise above his situation and reclaim his proper place.
The female characters are easily manipulated by both the good guys and the bad guys, and appropriately grateful when saved. Jane is a strong and lovely woman, being British aristocracy, and shows this by being a devoted assistant to her father and utterly besotted by the manly Tarzan.
While the story is archetypal and quite wonderful, the book itself is very much a look into the mindset of a certain type of person (white male) in a certain time period (early 1900s.) It is very much a representation of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny.
It’s not so much that I don’t recommend this book as I want to give you fair warning for what you’re getting yourself into if you decide to read it.
Hmm, how does this compare to Barbara Cartland?
A tricky question:
Tarzan was actually more prejudiced than the Barbara Cartland book I read, but mostly because Cartland didn’t actually acknowledge the existence of other races or nationalities as far as I recall.
On the other hand, she was much more forthright in her appearance prejudices. Her issue was that beautiful people were Good and ugly people were Bad, regardless of their actions. While Burroughs certainly had all of his good guys be beautiful, and his bad guys ugly, he never had them act contrary to their apparent nature and expect the reader to continue believe they were good or bad based upon their appearance in conflict with their actions.