Thursday, October 25, 2018

Listened: "Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Listened: Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Not as racist as I expected. Sure, the novel is inherently racist of course, but usually not overtly racist. Burroughs gives us a caricature of a African American woman character, and refers to Africans as savages and beasts and makes them cannibals. But, he doesn't seem to go out of his way to denigrate people. (Well, not completely out of his way.) Whether the racism is bearable enough or makes you to bail is up to you. (My wife stopped listening to an Agatha Christie novel because or Christie's racism.) I stayed with this because Tarzan is so iconic nowadays - and modernized to current social standards - I wanted to see the starting point.

Anyway, here is the story. Told as though read  from a journal by Tarzan his own self. Tarzan's parents, the Greystokes from England,  were going to Africa to live and work. On the way the ship's crew mutinies and they leave the Greystokes on the West African shore. The Greystokes live there for a time and Tarzan Senior builds a sturdy home of thick clay. They battle off a gorilla and other animals and then Mother Tarzan goes crazy, never leaves the jungle cottage, and dies when Tarzan is about 24 months old. Tarzan Senior is killed when the local gorillas enter the cottage and smash him. Tarzan is about to be killed but female ape Kala swoops in to claim him since her own child recently died.

Tarzan, being human, takes much longer than the apes for his body and brain to develop. Other apes think he should be banished for being too slow and clumsy. Kerchak, the Ape in Charge (AIC), is a mean ape and would kill Tarzan but Tarzan is well protected by his mom, Kala.  As Tarzan grows his intelligence grows and gives him an advantage over the apes. After observing a local tribe he learns to use bow and arrow and spear after observing a local tribe. Tarzan learns of killing as a natural thing. He enjoys the hunt and the battle.

Later on Tarzan discovers the Tarzan Family Cottage and collects a handy dandy hunting knife that he uses to kill prey and fight off opposing apes. Tarzan also uses the supply of books in the cottage to teach himself to read.  Over time Tarzan becomes big and muscly, swings through the trees at high speed, and uses that hunting knife to kill the AIC to become the new AIC. Then, Jane shows up.

Jane, her father and a few others are the victims of yet another mutiny. Jane's super eccentric father had bought a treasure map, found the treasure, and were headed back to England - maybe the U.S. - when they too were sent to the West African shore.

Anyhoo. More things happen. Shoot-outs. Tarzan killing local people. Tarzan killing lions. Tarzan killing apes. Tarzan falling in love with Jane. Jane and Co. thinking there are two jungle men because Tarzan can read and write English - and leaves notes - but cannot speak English. Some more racist stuff. Tarzan rescuing the white people. Tarzan rescuing a Frenchman and learning French. Tarzan discovering the chest of treasure and taking it. More coincidence and a massive suspension of disbelief.

Tarzan and the Frenchmen end up coming to the U.S. so Tarzan can track down and marry Jane in Baltimore. But, Jane and Co. have left for Northern Wisconsin. But - Oh No! - Jane has promised herself to another man. The other man is a dickhead. What will Tarzan do but swing the Wisconsin forest to rescue Jane from a forest fire. Blah. Blah. Blah.

1. Let's get back to that suspension of disbelief issue. This novel is full of bullshit.

  • Tarzan taken in by an ape? 
  • Surviving as a child among apes? 
  • Swinging though trees faster than a man can run? 
    • Swinging through the pines of freaking Northern Wisconsin?! 
  • Teaching himself to read? 
  • Somehow he just knows cannibalism is wrong unlike the local people.
  • Tarzan naturally develops a view of the local populace that buys into the dominant racial theories U.S. white people. 
  • It's a mix of rational thinking about how a boy would develop in the wild versus wishful thinking and fantasy.
2. Burroughs uses a eugenics argument about how Tarzan is such a gallant man from the generations of breeding by the English nobility.
3. Jane is accompanied by a black maid, Esmeralda, who also raised her. Burroughs makes her a fat Aunt Jemima figure and has her witless and afraid. She rolls her eyes in terror, frequently faints away, and when hiding from a lion tries to climb into a cabinet where only her head fits. That is some high class 1912 era comedy.
4. Same for the local tribe. Give Burroughs some credit here, the tribe fled into Tarzan and the Apes's territory after the murderous and kidnapping ways of the European settlers. But, Burroughs gives us a vicious and superstitious tribe of cannibals who capture a Frenchman and prepare to eat him in much the same way as seen in the scene from The Naked Prey.
4. Tarzan is a manly man doing manly outdoors things with his manly body and manly visage of noble birth. The constant references to that stuff really reminded me of Roosevelt and Jack London. 
5. Ever seen that 1981 Bo Derek movie? I recall that the film had lots of nudity and violence. I'm going to look up who played Tarzan in that. Wait a second... it was Miles O'Keefe. His career specialty seems to have been sword and sorcery films where his wardrobe did not include shirts.

No comments: