African heirs and graces

Elmo Lincoln in Tarzan of the Apes (1918) giving his famous “cry of a great bull ape who has made a kill”; unfortunately this was a silent film so the cry has to be imagined…

Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes
Introduction by Gore Vidal, afterword by Michael Meyer
Signet Classics 2008 (1914)

Everyone must have their vision of Tarzan, whether courtesy of the two feature length animations, comics, book covers or the numerous celluloid stars who have strapped on the loincloth, from Elmo Lincoln through Johnny Weissmuller (who, when he got too old and fat, became Jungle Jim in a TV series), Gordon Scott (“my” Tarzan), Jock Mahoney, Ron Ely (TV and feature film) and Christophe Lambert (an appropriate choice as French is Tarzan’s first spoken human language). Or maybe you’ve come across him in the parody George of the Jungle, an animated TV series which aired in the 60s, spawned a feature film and now a remake to coincide with the centenary of Tarzan of the Apes first book publication. Until lack of height, physique and any practical sense told me otherwise, I’m sure I was not alone in fantasising life as an ape-man, despite the absence of a convenient jungle.

Burroughs’ novel was first issued in serial form in 1912, purporting to outline a report which was given him soon after 1909:

I had 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 strange tale.

Strangely, within three or four pages Burroughs gives up the pretence of recounting a sober history and lapses into his preferred role of omniscient narrator:

So it was that from the second day out from Freetown [present-day Sierra Leone] John Clayton and his young wife witnessed scenes upon the deck of the Fuwalda such as they had believed were never enacted outside the covers of printed stories of the sea.

From this and similar phrases (“if you do not find it credible … [this story at least] is unique, remarkable, and interesting”) Burroughs distances himself from any need to be a reliable narrator. This hasn’t stopped some commentators, notably Philip José Farmer in his Tarzan Alive (1972), from elaborating the conceit that the Tarzan tales are based on real people with just some facts changed to conceal the real identities of the protagonists. So the reader is later misdirected to believe that the West African shore on which the Claytons are marooned by the Fuwalda mutineers is about 10° south of the equator, in present-day Angola, whereas it’s more likely that the Claytons were landed about 2° S in Gabon. At least, so thinks Farmer.

West Africa

Be that as it may, the young and pregnant Alice, Lady Greystoke soon gives birth to a baby in the hut that John Clayton builds, though the balance of her mind is disturbed by the events she has witnessed. A year later, in 1889, she fades away and dies, followed by Lord Greystoke who is killed by an ‘anthropoid ape’, a previously unknown primate species. The weak young baby is brought up by a she-ape, in time growing to become a powerful and resourceful young man who uses his human intelligence to overcome the handicaps of his lesser physique and hold his own among the apes.

Thus far we have the romance of a feral child brought up by wild animals, its concept no doubt familiar from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, published a little before in 1894. To the motif of the Noble Savage, which Rousseau supposedly had promulgated, Burroughs cheekily added genetically inherited traits of nobility and intelligence for his orphaned aristocrat — fictitious, of course. While exploring his dead parents’ hut he comes across books and writing, allowing him to teach himself literacy (though not how to speak); while terrorising the Mbonga’s tribe he is able to build on their superstitious fears, though he himself has no concept of supernatural beings.

Elmo Lincoln, the first screen Tarzan, was born in 1889, the year after the 'real' Tarzan's birth. He wears the rope and locket described in the book, though his headband may be there to keep his wig on.
Elmo Lincoln, the first screen Tarzan, was born in 1889, the year after the ‘real’ Tarzan’s birth. He wears the rope and locket described in the book, though his headband may be there to keep his wig on. Here Tarzan is trying to decipher the books from the hut his deceased father built in the jungle.

Burroughs is a master of plotting, at least as far as pulp novels are concerned. The first twelve chapters, dealing with what medievalists call the enfance of the hero, can be divided into three groups of four chapters: the story of Tarzan’s parents until their deaths; Tarzan’s life with the apes; and his encounters with Mbonga’s tribe until his decision to leave the apes aged twenty in 1908. The next twelve chapters concern his dealings with white men, particularly those who’ve been dumped on this self-same unexplored shore by mutineers (what a coincidence!) — these include his cousin, who’s due to inherit the Greystoke title, bumbling professor Archimedes Q Porter and his daughter Jane. Yes, the Jane. These dozen chapters are also grouped in fours: first contact; burial of Tarzan’s parents and some treasure, both of which play pivotal parts in the unfolding story; and the departure of all the surviving characters except for the French lieutenant D’arnot who is rescued and nursed by the ape-man. The final four chapters concern Tarzan’s departure from his native jungle via an African port and Paris to end up in Baltimore well before the end of 1909.

This schema is not intrusive, I must note, and the storyline flows almost effortlessly. Thankfully there aren’t yet the clichéd cliffhangers that the author had recourse to in the several later adventures, where Tarzan — on the way to rescue someone, inevitably — gets knocked unconscious, only to find himself in yet another pickle, but there is the hint of that to come. There are the dreadful stereotypes, of course, such as Esmeralda’s black maid, full of malapropisms and fainting fits, the absentminded academic types, the superstitious natives, the white lowlife blackguards with their coarse language, the brave upper-class Englishman with his stiff upper lip, the intelligent but defenceless damsel-in-distress who steals the hero’s heart. Racist? Gender biased? Class-conscious? How could Burroughs not be of his age and social background? Yet he could be sensitive at times, and his stereotypes could individually show a rare humanity.

One hundred years on, our credulity can be tested. Those anthropoid apes, for example — a wonderful invention for the needs of the story but implausible, surely? I can only think that Burroughs got the idea for these from reconstructions of Neanderthal Man such as the inaccurate model based on available bones made and displayed around 1920 in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago: could he have seen something similar to this primitive reconstruction?

And of course, Tarzan gets his mate, Jane. Or does he? Burroughs confounds expectations, and rather cleverly inserts a note at the end of the novel: The further adventures of Tarzan, and what came of his noble act of self-renunciation, will be told in the next book of Tarzan. Naturally this book was to be entitled The Return of Tarzan. This first effort, however, was one of the best, before the author descended into nonsensical tales about lands at the earth’s core and lost Roman legions in Africa. This was still the Dark Continent, and the mystery associated with Africa, stimulated by Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines for example, ensured that Tarzan would have plenty of terra incognita to explore before the middle of the century brought the whole of Africa properly mapped and explored.

This edition includes an illuminating essay from 1963 by Gore Vidal as an introduction, and an afterword by Professor Meyer setting the historical context behind the novel’s origins.

13 thoughts on “African heirs and graces

    1. Quickly then, 2014 is the centenary and the year is slipping away! Seriously, it’s hard to underestimate the appeal this bit of pulp fiction has generated.


  1. I’m glad I was captured by the pun in the title, and came back to read this one!
    Actually, books set in that era and even much later which depict the characters as not racist, gender-biased and class conscious are anachronistic. (Of course, ones set in the modern era which do the same are based on self-delusion – those things are all alive and well, albeit in changed forms, even among those who profess to abhor them.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The little I know about psychology suggests that prejudice comes naturally to us, hard-wired into our brains as a survival instinct where strangers might represent danger. The problem arises where that prejudice forces individuals and groups into stereotypes, especially where there is no basis in fact for that judgement. Sensible and sensitive people have to work really hard to avoid thus pigeonholing others as a result of culturally generated stereotypes.

      Glad the punny title caught your attention!


      1. Fascinating, too, to go into how leadership roles vary according to situation. This has happened a lot during wars when ‘bosses’ have often been of lower rank than their employees. In a play, one of the best depictions of this was ‘The Admirable Crighton’.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sorry to have missed this reply, Leslie, from half a year ago. Yes, ‘The Admirable Crichton’, thanks for reminding me of yet another title I’ve heard of but never read!


  2. I certainly imagined the apes as reasonably ordinary apes when I read it, only slightly adapted to fit the needs of the narrative, but that may just be my prejudice, I didn’t do any close reading. The point about Neanderthals is interesting though, I find it fascinating, and somewhat humbling, to consider that during most of human history Homo sapiens was just one of several human species. Imagining Tarzan in such a setting would certainly work too.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. On the other hand their movement patterns fit better with actual apes. They climb around in trees rather than walk, they don’t use tools etc. In that regard the description fits better with actual apes, albeit slightly anthropomorphized.


  3. Great review. My curiosity was piqued even more by the description of Tarzan having educated himself–am all the more interested in reading this now.

    As to testing our credulity, there is also the Crichton book (though I think that involves genetics) where we have chimps that can speak– an earlier one Congo, where they use sign language (this I think is research based), so poor Burroughs may not be so off.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That poor chimpanzee who learnt to communicate by sign language: when he (I think he was male) was placed in a cage with other non-signing chimps he was unable to socialise with them and could be seen desperately signing to the humans “Help me!” when they ostracised him (and possibly worse). Anyway, I’m curious now to read your reactions to the first Tarzan book: having just read some Chinua Achebe I think, in fact I’m certain he’d’ve been disdainful of Burroughs’ depiction of Africans as either superstitious natives or noble savages.


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