Book Review: Tarzan of the Apes

Book Name: Tarzan of the Apes
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
First Published: 1912

Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in Chicago, Illinois. He attended many schools in the area and when he came of age, enlisted with the 7th U.S. Calvary in Fort Grant, Arizona Territory. After being diagnosed with a heart problem, he was discharged in 1897.

Burroughs had trouble finding and keeping a job during his younger years. He worked many low paying jobs including that of being a pencil sharpener wholesaler. During this time he began to read pulp fiction novels in his spare time. He felt that he could turn out a story as good as what he was reading and began to write stories of his own. His first novel became the first of the Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars, which was followed quickly by two sequels. They were his break-out novels and brought him fame as a pulp fiction author. At the same time, he also created the Tarzan of the Apes series and it would prove to be his most popular character and series overall. He would go on to write 24 Tarzan novels during his writing career and the series would not only spawn many movies, radio dramas and comic books, but the character of Tarzan would become an icon of pop culture. Tarzan made Edgar Rice Burroughs writing fortune.

In 1915, Burroughs purchased a large ranch in north Los Angeles, CA which he named “Tarzana” in honor of his Tarzan novels and there he lived with his family and wrote his books for many years. In 1927, the community that sprang up around his ranch voted to adopt that name for their town and it still holds that name to this day. The Tarzana ranch is currently run by the Burroughs estate.

Burroughs served as a war correspondent during World War II, but after the war ended, his health problems caught up with him and he died of a heart attack in 1950. During his life-time, he wrote and published almost 80 novels.

Tarzan of the Apes is the first of a long series of novels about John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, who is born in the western coastal jungles of Africa to marooned parents who are killed shortly after his birth. Clayton is adopted as an infant by the she-ape Kala and is renamed “Tarzan” which means “white skin” in the ape language. He is raised as an ape. The apes in the novel are not gorillas, but a species of ape that was invented by the author, who have a complex culture and language of their own. Tarzan feels alienated from the other apes due to his physical differences. Eventually, he discovers his biological parents’ cabin where he learns of other humans like himself from picture books. Tarzan teaches himself to read and write via a dictionary that was part of his parent’s meager library.

As time goes by, an tribe of humans settles in the ape’s jungle and Kala is killed by one of their hunters. Tarzan takes revenge for the death of his adopted mother and begins an antagonistic relationship with the tribe, raiding their village for weapons and pulling cruel pranks on them. The humans are unnerved by Tarzan and regard him as an evil spirit. Tarzan’s reputation among the apes grows and Kerchak, the leader of the apes, grows jealous Tarzan’s prowess. Finally, the two do battle and Tarzan kills Kerchak and assumes his place as king of the apes.

Meanwhile, a party of Europeans are marooned on the coast, including Jane Porter, the first white woman that Tarzan has ever seen. Tarzan saves Jane from the dangers of the jungle and falls in love with her. He does not know that he is an English lord in his own right, nor that another in Jane’s party is his cousin, William Clayton, who has claimed Tarzan’s title and ancestral estate since John Clayton is presumed dead.

Tarzan rescues a French Naval Officer named Paul D’Arnot who teaches Tarzan how to speak French and how to behave among white men. He also serves as a travel guide to Tarzan to take him to the nearest colonial outposts when Tarzan decides to follow after Jane. It is D’Arnot that discovers Tarzan’s true identity by studying the remains of Tarzan’s parent’s cabin.

Eventually, Tarzan follows Jane all the way to Wisconsin where she is planning on marrying William Clayton. There Tarzan must make a choice, claim his inheritance as an English Lord, or conceal and renounce his heritage for the sake of the woman he loves.

My introduction to Tarzan was a simple one. I grew up in a small town on the edge of nowhere. There was not much to do as a teen, but fortunately our public library was an hour’s bicycle ride from my home. I spent many an afternoon staying out of the rain at the library reading books. One of the authors that had a great deal of influence on me as a young reader was Edgar Rice Burroughs. During this time period, his novels had been going through a major reprinting and our public library was filled with all of his series. So my rainy world was filled with stories of Barsoom, The Land that Time Forgot, and Tarzan of the Apes. I found the first Tarzan novels to be good, especially Tarzan’s origin story, but later I feel that the series lost some of its steam. ERB mixed Tarzan in with the other series that he wrote, including Barsoom and Pellucidar, which watered down the original concept of the apeman. Also, perhaps as a young woman, I did not relate to Tarzan as much as my male counterparts, although I did enjoy reading about Jane Porter. I had learned of Tarzan via the movies first, the character has become an pop culture icon of our time after all, and yet the actual novel is richer and more interesting than what the movies distilled. It is a book well worth reading even if you are not a fan of pulp fiction.

Tarzan of the Apes Book Cover 1912Tarzan of the Apes is available for free download at Project Gutenberg. I hope that you will consider adding it to your reading list as well as other Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. His ideas have stuck around for a long time and you’ll see signs of his original ideas laced in many of the novels and movies we create today. You owe it to yourself to view the original material where these concepts came from.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Tarzan of the Apes”

  1. ERB has always been one of my favorite authors. I have reprints of all of his books. My favorites have always been the Barsoom books, despite Disney’s bungled mega flop. I too grew up in a small town on the edge of nowhere. The library was my sole escape from the dreary world I lived in. Most of the early SciFi pop culture adventures are definitely male-centric so perhaps I enjoyed them more than a young girl might have. I still have a fondness for the ’30s SciFi and fantasy yarns, scantily clad women and all.

    1. One of things that I like about ERB’s writing is that he usually created strong women to go with his macho male characters. I adored Dejah Thoris, Jane Porter and Sola for their strong personalities and independent spirits. I didn’t think too much about the “naked” part. LOL However, I’m sure that to the boys, that was an attraction.

  2. I’ve listened to a couple of the John Carter books and enjoyed them. I’ll probably check out Tarzan at some point, too. You certainly make me want to pick up the early ones.

    1. The first two or three are definitely worth the read. Tarzan is what made ERB’s fame after all. After that, your taste may vary. I’ve spoken with fans that loved every single Tarzan novel, others like me that like the first ones and then tapered off a bit.

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