Encountering Tarzan

It was in the summer of 1968 that I first encountered Tarzan.

Oh, I don’t mean I met him. I was with my father in Taylor’s Bookstore (on the corner of 114th Street and Broadway), when my dad took a book off one of the shelves. “Have you ever read Tarzan?” he asked. I hadn’t. But what I had read was Daniel Boone: The Opening of the Wilderness, by John Mason Brown. As part of my obsession with all things Boone (starting with the Fess Parker TV series), I had checked out the book regularly from my high school library (my name was the only one on the library card — and the school gave the card to me as a memento when it was done).

My dad was trying to wean me off of Boone, but he only succeeded in replacing one obsession with another. In place of Daniel Boone, I now became obsessed with Tarzan. I read the first book of the Tarzan series – a vivid, heart-pounding page-turner about a man raised by the Great Apes of Africa – and became hooked on the ape-man and, subsequently, all the books written by Tarzan’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

My fascination with Tarzan (who first appeared in a 1912 pulp magazine) is based not so much on the ape-man’s primitive, back-to-nature quality as on his unusual combination of savagery and civilization. Unlike the popular Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, ERB’s Tarzan had a dual nature: in the civilized world, he is Lord Greystoke, erudite, well-mannered, and well-read, the master of many languages, including ape talk. As Tarzan, however, he is a wild and deadly adversary, just as much at home fighting lions as other men would be fighting their wives. Countless times, he risks his life for others, leaping on the back of a lion, encircling it with one arm, and using his other arm to plunge a knife repeatedly in its side. When the lion dies, the victorious ape-man puts one foot on the carcass and lets out a blood-curdling yell – the victory cry of the bull ape – which unsettles anyone who hears it.

Burroughs wisely combines this unusual character with fast-moving, unbelievably fun plots that relied a great deal on coincidence, romance, and nasty baddies.

I read all 25 of ERB’s Tarzan books (and even read the authorized sequel to the series, Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, by Fritz Leiber) and then went on to the rest of the Burroughs canon, mostly sci-fi and fantasy books (heck, all ERB’s books were fantasies, even the melodramas like The Girl from Hollywood): the 11 Mars books, the 5 Venus books, the 7 “inner-world” novels (about Pellucidar, the primitive world within our world), and the numerous non-series novels that the prolific author turned out.

With Tom Sinclair and Christian Doherty, I even created a bizarre homage to him with The Edgar Rice Burroughs Discussion Hour. Burroughs’s books are terrific page-turners, boyhood daydreams of the best sort, where the bad guys can be bested by a true blue hero and true love can succeed despite the odds. As Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars often said, “While there is life, there is hope!”

Now, many years later, I have been re-reading all the Tarzan books. I am just finishing the 20th one, Tarzan and the Forbidden City, and even though it is the weakest one yet – short on ideas, Burroughs adapted a radio script for the plot – it still keeps you going, with one fast-paced coincidence after another. The books also showcased ERB’s sly sense of humor: Tarzan and the City of Gold features an amusing exchange between a potential antagonist and the ape-man, while Tarzan and the Lion Man features a wonderful send-up of Hollywood’s view of Tarzan (in his lifetime, the studios never captured the essence of Tarzan, making him a monosyllabic brute; the closest they came to ERB’s hero was in the 1959 film, aptly named Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure).

I was at the gym the other day, and a heavyset, middle-aged man with a white beard addressed me.

“Good stuff,” he said, indicating the Tarzan book that was sitting in my bag. “Oh, you’ve read Tarzan?”

“I read it as a kid,” he said. “My father introduced me to it.” It was a Burroughs-like coincidence. “I’m trying to get my son to read it,” he added.

“Really?” I replied, smiling to myself. I guess passing on Tarzan is something that fathers just do.

August 17, 2013