The books do this, moreover, despite Burroughs’s sometimes stilted language, period stereotypes (dotty professor, “humorous” Black maid, cartoon Russian anarchist) and myriad improbabilities in their plotting. Racial attitudes and beliefs are typical of the time yet more nuanced than you might expect: Tarzan judges people, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity, solely by their character. Courage, fortitude and compassion — these are the qualities that matter.
Burroughs opens “Tarzan of the Apes” (1914) with an irresistible hook: “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.” The pages that follow describe how the infant son of the dead Lord and Lady Greystoke is reared by an anthropoid ape named Kala and learns to survive and flourish in the African jungle. One day, the grown Tarzan swings out of the trees to rescue a party of shipwrecked Westerners, thereby encountering Baltimorean Jane Porter and her suitor, the English aristocrat William Clayton, heir-apparent to the Greystoke title and estates. Many adventures follow but, with a daring that most writers would shrink from, Burroughs brings the novel to a climax in, of all places, Wisconsin.
There, Jane and Tarzan finally acknowledge their love for each other, even though Jane feels honor-bound to keep her promise to wed Clayton. Shortly after a tearful farewell, the brokenhearted ape-man learns that he is, in fact, the rightful Lord Greystoke. Just then, Clayton enters and cheekily asks, “How the devil did you ever get into that bally jungle?” The answer provides the novel’s throat-catching final lines:
“ ‘I was born there,’ said Tarzan, quietly. ‘My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was.’ ”
This act of renunciation drives home one of Burroughs’s main themes: That despite a brutish, not British, upbringing, Kala’s son possesses unassailable nobility and fineness of character. Note that this isn’t because of aristocratic blood, family background or race. Rather the novel presents Tarzan as Rousseau’s unspoiled child of nature, a literally noble savage free from the vices and corruption associated with advanced industrial society. However, the encounter with Jane Porter has seriously shaken his equanimity.
As “The Return of Tarzan” (1915) opens, the ape-man feels psychologically divided between the claims of “civilization” and the call of the wild. (This is a common literary theme of the era — think of Jack London’s sled dog Buck, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.) What should a lord of the jungle do with his life?
First, Monsieur Jean C. Tarzan tries to adapt to Parisian high society — at least until a dastardly Russian named Nikolas Rokoff contrives to make it appear that Tarzan’s friendship with the Countess de Coude masks a full-fledged love affair. To save the lady’s honor, Tarzan again chooses self-sacrifice, resolving to die in a duel with her husband, the finest pistol shot in France. Miraculously, he survives and, for good measure, proves the countess’s innocence.
Next, the ape-man travels to Algeria to expose a traitor in the French Foreign Legion. By freeing a young Arab woman from slavery, he earns the undying gratitude of her father, a powerful desert sheikh. “All that is Kadour ben Saden’s is thine, my friend, even to his life.” Tarzan rapidly comes to admire the sheikh and his stern, dignified warriors, but resists the temptation to settle among them permanently.
After thwarting several murder attempts by Rokoff, our hero finally returns to his beloved African homeland. “Who would go back to the stifling, wicked cities of civilized man when the mighty reaches of the great jungle offered peace and liberty? Not he.” Before long Tarzan, by now a specialist in rescuing people from certain death, saves an African named Busuli, then joins his new friend’s people, the Waziri, among whom he finds contentment — for a while.
Even the most casual reader of “The Return of Tarzan” will notice its neatly orchestrated shifts, as its displaced protagonist “tries out” life among White Europeans, sunburnt Arabs and Black Waziri. But Tarzan’s journey of self-discovery isn’t over yet. While exploring the mysterious, half-ruined city of Opar, he is captured by its savage inhabitants, most of whom are virtually indistinguishable from H.G. Wells’s bestial Morlocks. Only Opar’s high priestess La preserves a fully human beauty and Tarzan the Irresistible naturally catches her eye.
Following a lucky escape from Opar, the weary-hearted lord of the jungle finally decides, in Walt Whitman’s phrase, to “turn and live with the animals. They are so placid and self-contained.” He rejoins the apes he grew up with and gradually begins to forget the heartache and complexity of being human. At which point Jane reappears – along with Clayton and Rokoff.
As this précis indicates, the Tarzan novels repeatedly extol glad animal spirits and natural instinct over western culture’s soul-deadening constraints and artificiality. This is a simplistic dichotomy, albeit useful for highly melodramatic storytelling. In his many, many adventures to come, the ape-man will sometimes appear as the urbane and proper Lord Greystoke, but whenever serious danger threatens, he will, in approved superhero fashion, quickly doff his bespoke suit and take to the trees as Tarzan the untamed, Tarzan the invincible.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.