Appreciation for an old classic

by Duane "Allen" Andersen, Jr.

Push play. If you don't recognize that call, you're either deaf or dead.

Tarzan. At least, that's how the movie makers at MGM made him sound in 1932.

Originally published in a pulp magazine, the name, and the various versions of the Tarzan story are now a part of our Americana. But how many people know the original story of the ape man?

I discovered, through one of my favorite podcasts, The Classic Tales, the original story of Tarzan as written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912. Recorded in 7 parts, similar to the serial format pulp magazines employed at the time of it's original publication, this pay-per-podcast audio book production is really well done and proved more than worth the $5.50 I spent on it. (Accidentally - I was reviewing the site and I clicked on the PayPal button to see what was involved, only to find that I was logged into PayPal and the transaction went right through!)

I was passingly familiar with various movie versions of the story, most recently the Disney version (an almost sugary adaptation compared to the original, but with a really
good soundtrack featuring Phil Collins),but also the 1984 version by director Hugh Hudson of "Chariots of Fire" fame, and, unfortunately, the 1981 version featuring Bo Derek. But I had never read any of the books, especially the original.

"The movie isn't as good as the book" was never more true than for Tarzan. Granted, Mr. Burroughs was writing for a pulp fiction audience and his story lacks the depth and detail of a novel, but nonetheless he spun a great tale that deserves it's place in American literature; a tale that is not only great fun, but brings up questions of ethics, social status, and the true nature of the animal we call "human" and who really deserves that title.

If you haven't read it, or listened to an audio version, the book is available to read online in it's entirety. The audio version I have is available at the link above. Keep in mind that the story was written at a time when racial attitudes were sadly very different then they are today, and worse it was written about a time when slavery was still a reality. However the mature reader will recognize that the author is simply reflecting the world he lived in. If you share it with your children you will want to be able to answer questions that will come up.

If you are a bibliophile, you'll definitely want to give it a read.

OK, so that's my book review... really only meant it as background, but that's how it came out... let me be analytical now, from here on there may be spoilers....

At heart, Tarzan is a work of pulp fiction. ("Pulp" refers to the very low grade paper used to publish these magazines.) However, having been written in 1912, it's a very different form of pulp than what you find today. In the age before sci-fi and romance novels,
even "run of the mill" stories had something of value in the reading. While later stories in the Tarzan series are much more fantastic, the original holds a charm and a "realness" that many writings don't have.

There are some in the Christian community that believe Christians should only read "Christian literature". By this they mean only works one would find at a, well, Christian store or in the Christian section of a bookstore. If you enjoy fiction you choice is limited. (There are some really excellent writers out there, like Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti, but you have to sift through tons of really mediocre writing to find any others.) Worse, there are so-called teachers out there that say you should only read the Bible - and their books that tell you what it says, of course.

Sadly, these folks are really missing out. Worse, they are putting themselves in situation that further propagates secular media's stereotype of the "uneducated religious" that they are so fond of making fun of in shows such as "Law and Order". God doesn't want us to be stupid.

Since Tarzan holds such a place of notoriety in the pantheon of Americana, it shouldn't be ignored. Yes, it's about a naked man living in the jungles of Africa, and, yes, there are some very violent scenes (especially for 1912) and some very graphic descriptions of battle wounds ("...A portion of his chest was laid bare to the ribs, three of which had been broken by the mighty blows of the gorilla. One arm was nearly severed by the giant fangs, and a great piece had been torn from his neck, exposing his jugular vein, which the cruel jaws had missed but by a miracle...") And Tarzan, though the hero of the tale, is no prince charming - he steals, he savagely abuses his elders, and he murders. But that's what makes it a great story. He's believable.

Some credit the author with inventing the first super hero with Tarzan. In fact, Tarzan is referred to as a "super man" in one instance (speaking of his strength and not some "Nietzsche-esque" concept), 20 years before the term becomes the proper name of a comic book hero. And while I don't know if Tarzan truly is the first "more than human" hero to appear in fiction, there are many characteristics that one would recognize in 20th and 21st century comics and movies. (Especially the "less than perfect" heroes of Marvel comics, such as Spider-man, various X-men characters, and others.) A reading of Tarzan will give one insight into the hero-worshipping society in which Americans find themselves today.

Consider this description: through unique circumstances, a human is endowed with greater-than-average strength and unusual knowledge. He is able to use his abilities to save the lives of others, including a beautiful woman who has no knowledge of who he really is. In the end he saves the girl he has fallen in love with by defeating the bad guy, but can't be with her because of his "uniqueness". No, that's not the plot line for Superman: The Movie (1978), Batman Begins (2005), or Spider-Man (2002), that's Tarzan (1912).

Tarzan also speaks to one of mankind's most prevalent questions: Are we merely animal, or is Man something more. If left to his own devices will a man revert to an animal (as suggested in William Golding's 1954 novel "Lord of the Flies"), or, more interestingly, if a man is raised as an animal, can he rise above it to become more? Mr. Burroughs answer is "Yes he can ... and no, he can't". As the story reaches it's climax, we find Tarzan leaving the jungle to find the woman he loves. He has learned to speak French and through the encouragement of his friend, D'Arnot, he has learned to dress, eat, and generally act like a gentleman. However, when faced with a percieved enemy, Tarzan instinctively attacks and nearly kills the guy - as the law of the jungle has taught him. Tarzan is the epitome of the polarizing conflict within all mankind, the conflict between behavior that we preceive as civilized and that which we see as primitive. Tarzan even makes us wonder at times which is which.

Am I reading too much into a work that is only a few drawings away from being a comic book? Probably. What's my point? I'm not sure I have one, except this:

Get off the computer and go read a book.

*All images, though found on public websites such as Flickr et al., are copyright of their respective owners and are used under "Fair Use" laws in the United States. If you are the owner of any of these images and do not want them used, please contact the author.