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SF Masterwork of the Week: Tarzan of the Apes and Other Tales

One never likes to begin a blog post with a contradiction, but this week’s SF Masterwork of the Week isn’t. An SF Masterwork, that is.  Tarzan of the Apes and Other Tales is the latest of our line of imaginatively-titled Big Black Books, and is a centenary edition containing the first six Tarzan stories.

We’ve allowed ourselves a little editorial licence in selecting this as our SF Masterwork of the Week, but as it is a classic – indeed, it’s six classics – we think it’s a reasonable stretch. Someone we’re pretty confident would agree with us is Andy Briggs – the author of Tarzan: The Greystoke Legacy, Tarzan: The Jungle Warrior and Tarzan: The Savage Lands (as approved by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs) – who wrote the introduction to our centenary edition.

Few people understand the Lord of the Jungle like Andy . . .

 

Tarzan is not only one of the world’s most enduring iconic figures, he is also a most unlikely hero.

For me, Tarzan has always been a staple of my childhood. Devouring Burroughs’ books and tuning in to watch the plethora of movies on television was my ticket to high adventure across the savannahs of Africa and deep into unexplored jungles, filled with unimaginable dangers. It was pure escapism – elements of which sustained me through childhood and propelled my professional career as a screenwriter, graphic novelist and author.

When Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. allowed me to reboot Tarzan it felt as if my career had come full circle – my old friend had been there for me from inspiration to execution. With this mantle came a heavy responsibility to inspire a new generation of readers, just as Burroughs’ original creation had done to me, but also, it had to stay as loyal as possible to Burroughs’ vision and engage his legion of lifelong loyal fans. To attempt such a feat, I wanted to understand what made Tarzan so appealing, to understand him beyond my own personal, and probably narrow, perceptions. It was imperative that I reflected his core persona in any new work, so to achieve that, I needed to understand how Tarzan was able to appeal on a global scale, and how he was able to stay alive in our imaginations a hundred years after his literary birth.

I thought I knew him, as much as anyone could know the Ape Man. But I was wrong and, as my analysis evolved, it led me to see how Tarzan became the only literary creation in history to bound off the page and become a real life hero who helped shape the living world around us.

Born in Chicago, Edgar Rice Burroughs had hit rock bottom flitting between menial jobs in an effort to support his family. He was a pencil sharpener salesman when he was drawn to the popular pulp fiction magazines of the time and rapidly became tired of what he saw as “rotten stories” gracing their pages. With nothing left to lose, he decided to write his own, even though he had never attempted to pen a story before. His first, “Under the Moons of Mars”, made it to the pages of All Story Magazine. Even before that series had ran its course Burroughs’ imagination had unleashed the son of a stranded English Lord onto an unsuspecting public.

Burroughs always saw his stories as nothing more than fantasy and escapism and he hoped that nobody would ever take them seriously. While later commentators questioned his post-Colonial sentiments and endemic racism between the pages, they seem to ignore the fact that Burroughs was simply writing contemporary stories that reflected the widely accepted social views of the time. He claimed never to have a Tarzan theme, although he was interested in heredity morals versus environmental influence, thus Tarzan was born of noble blood, raised amongst the savage animals of the Dark Continent. In a time when the class system was still thriving across the Western world, this diametrically opposed setup seemed the most obvious approach.

Perhaps this could be the intrinsic appeal of Tarzan? Here was a character that all classes could relate to. From the hard-done working class, as Burroughs was himself, through to high society of the rich and privileged, Tarzan speared through them all. This notion certainly carries some weight, but for me, Tarzan epitomises something much more. While Burroughs may have set about creating a traditional fish out of water scenario, he actually mined a vein of humanity that we all share: survival.

With each Tarzan story, Burroughs revelled in showing how mankind was the one animal that killed for the sake of it. Not for just food or territory, but for petty rivalries, jealousy, greed and spitefulness. Powerful emotions we all harbour and ones that appear to be the most finely tuned amongst the civilised. Here was Tarzan, a boy raised by an unknown ape species that taught him the ways of the wild, without human moral intervention or artificial rules of conduct. Tarzan lived by a moral code found only within the animal kingdom, and this meant he enjoyed relative peace. It was only when people intruded upon his world that his human nature was unbound. When his ape-mother, Kala, was murdered, Tarzan displayed a lust for vengeance on her killer. When Jane and his son, Jack, were abducted, his jealousy and spitefulness were pushed to the fore – however, he still managed to keep those emotions in check and allowed his more animalistic survival instincts to take over. Is this rigid self-control and care for his family something we all admire? Burroughs certainly did, as it’s a reoccurring theme within his Tarzan canon.

Burroughs was surprised with the success of his creation.  When interviewed for The Writer’s Digest in 1932, he is quoted as saying: “[Tarzan’s] appeal to an audience is so tremendous that it never ceases to be a source of astonishment to me.” He then expands on his belief that, as we become prisoners within the laws and inhibitions placed upon us by society, the more we more we long for escapism. That was the essence of Tarzan that attracted me, and kept me hooked all my life. That was the elusive element I wanted to distil into my own reimagining of the jungle warrior.

However, it was clear there was more to him than that. An appeal that not only brings pleasure to the reader by allowing them to reflect in the familiar, yet unobtainable, glow of freedom, but something that transcends the page and propels people to change the world around them. Tarzan transformed Burroughs from a poor salesman to a millionaire, who, when he incorporated himself in 1923, became the pioneer of transmedia (the art of telling a story across multiple platforms; and a buzzword only just recently coined). This was the catalyst for Tarzan to become a global icon, appearing in radio plays, movies and comic books.

The inevitable result of sudden popularity meant that Tarzan was forced to fend off numerous imitators: Thundra: King of the Congo, George of the Jungle and Ka-Zar to name just a few. Tarzan was able to do so with ease because he had suddenly become a symbol for stronger causes than just idle entertainment. He was ready to influence the world in a series of very real, and unexpected, ways.

In the 1950s there was a swell in unauthorised Tarzan stories across Israel. These were no mere clones, like Thundra, they were complete Lord Greystoke tales that saw Tarzan fighting the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, or joining the Israelis in combating Egyptian President Nasser’s forces or other Arab foes. Such was the appeal of Tarzan, that this propaganda material was published on a weekly basis. However unlikely, Tarzan had hit a nerve with the people of Israel who saw him as a rallying figure for their cause.

However, Tarzan’s political influence did not stop there. Both Syria and Lebanon unofficially adopted him as a figurehead in their fight against the Jewish State. Here was a literary figure, claimed by two opposing sides as their unofficial mascot.

I said Tarzan was the world’s first eco-warrior, even though he was created in an era when there was no thought or concern over how we were destroying the world and culling species to near-extinction. Eco-warrior has so many connotations that even I cringed when the words tumbled from my mouth. He wasn’t a figure standing up for green rights or demanding the preservation of endangered species – he was just man concerned about his home, his family and the rights of the weak – be that man or beast. It just so happened that his home was the jungle, and his family were apes.

This natural world was a far cry from anything the public was familiar with. Little was known about jungle ecosystems or the intelligent social structures of the apes that lived there. But people such as Dian Fossey, a California girl who dreamed of Africa and must have been swept away by the books, films or Saturday morning television shows of the Ape Man, found herself following in his footsteps. Leading primatologists, Jane Goodall and Ian Redmond, have often spoken about how Tarzan’s tales inspired them to leave civilisation behind and head into the unknown. It was their pioneering research that led to scientific discoveries about the great apes. It was their passion that led to conservation efforts to protect these wonderful and endangered animals.

Surely this is a testament to how Tarzan’s influence has gripped the world by the throat as he united people behind conflicting causes; inspired generations of artists, explorers and researchers; led to a better understanding of the natural world around us and was the catalyst to saving entire species. All from an unlikely hero born in the mind of a pencil sharpener salesman and proof that we all respond to the call of the Lord of the Jungle.

Andy Briggs, 22nd February 2012

 

Many thanks to Andy Briggs for permission to publish his wonderful foreword to Tarzan of the Apes and Other Tales. You can read more about Andy, his commitment to the preservation of the great apes, and find his books via his website.