Thoughts: Son of Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

“But Danni, why?” you ask, and I know, I know.

We got the Disney Tarzan remake at Sneak, so according to the law of the land I had to read the book. The most legit-looking copy of the book in the Wild West of the Kindle store when copyright-expired books are on the line was a collection of the first… I want to say five? six? Tarzan books, so that’s what I did.

“But Danni, why not just read the first one and have done with it?” you ask and yes, yes, I could, but I hate leaving things unfinished on my Kindle, taunting me with their percentages, so I’ve been reading them from time to time between other books. After finishing The Mirror and the Light I wanted something that wouldn’t stir up my feelings any more, and a Tarzan seemed just the ticket. Yes, I did this to myself. I will not be taking “don’t like don’t read” comments at this time, thank you.

It’s not often that you can say an entire genre is dated, but I get that feeling from all the (single genre) adventure stories I’ve read. Adventure works really well as a secondary genre, especially when it comes to the more speculative end of the genre spectrum, but played straight on its own, it, like the western, needs to be something really special and unusual if it’s going to work today.

Why?

I don’t really know. I think that a lot of the reason the Tarzans don’t work for me is that we just know too much now, perhaps. Where is there left to explore? Where on earth still contains that sense of total unknown, where we can still fit in all these stories of monsters and wonders? I can accept the anthropoid apes, and I can accept Tarzan himself speaking their language and growing up among them as the ultimate man-ape. But I can’t quite extend the suspension of disbelief to his son, who has never left the city or seen a lion, just tapping into his inherent jungle-senses as soon as he lands in Some Part Of Africa and becoming every bit as well-adapted as his dad, with the sole added benefits of his public school boxing skills and also having learned to pole vault.

Jack literally just, makes his sense of smell equal to that of a wild jungle animal with a great sense of smell, by, I don’t know, trying really hard? Being noble? Being Tarzan’s son? I do not know. He uses his TEETH to KILL LIONS (don’t even get me started on the number of apex predators that get slaughtered throughout these books, also they’re always boy lions because I guess at the time they didn’t know much about the lionesses doing all the hunting?) so I assume he also grows his teeth out, and just, I cannot. We know, or suspect, a lot more now about how early humans would have lived and hunted (here’s a spoiler: it’s in groups and with tools) and where they would stand in the general wildlife hierarchy (not at the top!), and I know it’s not Burroughs’s fault, but I found it hard to get over it. I’ve been spoilt by reading books as good as The Inheritors. I just can’t accept that little Jack Greystoke is the greatest killer in the jungle.

I also rolled my eyes a lot when this sheltered little rich boy approached one (1) Somewhere-in-African village naked out of the jungle and was chased away, and one (1) group of evil white Swedes mistreating their “””boys””” and thereafter decided that he would live in the jungle forever eating leopards and whatnot and never associate with humans again because they’re all his enemies!!1! Also he would just kill people indiscriminately because I guess he’s an animal now. This never comes up again, by the way. He never thinks of this when he returns to the civilised life he came from, no one ever brings it up, he feels absolutely nothing.

Jack/Korak is the Wesley Crusher of the Tarzan series. There, I’ve said it.

The thing about the Tarzans in particular that I find stops me dead is, you guessed it, the incredible colonial racism that permeates the entire thing.

“But Danni, what did you expect?” Yes yes, shut up.

It’s exhausting. Every single time any non-white character is mentioned, Burroughs gets in some backhanded racial remark. They’re all ugly, or “degenerate” (yikes!!!), or “handsome BUT SINISTER”, or they, like all their race, love to gossip, which is to say, trololol, that they’re only human, and everything is phrased in such weird and dubious ways. If he could stop using “black” as a noun I’d be unendingly grateful.

If you’re wondering when I will also get my gazelle-killing teeth into the sexism, you might be surprised: unlike the other three Tarzan books I’ve read, The Son Of Tarzan contains a main female character who is treated as a protagonist in her own right, with a story arc and personality. she falls into a couple of stereotypes along the way, but in general she lives happily and wildly with Jack/Korak (I can’t call him “Killer” I just can’t he’s like twelve come on) and when she ends up, after Circumstances, in the Somewhere-in-African holiday home of the Greystokes, she spends a lot of time surprising people who think they know who she is, which was fun.

She is also a secret white princess though, even though she is tanned because of living in the jungle and being raised by an evil Arab man who stole her from her noble French Foreign Legion father (who’s secretly a prince but is also firmly republican because sure). Sometimes she’s described as a white woman and sometimes as an Arab waif, it’s not very consistent. Does Burroughs want us to pretend not to realise who she is or not?

One of the things about Burroughs’s writing is that I never have any idea where his stories or going or when they will end. They follow certain formulas, but they also twist and turn and meander along, following no discernable larger story structure. They’re episodic, I suppose, even within the episodic nature of the series itself. You may think all the characters are in place to finally meet and clash and bring things to an end, but then the evil Swede and effete Englishman (who will redeem himself by suffering and being almost remorseful in the jungle) have a duel in a pair of canoes and everything goes out the window again.

Anyway, lots of people make stupid choices (that Tarzan doesn’t connect Meriem’s human boy friend in the jungle with his missing idiot son is ridiculous, like at least he would surely investigate it, knowing from experience that it’s possible to live that way???) but in the end everything is all neatly wrapped up, and hey, Jack Greystoke didn’t marry a little Arab waif after all, but a secret whiter-than-white French princess, so that’s all right then.

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