Thoughts: Jungle Tales of Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I have no idea how there can be so many Tarzan books in this one anthology.

Could be worse. I once read 15 Oz books in a row because I found them for free when I was looking for The Wizard of Oz and I thought hey, why not? If I never go back to Oz again it will be too soon.

Jungle Tales of Tarzan is a series of 12 short stories set during Tarzan’s youth among the ape people, and they’re mostly a lot of what we’ve seen in previous Tarzans, though The Race Thing is turned back up to 11, as this is before Tarzan learns civilisation. So, you know, there’s that.

I don’t often do this, but I had a skim through the Goodreads reviews for this book once I was finished, just to see if I was the only person who this bothered. And for the most part, yeah. Most readers didn’t mention it at all, a few mentioned it in passing as something you have to put up with because of the era it was written in. Which fine, you do you, if you can shut it out and enjoy a good adventure yarn, who am I to stop you. But I can’t do it, and I can’t apologise for not being able to do it. There was one or two reviews near the top that shared my opinion, and it was a huge relief to see that it wasn’t just me.

Because my god.

Here’s the featured quote on Goodreads, with three likes, to show you how all the racism is just inextricably tangled up in every single other goddamn aspect of this book. I feel a little bit dirty even reproducing this quote.

“[The little black boy] had seen Tarzan bring down a buck, just as Numa, the lion, might have done… Tibo had shuddered at the sight, but he had thrilled, too, and for the first time there entered his dull, Negroid mind a vague desire to emulate his savage* foster parent. But Tibo, the little black boy, lacked the divine spark which had permitted Tarzan, the white boy, to benefit by his training in the ways of the fierce jungle. In imagination he was wanting, and imagination is but another name for super-intelligence.

Imagination it is which builds bridges, and cities, and empires. The beasts know it not, the blacks only a little, while to one in a hundred thousand of earth’s dominant race it is given as a gift from heaven that man may not perish from the earth.”

– Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs

I found it impossible to ignore, because every single time a black character (“character” is often a strong word) is shown, Burroughs cannot help himself, he just has to get in some “witty” little remark. Whether someone is handsome “for a black”, or a black woman’s cultural fashions/adornments/body modifications/whatever are set up for this “in short, she was beautiful – TO HER OWN PEOPLE TROLOLOL” punchline which is uncomfortable and weird (and the exact same punchline we got from the introduction of Teeka, Tarzan’s first apewoman love in the first story). It’s pretty much always superfluous, unnecessary remarks that jar you out of the story.

The only way I can explain the tone of this humour – and you might well roll your eyes at this – is that it’s the kind of jaunty, patronising amiability you can imagine in Boris Johnson’s voice. The jokes about the charlatanry of the witch doctors and medicine men and their strong/weak medicine were in exactly the sort of tone you’d expect BoJo to use when parroting it in a hideously inappropriate place.

The stories themselves kind of varied in quality – some of them followed sort of cod-folktale structure, in which Tarzan learns some moral lesson about how there’s no love interest for him in the jungle, or he discovers god, or the apes mythologise about lunar eclipses. Some of them followed on directly from each other, and you could sort of see Burroughs building up his mythos as he went, which was quite interesting. Most of the problems could be (and were) solved by killing something in the end, though.

But really there’s no getting over the racism, for me. If that makes me a PC bleeding heart killjoy then I accept my sentence happily. People can go on about how Burroughs is the greatest and most influential adventure novelist in the world all they want – I found the action, especially in this book, where the stories were so short and the plots so much less convoluted than the novels, pretty one-note.

Also I still have no idea how Tarzan is supposed to have taught himself to read. My infertile woman-brain cannot make sense of it, however hard it tries.

*Interesting to see “savage” applied to Tarzan, right? Shame about the rest of it!

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