Thoughts: Tarzan the Terrible, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The last Tarzan (in the anthology on my Kindle)! Yes! I have survived!

And you know what? This was probably the one I got along the most with. Skimming Goodreads reviews, people have wildly differing opinions of all the Tarzans, which I find pretty interesting. Usually in a series you have books that everyone agrees are great, books that everyone agrees are the weakest, etc, but Tarzan is totally a mixed bag, it seems.

Spoilers and general ramble below the cut.

To my genuine surprise, Tarzan did not get Jane back between books – Tarzan the Terrible is the story of how he found her and got her back. So partly I think this was more on my level because it had this focus, unlike many other Tarzan books which are just the episodic stories of how Tarzan reacts to random crises. This one felt like it actually had a plot. And yeah, threads get dropped and forgotten as Burroughs gets caught up in his cliffhangers, but at the end they were all resolved.

Other good things:

  • Less war propaganda (though more than zero). The story picks up pretty much right where Tarzan the Untamed leaves off, but the Germans have been shunted to the side – the war is over, we don’t have time for that anymore. Our villain, a German lieutenant, has instead taken Jane and got lost in the jungle, so Tarzan goes looking for them.
  • Prehistoric civilisation in a hidden valley where no human can ever go, except for our heroes and villains. I love this kind of nonsense, leave me alone. He rides a dinosaur, come on. What else do you read Tarzan for if not to watch him tame a carnivorous triceratops and ride it into town?
  • Tarzan’s son was introduced in a way that legit surprised me as a twist, which is possibly the first time, and it was done fairly. At first I assumed he was the German, and it was only after we met the German and he showed up again that I realised who he had been all this time. Why was he even looking for them and how did he know where they were? I have no idea, but that is not the sort of logic to look for in Tarzan.
  • Multiple protagonists who all get to be pretty great – including TWO women!

There were definitely some steps forward here. Though Jane ends up in peril again she uses the woodcraft she’s learned since meeting Tarzan to survive in the jungle! And Pan-at-lee, the prehistoric-valley woman, gets to be a badass! Despite the fact that she… OK, let’s get onto the things that were still a bit ehhhh.

It’s infinitely more comfortable to know that Burroughs isn’t writing about actual civilisations and cultures (I mean, I doubt any of his villages and tribes are based on much more than stereotypes and racism but you know what I mean – they are intended as representations of African people [it kills me that I can’t be more specific but he so rarely bothers with country names]), but even though this is a little valley out of time in the heart of the African continent peopled with sort of evolutionarily distinct humans with tails and opposable big toes, they are still divided into two civilisations. The white one and the black one. And yes, the white ones live in houses made of stone and have united together, and the black ones live in caves and squabble among themselves in small tribes and oh yeah, they have fur. Just in case you didn’t get that black people are of the “””lower orders””” hahaha he kept using those words please help me.

Why did white people spontaneously evolve in the middle of Africa? Tails and monkey feet and carnivorous triceratopses, fine, this is exactly the stuff I signed up for, but why white people? Why? I mean we all know the answer. In general Burroughs cannot conceive of anything good without whiteness being involved somehow.

Part of me finds it kind of interesting how the most imaginative and culture-shaping people/things of the past always have these blind spots, beyond which they cannot imagine. Watch old Star Trek, and marvel at their image of a progressive future, and how it still seems sort of backwards in a lot of ways, for instance. Similarly, Burroughs can imagine his carnivorous dinobeasts of burden and a man who was brought up by the apefolk but he cannot imagine good – or even normal – black people who aren’t either subservient to a good white person or literally furred and tailed.

He also can’t imagine non-Christians who genuinely believe in their non-Christian religion; his priest or otherwise sacred characters are invariably evil charlatans who use religion to control the people, who know it’s all made-up. But that’s by the by, just a thing I noticed.

So yeah, Pan-at-lee is a furry black woman with a tail, but Burroughs is pretty good to her in the prose. There’s a lot of “savage little hearts” and whatnot, but on the whole it’s complimentary. She’s smart and brave and does what needs to be done.

The scenes where we’re following Jane alone, without any hope of ever seeing Tarzan again, are also basically written like she’s a normal person and not (gasp) a woman, which was refreshing. There were a couple of “even though she was just a woman” type references, but as far as Burroughs goes this whole bit was practically feminism.

Something else I noticed was that Burroughs really hates vegetarianism. Not only do the triceratopses need to be carnivorous in order to be cool, and Tarzan eats pretty much only raw deer steaks (because cooking is for the effeminate), but Burroughs heavily implies that what sent the villain mad in the end was his diet of fruits and vegetables when he was too weak to hunt game. What I’m saying is, Edgar Rice Burroughs would absolutely call you a soy boy if he were alive today. He may also be very ill from a diet of ultra-rare steak. Don’t take dietary advice from ERB.

In conclusion, one of the better Tarzans in my opinion. I wish more of them had been this out there. But though he gets better, I still have to say that the race stuff is there, just more insidious, baked into the cultures he creates, and it’s important to keep calling this stuff out for what it is, because history is not sealed in amber away from us. The stereotypes he peddles have consequences today. Sure he was a product of his time, but I am a product of mine, not some neutral brain in a jar floating in space, so I am going to have these visceral reactions of nope when I read something particularly racist. In the end, Burroughs was American, writing for Americans, and these views he popularised are still killing Americans.

So feel free to keep saying that Burroughs is hugely influential on our art and culture, but understand that when you say that, you’re not unequivocally complimenting him.

This entry was posted in Books, thoughtpinions, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.