Thoughts: Tarzan the Untamed, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

There are so many Tarzans. Say what you want about Burroughs – and I do – but the man was prolific.

Tarzan the Untamed is back in the normal Tarzan chronology, so we meet him as an adult ape-man with one foot in civilisation, married to Jane, his son off married to surprise!royalty, getting on with his life. Sort of. Because now World War 1 is going on.

Cut for length and spoilers as always.

Firstly, it’s kind of interesting to see Tarzan impacted by WWI, because the impression of WWI that is most conveyed through the weight of pop culture is of a purely European endeavour in trenches in France. It’s easy to forget why it was called a World War.

It’s also interesting to see something written so close to the war – Tarzan the Untamed was published in 1919, and being so pulpy is also quite black-and-white/propagandistic in its portrayal of Germans being the natural enemy of the English, and hatred of Germans being “ennobling” (no really, that is the word he uses!). We have the benefit of hindsight and a longer, wider view, but we can’t wish away the things that were said, done and believed in the past. We have to look at them full-on, and if we don’t like them, we have to make the effort not to say, do or believe them again. So it was awkward to read, but still, interesting.

Tarzan the Untamed opens with a German soldier in Africa going to Tarzan’s house and wreaking havoc, leaving Jane’s charred-beyond-recognition-except-her-rings body for Tarzan to find. This causes Tarzan to hate all Germans always and forever, and causes him to decide to leave human civilisation and live out the rest of his years in the jungle. So that’s how Burroughs gets him back in the trees this time.

Tarzan books always somehow feel much longer than they are, because the plot just unfolds endlessly. I often doubt that Burroughs knows exactly how he’s going to get from beginning to end when he starts, and this one was no exception. There were themes running through – tamed lions (contrasting with Tarzan in his “untame” state?), etc, but there were also revelations and developments that were withheld from the reader either unfairly or because Burroughs hadn’t thought ahead.

When Tarzan is avenging Jane on the German soldier who led the attack he comes across young woman Bertha Kircher, for instance, whom he regularly finds he can’t hate or kill despite her being a German, and when we get scenes in her head we of course don’t get anything at all of the fact that she is not Bertha Kircher at all, but English spy Lady Patricia Canby (high-born and English, naturally). Her dialogue is careful not to refer to Germany but to “her country” always, but, like in The Da Vinci Code, when you realise what Silas’s actual deal is, you can’t help but feel a little unfairly misled.

And of course this is a very uncontemporary opinion to have, and therefore possibly unfair, but it would have been more interesting to me to see Tarzan have to deal with her actually being a German spy and yet unhateful. There’s a lot made of his inhuman jungle philosophy of nuance and fatalism, but he’s incapable of applying the same to the humans he meets. If Tarzan’s philosophy was actually something that consistently and deeply informed his actions, it would be actually pretty cool to read. If Tarzan was actually as much a beast as we’re told he is, that would be something fascinating. Instead he just explains his philosophy to the hapless English lieutenant and “German” spy and they say they can’t understand it at all, despite it not being particularly complicated.

What I mean is, things like when he’s setting Bertha up for a life in the jungle while she makes her way back to a white settlement after he’s saved her one time – Tarzan insists she not help make the shelter because ??? she’s a woman? and can’t??? but at the same time, how is she supposed to be self-sufficient and make her own shelters in the following days when he isn’t there? How does he think female animals fare? I get that he grew up in a tribe of great apes which are very social and seemingly sex-segregated, and the reasons behind that are not our concern, we will deal with it on its own terms. But he doesn’t seem able to consider any female animal but being inferior/gentler than her male counterpart. Lions included, because sure, why not. What does he think solitary animals do when they are female? Sheeta (the panther, as Burroughs constantly reminds us) is always alone and always male. The roaming lions he meets are also always alone and mostly male (Sabor, the only female animal to get a specific name in the language of the great apes, is rarely seen).

Also what kind of supreme intelligence agent is Bertha anyway? Every now and then she’s allowed to show some courage and get a bit of action in, but only to inevitably be beaten back by her invariably male assailant and require rescue by Tarzan, and when she is alone she doesn’t show much of the resourcefulness that you’d think she’d need, being a lone female spy often sent behind enemy lines undercover. But I digress.

The big new thing I noticed in this book was that Burroughs seemed to have discovered the terrible pseudoscience of phrenology, which was certainly something. The surprise is that he doesn’t use it so much on the black characters, but on a walled city in the middle of a “trackless waste” of “imbeciles”, and you can tell they’re all “imbeciles” by their facial features, after generations of some kind of dodgy religious rites has degraded their race, and please just imagine scare quotes around all of this because my goodness. What these religious rites are is never elucidated, but they may involve having relations with lions? Eating lions doesn’t seem to be the cause (they breed lions the way other people breed cattle, because in their highly engineered valley oasis eating apex predators is certainly the most efficient use of resources) because the poor old white lady who has been living there for sixty years as a prisoner-queen hasn’t become degraded despite the diet. Just realised – they leave her in there when they escape. Damn, Burroughs. That is cold.

The whole walled city of people who can speak to parrots and parrots who can speak to monkeys would be merely delightfully batshit if it wasn’t for the constant appraising of the contours of people’s heads and also something particularly weird about them all being epileptic??? I mean it was just a lot. A huge amount. As a rule, I am not a person who has purged words like “idiot” or “stupid” or “imbecile” or whatever from my personal lexicon, nor will I (though, as I am a normal human being with manners, if someone tells me a word makes them uncomfortable, I will not use that word around them no questions asked) but these uses of “lunatic” and “imbecile” are in the old bad way, and those intentions leap right off the page and give you a little glimpse of a time when scrubbing those words from common use would have been absolutely justified.

The ending, as is typical of the Tarzans, is dashed off in about a page and a half, in which our erstwhile heroes are rescued by an English air force, Tarzan learns who Bertha really is, Bertha/Lady Patricia Canby agrees (for some reason) to marry the English lieutenant who’s been caught up in the whole caper with them, and also by the way it turns out Jane is alive and is possibly in the custody of German High Command but no time to dwell on that THE END.

Originally I’d ended it there but contrary to Burroughs’s seeming expectations I have so many questions. They don’t seem to be worried about Jane at all? Are they going to get her back? Are they going to get her back in the next book or is this all just going to happen offscreen and we’ll never hear about it again? So many questions!

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