Posts Tagged 'the return of tarzan'

“Pardon me, madame, my name is Tarzan.”

As you might guess, The Return of Tarzan is the second book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series.

If you jump right in thinking, “I know all about this Tarzan guy. Swings from vines. Wears a loincloth. Speaks broken English. I don’t need to bother with the first book,” you’re likely to be confused. The Return of Tarzan starts with Tarzan moping on an ocean liner in the manner of a disaffected earl in a Dorothy L. Sayers story:

Tarzan entered the smoking room, and sought a chair a little apart from the others who were there. He felt in no mood for conversation, and as he sipped his absinth he let his mind run rather sorrowfully over the past few weeks of his life….

He’ll do a good deal more moping in the course of the novel, but he’s never more than a page or two from having to leap into action to protect some innocent damsel. Before long he’s in Paris, thwarting a Russian spy ring and then enlisting in the French secret service.

tarzan hal foster

From the Tarzan comic strip, by Hal Foster.

2019 was the 20th anniversary of Disney’s Tarzan. Last summer a friend and I went to a special presentation at a theatre here in Vancouver, with one of the co-directors doing a Q&A before the movie.

My friend had never read any of the novels, so I told her some of the plot points that were abandoned during the adaptation from print to film, like the fact that Tarzan teaches himself to read and write (from his dead parents’ library) before he encounters any other humans – and that when he is finally taught to speak, his first language is French. So she skimmed the Wikipedia plot summary while we were waiting in line.

During the Q&A she stuck up her hand and said, “I was just reading the plot of the novel, and there’s some crazy stuff in there, like how Tarzan teaches himself to read, and how he goes to Wisconsin. Also I never realized Jane Porter was originally an American.”

“No, she–” said the director.

“Yeah, she–” said my friend.

“Was she? Well, anyway,” said the director, and then launched into a speech about how they’d resolved to disregard the books because of their racist depiction of Africans. My friend sank back into her seat. There was an awkward silence as the audience gauged how long they had to sit there deploring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ racism before they could safely change the subject to Rosie O’Donnell’s performance as a wacky gorilla.

I like Disney’s Tarzan, but it’s pretty morally simplistic compared to Burroughs’ version. The point of the books is that there’s a tradeoff between the harshness and purity of nature and the comforts and corruption of civilization. In the Disney world there’s no tradeoff – the gorillas are just as intelligent as the humans, and more civilized to boot. In the end Jane and Professor Porter decide to stay with Tarzan in the jungle, and why shouldn’t they? It looks like a lot of fun.

Burroughs’ Tarzan spends a good deal of his time brooding over how he fits into neither the savage nor the civilized world. He’s kind of a downer, but he beats up some bad guys every few pages so it’s okay.

M.

 


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker