Edgar Rice Burroughs
3 The Beasts of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Married at last, Tarzan and Jane have settled down to life in England, with their infant son, Jack, when Nikolas Rokoff, villain of The Return of Tarzan, returns with a nefarious new plot to pay Tarzan back for constantly frustrating his villainous aims in the last book. The plot involves the kidnapping of Tarzan and Jane’s son as the first stage in a trap to hurt Tarzan. Within a few chapters, Tarzan and Jane are both also prisoners, and Rokoff has laid out his plan to have the infant raised by cannibals.
Then Rokoff makes one of his many mistakes, stranding Tarzan on an island so that he could feel more helpless. Tarzan, of course, is never helpless, and on the island he befriends a tribe of apes and a panther and then captures a visiting native chieftain and begins a journey to the mainland via giant canoe with all of his new friends.
What follows is a very exciting series of adventures in which Rokoff threatens Tarzan and eventually flees from him. For a novel, it sometimes felt a little strangely structured, but these short repetitive adventures make great sense for a serialized stories such as this novel was when first published.
As the story continues, Jane has a chance to stand up for herself and the infant. For the most part, she is both smart and brave, although she does inextricably forget she has a gun during one of her confrontations with Rokoff.
This is another exciting adventure from beginning to end. While I don’t think it achieves quite the heights of the first two books, it is definitely worth reading for anyone who likes the character, Tarzan.
1 Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
My earliest memories of Tarzan are black and white movies starring Johnny Weissmuller that were rerun every Sunday morning. Weismuller was great in these movies, but if you read this book, you’ll have serious doubts as to whether he was really playing Tarzan. He had the physique right, and he was convincing in the water and mostly believable in the jungle. The problem is that he couldn’t speak English and Tarzan has a tremendous fluency with languages. You see, aside from being the perfect physical specimen of humanity, Tarzan is a super genius. He learned the primal language of the apes as a toddler, and as a child taught himself to read English by looking at picture books he found in his parents’ treehouse. Think about that for a moment. He was so intelligent that he taught himself to read a language he didn’t know by looking at a schoolbook designed for first graders. Later, he will learn to speak French still before learning English. And by the end of the book, he is fluent in three languages. He is by any standard amazing.
What’s also amazing is how good this novel is. It was originally published in 1912 but today still reads like a consummate adventure story. It’s engaging, there’s genuine tension, and the characters are all three dimensional even if some don’t initially appear to be. There are even some genuinely humorous scenes. And Jane Porter, one of the most famous love interests in the history of literature, comes off as a credible young woman in this first novel—with evidence of the spirit that will turn her into a heroine in later books.
I tend to think of this series as in the fantasy genre. Burroughs’ Africa is a world of the imagination, rather than an historically accurate place. Setting it in the realm of fantasy prevents any of those weaknesses from interfering with the story.
I can’t end the review without mentioning the brilliant (if controversial) conclusion to this book. Jane makes one of the stupidest mistakes in all of literature, getting herself freed from one loveless marriage and immediately agreeing to another one even though she is love in with Tarzan. Fans were understandably horrified by the unhappy ending, but Burroughs understood two important things that fans weren’t considering. This was a chance to demonstrate both the strength of Tarzan’s love for Jane and his extraordinary character. It also set the stage for an excellent sequel.
2 The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The publisher of Tarzan of the Apes rejected the sequel novel, much to Burroughs’ disappointment. He wanted significant changes, basically throwing out the first half of the novel and creating a tale in which Tarzan goes completely savage once again. You can also imagine him writing the words that Burroughs never put in any of his books: “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”
Fortunately, Burroughs remained true to his own vision and gave us a story of a man in terrible pain, trying to move on with his life. But he’s still Tarzan, unable to stand by while wrong is done to others, which brings him into conflict with the excellent villain, Nikolas Rokoff. Rokoff is one of the persons who does harm to everyone he believes to be weaker than him (in other worlds, potentially the whole world) and then is enraged any time his schemes are frustrated. Tarzan frustrates them continually throughout the book inspiring multiple attempts by Rokoff to do him harm. But because Tarzan is trying to live as a civilized man, he does not simply kill the villain as he might of if he had met him in the jungle before first meeting Jane Porter.
Jane is the second key player in the novel, having missed her chance to be Tarzan’s wife and trying to figure out a way not to marry Tarzan’s cousin whom she is engaged to. The cousin is one of the few people in the book who knows that it is Tarzan, and not himself, who is the legitimate Lord Greystoke, and we watch throughout the novel as he struggles to find the courage to take care of Jane in very difficult circumstances.
This is a novel that juxtaposes civilization with the jungle and finds both savage, but civilization more duplicitous. Note that it is Tarzan, the savage, who is the most honorable man in the story and Rokoff, the scion of civilization, who is the most dishonorable.
The plot is filled with action from beginning to end, but much of the tension comes from friends of Tarzan, including Jane, encouraging him to restrain himself and not kill those who had just tried to kill him. Once again, the savage proves himself more civilized than the civilized man.
This is a great sequel, fully as enjoyable as the first book, and will leave the reader excited for the next one.