Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"The Nightmare" by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan)

I finally read something ten days my fortieth birthday that kids in elementary school read: a Tarzan story. Granted, I didn’t really read it; I listened to it via the incredibly talented voice of B. J. Harrison, the man behind The Classic Tales Podcast (more on this later). As a tantalizing preview of his reading the first Tarzan book (Tarzan of the Apes), Harrison recorded a short story, “The Nightmare.”

First off, Harrison gave us Tarzan novices a little background: this story takes place after Tarzan has learned to read but before he has met any other white men. Knowing Tarzan solely from a visual medium, I know enough of the basic story not to feel lost. In fact, I think that’s why Harrison provided the intro. Had he not, some listeners might’ve kept waiting for Jane or Boy. That stuff isn’t here.

“The Nightmare” is one of the stories from Jungle Tales of Tarzan, the sixth book published by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1916. Based on a quick Wikipedia (the source of all truth!) search, it turns out the twelve stories from Jungle Tales occurs in the time frame between chapters 12 and 13 of the first book. Guess that’s why Harrison gave us a heads up.

The story itself is entertaining and not without humor. In this story, Tarzan experiences two things for the first time: eating cooked meat and the titular nightmare. Burroughs goes into detail on Tarzan’s eating habits, noting that he has never had cooked elephant meat. He doesn’t want to eat the cooked meat but he’s famished. Thus, after he overcomes one of the Mbongans, he grabs some elephant meat and gorges.

Now, at this part, Burroughs has a little fun with his readers. As a general rule, most of us prefer our meat dead and cooked. I’m right there, aren’t I? Anyway, Burroughs states the obvious: “Tarzan was, of course, unaccustomed to cooked food. He did not like it; but was very hungry and had eaten a considerable portion of his haul before it was really borne in upon him that the stuff was nauseating.” Now, for any of us, stranded in the woods, faced with death or eating raw meat, we’d eat. Ditto for The Ape Man, just the other way around.

He lies down to sleep and the nightmares commence. He gets himself captured by a big giant bird. This, of course, happened right before Tarzan was about to be lion food. In the dream—by the way, Tarzan doesn’t know it’s a dream—he stabs the bird and then falls to the earth…and lives to tell about. He wakes, figures out it wasn’t real, and goes on about his business.

Then, a real, live threat shows up, in the form of a gorilla. I think you can guess what happens: Tarzan thinks it a dream. Until he realizes it isn’t. He lives, natch, but questions reality. The last line is but a verbal rim shot: “No, he did not know what was real and what was not; but there as one thing that he did know—never again would he eat of the flesh of Tantor, the elephant.”

I enjoyed this little story and a peek into the literary Tarzan of the Apes. It will not be my last.

Notes on The Classic Tales Podcast: since late 2007, Harrison has been recording and making available—for free—his readings of, um, classic tales. He’s done everything from Arthur Conan Doyle (The Hound of the Baskervilles) to Lovecraft to Stoker to Conrad (Heart of Darkness). His readings are excellent. He usually gives a nice introduction and then reads the stories or poems. He’s certainly got that stage actor elocution and that’s a good thing for older tales like this. I can’t see him reading, say, Spillane, but, with classic tales of adventure, horror, and mystery, he’s excellent.

The podcasts are free from iTunes but only the newer ones. Archived podcasts are available from at nominal fees (less than $1). He’s making his reading of Tarzan of the Apes available for $5.53 (or $0.79 per episode). I’m going to download it and will have a review in January. Go on by his website and listen to some samples. I bet you’ll get hooked.

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