Friday, October 2, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Beasts of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

You have to give Edgar Rice Burroughs credit, the man knows how to start a story. When we last saw our hero in The Return of Tarzan, John Clayton had married his true love, Jane Porter. The sweeping soundtrack played in your mind and the sun set on the Atlantic Ocean. You might be tempted to think that the opening scenes of the third book in the series, The Beasts of Tarzan, would show Lord and Lady Greystoke and their gushy love at peace in Scotland.

You’d be wrong. Chapter one’s title, “Kidnapped,” provides the first hint, paragraph one gives you all you need to know about this book: Tarzan arch enemy, Nikolas Rokoff, has escaped. Three pages later, the final piece of the plot: a piece of paper, written by his wife, to Tarzan: “Jack [Tarzan’s infant son] stolen from garden through complicity of new servant. Come at once. Jane.”

And we’re off. I don’t know enough pulp history to determine who was the first author to give a readership a series of cliffhangers but ERB is a likely candidate. Through manipulations a plenty, Tarzan finds himself captive on a boat headed to...Africa! No, seriously. I tell you what: if I’m Rokoff, I’m taking the Lord of the *Jungle* to Antarctica or the Sahara, anywhere but the very same jungle from whence he came. Now, truth be told, Rokoff maroons him on a jungle island (later named Jungle Island) where hoards of wild beasts have never heard of Tarzan. They must challenge the white man. They do.

They lose. Tarzan still knows how to speak ape and tussles with the king ape of a different tribe. Tarzan kills said ape and, after a bit, wins over the allegiance of the rest of the apes, about a dozen or so. At this stage, Tarzan becomes a cross between Dr. Doolittle and Aquaman: he recruits the apes (that's Akut on the cover image), Sheeta the leopard, and an African, Mugambi. We won’t even discuss the fact that the beasts of Tarzan include a man. Nevertheless, When Tarzan’s in trouble, he can send out a signal and his hoard come to his rescue.

With his posse in tow (literally, these apes help Tarzan row a boat from Jungle Island to the African mainland), Tarzan hunts Rokoff. Tarzan thinks Jane is in London but that his boy is with Rokoff. Jane, meanwhile, really *is* in Africa, having been captured by Rokoff but then escaping from him. Along the way, she gets an infant she *thinks* is hers but doesn’t find out the truth until later (i.e., daylight). The poor baby dies and, when Tarzan hears the news, he thinks it was his kid that died, not even knowing that the white woman is, in fact, his wife.

Burroughs packs in a lot of chases, near misses, deadly battles, into this book. With all the misdirection and mistaken identities, it’s almost like an episode of the old TV series, “Three’s Company.” As I mentioned earlier, ERB knows how to grab a reader and keep those pages a’ turnin’. At certain places, just when one hero is at the highest danger, ERB shifts focus to the other hero. He brings the second hero to death’s door...and then throws you back to the first hero. It’s Saturday morning serial storytelling at its best.

The kicker is the last chapter, when you learn about the fate of the infant and what he’s been doing while his parents are fighting wild beasts and crazed Russians. Granted, glancing at the title of the fourth book pretty much laid your fears to rest, but, still, it was kind of funny the way the whole thing turned out.

Burroughs writes in the omniscient narrator POV all the time and he breaks the fourth wall on the last page. “Possibly we shall see them [Tarzan, Jane, et. al.] all there amid the savage romance of the grim jungle and the great plains where Tarzan of the Apes loves best to be. Who knows?” Like Tarzan’s first two adventures, The Beasts of Tarzan was serialized first (in All-Story Cavalier magazine) and later published as a book. Burroughs knew what he was doing when he wrote those last words: leaving it up to the readers to demand the next exciting adventure of Tarzan.

Writing note: Burroughs started writing this third adventure of Tarzan in January 1914. He finished one month later. One. Month. Later.



pattinase (abbott) said...

I love your choices, Scott. It takes me back to a time when boys read books like this. I wonder if they still do.

Chris said...

Entertaining and well-written reviews as always, Scott. This line had me in stitches: "At this stage, Tarzan becomes a cross between Dr. Doolittle and Aquaman." LOL!

Phy said...

Fantastic review, Scott. ERB was amazing, and his prose Tarzan is unlike any of the film renditions.

Barbara Martin said...

Another walk down memory lane. Thanks, Scott, for an excellent and entertaining review.

Scott Parker said...

Patti - I know mine will be given all opportunity to read books like this. Just last night, I was reading to him this grade-school mystery. It was late but we were close to the end of the book. As I started to close the book, he said, "Dad, can you finish reading? I really want to know what happens." Bingo! An avid reader is born!

Chris - Well, the more Tarzan books I read, the more I realize that I don't need to bring a truly critical eye to these stories. They are fun! So my reviews will match the frivolity.

Phy - Thanks. I've seen about half of the 1984 Greystoke movie. I'm going to finish it this weekend. In my mind's eye, I can see all those old B&W Tarzan movies and the the TV show. As fun as they were, they are not ERB's stories. I like them both but, given the choice, I'm taking ERB every single time.

Barbara - Always a pleasure. I'm planning on reading books 1-6 before I take a Tarzan break. Turns out my mom (whose books I'm reading) doesn't have Book #4: The Son of Tarzan. I got the e-book from Project Gutenburg.

Julie said...

Steve Weddle tossed me over here because I was talking about my Tarzan addiction when I was 13. I loved these books and ate them like pistachios. This was a blast to read, and it makes me want to hit the used stores to find them all again.

Scott Parker said...

Julie - Glad you enjoyed the review. Have you read the "official biography" of Tarzan, Tarzan Alive, by Philip Jose Farmer, where he tries to tie in all the ERB stories into one book of a man's life? I haven't yet. Now, I'm branching into the Joe Kubert comics I'm getting from my local library.

Julie said...

Why no I have not. I'll add that to my list.

You know, I'm starting to resent you guys adding to my list. The pile is now about 2.5 feet high.