Tuesday, December 12, 2006

By Edgar Rice Burroughs

Everybody’s favorite jungle boy wasn’t always an elegant English earl. In fact, in his younger days he was pretty much a wild man, frankly he was a real animal. I suppose that’s how it is when you live with a bunch of apes.

Jungle Tales of Tarzan details Tarzan’s youthful exploits in the jungles of Africa. He learns about love and wonders why every animal has a mate except him. He develops his own religion with ideas about God and what kind of animal the moon is. Tarzan analyzes himself as a Mangani, an ape, that is a person without qualifications, in relation to the Gomangani, the black people, and the Tarmangani, the white people of his imagination. And he has rip-roaring battles with ferocious beasts: lions, hyenas, leopards, and enraged bull apes.

Tarzan has quite a few battles with the jungle’s most dangerous beast: man. This is where the Tarzan tales hit the pavement of the 21st century. Modern readers may find Tarzan’s almost psychopathic savagery toward the Gomangani to be a bit difficult to swallow. Sure, Tarzan adopts a black boy for a while. The adoption is more like a prolonged kidnapping with the poor kid’s terrified reaction formally laid out by ERB, in an ironic counterpoint to Tarzan’s enthusiastic attempt at building a multi-racial (technically inter-species, Tarzan is an APE by adoption) family. But ERB also drops enough lines about the innate inferiority of blacks to make this an uncomfortable read. The irony is that I read it directly after The Sky and the Forest and I found Burroughs’ African to be more fully-realized characters than Forester’s. ERB credits his Africans with abstract thinking!

Anyway, I really don’t want to sound like a pompous, white, 21st century liberal scoring easy points off ERB. The fact is he was a master of fast-paced action, capable of a bit of deft characterization and even a bit of irony at the expense of his most famous character. I’ll leave a larger discussion of racism in pulp-fiction to others more qualified than myself. But I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say that 21st century readers are likely to find the racial attitude unpleasing. Just call me a Tarmangani for reconciliation.
-Dave Hardy

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