Sunday 24 July 2016

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Legend of Tarzan is in cinemas and I'm eager to write about it. But it occurred to me that this genuinely is a legendary character, and of sufficient stature to justify a post sketching some of his context and background. So we'll get to the movie next week.

Tarzan, along with Sherlock Holmes, is one of the universally recognised literary heroes. Famous all over the world for over a century, he is part of the fabric of life.  

Indeed, my father used to get irked if people mispronounced the name — Dad insisted on the stress on the first syllable:"TAR-zun".

Edgar Rice Burroughs may not have been one of the greatest prose stylists, but he was a genius. And he was by no means a one-hit wonder. His Martian adventure stories, starting with A Princess of Mars, were colourful, vigorous pulp science fiction and enormously successful.

But Tarzan is his finest and most enduring creation. Written under the influence of Rudyard Kipling and Jack London (and the legend of Romulus and Remus), Tarzan of the Apes nonetheless was unique and vividly original. 

It was first published in All Story Magazine in 1912, the same magazine and the same year as A Princess of Mars (what a year!).  Burroughs was paid $700 for it. 

An immediate hit with readers of the magazine, Tarzan didn't instantly command a wider audience. When Burroughs sent off copies of the story to book publishers, he was initially turned down flat.

I love the anecdote of what happened next. Burroughs promptly wrote a sequel, but the editor of All Story, Thomas Newell Metcalf, didn't think much of it. In fact, he rejected it. 

In a classic piece of meaningless editor-speak, he said the story "lacked balance". So Burroughs just turned around and sold it, without a word being changed, to another magazine for $1,000. Of course, it was a big success.

Burroughs then proceeded to play the magazines off against each other and thereby jack up his fee.

All writers love anecdotes like that. This one is true, and it's documented in John Taliaferro's Tarzan Forever, one of three books I have about Burroughs on my shelf (as opposed to the several dozen by Burroughs). The others are Edgar Rice Burroughs Master of Adventure by Richard Lupoff and Edgar Rice Burroughs The Man Who Created Tarzan by Irwin Porges.
The Porges book is huge, big enough to stun an ox — or, if you're Tarzan, probably a rhino. And the Lupoff biography is beautifully illustrated. But I'd recommend the Taliaferro as the best introduction to the fascinating subject of Tarzan and his creator.

(Image credits: The beautifully stylish cover of the first edition, by Fred Arting, is from Wikipedia. The Taliaferro cover is from Simon & Schuster. The Porges is from Good Reads. The Lupoff green Frazetta cover is also from Good Reads. The earlier red Frazetta cover is from James Reasoner's blog.)


  1. I'm with your dad ;)

    Though Tarzan populated my childhood in the 80s with the endless re-runs of the old films, I have to be honest and say they often bored me. He was such a taciturn, clean goody two shoes in those old movies, essentially a topless Superman bound by the Hays Code and whatever US propaganda or positive messaging was doing the rounds that week.

    I guess those re-runs were so popular in the '80s off the back of the release of the unwieldy titled Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (right up there with Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for a title I guess) which purported to go back to basics with Borroughs' famous creation. As a film, it's a bit of a mess and there are some truly horrible, dumb bits in there, but I must confess to having the smallest of soft spots for it.

    1. "Topless Superman"... absolutely classic! You're right about the unwieldy title of Greystoke and it is indeed a bit of a mess. One can see the wreckage of Robert Towne's great script in there, somewhere though. Thank you for commenting!

  2. My first cinematic Tarzan was reruns of Ron Ely's television series followed by the 1970s cartoon, both of which I enjoyed but which never inspired me to seek out the books.

    I never read the first few books until much later, long after I'd discovered Burroughs' Martian tales. They never struck the same chord with me as Barsoom did. (I never wanted to go to Tarzan's jungle or be like Tarzan. I wanted to see Barsoom and be like John Carter, so much so that my first remembered creative writing was a Barsoom fan fic.)

    When you do the review of the new movie, I'd love to hear how many Tarzans you've seen (theaters or TV)?

    1. I've seen few Tarzan movies, other than the new one and Greystoke. Most of my early memories are also of Ron Ely. But there are some gems out there, and the subject would bear further research! Thank you for your comments. I'm with you about Barsoon, by the way.

  3. Barsoom will always eclipse Tarzan's Africa in my heart, but there are moments in the Tarzan books I'll never forget. The arena scenes in Lost Empire, his wild abandon at finding unspoiled jungle in Pellucidar (At the Earth's Core)and Foriegn Legion's, 'Is dat Johnny Weismuller?'
    But nothing will ever match the first few chapters of Gods of Mars.