Is there a more politically incorrect icon than Tarzan? Probably not. An alpha male white guy who rules over a predominantly black culture, slaughtering wild animals and keeping the uppity darkies in the line (the nice ones, of course, are allowed to be his friends) while simultaneously keeping the leopard-skin-bikini-clad Jane on the side for a little monosyllabic one-on-one: Tarzan is a vestige of the bad old days of the 19th century, a relic of outmoded belief systems concerning race, gender and the environment—a perfect trifecta of reactionary values. One could argue pretty convincingly that such belief systems have no place in the 21st century.
If all this is true, though, then why does Tarzan continue to capture our imagination?
The short answer, of course, is that nothing has changed, and that there are all too many people walking around (in the white industrialized West, at least) carrying outmoded 19th-century belief systems everywhere they go. Certainly there are still plenty of people who believe, consciously or otherwise, that Africa’s problems are best solved by white people (see also Live Aid, Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener, much of the continent’s colonial history), or that there’s nothing quite so enjoyable as a ripping big game hunt, or that women are most satisfied as caretakers for their men. For such readers, Tarzan isn’t so much a guilty pleasure as he is shout-out to the good old days, a simpler time when men were men, Africans wore bones through their noses, women went barefoot and topless and there were plenty of lions to kill.
It seems to me, though, that the reality is a bit more complicated than that.
I like Tarzan. I don’t love Tarzan, though I do love Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other creations, John Carter of Mars and the prehistoric world of Pellucidar. That’s because I find space aliens and dinosaurs more compelling than African savages and wild elephants. (And maybe, if I’m honest, it’s because I am easier with John Carter’s white-man-out-of-place shtick as it applies to green guys with four arms rather than to black men with spears). Still, Tarzan does carry an undeniable whiff of romance, and even if it’s a guilty pleasure, it’s still a pleasure.
Strip away the dodgy racial subtext and eye-rolling gender roles and cringeworthy environmental attitudes, and what do you have? A classic hero archetype, a lone individual who faces multitudinous dangers and overcomes them relying only on his strength and wits. That’s okay. I can get behind that.
Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration is an enormous, beautifully produced coffee table book that can also get behind that, and it shows little sign of being perturbed by Tarzan’s more sinister subtleties. It is, first and foremost, a beautiful object: an oversized hardcover, 10 x 13 inches, clocking in at over 300 pages and weighing in at several pounds, lavishly illustrated on every page with cover artwork, movie stills, comics, and photographs. It’s a delight to sit and leaf through, and the accompanying essays by author Scott Tracy Griffin make for engaging reading, even if the prevailing tone is one of unmitigated awe.
Those essays cover every aspect of Tarzan’s history: the books, the pulp stories, the radio broadcasts, the comics, and of course the films. Topics include “Tarzan the Polyglot”, which reminds us that “the literary Tarzan has an almost superhuman facility for language, which holds him in good stead as he encounters a new lost race or tribe or misplaced European explorer in every novel.” After reviewing Tarzan’s many bouts with amnesia in “Tarzan the Aphasic”, author Griffen admonishes us: “Before dismissing Burroughs’ over-reliance on amnesia to drive his plots as simply lazy storytelling, it’s worth noting that Burroughs wrote from experience.”
Griffin’s meticulousness is no less evident in his consideration of the movies, beginning with the 1918 silent Tarzan of the Apes. “Burroughs, still unhappy with the storyline (which is, to date, one of the most faithful adaptations of his novels), declined his invitation to attend the premiere.” One imagines what he made of later offerings, such as 1942’s Tarzan’s New York Adventure. Later adaptations of the story, for television and stage, are also discussed, with plenty of illustrations to divert the eye.
Griffin also offers a nice précis of Burroughs’ life, including many photos of the author as a young man, and a thumbail outline of “The World in 1912”, the year Tarzan of the Apes was first published. This background provides helpful context in which to place the novel, as well as the chance to see many contemporary illustrations. Burroughs lived intil 1950, and had the good fortune to profit from his creation as it swelled in popularity.
As the century progressed, that popularity would grow with an apparently endless appetite. The Centennial Celebration reproduces hundreds of book covers from around the world, including many by big-name illustrators like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. The Vallejo illustrations are especially striking, as many are here enlarged to a size far larger than any book cover; his design for Tarzan and the Castaways, which shows a scarcely-clad Tarzan and equally-undressed woman facing an enormous, hulking elephant, carries genuine wonder.
His illustrations for Tarzan the Terrible, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Tarzan and the Madmen and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle are nearly as powerful. Dozens of other illustators are featured as well, such as George Wilson and Neal Adams—whose cover for Tarzan at the Earth’s Core is eye-popping to say the least—in addition to full-page reproductions of Sunday comics pages and Burroughs’ own scrawled notes and illustrations.
In brief, this is a fantastically well-produced book. If you can get past the shaky politics, it’s something you may well want to hold in your lap. In this age of Kindles and e-readers, it’s books like this that remind us of the value of physical objects, of their relative permanance and heft. given its reasonable price, it will make a fine holiday present for the armchair adventurer on your gift list. Be warned, though: this is no stocking stuffer. This one will have to go under the tree.