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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


Books by Debra Hamel:

THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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Burroughs, Edgar Rice: Tarzan of the Apes

  Amazon  

4 stars

It's hard to imagine a time when no one had ever heard of Tarzan, when the ape man hadn't swung his way across countless B movie screens and Disney features. When I saw Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes listed among the public domain texts easily downloaded to the Kindle for free, I was curious to see what the original Tarzan looked like, before his cartoonification. It was worth the download.

The outline of the story told in Tarzan of the Apes--the first of what would be 24 Tarzan novels written by Burroughs--will be familiar. It begins with the story of Tarzan's parents, who were generously put ashore by a mutinous crew rather than killed, abandoned on an island that was inhabited only by wild beasts and cannibals. John Clayton is an Englishman's Englisman, brawny and brave and possessed of an innate nobility. His pregnant wife Alice strives to be a suitable companion to such a man. They survive in the jungle for a time, until their son is a year old, and then they both die from separate causes. Tarzan is adopted into a family of apes, where he eventually thrives because he is able to  compensate for his physical shortcomings (compared to apes; compared to your average man he is a god) by employing his intellect. Tarzan teaches himself to read from the books he finds among his dead parents' possessions, and so he is able to communicate when the island is finally visited by Europeans, Jane Porter and her bumbling father, who've been marooned themselves. A romance ensues, which leads Tarzan to civilize himself and follow Jane to America.

One can complain that Tarzan is sexist and racist. Jane's black servant Esmeralda is a beloved but comically uneducated appendage to the family, wont to faint at the slightest disturbance, while the cannibals Tarzan runs across are scarcely portrayed as human. Tarzan's mother is all fluttering female, striving to deserve her man. These biases are hardly surprising, however, given the book's age. Like Esmeralda, but without the racist subtext, Jane's father is portrayed comically, as a blithering idiot, in passages which seem ill-fitted to the rest of the rather serious narrative. Burroughs also offers the occasional over-long, poorly written sentence:

"From this primitive function has arisen unquestionably, all the forms and ceremonials of modern church and state, for through all the countless ages, back beyond the uttermost ramparts of a dawning humanity our fierce, hairy forebears danced out the rites of the Dum-Dum to the sound of their earthen drums, beneath the bright light of a tropical moon in the depth of a mighty jungle which stands unchanged today as it stood on that long forgotten night in the dim, unthinkable vistas of the long dead past when our first shaggy ancestor swung from a swaying bough and dropped lightly upon the soft turf of the first meeting place."

Tarzan impresses as a character both because of his physical prowess and his mental acuity. He is portrayed as a noble savage, a blend of human and ape that is superior to both species, both of which come in for criticism. (Though Tarzan is not perfect: we're told, for example, that as a man he will sometimes kill merely for sport.) The book closes with a final act of nobility on Tarzan's part--very nicely done--that underscores his inherent quality.

Many elements of Burroughs' story are of course fantastic, but the author makes much seem credible because of the details he provides--he describes how John Clayton was able to build a sturdy dwelling, for example, from limited supplies; or how Tarzan could teach himself to read; or how he could track someone's progress through the jungle by minute signs which to his practiced eye were like flashing neon. The details bring Tarzan's jungle to life.

Despite the familiarity of Tarzan's story and any shortcomings in the book, Tarzan of the Apes is actually quite a gripping read. I was able to put the book down, to be sure, but there were many times when I was lost in the story while reading, eager to see how things would play out. I can understand how Tarzan came to be such a beloved icon given this introduction.

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