Sunday, February 9, 2014

Beasts of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

At the start of the third Tarzan book our hero Lord Greystoke is living in London with his wife Jane and their infant baby son. Tarzan learns that one of civilization’s many discontents is the servant problem when it turns out that one of his servants is working for Nikolas Rokoff, the evil freelance spy. Rokoff has escaped from a French prison, and with the help of the untrustworthy servant kidnaps Tarzan’s son! Tarzan and Jane go after him and blunder into a trap, ending up imprisoned in separate cells on Rokoff’s ship.

Instead of blowing up or immolating or just shooting Tarzan, Rokoff throws the ape-man into the briar patch, marooning him on a jungle island full of apes and lions. Rokoff also plans to put Tarzan’s son up for adoption among a tribe of cannibals. Rokoff has some pretty weird theories on what constitutes satisfactory vengeance.

Tarzan killed four lions in the last book, and it was not long before one of Jungle Island’s lions has fallen prey to Tarzan’s grass rope and stone knife. But Tarzan doesn’t set out to depopulate the entire island; instead he makes friends with a panther, a tribe of apes, and a black warrior whose party got lost when their war-canoe got caught in a storm.

After leading this rag tag group to the mainland, Tarzan pursues Rokoff through the jungle. Rokoff and Tarzan visit an endless succession of native villages, at each trying to get information and win allies. Sometimes the Africans help, sometimes they are a menace. Eventually Rokoff meets a horrible death and Jane and Tarzan are reunited, shipwrecked on Jungle Island. A ship with a multicultural crew of mutineers (it’s a lucky ship that reaches its planned destination in these Tarzan books) comes by, which Tarzan and company are able to sieze. The End.

Beasts of Tarzan is inferior to the first two Tarzan books. The many native villages Tarzan and Rokoff visit are simply not as distinctive and exciting as Paris, Algeria, Opar, or the ape society Tarzan grew up in. Similarly, Tarzan’s allies in this book, a panther, some apes, and an African warrior, are not as interesting as the various Arabs and the priestess of Opar who helped Tarzan in Return of Tarzan. A panther can’t talk, and Burroughs doesn’t go to the trouble of devising any interesting dialogue for the apes or the African. He does a little better with the Swedish cook on Rokoff’s ship, but this guy doesn’t survive very long, and Burroughs tries to make him serve two purposes, both as comic relief and as a tragic figure, diminishing his impact.

Another problem is how Burroughs keeps switching back and forth between Tarzan’s and Jane’s adventures. Both of them are running through the jungle, either pursuing or pursued by Rokoff. Burroughs kills much of the suspense of the chapters starring Jane by telegraphing their outcome before we even read them. For example, at the end of a Tarzan chapter Tarzan finds the Swede, critically wounded. The Swede quickly expires. Then we get a Jane chapter, which describes Jane’s journey through the jungle with the Swede. This sequence would have been more effective if we didn’t already know that the Swede wasn’t going to make it. Burroughs does this three or four times, telling us the outcome of an episode before narrating the episode, and it is an unfortunate practice. (Maybe this technique was more effective when the novel was split up over five issues of a magazine, as it was when it first appeared in 1914.)

The death of Rokoff should be the climax of the story, but after the Russian spy is defeated Burroughs introduces a whole new set of villains who only last for two chapters. Finally, I found it a little annoying that halfway through the novel it turns out that dumbass Rokoff hadn’t really spirited Tarzan’s son from England to Africa; Tarzan and Jane’s baby is safe back home, this kid is some nameless orphan! This whole adventure is a mistake! Blehhhh….

Perhaps notable is that Tarzan in this book does that thing he did in all those black and white movies I saw on TV as a kid in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the thing that made Carol Burnett’s career; he yells and animals come to help him. He also wrestles his first crocodile; I seem to recall b&w Tarzan doing that a lot. Also, Jane shoots people with a rifle and pummels a guy unconscious with a revolver.  I know people are always complaining that these old adventure stories are full of women who faint at any sign of danger; here is a contrary example.

Beasts of Tarzan was just OK. There is little that is new in it; it’s Tarzan dealing with Rokoff and a bunch of African villages and tribes, and Burroughs did a better job with Rokoff and black Africans in the last book. Hopefully Burroughs will come up with something better in his fourth ape-man novel, Son of Tarzan.

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