Tarzan of the Apes: Simian-man saga celebrates a century

Pathfinder Infinite
Tarzan by Frank Frazetta

In man’s evolution he’s created the city and the motor traffic rumble.
But give me half a chance and I’d be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle.
– Ray Davies/The Kinks. “Apeman.” Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. 1970

Batman gets a lot of credit for being the only superhero with no superpowers, but 27 years before Bruce Wayne was even glimmer in Bob Kane’s eye, Edgar Rice Burroughs created an orphan hero that not only had no superpowers – he hardly had any clothes, let alone a costume, a fortune in bat-gadgets and a butler to pull his butt out of the fire on a regular basis. I’m talking about Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, a man raised by the great apes, who has captured the imagination of millions of fantasy fans, artists, writers and filmmakers since he first appeared in 1912.

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For the uninitiated, if such a person exists after a hundred years of pop culture adventures, Tarzan is the story of John Clayton (AKA Lord Greystoke), whose parents were stranded in the African Jungles after their ship was overrun by mutineers. His mother and father both die soon after he is born and he is adopted by the she-ape Kala.

Tarzan by Joe JuskoThe baby Clayton is named “Tarzan” (meaning White-Skin in the language of the great apes) and he is raised without knowledge of the human world. Things are tough for the orphaned young man-child, but as he grows into adulthood he becomes stronger and smarter than his fellow apes and eventually becomes their leader.

As an adult, the Apeman is introduced to others of his kind, but he ultimately rejects civilization in preference of his beloved and more honorable jungle world. He finds love with Jane Porter and inherits the fortune and title bequeathed by his long dead father. His adventures take him back and forth from the civilized world to the African wilds, but he always returns to his role as the Lord and protector of the Jungle.

The Tarzan books are rich with their own language that Burroughs created for the Great Ape tribe called Mangani, years before anthropologists ever considered that apes actually DID have a language of their own. Learning many of the words that are elaborately woven throughout the novels is just part of the jungle fun.

The first appearance of the Apeman was in The All-Story magazine of October of 1912, but in the past 100 years the Tarzan character has appeared in 25 books by Burroughs and inspired countless other works, both unauthorized and those approved by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate. The hero has appeared in 89 films and has been portrayed by over 20 actors.

Edgar Rice Burroughs USPS StampYou can see the influence of the Burroughs’ Tarzan books in almost every aspect of popular culture, in music, film, cartoons, comics, toys and television. This Friday, Aug. 17, Tarzan and Edgar Rice Burroughs finally get their long overdue USPS postage stamp, which simultaneously kicks off the annual “Dum Dum” ceremonial gathering of Tarzan fans in, where else, Tarzana, Calif. This year’s convention will host Jane Goodall as the guest of honor.

Goodall, the legendary primatologist, cites the Tarzan book series as having a major influence on her career choice and life-mission of studying and protecting the great apes. Although I’m obviously not as ambitious or committed as Dr. Goodall, I do admit that I too have had a lifelong obsession with apes that most certainly stems from my love of the Tarzan novels.

If you’ve never read any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic Tarzan books, then what are you waiting for? Most of them are available online for FREE and you can easily download to your respective e-reader or just CLICK HERE to get started. My personal favorites are, of course, the first Tarzan on the Apes and The Return of Tarzan, but for fun standalone stories, you can’t beat the sixth book in the series, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, a wonderful collection of a dozen short stories. So get your ape on and join the 100 year celebration!

The original Tarzan of the Apes silent film from 1918.

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