Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Noblest Savage of Them All is White

Ah, vampires. I mean, we're not actually talking about vampires today, but yeah, people sure do like 'em. In fact, Dracula is the most-adapted piece of literature.

The SECOND most-adapted piece of literature is Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. First published in 1912, this... respected work of fiction... is about a feral child raised in the African jungle by apes.

I've gotta be honest: I've read the original Tarzan, and I'm not a fan. The book is meandering, hugely racist, and poorly researched: even in the early 1900s, PEOPLE KNEW that LIONS DO NOT LIVE IN THE JUNGLE. It's also a comedy of idiocy - Jane Porter leaves Tarzan in the jungle to make him happy and marries this William dude that she doesn't really like, then Tarzan follows her to America, and to make Jane happy he renounces his inheritance so that William (his cousin) gets to keep it. YAY NOBODY GETS WHAT THEY WANT except possibly William. Though William probably isn't too thrilled to have a wife that prefers a loincloth.

Tarzan is your prototypical noble savage, except with the added advantage of being white. He scorned the "hypocrisy of civilization" and embraced an extreme return to nature, tree-surfing optional.

It's all so noble I could hurl.
I think Tarzan's popularity was a product of its time. It was published at a time when America was moving off the farm; sort of a prelude to the mass exodus to the cities in World War I. This huge shift in culture and lifestyle evoked nostalgia for the old days when people's worlds were smaller and life was lived closer to the earth. You can see how new factory recruits crammed into dingy steel cities would long for earthy childhoods still within their memories.

Nowadays, I don't really see the appeal. I mean, I get the appeal of leaving civilization, but not with Tarzan. He's too one-dimensional, too bland, too... racist.

Disney tried to update Tarzan in 1999 with their animated film. In doing so, they found it necessary to change... uh... yeah, pretty much everything. In the Disney version Tarzan is adopted by gorillas, the leader of the pack doesn't kill his parents, Terk is a girl and instead of being Tarzan's arch-nemesis she's his BFF, Tantor the elephant is his friend instead of universally loathed, and the lion is instead a leopard. Oh yeah and William Clayton is evil and dies by hanging.

That's... oddly grim.
One really funny thing that happened was a letter to the editor complaining about how Tarzan would promote unhealthy body expectations for young boys was published in the New York Times when the movie came out. Considering the expectations young girls must have developed due to the zillion follow-your-dreeeeeeams-and-wed-royalty Disney princesses... STFU.

I don't know why I take such umbrage with Tarzan when I can enjoy equally dated things like Wade Everett westerns. I guess it comes down to intent. Edgar Rice Burroughs just seems like such a shallow, condescending, firmly of-his-time guy. Instead of taking stereotypes for granted, he wallows in them. Also given that he did not actually move to the jungle and live off hemp, I'm going to assume he was a big ol' hypocrite.

I love genre fiction, but I think this is one we can leave safely in the past and lose nothing. What old genre fiction do you hate?


  1. I did see the Disney Tarzan. Have the soundtrack. I have most of them. Lol! Only watched this once though. I like the movie version with Brandon what's his face. No...that was George of Jungle...nevermind. Lol!

    Um...yeah, I don't think I would like the book cause I would have wanted Jane to be with Tarzan since she liked that sweaty stupid thing.

    Can't think of anything off the top of my head that I read and hated. I did find Dracula extremely difficult to read. I always scream at Jo when she turns down Laurie in Little Women and cry for Amy's blood when she throws Jo's story in the fire, but I love that thing. It kind of pissed me off that Anne of Green Gables was forced to grow up and be that book's version of responsible. But I loved it until the end. But really, it's like, can't she still be herself, fun and playful, AND have a job? Why does she have to conform to society and became all starchy and "mature." But I may have over-related to Anne. And I had a fear of becoming a teacher, which is exactly what she ends up doing. Boo.

    1. I agree with you about Dracula (and the ending of Anne of Green Gables). A lot of people enjoy it, but I found it very dry and meandering. And super sexist of course.