Friday, March 11, 2011

Adventure classics -- An ape and a gentleman

Is there a more perfect modern myth than Tarzan of the Apes?  Modern, at least, as in ninety-nine years old this year – Edgar Rice Burroughs’s masterwork was first published in magazine format in 1912.  The writer was born in 1875 and after enduring health problems and a series of low-paying jobs, tried his hand at fiction without having any illusions about his skill as an author.  He recalled later that “although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read. . . .”

My sister and I devoured Tarzan books during what would now be termed our years as middle grade readers.  All I remembered was the adventure, so that when I started to read one to my then middle grade daughter, I was shocked by how awful the writing was.  Not only were the books filled with the overwhelming bigotry and racism of their era, but Burroughs also seemed to have fallen under the spell of the deliberately archaic language that “good bad writer” Rudyard Kipling used in writing about children, indigenous people and animals.  Fortunately, excellence in writing isn’t needed for the art of myth making.

“The critical problem with which we are confronted is whether this art – the art of myth-making, is a species of the literary art,” C.S. Lewis wrote as editor of nineteenth-century fantasy writer George MacDonald’s works.  “. . . myth does not essentially exist in words at all (and) can coexist with great inferiority in the art of words.”

Perhaps it was because he only aimed to tell an entertaining tale, without worrying about literary excellence or burdening himself with excessive knowledge of his equatorial African setting that Burroughs attained such purity as a transmitter of myth.  The myth of the lost child who grew up to be Lord Greystoke but, still more wonderfully, king of the apes.  In that mythic realm, Burroughs has few rivals.

(The copyright of Tarzan of the Apes has expired in the United States, so I hope not to go to jail for reproducing its dust-jacket illustration here.  Does anybody dare share memories of books they once loved that they have to bowlderize now for family reading?)

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