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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Trouble with Tarzan

Over the course of the last couple of weeks I've read the first twelve of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels. And while I still love the fantastic landscape of Tarzan's Africa, with its magnificent lost cities and vividly painted wildlife, there's no denying that these are books very much of their time - and that time was outright sexist and racist.

Aside from the noble Waziri tribesmen, black Africans are described in the most appalling terms - to Burroughs and Tarzan, they are savage, stupid brutes, superstitious children, or at best, kowtowing servants. And even the Waziri, though they do give Tarzan a little help from time to time, are placed unfailingly in a subservient role. Women sometimes display gumption and bravery, and indeed Tarzan's daughter-in-law Meriem is a warrior in her own right, but most of the time women are merely prizes in Tarzan's world, to be stolen and rescued by men time and again.

From time to time Burroughs flirts with more progressive ideas; in The Son of Tarzan, Tarzan's son Korak falls in love with an Arab girl and Tarzan and Jane bless the coming marriage - but in the final pages it's revealed that Meriem isn't a poor Arab after all, but a lost French girl of noble birth. Burroughs comes so very close, but in the end he just can't countenance an intercultural marriage. (With exactly two exceptions so far, Arabs in the Tarzan novels are depicted as swarthy, lying knaves, interested only in poaching and slavery.)

Even Tarzan's choices are informed by racism. He goes out of his way to rescue white men and white women, and indeed the text makes it explicit that these are the correct and proper choices. It's old-style chivalry and tribalism at its worst. Tarzan is kind to his Waziri warriors but they are *his warriors in a very real sense. They are not slaves, but they are, explicitly, servants, with no agency; they exist to tend to Tarzan's vast African estate and to haul gold from the lost city of Opar whenever the Greystoke estate is running low on cash.

In a way, Tarzan is the ultimate expression of the Victorian form of racism. The white man comes to Africa with nothing; Tarzan arrives as a babe, born on the continent. (His parents are shipwrecked English nobles who die shortly after Tarzan's birth.) Raised by apes, Tarzan is quicker, faster, stronger and smarter than anyone in the jungle, even (perhaps especially) its natives. He grows up, takes and American girl for his wife, starts a plantation, staffs it with black servants, and literally steals the wealth of the continent to enrich himself. To Burroughs, all is as it should be, but to modern eyes he's accidentally created a literary indictment of the era's blinders.

And yet Burroughs' work still has value. Despite the overt racism and sexism, despite its colonialist attitudes, not to mention the wild plot contrivances and coincidences and overused tropes (Tarzan seems to get knocked unconscious by a glancing blow and tied up at least once per novel), these are still crackling adventure stories. I still can't help but get carried away by the romance of Tarzan's Africa, its great unspoiled natural beauty, its hidden dangers and yes, its beautiful damsels in distress. For sheer pulp adventure, Burroughs remains tough to beat. But these novels have to be read with a careful, critical eye.

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