A passionate reader’s many encounters with the inimitable Edgar Rice Burroughs and the raw and ready Tarzan.
My father, an army officer, was posted from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh to Thiruvananthapuram in 1972. After a stay of a few months in the Army mess, we were allotted a house in Belhaven, a quiet lane close to the Governor’s residence and the Kowdiar Palace, the seat of the Travancore Royal family. One of the neighbours, who lived diagonally opposite, was an elderly lady who used to drop in to chat with my mother. She was extremely inquisitive and apparently had several sources from which she had gleaned the entire history and lineage of our family within a couple of weeks. My mother used to refer to her, when she was out of earshot, as ‘ Nosey Parker’.
One day she invited us over to her house. I was sitting, bored stiff, in her over-furnished drawing-room when I noticed a book lying on a corner table nearby. Already a voracious bookworm, I immediately picked it up and was entranced by the cover which showed a muscular man, clad in a loincloth, walking through a jungle accompanied by a couple of vicious-looking apes. The book was ‘Tarzan and the Madman‘ the twenty-third Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I picked up the book and started reading it. I was already familiar with the character of Tarzan being the proud owner of two of the Tarzan comic books published by Gold Key Comics. This was the first time I had come across a Tarzan novel and I was soon lost in a world of lost races, wild beasts and a mighty thewed hero who had the most incredible adventures. When it was time to leave, seeing the reluctance with which I put the book down and the longing glances I cast in its direction as my mother dragged me to the door, the lady asked me if I would like to take it home to read. I happily agreed and picked up the book which I proceeded to devour in about three hours flat. The next day I rushed over to return the book and hopefully asked the lady if she had any more such wondrous books. Unfortunately, this was the only book on the premises, and apparently, even this had been borrowed by her son from some friend of his who undoubtedly had superior reading tastes. Disappointed, I returned home determined to somehow lay my hands on more books in the series.
Discovering the Treasure
My ardent wish to read more Tarzan books must have moved the entity upstairs because, about a week later my father took the family to meet a former colleague of his, a retired Colonel, who lived half a kilometre away near the golf links. As soon as we entered the Colonel’s living room my eyes fell on a small two-tiered bookshelf affixed to the wall. I immediately rushed over to peer at it. The top tier held four or five thick hardbound books including a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, two or three thick Readers Digest anthologies an Encyclopaedia and a Dictionary. It was the second tier that grabbed my attention. It contained the complete Ballantine edition of the Tarzan series. All 24 books. Talk about serendipity. Seeing me standing under the bookcase with my tongue hanging out my mother glared and rolled her eyes, wordlessly commanding me to sit down and stop behaving like a hungry mongrel spotting a luscious steak.
The Colonel, however, showing the wisdom and sagacity that is ingrained in every soldier, had already observed my longing gaze at the books. He enquired whether I was a reader. I nodded emphatically while my mother put on her ‘here we go again’ expression and my father tried to pretend he didn’t know me from Adam. The Colonel explained that the books were probably a trifle difficult for a 10-year-old to understand. My father snorted and said I’d already read just about every book in his collection. I eagerly informed the Colonel, that I had already read ‘ Tarzan and the Madman’. The Colonel was taken aback but recovered quickly and asked me whether I would like to read more in the series. Would I ? Would a hungry tiger-like to invite a luscious goat over to dinner? Of course, I would. The Colonel told me that he would lend me a book and once I had finished and returned it, taking care not to sully its pristine condition in any way, he would lend me the next one. I was in the seventh heaven of delight. I was handed the first book in the series, Tarzan of the Apes ( published 1911 ), and I retired triumphantly holding tight to my booty. My pest of a little sister immediately wanted to know if Uncle had any fairy tale books by Ruth Manning-Sanders. The Colonel denied ever hearing of Ruth Manning-Sanders which increased manifold my admiration for his taste in literature. Undoubtedly a man of great taste and refinement.
In a few weeks’ time, I had blazed through the rest of the Tarzan series, thanks to that Prince among men, the Colonel. The series recounts the adventures of Tarzan who is the son of a British Lord and Lady who were marooned on the West coast of Africa by mutineers. When Tarzan was a year old, his mother died of natural causes, and his father was killed by Kerchak, leader of a tribe of Great apes. Kerchak wants to kill the infant but the baby is saved and adopted by the she-ape Kala, who had recently lost her infant. Tarzan grows up in the jungle and soon becomes the leader of the tribe of great apes after killing the brutal Kerchak. He also discovers the cabin his parents used to live in and teaches himself to read using the books he finds there. As the saga continues we learn that he is really Lord Greystoke, born into an aristocratic English family. He meets the beauteous Jane Porter who later becomes his wife and also returns to England to claim his inheritance. However, he never gets used to ‘ civilization’ which he deems to be more barbaric than jungle life and soon returns to the jungle where he has the most incredible adventures involving lost races, hidden worlds, fantastic creatures and evil villains. Burroughs’ prose is vivid and exciting, taking the reader by the scruff of the neck and hauling him, breathless, from one cliffhanger to the other.
The Fantastic World of Adventures
The story of a child brought up by wild animals had been done before by Rudyard Kipling in The Jungle Book and stories of lost worlds where dinosaurs still roamed by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Lost World which was also published in 1912, both books I had not read at the time. Burroughs took these themes and took them to the next level creating an entire universe of unlimited possibilities.
Having tasted blood, I proceeded hot on the trail of more books by Burroughs. On the back pages of one of the Tarzan books was an advertisement for yet another series by Burroughs, a series set on Mars. In those pre-internet days, finding information on works by authors was a difficult task. I searched the catalogue of the British Council Library but apparently, they only carried books, that too only hardcovers, by British authors and Burroughs was an American. I tried my luck next at the Trivandrum Public Library and here I struck gold. They had about nine of the eleven books of the Mars series and I proceeded to devour those. I started with the first book of the series ‘ A Princess of Mars’ ( 1912 ). In this series, considered a landmark in science fiction, Burroughs reached the zenith of his world-building abilities, creating a sweeping epic set on Mars, the red planet, called ‘Barsoom’ by its many savage inhabitants.
The series features the adventures of Confederate army captain John Carter, who is wounded in a fight with savage Apache Indians and crawls into a sacred cave, only to find himself mysteriously transported across the solar system to eventually find himself on an alien planet which, he later discovers, is Mars. This is a world ruled by savage six-armed barbarians, a world of terrible beasts and ancient cities where John Carter would fight against all odds to win the hand of the beauteous Princess Dejah Thoris and become the greatest leader on the planet, the Warlord of Mars. This epic series is every bit as vivid and exciting as the Tarzan stories and its spectacular success made Burroughs one of the biggest selling authors in the history of publishing.
Having discovered a winning formula Burroughs churned out several more series set in fantastic worlds. The Venus series narrated the adventures of Carson Napier who sets off on a rocket ship to Mars but ends up on the planet Venus ( called Amtor by its inhabitants ). Burroughs heroes had a knack of landing in the most obscure places, none of the denizens of which had ever heard of the words peace or non-violence. And thank goodness for that. The Pellucidar series was set not in outer space but in a hidden land at the core of the earth and starred David Innes and Abner Perry. In one of the earliest examples of a crossover event, Tarzan also featured in an adventure in Pellucidar in the book ‘Tarzan at the Earth’s Core’ in which he shared star billing with David Innes. There were series set in Caprona, ‘ The Land that Time Forgot’, several standalone adventures and even four westerns.
All in all, he wrote around 80 books, all aglow with the fevered imagination and narrative drive that I have seen matched only by one other writer, Robert E. Howard, the creator of the mighty barbarian Conan of Cimmeria. The books also had fabulous covers painted by the likes of Al St. John, Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel, Boris Vallejo and Neal Adams, and are worth possessing for the beautiful cover art alone. In the wonderland of the Daryaganj market in Delhi, I obtained more books by Burroughs over the years and currently have 70 of the 80 books including the complete Tarzan and Mars series. All good things come to he who waits and I am hopeful that I will, at some point in the future, reach the Holy Grail of possessing all the books written by Burroughs.
No mention of Burroughs’ stories and characters would be complete without mentioning the comics featuring his creations. Tarzan first started appearing as a newspaper comic strip in 1929 with art by the great Hal Foster. The strips continued across several decades utilizing the services of several of the greatest comic artists of all time including Rex Maxon, Burne Hogarth, Dan Barry, John Celardo, Russ Manning, Gray Morrow and Gil Kane. The Tarzan comics started with appearances in anthology series from Dell comics in 1938 which reprinted the Hal Foster strips, and the first full-fledged comic dedicated to the character debuted in 1947 with beautiful art by Jesse Marsh.
The series was later continued by Gold Key, DC and Marvel comics among others with several more great artists like Russ Manning, Joe Kubert and John Buscema, to mention a few, portraying the character. I am of the firm opinion that Tarzan is the character in fiction who has had his adventures illustrated by the greatest lineup of artists ever, both in the novels and the comic books. Other Burroughs characters also got the comic book treatment and his characters continue to thrill readers around the world and are being published by different publishers. The characters, especially Tarzan, have also featured in scores of popular feature films and television series.
Burroughs books are certainly not free of attitudes that will seem racist and non politically correct by today’s standards. We have to remember that he was a product of his times and not allow our minds to be prejudiced by the fact. I would like to say in conclusion, especially about the Tarzan books, that the savage, almost bestial character portrayed in the books, who is basically a wild beast with superficial human trappings, was toned down and sanitized considerably in the comics. The art of the comics is incredibly beautiful and the stories race on at a headlong pace, but to get the real flavour of the Burroughs experience you need to read his books, to experience the magic of the storyteller who taught the world that there are no limits to the imagination.
Science Fiction great Ray Bradbury, in an interview to the Paris Review, said of Burroughs that “Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out – and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly – Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special.” No author could wish for a better epitaph.
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