ACW (acw) wrote,

Project Gutenberg etext #85: The Beasts of Tarzan

I finished The Beasts of Tarzan this afternoon.

In my last post about an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, The Return of Tarzan, I gave a taste of how, from the beginning of his writing career, Burroughs was writing constantly, interleaving several large-scale projects and managing himself like a business. If anything, I understated the case.

After The Return of Tarzan (published 1913), Burroughs launched a new series, the "Pellucidar" or "Earth's Core" series, with the novel At the Earth's Core (1914). The standalone novels The Cave Girl, The Monster Men, The Mucker, The Mad King, and The Eternal Lover were all written in 1913, as was the third Mars book, The Warlord of Mars. In 1914 Burroughs found his way back to Tarzan.

In The Beasts of Tarzan, Tarzan and Jane pursue villains who have kidnapped their infant son Jack; the chase takes them back to Africa, where Tarzan gets to be Tarzan. This is the novel where the dramatic trick of Tarzan taming wild animals to be his comrades really starts to come into focus, with the taming of the leopard Sheeta.

About three quarters of the way through the book, Burroughs kills off Tarzan's main antagonist. Oh noes, there are at least fifty pages to go! That's OK: Burroughs pulls another gang of villains out of his sleeve to provide excitement for the last quarter. I was stunned by the nonchalant way he started a completely new story arc within sight of the end of the book. It somehow works, though.

I wouldn't be me if I didn't say a few words about the treatment of language in the Tarzan novels. Tarzan's genius is displayed early, when he learns written English just by examining picture books. His first spoken language is the supposedly rudimentary tongue of his tribe of super-apes. We hear quite a lot of it in translation, and it often seems quite a bit beyond rudimentary. The subject does not bear close scrutiny: despite having a language in which Tarzan can exchange elaborate descriptions with the apes, and make deals with them, and so on, he cannot use it to teach them, say, to paddle a canoe. The apes have a language which is considerably more intelligent than its speakers.

Later, Tarzan finds other human speakers of the ape language in the primeval city of Opar; in the mouths of the Oparians this language is quite poetic and elaborate. The inconsistency is never explained; coherency is sacrificed for the narrative convenience of having Tarzan be able to speak to the Oparians.

Tarzan learns French from his first European friend, D'Arnot, and later finds to his chagrin that the language he speaks does not match the one he reads, and has to start from the beginning to learn English. Tarzan is also fluent in the language of the African tribes in the vicinity of his childhood stomping grounds in West Africa. Again, for narrative simplicity, Burroughs replaces the hundreds of mutually unintelligible West African languages (of at least three language families) with a single "West Coast" language. Unfortunately all the words we ever get of it are clearly Swahili, from the East Coast. In particular, Burroughs has learned the East Bantu u/mu/wa pattern pretty well, so we get Mugambi, the chief of the Wagambi, who live on the banks of the Ugambi. (Yes, a member of the main ethnic group of Uganda is called a muganda, plural wagandabaganda. [ETA: The inflection pattern is apparently different in Luganda; I regret the error.]) In The Return of Tarzan, our hero makes a pretty good start at learning what is called Arabic but ought to be some variety of Berber, from the geography.

In this third novel, Tarzan is marooned on an island where he meets a different tribe of apes, who have lived on this island for ages, and are even (perhaps) a different species from the apes who cared for Tarzan in his childhood. But they speak exactly the same ape language. Oh, well.

And oh, yeah, more casual racism. And apparently Swedes are pretty degenerate as well.

Now I have started etext #86, Mark Twain's chrono-fantasy romp, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Twain has already made me laugh out loud on the 73 bus.
Tags: language, literature
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