It All Began With Tarzan


On this day of thankfulness, I feel obligated to express my debt of gratitude toward an iconic literary creation and the author who gave him to me and the world. That icon is Tarzan and his creator was Edgar Rice Burroughs. By Farmerian/Wold Newtonian reckoning, Tarzan was born on this date in West Africa in 1888. The coincidence of Lord Greystoke's one hundred and thirtieth birthday and Thanksgiving 2018 was too much to pass up. Respects must be paid.

By the age of eight, I had read quite a few books already. I suppose they were all right at the time, but the only ones that I still remember are the various volumes in the Curious George series and an illustrated edition of Kipling's The Jungle Book. I hungered for something more and found it on a shelf--almost too high for me to reach--in my public library. That was the Edgar Rice Burroughs shelf.

Long before, back when the Burroughs Boom first got started, my librarian--a woman of surprisingly good taste in genre literature--bought numerous editions featuring Tarzan, Barsoom, Pellucidar and other series from ERB. There, on that shelf far above me, lay a treasure trove of exotic adventure fiction just waiting for me to grasp it and make it my own.

Like almost any American boy, I knew the name "Tarzan," so the Tarzan books were going to be the first ones I read. There were five of them and they comprised a bit of a grab-bag. Tarzan of the Apes was not amongst them. I managed to figure out that the earliest one in the series out of them all was Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. The title certainly promised cool things and the cover by Bob Abbett featured a hot redhead eyeing Tarzan from her throne. Yes, even then I had an interest in hot redheads. 


I rushed home with the book and began reading. The vocabulary was challenging, but I hung in there. The tale unfolded with Tarzan suffering amnesia and being taken captive in the lost city of Opar, which held unimaginable wealth in its subterrene vaults and was peopled by beautiful women and stunted, apish men. Human sacrifice! Jungle adventure! Arab slavers! I was enthralled. This was a hero who had adventures that cast shade upon those of Mowgli. I had to read more of them.

The next two volumes were Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle and Tarzan and the Lost Empire. The first featured two warring cities full of lost Crusader knights and the second--featuring a powerful Abbett cover--found Tarzan fighting in a Roman gladiatorial arena. Young mind blown.

Tarzan At the Earth's Core was an awesome crossover novel which flung the Lord of the Jungle into ERB's realm of Pellucidar. Cave bears! Sabertooths! Pterodactyls! Creepy reptile men! The Land of Awful Shadow! ERB blew the doors of my mind clear off with that one.

The last Tarzan book in my library's inventory was Tarzan and the Castaways. Not Burroughs' greatest work, but it contained some incredible Frazetta art and had Tarzan adventuring on an island of lost Mayans. 

When one looks at all of the cool concepts the Tarzan novels exposed me to--ruined jungle cities, Crusader combat, reptile men, lost Mayans--it's not hard to see how I was soon ready to beg my grandma to buy me a copy of Conan the Barbarian #38 and then began reading Robert E. Howard's actual prose not long after.

I reread most of the Tarzan novels a few years ago. They still hold up. Burroughs was a natural-born storyteller with a mind-boggling imagination. Tarzan remains, as ERB created him, a wily and savage hero. A hero with more complexity than many realize. Happy birthday to Lord Greystoke and hail to the genius that created him!