Tarzan the Untamed from 1920 is the seventh Tarzan book written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs is most famous for his novels about Tarzan of the Apes—24 novels written and published between 1912 and 1936 in all. As all you readers likely know, Tarzan is a British lord, Lord Greystoke, whose parents died in Africa when he was a baby and he was raised by apes, hence his jungle title Tarmangani, “the Great White Ape.”
Most people also know of his encounter with Jane Porter in the first book, Tarzan of the Apes, and their eventual marriage. Even if you haven’t read any of the books (Which you should do, as they are well-written adventure novels. Burroughs has a very readable style.), you’ve likely seen Tarzan on the screen played by Johnny Weissmuller or Buster Crabbe or one of the many others. There’s even a 1918 silent film starring by Elmo Lincoln.
But, if you’ve only seen the films, you’ve only seen Tarzan as the “noble savage.” Tarzan’s vocabulary and grammar is pretty limited in those films; in the 1981 film version of the Tarzan story, Tarzan, the Ape Man, the title character, played by hunky Miles O’Keefe, has no lines at all. In the books, he is quite capable in the civilized world – in England, he can be seen in the best restaurants and clubs, even if he prefers the brutal honesty of the animal kingdom to the two-faced world of western civilization.
In this particular novel, Tarzan is away from his Kenyan estate, when the novel starts, having spent some time in England recently, even taking his place in the House of Lords – he is, after all, Lord Greystoke. When a British officer meets him in this novel, he is quite surprised at Lord Greystoke’s loin cloth, as he had last seen him in London at an event where his Lordship was dressed in the white tie and tails appropriate for dinner.
This novel is quite unique in the Tarzan canon as it is the only one that makes reference to the Great War. The novel, though written in 1919 and published in book form in 1920, is set in 1914. When the novel begins, Lady Jane and Tarzan’s household do not yet know that war has broken out between Germany and England, which ignorance a German strike force takes advantage of, when they come from Tanzania to Tarzan’s sprawling estate in Kenya. Lady Jane, unaware that a state of war exists between Britain and Germany, welcomes the German officer and his men into her house. When Tarzan arrives (is rushing home when we first see him, as he knows that war has been declared), he finds the servants dead, including Wasimbu, his warrior friend, who was serving as a bodyguard for Jane. And he finds a woman dead whom he takes to be Jane.
Convinced that the Germans have attacked and killed his wife, his friend, and his servants, and destroyed much of his estate, Tarzan returns to the jungle where he stalks the Germans he feels are responsible. His first victim, a German officer whom he throws to a lion Tarzan has trapped, was not involved in the attack – it was his brother who led the raid. One might expect Tarzan to feel some regret, seeing as he got the wrong man. Instead, Tarzan, in his distracted state, cares nothing about whether the Germans caught and killed had been part of the attack on his home, as he feels all Germans are responsible for the barbaric acts of any German. And though the German attack on Tarzan’s home was brutal, Tarzan’s own brutalities do not evoke any such condemnation from the author.
The book is full of the propaganda one would expect in a British novel written during the war. But the book was not written during the war. It wasn’t even started until after the war. And Edgar Rice Burroughs was an American author, and America’s involvement in the war was relatively short – only the final year and a half of the war. At the war’s conclusion, the negative propaganda ceased. Even in England, the level of animosity had dropped quite a bit by 1920. So, what was Burrough’s point in writing and publishing this work? Besides, from a practical point of view, this novel made no sense. Burrough’s Tarzan books were very popular in Germany. In fact, their popularity in Germany was the highest in Europe. When this book came out, casting the whole German nation as the monstrous Hun, it did not play well in Germany. And the German readers who had thrilled to Tarzan’s adventures in the first six books stopped buying, and Burroughs lost a big market.
I must warn you that the violence in the book, which is never overly explicit, is still fairly shocking in what would have been books for pre-teens and teens, especially in the 1920s. In many ways, Tarzan in the book is more Wolverine than Lord Greystoke – following a strict ethical code, but not one that matches with the everyday morality of civilization. Also Burroughs was very much a man of his time, and so, while Wasimbu, a recurring character killed in this book, is a noble warrior whom Tarzan loves like a brother, most of the African tribesmen are presented in the stereotypes typical of the time. Those Africans who are allied to the Germans come in for the worst treatment.
Tarzan the Untamed is in the public domain in the United States, so eBook and digital Audiobook copies of the novel are available for download from Project Gutenberg, and also available for check out from Library resources such as hoopla and the EBSCOhost eBook Collection.
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.