Spellbinder Saturday: Tarzan … Yes, that Tarzan

Easy as A, B, C . . . from HA

When discussing writing, what constitutes a classic; what constitutes a masterpiece? Is it just sales or is there some lasting quality? I think time has more to do with it than anything. This is probably true of most things: classic works of art, classic movies, and classic books. Classics don’t even have to be widely accepted or appreciated in their early days. They only become classics after years have passed and they’re as popular as they were in their heyday; if not more so.

What brings up this question? What does it have to do with spellbinding? One word: Tarzan; well, maybe three words: Edgar Rice Burroughs. Actually? A whole lot of words.

I have the first eight books in the twenty-four book Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve read the The Edgar Rice Burroughs Collectionfirst four this week. It’s been forty years since I read my first Tarzan. It was one that took place during World War Two; can’t even remember the name. This led me to read the first novel of the series: Tarzan, the Ape Man. At the time, I remember thinking “If it weren’t for coincidence, there would be no story!” EBR relies heavily on coincidence. There’s this one cove on the western side of Africa … It’s probably a theme park by now, that’s how often people just sort of stumbled across it.

We won’t get into attitudes on women… these four were, after all, written in the twenties.

Anyway, this has gotten me to thinking: What is it about some books or series that make them classics? I mean, Dickens I understand. Tarzan has brought forth the 24 books originally written by Burroughs, ten official works– some written by Burroughs some not. Dickens he isn’t!

While Tarzan of the Apes met with some critical success, subsequent books in the series received a cooler reception and have been criticized for being derivative and formulaic. (For formulaic writing, see the Doc Savage series (Another classic series) by Lester Dent aka Kenneth Robeson. Go to http://www.paper-dragon.com/1939/dent.html to learn how to do it.) The characters are often said to be two-dimensional, the dialogue wooden, and the storytelling devices (such as excessive reliance on coincidence) strain credulity. More than once while reading, I found my face in my palm or my head shaking.

Rudyard Kipling, in his autobiography said: “If it be in your power, bear serenely with imitators. My Jungle Books begat Zoos of them. But the genius of all the genii was one who wrote a series called Tarzan of the Apes. I read it, but regret I never saw it on the films, where it rages most successfully. He had ‘jazzed’ the motif of the Jungle Books and, I imagine, had thoroughly enjoyed himself. He was reported to have said that he wanted to find out how bad a book he could write and ‘get away with it,’ which is a legitimate ambition.”

While Burroughs is not a polished novelist by today’s standards, he is a vivid storyteller, and many of his novels are still in print. In 1963, author Gore Vidal wrote a piece on the Tarzan series that, while pointing out several of the deficiencies that the Tarzan books have as works of literature, praises Edgar Rice Burroughs for creating a compelling “daydream figure”.

Tarzan lives on. In 2010, Stan Galloway provided a sustained study of the adolescent period of the fictional Tarzan’s life in The Teenage Tarzan. In the summer of 2011, Andy Briggs started a series rebooting Tarzan into the modern world. As of now, he’s published three in the series: Greystoke Legacy, The Jungle Warrior, and Savage Lands.

Movies, TV series, critiques, etc., have filled the years. Despite critical panning of the originals, the Tarzan stories have remained popular. Burroughs’s melodramatic situations and the elaborate details he works into his fictional world, such as his construction of a partial language for his great apes, appeal to a worldwide fan base.

I’m not sure whether I’ve answered my original question or not, but if I’ve sparked an interest in Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Kenneth Robeson, Lester Dent or any of the other items mentioned in this article, then I’ve, at least, brought some spellbinding reading to your future. Give Tarzan and Doc Savage a whirl. They’re perfect for a rainy weekend of relaxation and escape.

If you’re a budding writer or an experienced one for that matter, check out the Dent link and give writing a novel in three days a try. My personal best is around 22,000.

See you next time for Tips on Tuesday.

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