Courtesy notice: pre-teen and teen offspring of mine might prefer not to read this post.
Sometime during my teenage years, I spent a steamy summer reading Tarzan of the Apes.
It wasn’t the type of book that I gravitated toward — I didn’t think — but back when I had long, empty hours, I’d read just about anything. It turned out that the story is surprisingly engaging, and I was quickly drawn in.
And then I got to Pages 141 – 143. That’s the part where Tarzan saves Jane from a rampaging ape, takes her into his arms, and kisses her. And they’re both melted with love, and he whisks her off into the jungle.
And two pages over was the illustration:
Tarzan, it turned out, was very much my kind of book. *fans self*
In actuality, the book is highly un-recommendable to a modern audience. It’s very cheerfully racist, classist, and sexist. It’s also… well, cheesy. But at 16, I was willing to believe that a jungle savage could teach himself to read English, then learn to speak French in a week, then learn the trappings of civilization for the sole purpose of traveling from Africa to America to seek out the woman he loved.
As for the racism, my solid Creationist education insulated me from that. God created humans on the same day, and all of us came from the same genetic root. So the idea that a white man has some kind of hereditary nobility that sets him apart from “lower orders,” like animals and, you know, black men — oh, come on, I knew that was stupidity. (Still do.)
But nothing in my teenage girl brain objected to the idea of a god-like strong man defending, rescuing, and carrying away his woman. It is, in fact, still appealing. Strictly in fantasy, mind you. But what a fantasy it is.
But back to Tarzan. Tarzan is, of course, the son of a British aristocrat who was marooned in the jungle. His parents were killed by a tiger, and Kala the she-ape took Tarzan and raised him as her own. So he grows up as an ape, although he gradually realizes that he’s smarter, he can use tools, and the abandoned cabin in the jungle is his. Then comes an exploration party of white men… and Jane Porter. And everything changes for the young King of the Apes.
The book is full of gems like this: “When the thin knife drank deep a dozen times of Terkoz’s heart’s blood, and the great carcass rolled lifeless upon the ground, it was a primeval woman who sprang forward with outstretched arms toward the primeval man who had fought for her and won her.”
Tarzan carries Jane off, but he’s already reasoning that he can’t treat her as an ape would treat a female. Meanwhile, Jane is gazing up at him:
“No, he could never harm her; of that she was convinced when she translated the fine features and the frank, brave eyes above her into the chivalry which they proclaimed.”
“She noted the graceful majesty of his carriage, the symmetry of his figure, and the poise of his head upon his broad shoulders. What a perfect creature! There could be naught of cruelty or baseness beneath the godlike exterior.”
“… It was the hallmark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding. A hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of savage environment could not eradicate.”
Well, okay then. Way to feature the “primeval man-beast who kills to win his mate” along with the “natural-born gentleman” all rolled up in “incredibly hunky hero.” That’s called having your cake and eating it, too, and it sure was tasty that summer I read this book.
In the second half of the book, Tarzan becomes a polished gentleman of few words and unselfconscious acts of greatness. He saves Jane from a prairie fire and asks her to marry him. She can’t bring herself to do it, because how could they fit into each other’s worlds?
And that’s where the story ends. The next story in my collection is, “The Son of Tarzan,” so there’s obviously a gap in the canon. Surely that puzzled me way back then. Or maybe — and this is entirely possible — I read the ending only once or twice, and ever after I never got past this picture:
“And Tarzan? He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses.”
It’s pretty steamy in the jungle.