Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Tarzan of the Apes

Scottie’s is a quaint little bookstore in Ellsworth, Maine that I visit maybe once or twice a year.  Every time I go, the books are piled higher and the Scotty dog is older—but that papery smell still fills the air, just like always.  I love the familiar surroundings, the high shelves and the brimming cardboard boxes, the ratty paperbacks and the priceless hardcovers.  Recently I was wandering through the crowded stacks, thumbing through old and new volumes alike—worn out Orson Scott Cards and shiny Isaac Asimovs.  Tolkein was in there somewhere, tucked in facing the tacky looking Star Trek and Star Wars collection that I always drool over but rarely buy.  Still hoping to dig up a Ray Bradbury, I moved to the classics section deep in the back corner, a veritable treasure trove if you care to dig.  And that’s when I found it.  Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

My cousin loves Tarzan—the books, the soundtrack, the movie.  Whenever I visit her house, I see her copies sitting in a neat little row on her shelf, and I am intrigued.  I watched the Disney version when I was much younger, and bits and bobs still float around in my memory, random snatches of animation that stuck to my grey matter.  Not much—just enough to know that I liked it, but not enough to know why.  Truth be told, when my cousin recommended the books to me, while her enthusiasm piqued my interest, the obnoxiously melodramatic covers weren’t very promising.  This copy, though—this copy was beautiful.  The peaceful blue-green jungle was a scene from another world; a strange, magical place that I desperately wanted to visit.  And having forgotten so much of the story, I was curious to remember.  So, after all these years, I finally got around to reading it. 

At the end, as I closed the book and studied the write-up to see if it gave an accurate representation, I wondered why I hadn’t remembered that Tarzan was a tragedy. 

As a kid, when I read, I read because I loved to explore, because a mere staycation didn’t cut it for me, because everyday life can be boring for a mind that’s always learning and growing and developing.  I didn’t much care what happened, so long as it was interesting.  Nothing wrong with that, of course.  But now…  Now I read to escape, to stretch, to make sense of the world.  I live in a box—a gilded cage—and I need air sometimes.  I need to live somewhere else and be someone else when this frame becomes too unbearable. 

And Tarzan—Tarzan is beautiful.  He is free, swinging through the treetops with the fresh air and the sunlight surrounding him.  He is basic humanity, without the trappings of taxes and rent and work.  He is an untamed spirit, and I rooted for him because he is the wild, adventurous creature that I wish I was. 

Then Jane Porter comes along and ruins everything.  At first I liked her because Tarzan liked her.  But Tarzan doesn’t get the girl in the end.  He doesn’t get anything.  Instead, he abandons his old life and trades it for tiresome civilization in hopes of marrying Jane.  And I hated—how I hated to see him trapped in a suit, speaking French and eating with silverware like a normal man when he’s anything but a normal man.  He’s Tarzan.  He is special.  He is so much better—so much more—than any other man, and he deserves more than this boring fate.  How awful that he trades all that makes him marvelous for a wishy-washy girl who leads him on and then foolishly rejects him.  Where is the justice in that?  It’s as tragic as Peter Pan growing up, or Cinderella and Prince Charming getting a divorce, or Spirit becoming a tame packhorse.  It simply won’t do.  But here’s the thing—and this is why it hurt the most, this is what I didn’t get before that I do now.  Eventually, we do have to face reality.  We all have to face reality, even when we don’t like it.  Edgar Rice Burroughs told the truth.  Love doesn’t always fix things, time doesn’t always heal, and everyone gets old and tired someday.  As much as I wanted to see Tarzan free, as much as I wanted him to remain forever untainted by what taints me, his sacrifice made him twice as beautiful.  Like Pinocchio, his experiences turned him into a real boy, and that was priceless. 

So I look forward to the twenty-two sequels and all they hold in store. 

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