The Son of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs
At the conclusion of the third Tarzan novel, 1914’s The Beasts of Tarzan, the Ape Man’s archenemy, Nikolas Rokoff, lies dead (and 3/4 eaten!) beneath the fangs of Tarzan’s panther ally, Sheeta. But Rokoff’s lieutenant, the equally dastardly Alexis Paulvitch, manages to flee into the African wilderness to escape. Needing to know more, this reader wasted little time diving into book #4, The Son of Tarzan. As it had been with the first two Tarzan sequels, Son initially appeared serially in magazine form, in this case as a six-parter in the pulp periodical All-Story Weekly, from December 1915 – January 1916. It would have to wait another 14 months before being released in hardcover book form.
The novel begins a full decade after the events of book #3, as we see Paulvitch, now a wreck of his former self after 10 years in the African jungle, finally being rescued by the crew of an English ship. By an astounding coincidence (and author Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ works are just riddled with these kinds of chance occurrences), before being returned to England, Paulvitch manages to encounter — and tame — the giant anthropoid Akut, who had played such a central role in book #3 as another of Tarzan’s allies. Back in London, Paulvitch displays the giant ape before entranced crowds, and that is where Jack Clayton — the 11-year-old son of Tarzan — first discovers him. Thirsting for adventure, Jack decides to not only run away from home, but to bring Akut back to Africa, also (talk about spunky kids!). But once there, events conspire to make it next to impossible for Jack to return. Thus, like his dad before him, the lad goes native, and is soon seen swinging through the treetops, eating raw animal steaks and making enemies of the local tribes. It is a lonely existence for Jack (now called Korak, or The Killer, by his simian friends), until he chances to discover a little 10-year-old girl, Meriem, who had been kidnapped (as Jack had been in book #3) from her French parents three years before and is now a slave of sorts in an Arab village. And as it turns out, this is just the beginning of Korak’s adventures with his new jungle companion, in a runaway saga that is to last over five years….
As for Paulvitch, Burroughs deals summarily with him in the book’s first three chapters, and the Russian villain’s ultimate fate is a satisfying one. Tarzan himself is absent for at least 2/3 of the book’s length, only appearing in the opening chapters and then disappearing completely until the novel’s second half. The book rather focuses on “Tarzan, Jr.,” his efforts to adjust to jungle life and his relationship with Meriem. Burroughs stuffs so much incident and plot convolutions into this entry that it is almost impossible to synopsize, but suffice it to say that the action never lags. As usual, the pacing is somewhat frenetic, the chapters always seem to end with a cliffhanger, and the reader is completely swept along; these books are true page-turners. Whereas book #3 featured two nasty villains, this time around, we are presented with no less than four: Paulvitch, of course; the Sheik Amor ben Khatour, the kidnapper and abuser of little Meriem; and the Swedish hunters Carl Jenssen and Sven Malbihn. Malbihn is a particularly loathsome creation, especially when he takes a hot-blooded fancy for the teenage Meriem; he is almost comparable to one of the love-starved wretches in the H. Rider Haggard pantheon, only with far fewer scruples. As had book #3, Son goes far in disproving the charge of racism that has been leveled against Burroughs’ work. In one telling passage, Korak regards a local tribe, and the author writes, “What if these were naked savages? What if their skins were black? Were they not creatures fashioned in the mold of their Maker, as was he?” (Too bad, then, that Korak becomes the enemy of this tribe, after being rebuffed by its members!)
Burroughs’ writing at this point, it must be said, seems subtly improved since book #1, Tarzan of the Apes (first issued in October 1912). Though no great shakes as a prose stylist, Burroughs was a natural storyteller, and his facility with pacing and sweep are much in evidence here. Book #4 contains some humorous asides as well, as when it is inferred that Sherlock Holmes (like Tarzan, one of the most popular and famous literary creations of all time) actually exists and is a person one can turn to for assistance! Typically, Burroughs invents some of his own words (such as “garmenture”) and is guilty of an inconsistency here and there (such as when Jack recalls how Paulvitch had once had him tied up and Akut had successfully untied him; unfortunately, it never actually happened this way in the book). The bottom line is that The Son of Tarzan might not be anyone’s idea of “great literature,” but it sure is some thrilling, gripping stuff; a book that dishes out memorable action set pieces and that might even bring a tear to susceptible readers as it draws near to its conclusion. On a personal note, I might add that having just read the first four Tarzan novels (out of a series that reached, ultimately, to some two dozen), I find that I now need to take a break. Lately, I have begun to entertain a hankering for raw lion steaks…
Son of Tarzan is one of my favorites of that series. If you can get past Burrough’s “coincidence” crutch.
At least, Greg, Burroughs used that “crutch” far less here than he had in book #2, “The Return of Tarzan.” That book was just riddled with them….
He really out did himself in the John Carter of Mars books with that too.. well, I only read a couple of those, couldn’t get past them.
That said, ERB is due respect. His ideas or plots for stories are still sticking around.
I hear ya, Greg! And if you’re interested, I have reviewed all 11 of the John Carter titles here on FanLit….