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When ape becomes man

When ape becomes man

by David Breen | December 18, 2018

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This well-known Lord of the Jungle has many characteristics that any reader would be glad to check off from their favourite hero’s must-have list: strength; courage; resourcefulness; dignity, and nobility. And he uses them all in abundance as he wins his way to the top of the food chain. As well as winning over all who get to know him, he captivates the imagination when he kills lions, out-wits savage cannibals, avoids becoming a human sacrifice, foils the treachery of rogue Russian spies, and, not the least, successfully navigates the complicated reefs of the human heart in search of love.

A man brought up by apes to live or die by the law of the jungle, while at the same time, educating himself with the books left in his parents’ abandoned hut, allows the author to make some very apposite comparisons between the purely beastly activity of animals and that of rational man: i.e., between that which is done by pure instinct, and that which is done, for better or worse, when free-will is added to the base, animal mix.

At various moments, Tarzan has to struggle intensely to reconcile his twin heritage. Once he tastes the positive elements of civilisation, he is torn between remaining alone in his familiar jungle-castle, or of engaging in the unknown but potentially intellectually and emotionally enticing world of humans. Though his jungle instincts occasionally take control, through his effort to learn and to reflect, and through his openness to accept the wisdom of his friends, he is prepared to transcend the limitations of his unusual beginning.

I would, however, be cautious in recommending this book to younger readers. Apart from a couple of moments of immoderate displays of affection, there are a few scenes that are not edifying. In attempting to highlight some of the pitfalls of ‘civilised’ life, the author has Tarzan seek solace in the dissipation of Parisian night-life -though nothing explicit is described. On a drifting life raft, three men draw lots to see who will be killed so that the others can survive by eating him. As well, the author thrusts Tarzan into the imprudent situation of trying to maintain a ‘platonic friendship’ with the wife of a friend. Perhaps the impact of these moments might go over the heads of most young readers, but one can never be certain.

A great read that has much good to say about the human condition, but perhaps best not for the younger ones.

David Breen is a teacher working in New Zealand.

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