1 Corinthians 13:11 tells us: "When I was a child, I [spoke] as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child, now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things."
Is Tarzan one of those childish things? Is it time to put away the most famous creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs? This question is pertinent because the durable Ape-Man returns this week in "The Legend of Tarzan," a new big-budget movie starring Alexander Skarsgård. The previews promise a heart-stopping film, where the special effects have finally caught up to the spectacle we could only imagine when reading the books of ERB.
And read him I did. Burroughs was part of the Nerd Canon, the books and authors that were virtually required reading for everyone in my generation who liked science fiction more than sports.
But even then, there were elements of the Ape-Man's stories that made me a little uncomfortable. As I grew older, the causes of that discomfort swam into focus.
For one thing, the subtext of Tarzan is more than a little racist. Even as a 12-year-old, I wondered why the white guy was better at everything in Africa than the black people who already lived there. Sure, he was raised by apes, so he was swinging around in trees from a young age, developing different muscles. But if this is a world where a mother ape might adopt a baby human, is it logical that it only happened the once? And that it happened to the only white baby, one who got there by accident? Seems to me that there are ought to be a few black Ape-Men swinging around the Congo, equal in talent and ability.
Also, the Tarzan books were more than a little sexist. Jane Porter seemed to spend most of her time in the Tarzan books as a hostage.
I don't say all this to savage the Tarzan books. They were written in good faith, with no intent to harm anyone. But Burroughs was a man of his time. And his time was a century ago. The first Tarzan story was published in "All-Story" magazine in 1912. To be clear: This was a time when phrases like "white man's burden," "Manifest Destiny" and "a credit to your race" were used without irony. The entirely imaginary "Yellow Peril" was frightening enough to white men that the U.S. instituted immigration quotas from Asia, and "Buck Rogers" began in a dystopia future with whites conquered by Asians. Jim and Jane Crow were quite healthy across the country, especially in the states of the old Confederacy.
The movie is taking an easy way out by setting the movie in the early part of the 20th century, when many of the problems listed above were not yet considered problems. (We know this, because "Legend of Tarzan" takes place mostly in the "Free State of Congo," which was essentially a Belgian colony until it ceased to exist in 1908.) And I have no doubt that 21st-century environmentalism and racial/sexual sensibilities will be evident in the writing, because that's almost unavoidable.
I further have no doubt that when I settle into my seat at the theater to watch "Legend of Tarzan" — and I will — that I will thoroughly enjoy myself. The racism and the sexism are the childish things that need to be put away. The rest we can keep. Because as we step into that unknown future, it will be comforting to have Tarzan walking beside us.