Retro-Weird! Tarzan and the Ant Men


Tarzan and the Ant Men



Well, talk about giving with one hand and taking away with the other.  This time last week I was singing the praises of Orion Books’ Gateway Omnibus volumes and here I am today cursing them out of it for a shower of undependable, cheating bastards.

[As will be seen, almost as soon as I had finished writing this, I had to eat those rather uncharitable words and send a mental apology towards Orion – the book publishers, not the constellation.] 

There I was, meandering around the mighty and sublime bookshop that is Charlie Byrne’s in Galway, wondering to myself if, when The Legend of Tarzan is released, I am finally going to see a film that is true to the original conception of the character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I was also thinking that this might be a good time to bring a few titles from the series back into print when – absolutely blood-blistering joy of joys – my eyes lit on a massive hardback volume that contained no less than six of the novels.  Yes, after a feverish examination it appeared that SF Gateway Omnibus had in 2014 reprinted the entire Tarzan saga in six volumes of 1000 + pages.  Take that, George R.R. Martin!

I thought that I had died and gone to some kind of jungle paradise.

I decided to pick up the collection that contained volumes 7 through 12.  I had fairly recently reread the first nine volumes plus The Eternal Savage (in which Lord Greystoke guest stars) because I had somehow managed to hold onto those precious items through many a move over the years. [See World War Tarzan elsewhere on this blog.]  But I really had wanted to get my hands on a copy of Tarzan and the Ant Men from 1924 and which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager.

Down Among the Little People…

What a strange wander down Memory Lane this has been.  Ant Men is ERB’s nod to Jonathan Swift’s satirical classic Gulliver’s Travels.  Or rather to the part that deals with the small race of Lilliputians that Gulliver encounters.  Tarzan is now in his fifties and a grandfather, but his zeal for exploration and adventure is undiminished; and when he crashes his biplane in the undiscovered land that lies beyond an enormous thorn barrier he finds himself in one of those many lost areas that dot his fictionalized Africa.

Here, living in a rather complex society (and ERB’s world building is at his best and most detailed in this one) is a civilization made up of the original pygmies of Africa who were a white race, don’t you know.  Or so it says here, anyway.  They’re about 18 inches high and carry perfect little swords and lances whilst riding on a species of miniature Royal Antelope. And of course a couple of the cities are at war with each other.  It wouldn’t be ERB-land if they weren’t.

It is great, rousing fun and a good addition to the series, with an enthusiasm in the story-telling and a wealth of imagery that allows us to even buy into a load of old cod-science bolloxology that sees the ape-man himself reduced to the size of the Minunians for most of the novel.  But you’ll know him because he’s the one with the shortest moniker. Burroughs gives this diminutive people names as long as their stature is small — such as King Adendrohahkis and Prince Komodoflorensal.

Fifty Shades of Jungle Grey

  1. O So much for the good stuff. Unfortunately, the little warriors aren’t the only race existing behind the natural barrier.  There is also a species of very primitive humanoids whose social structure is based on complete and utter dominance by the females, who treat the males of their race with total contempt, really only noticing them during the periods when they’re in heat and the men are hunted down and used for procreation.  Indeed, it is quite a shocker when early in the story there is the brutal rape of a male by one of the women.

An argument could be made at this point that this is quite simply the manner in which this society works, whether you like it or not.  In other words, it’s natural to them.  However, Tarzan is having none of this, seeing it as totally UNnatural; and when he instructs the males on weapons and is pivotal in them learning the use of them to wrestle control from the females it leads to some pretty uncomfortable reading.  For some reason – I guess because I was very young when I last read this – I had forgotten just how bad some of the sentiments are.

Now, I’m always ready to defend Burroughs or Robert E. Howard when they are classed as ‘racists’.  I’ll always point out that they are simply the products of their time, although even I cringe a bit when Tarzan refers condescendingly to his Waziri warriors as ‘my children’.  And Hell, I’ll even stick up for that old Imperialist H. Rider Haggard; and that isn’t exactly an easy thing to do.

But with Tarzan and the Ant Men we are into some seriously messed-up, misogynistic stuff altogether.  In this world the women have just been waiting and yearning for their menfolk to treat them rough:

‘”You will cook for me?” he demanded.

‘To his signs she but returned a sullen, snarling visage.  The son of the First Woman raised his spear and with the heavy shaft struck the girl upon the head, knocking her down, and he stood over her, himself snarling and scowling, menacing her with further punishment, while she cowered where she had fallen.  He kicked her in the side.

‘”Get up!” he commanded.

‘Slowly she crawled to her knees and embracing his legs gazed up into his face with an expression of cowlike adulation and devotion.

‘”You will cook for me?” he demanded again.

‘”Forever!” she replied in the sign-language of their people.’

Good God; no comment.  I mean, ‘adulation and devotion’? After a beating?  Are you kidding me?

Or how about this?

‘To entertain Tarzan and to show him what great strides civilization had taken in the land of the Zertalacolols, the son of the First Woman seized a female by the hair and, dragging her to him, struck her heavily about the head and face with his clenched fist, and the woman fell upon her knees and fondled his legs, looking wistfully into his face, her own eloquent with love and admiration.’

Seriously, I can’t get over this.  And it’s not as if it’s presented as ironical or some sort of comment on society; it’s just played straight.

God knows I’m not exactly a New Man, but come on…  I mean, I have defended some pretty far out things in the name of writers I enjoy; but I just find this totally frigging unacceptable.  And yes, Tarzan can be savage indeed in his behavior; but the idea of him being ‘entertained’ by this really took from my liking of his character.

So I guess I just didn’t enjoy this re-read of Tarzan and the Ant Men as much as I had expected to.  But worse was to come – and had nothing to do with the actual plot of the novel.

Attack of the Pedantic Man!

Now maybe I blanked out all the woman-beating, or more likely it just didn’t bother me as much when I was a stupid young fella, but I normally have a very retentive memory for what I’ve read, no matter how long ago it was.   And as I hit the final chapter I knew that all was not quite right here, not by a long shot.  For a start I could vividly recall that Flora Hawkes (from The Golden Lion) should have made her appearance.  And that ending!  It just seemed to me to read completely wrong.

Doing a quick web search to see if there was anything that would put my mind at ease, I was gratified to discover that Project Gutenberg Australia (which posts the content of books that show no evidence of existing copyright) had put up the entire text.  And the final chapter was indeed different.

Baffling.  It’s not just a question of abridgement but of actual rewriting that changes the entire context of the conclusion.

Obviously I had no intention of rereading the whole thing again but a glance at the opening showed that, to my horror, the entirety of the first chapter has been deleted.   And this is crucial.  It alters the entire circular structure of the novel.

I wonder how many other changes have been made, because I’ve already come across a minor one:  in the original, Korak’s wife Meriem says of Tarzan:

“Like My Dear, I am always afraid for you.” 

Now, ‘My Dear’ is the name by which Meriem refers to Lady Jane throughout The Son of Tarzan, so there is a consistency here.  Yet in the Gateway collection this has been changed to:

“Like my dear husband, I am always afraid for you.”

Maybe that seems like nit-picking but it appears to me to dilute the richness and texture of the developing saga.  And it also makes me wonder how many other changes there are.  In fact, along with the inclusion of a map that has nothing to do with the story, I’m now wary of reading the other novels in this collection.

In the wild chance that anyone out there reads this and has an explanation, I would love to hear it.  Because the idea of collecting these books into one cohesive whole is a great one – and as a genuine fan I’m sorry that it has turned into such a disappointment.


But that wasn’t the end of the matter…

I had finished this and left it aside for posting.  But something was niggling at me.  Something wouldn’t leave me in peace.  Was it the Shade of Edgar Rice Burroughs nudging me all the way from Barsoom?

You know, perhaps it was; because I suddenly remembered that I had a reproduction of the original first page of the magazine ‘Argosy-All-Story Weekly’, in which Tarzan and the Ant Men first appeared.

And so it was round to my long-suffering ex, Paula; and after a quick trip to the attic (which regular readers will know possesses TARDIS-like qualities of Space and Time) I unearthed the said item, cover dated Saturday, February 2, 1924.  And there was the opening chapter, just as it is in the Orion Omnibus edition.  Yes, even down to the ‘my dear husband…’

So, muttering heartfelt apologies to Orion for the bad thoughts I had been having, I must suppose that ERB himself added the new first chapter and the far better conclusion when the book publication took place.

Again, if anyone out there can enlighten me, I’m all ears.

And so with a far lighter heart I leap on towards the eleventh in the series, Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, in which the ape-man stumbles across two more lost cities, these ones containing a society of knights and their ladies who got lost on the way to the Crusades, if I recall correctly.

And yes, of course the two cities are at war… 

Author: Charley Brady

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