How Tarzan Changed My Life

I am a novelist because of the son of an English lord and lady who were marooned by mutineers on the Atlantic coast of Africa many years ago.

As a young man my father, always an avid reader, had collected the first edition Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, reading and re-reading them all. By the time I was eight and reading everything in sight, I tackled the first book in this series, Tarzan of the Apes, and nothing has been the same since.

This book, considered pulp fiction by many, was in my mind a major achievement, creating one of the best-known literary characters in the world. For a young boy in the Minneapolis of 1951, Burroughs’ vivid storytelling—filled with adventure, peril, and deep human/animal bonds—hit the mark.

It was after reading Tarzan of the Apes that I decided to write stories and try to capture the imaginations of readers the way this book had captured mine. Since then I spent decades being sidetracked into different careers but eventually found my way home to become a novelist.

“The Beasts of Tarzan” was the third book in the famous Tarzan series

After my first novel, a thriller called The Shekinah Legacy, became a #1 bestseller, I attended an author signing event organized to celebrate my book’s success. I decided to read my favorite passage from the work that had inspired me as a child. The passage so moved and astonished the audience that I never got around to reading from my own book. The original story that had transfixed me as a child still had the power to captivate an audience.

Here is that short passage. It is the story of how a group of great apes killed Tarzan’s parents and kidnapped the infant Tarzan. The scene begins by Tarzan’s father peering out the makeshift door of a treehouse in which he and his family had been living. Infant Tarzan is asleep in a cradle. Like Tarzan’s family members, the apes also have names.

TARZAN OF THE APES

The sight that met his eyes must have frozen him with horror, for there, within the door, stood three great bull apes, while behind them crowded many more. How many he never knew, for his revolvers were hanging on the far wall beside his rifle, and Kerchak was charging.

When the king ape released the limp form which had been John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, he turned his attention toward the little cradle. But Kala was there before him, and when he would have grasped the child she snatched it herself, and before he could intercept her she had bolted through the door and taken refuge in a high tree.​

As she took up the little live baby of Alice Clayton she dropped the dead body of her own into the empty cradle. For the wail of the living had answered the call of universal motherhood within her wild breast which the dead could not still.​

High up among the branches of a mighty tree she hugged the shrieking infant to her bosom, and soon the instinct that was as dominant in this fierce female as it had been in the breast of his tender and beautiful mother—the instinct of mother love—reached out to the tiny man-child’s half-formed understanding, and he became quiet. Then hunger closed the gap between them, and the son of an English lord and an English lady nursed at the breast of Kala, the great ape.​

A brutal but still touching scene, and the beginning of one of the world’s least well-known stories, for while Tarzan has become a fixture in the collective consciousness of the public, the original story has almost nothing to do with the unending tide of bad movies, comics, TV series and games that have been spawned by it. Such, I suppose, is the plight of a classic—to be corrupted almost beyond recognition by those who choose to make money off it.

For anyone who wants an incredibly satisfying and surprising read, I suggest Tarzan of the Apes. Perhaps you, too, will be captivated and have your life changed by an ape-man who today would be over a hundred years old.

You might also be interested in my book, The Shekinah Legacy, a thriller I wrote sixty years after meeting Tarzan. Inspired by him and his creator, I did my best to tell a good story.

About the Author