Exploring the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
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David Adams' Memoirs of an Ape's Child is a piece of fiction that is also an article that explores discrepancies found in Burroughs' Son of Tarzan.
This story deserves two readings: First, Adams' story is heartfelt; second the conundrums of the Korak tale as it fits in Tarzan canon are examined.
MEMOIRS OF AN APE'S CHILD
(Sketches from the Life of Jack Clayton)
David Arthur Adams
Copyright © June 1997
Afterword: FATHER & SON
Copyright © March 2003
June 6, 1949
Greystoke Summer House
Perhaps it is because we are in Hastings, that place where the history of England changed beyond imagination, that I take pen in hand this day to begin the story of my life. My wife and our children are walking in the garden as I write. I always know where they are even when I cannot see them, for I have inherited the keen senses of my father along with his love and concern for those close and dear.
The tale I will tell will undoubtedly seem fantastic to many, even though these events I will relate to you here have already been included in a series of imaginary stories that became popular some time ago throughout the world. The author of those stories, an American who is a great friend of the family, kept every promise to protect the family name. I thank Mr. B. for his discrete publications and sometimes smile at his fanciful interpretations. I am the son of "Lord Greystoke," the jungle man whose fame is world wide. I love my father and mother; yet, I am compelled to tell the true story of my life so that my children will have the facts of what occurred in those days so long ago.
It is my purpose in this recollection to set the record straight as much as it can be made straight given the difficulty of the undertaking. For you see, many things have been written about me and about my more famous father that may always cloud the picture of a truer account. These popular fictions will always seem by some to contain the whole truth of the situation, and no matter what I write today those accounts will loom large in the imaginations of those readers simply because of the original force of the telling.
I can only hope that the readers of my memoirs will in time come to know that everything has not been said about my life, and that what I write is most surely true.
Chapter 1. My Father Was An Ape
My father was an ape. This fact you must not doubt whatever else you may think of the rest of my story.
My father was an ape. I always knew this fact, even though it was hidden from me for a long time like some uncomfortably dark family secret. Yet, a child always knows.
I remember seeing my father opening the shells of coconuts simply by twisting them in his hands. He would hold one before my face and look at me with those grey-ocean eyes smiling, then I would see the rip cords of his forearms spring to life like snakes, and I would hear the crack and laugh as the creamy white juice appeared, running down his limbs like water through a river bed of tawny bronze and flashing gold. We drank the bitter-sweet, sticky milk together and chewed the pulp into balls of stringy mush that we'd spit on the ground for the flies and ants that gathered for the feast.
These were the times in the forest when my father and I crouched together in the mottled cool away from the prying eyes of mother who did not approve of her husband's savage ways passing to her son. She had other ideas of the proper style of eating with knives and forks and a table always covered with a cloth of crisp, white linen even in our jungle home where I spent so many happy days in my childhood.
But the happiest days I remember were those I spent with my father alone in the warm forest glades under an African sun that soothed our half-naked skins like a comforting hand of promise of things to come.
The sun was always a friend to us, my father and I. My skin glistened like his, moist and cool to the touch even under the most fierce rays that seemed to punish others, even mother's evenly tanned body. Unlike the natives (those black companions of my youth who loved me without reservation) we reveled in the furnace, romping through twisted tangles and across the wide savannas without a thought for that flaming orb other than that it was our friend in the sky, the one who opened the bright pages of our days.
For the truth of the matter was, as I said before, my father was an ape. He would lead me into the forest and show me the things of the wild -- the way the animals crept with caution, the way of roots and tubers, the way the wind moved the branches of the trees. We never spoke of these things with mother. She did not know of our coming and going in the great forest that surrounded our African dwelling, although we knew that she really knew, but chose not to speak of it.
In time I was moved to the city away from my dreamy childhood in the woods. As I crept toward my days of consciousness, I only remembered its gigantic presence as a dream of a dream. For it was my mother's wish that I should become a man of the wide world, tamed and civilized, a respected member in a society of men rather than a beast among beasts.
Yet it was my fate that things should be otherwise. I was my father's son as well as my mother's own. And my father was an ape, a member of the tribe of beasts. I knew this in my heart, and savage ways ran like fire in the river of my blood.
The ways of men for me were always a veneer, something that covered the true, hard wood beneath the appearance of things. I remember my father once teaching me the meaning of that word by scratching the leg of a table with his wicked-looking hunting knife. I remember mother being startled and speaking with a harsh voice, a thing I did not often hear, when the bright polish curled and flaked away under the shining blade. But I saw the grain of the wood appear, and I knew the truth.
My father and I often traveled the forest together when I was a child still taking my first steps. He would swing me on vines I held tight with tiny fingers, laughing with delight until I nearly touched the sky. Later I remember climbing with him into the mystery of smooth, cool branches where we would sit in silence for what seemed like hours to my impatient mind. And there passed around us, above and below, near and far, the denizens of the jungle, some noisy, chattering in tongues I did not understand, some stealthy and still like Sheeta, the leopard, or Hista, the snake.
We climbed and watched. The air was heavy with the sun and with the sounds of the forest that creeped and moved around us like another skin we wore, Even the leaves upon the trees were alive in those days. They waved and fluttered upon living stalks and spoke to us the message of moving away, calling a wild call down deep, green tunnels of shadowy, mottled spaces where I longed to go.
And in time, as I grew stronger, I went into those dank shadow lands with my father, traveling hand over hand upon the living branches that reached out to me with their willing embraces. I ran upon the boles of twisted giants as upon a highway with ease and grace only a child knows without fear of falling. For the heights were never a terror to me. I had been there too often for that, and when I first fell there were those loving arms that caught me and bore me up again. Those great, loving hands that never failed.
I will speak a moment about my father's hands, for they were unlike the hands of other men I knew. Strong they were, yes, without a doubt they were strong. But every child is amazed at the strength of his father's hands. No, my father's hands were more than strong.
When my father moved his hands to quickly pick up an object, the movement passed before my eyes like a blurring of the wing of a bird. One moment the object was upon the table, and the next it appeared in his hand as though a feat of magic had been performed. And when my father held something in his hands that he wanted to hold, it remained there like a living piece of wood in the grip of an iron vice.
My father's hands seemed to have a life of their own and expanded upon the merest touch of things. My father's hands threaded the eye of the forest's needle without a thought of grasping, like living, pulsing creatures upon the ends of arms of infinite strength. His hands knew the ways of the trees and the wind in the trees in a manner that can only be told, odd as it may seem, as symbiotic. The branches seemed to reach out to him as he moved, making the distances shorter, offering their arms to his arms as a lover its dearest love.
I too learned to move through the trees as a lover of trees, but they never clutched my hand in return the way they did for my father. I was a welcome guest to the forest, but he was their god.
As I said, my father's hands seemed to expand as he touched the trees. It was the most curious phenomenon. I never grew tired of watching it happen. It was as though his fingers had a greater elasticity than normal human fingers. They were long, tapering bands that could bend nearly backwards without breaking, and each one of them could move with a remarkable independence like the hands of a concert pianist.
At times I heard his knuckles pop and crack as though they were breaking away, but it only seemed to give his grasp another inch of expansion. But most of the time, and most remarkably of all, his hands merely touched the branches as he moved through the trees, never grasping, as I mentioned before, but in a motion of passing the branches away, a brushing that seemed almost gentle.
One might say that my father melted through the trees of the forest. When I watched him coming toward me, the way seemed to open through the leaves as though doors were being opened and closed before him and behind. And when he departed from my presence it was as though branches were being passed behind him one by one, opening and closing without a sound and barely a movement of the leaves.
This may be something hard to believe by those who have not lived in the jungle, but one only need watch the arrival of a troop of apes through the branches when they are confident and unafraid. Here there is much noise and hooting and waving of branches, but when they are startled by something, in a moment they are gone without a sound, without a rustle of branches. This is the movement of apes through the trees that my father had mastered in his youth. And this is the man who taught me to move through the trees while I was yet a child before the coming of the ways of savage men with their civilized ways.
And so I was my father's child raised in the wild jungles of Africa upon many and many a summer's day. Yet I was also a child of my mother, who was a lady of refinement and grace. It is due to her determined and persistant touch you have this story today, for if I had been left to my father alone, I am sure that I would have always remained a child of the woods, only touching the common core of humanity from time to time as his wise and savage judgement would have allowed.
Chapter 2: My Education in the Jungle
As long as I can remember I could always read. As a child, I was taught to speak a multitude of languages at the same time, which is not confusing to a child; at least it was not so to me. My father was one of the most accomplished linquists in history. He spoke over thirty languages and native dialects with ease, a trait I inherited in part only. I believe my comfortable familiarity with many languages today is due to my hearing them spoken to me in such a free mixture during those early years.
Then, after those blissful, halcyon days in the jungle when I tottered from branch to vine, I was given the best of educations in schools far from Africa, across the great ocean where I learned the ways of men in their cities. There is a story written about my life that tells of those days and of the many things that happened to me afterwards. It is a well-written story of love and adventure that I still enjoy reading today although it is like any tale of fiction, a rag-bag of fact and fancy that only occasionally touches upon the truth. I only wish the story of my life had been half as pleasing as that sterling tale.
It is true, as the story attests, that I was to a large degree raised by Akut, the great ape, for my father often left me in his care, which he later told me was out of design rather than by chance. For despite my mother's reservations, my father wanted me to know the true ways of the jungle, which he always felt to be the true ways of the world. I guess it might be said that my father's credo was, "truth lives with the wild," and he was too much a believer to let his son learn otherwise.
Akut was a tutor to me in the secret lore of the jungle. My father taught me many things, but he knew that only an ape could finish the education.
This strange education actually began near the beginning of my life. In fact, I called one of the apes my "Nanny, " who was transmogrified into Akut dressed as an old lady in the fictional account of my life I mentioned before.
There were many things only an ape could teach me. The ways of life in the wild are as old as the broken tooth and blood in the grass. The ways of the jungle are of the living and the dead; they reward the swift and alert and leave the victim with an empty skull and whitened bones. My father knew this all too well. The map of scars that sometimes showed in the sunlight across his shoulders and back attest to the fact.
I should pause to note briefly that my father's skin was bronze and shiny and seemed as smooth as a statue unless the sun struck it in a certain way, and then one could see the scars of his many battles. The same was true for the cruel scar that ran across his forehead from his left eye to the top of his head where he was once nearly scalped by the great ape, Turk'z. Although I must say that the scar did give his visage a wild and savage mein even when clothed as a civilized man.
So the son of an ape was raised by an ape. How could it have been otherwise? When the first happy round of lessons in the trees with my father was through, I was turned over to a tribe of savage apes, who were as kind and as loving to me as any beast is kind and loving -- that is completely, without reservation, and from the heart alone.
I did not have a difficult time joining the band of apes, for I had lived among them from my earliest days. They knew me as a brother, and they were all brothers and sisters to me. I moved from my room and my blankets at night to a nest in the trees. I learned to suffer the cold and the rain without complaining, sitting huddled with my head bent over my knees throughout the storms.
Those days were not easy ones for me, nor were they meant to be. I was like a Spartan child raised by harsh soldiers who knew in the end a boy must become a soldier. And a soldier I became.
And I was a hunter in the forest and grasslands, wielding the spear against the lion and finding my prey beside the waterholes with the long reach of my bone-tipped arrows. For my father did not simply throw me into the wild without the advantages of the hunter's tools. A keen, long-bladed knife was at my side, and the rope slung across my shoulders had been plaited from grasses by my own hands.
Often I would be gone for months on end. Father told me to say nothing of these things to mother. He simply told her that I was getting an education and it was enough for her when I returned sound and whole with strange tongues upon my lips that she did not understand.
I believe that mother always knew what was going on during these long passages into the interior. She was a wise woman, full of a woman's intuition, and she herself had been taught many of the ways of the jungle although never in such extreme a fashion. In time she realized that her son was to be different than any other child because his father was so different from every other man. And so I grew into manhood with the apes of the forest as well as in the society of men. By the age of ten I was already as strong as a young man of twenty, and when I was twelve I first broke open a coconut with my bare hands.
I moved through the trees with the apes, gathering food with them, and I slept among them all at night high in the forest wake -- a member of the tribe. In those days we knew no other way of life than the way of the ape. I was at those times most completely an ape and not in any way a man.
Chapter 3: How I Earned My Name
I will tell you now the story of how I killed a man without compunction and hope that you will understand. It is not easy for me to think of these things even though most of them happened long ago. It is not that I have become a man of reflection, although I have read the philosophies of men. It is more a matter of not looking back at what has already passed away, a trait of character I learned from my father long ago.
Yet I will tell you the tale because it is a part of my story. Another thing I learned from my father is to be honest to one's self as well as with all others who can be called friends, man or beast.
That the man I killed was a black man made no difference to me. He could have been one of those who had so lovingly cared for me from my earliest days. I still would have killed the man.
It was his spear that offended me -- the shaft thrown at my brothers and sisters as they gathered food and ate quietly in the forest. And so I followed the man like a leopard in the trees above him. I followed him until I could follow no more but dropped like a beast and became a beast as I sunk my teeth into his neck and strangled away the life of the man as though he were no more than any other creature who threatened our tribe.
It was a decision of the moment, not done in haste, but cooly, steadily, accomplished with strength and purpose as my father had taught me. And, I confess, I was satisfied with my deed. I was elated and strong as my father was strong. I was no more of the tribe of men but now completely of the tribe of beasts.
I dragged the limp body of the man into the weeds and placed my naked foot upon his neck and tried to voice the fierce scream of my father. I lifted my head to the red jungle sky, panting, still choked with red rage, and not a sound came from my lips. Nothing came from my throat but panting and heavy growling like a leopard at its kill.
Akut and the other apes looked down from the trees in horror at my deed. I growled at them to come and see what I had accomplished, but they chattered and hooted with excitement and fear that would not let them come near.
In the end, I simply rolled the body over with my foot and looked into the face of the man I had slain. The protruding eyes and tongue looked ugly to me, so I gave the corpse another easy kick and it slid down an embankment into a ditch filled with broken rushes and stagnant water. I picked up the spear and shield of the slain foe and forgot that it was a man.
For a long while none of the apes would come near me, not even Akut, for I had the smell of man-death upon me. I had become a killer of men, and the apes knew that I could kill men at any time without fear or favor. I was doubly dreaded as a man-slayer, so they began to call me, K'rak, which meant in their language, "slayer," or "killer". I am still not certain whether the name was given to me out of fear or disgust. Oh, the apes knew how to kill, no doubt about that, but not one of the tribe, except the bravest, or the most foolhearty, had ever killed a man.
When I sat in the forest glade after my first man-kill I was strangely calm. I knew the difference between right and wrong. I had loving parents who taught me well, and I had been to the schools of civilization. Yet here I was a savage beast among savage beasts, sitting on the ground in a forest glade with the African sun pouring down and the blood of a man on my hands. And I only wondered, "Where shall we go to find more food?"
There was no voice of victory after my kill, and no voices that haunted me in the night. And so it ever was with me.
For I was K'rak the Killer who came and went in silence, as relentless as the angel of death. The peace of the jungle was never shattered by my passing; cold stillness lay always in my wake.
When I told my father of these things he smiled slowly with that knowing expression he could get in his grey eyes and placed one hand upon my shoulder as a blessing, for he knew that I had become a man. "K'rak," was all he said to me, and we spoke of it no more.
Chapter 4: My Lost Years
There are many things yet to be told about my early days in the jungle -- those long summer days under the fierce African sun that blazed into my brain until I could no longer judge whether I was a man or an ape. It seems as though whole years passed away in those twisted forests, those lavishly colored spangles and tangles of dampened greens.
When the whole story is told, you will find a different tale than the one so generously and romantically told in those famous, fictional accounts. Some may even surmise that I traveled through great expanses of terror and madness.
I see a woman of my own kind somewhere down those dark tunnels of memory. She stands before me like a pleasant dream. It is she with whom I live today. I only know that my father seemed to be at my side much of the time, speaking to me with a quiet voice. Yet, sometimes he was gone for a very long time, and I would move through the trees with leaping, hairy denizens as though they were the only kind I had ever known.
At times Jack was lost. There is no denying it. Even given the expert training I had undergone at the hands of my father, sometimes I was completely and hopelessly lost.
One day I left the band of chattering apes and wandered away, deep into the mazes of the jungle fastness. I wandered with my brain on fire. I wandered through a land of dreams that ended in a forest glade with a "She."
I called her Meri, for she whispered that name to me, clutching a tattered doll like a child. Indeed, we were both but children there, sequestered in savagery, longing for nothing more than each other.
Perhaps I had saved her from a leopard as one story goes, perhaps I had saved her from a vile Arab kidnapper as another story goes, it does not matter, I did save her from extreme danger. Sheeta's hide, which we both wore, is the important fact because the skin of that beast, when we finally found the apes again, would not come near this strange child for many days. The mangani were never as comfortable with me again since we both carried the scent of the leopard wherever we went.
Only my friend Akut was brave enough to allow her to touch him and groom his dark, glistening fur. We were apes among apes, and yet we knew Meri and I were different. We lived apart from the apes, though Akut was never apart.
I had not forgotten that I was a man. No, this would have been impossible because memories of London, school, my mother, were ever present, nor do I think was I driven mad by my long isolation in the forest. Yet, it is true that I had lived a long time as an ape. The coming of Meri reawoke feelings long ignored by the harsh necessities of life in the wild. With Meri at my side, I was again reminded of a world half-forgotten. Through her eyes I saw the man-child in the forest and remembered the father and mother in a house among the tribes of man.
I knew it was time to go home.
Meri was not unhappy living with me among the savage beasts of the forest. We both drank in the long summer days with joy. I reveled in her companionship as we trod the jungle paths and aboreal ways: hand-in-hand like brother and sister. We played those games that children play, but other forces, urges, and instinct arose. I no longer saw Meri in the same light as before and though I could have, as a great ape, taken what I desired I realized I could not do this. I knew this once I recognized those feelings and desires. Alone in the jungle I would have lived forever among the apes, but Meri deserved more--and because my feelings had changed toward her thoughts of civilization came to the fore. We truly were other than those great, gorgeous apes who handed us food with outstretched arms and, in the final analysis, even they knew we were not really a part of their tribe.
One evening, Akut and I embraced in the shadows of a those leafy forest giants. In the morning after about an hour of gathering food some of them noticed we were gone. We could hear Akut calling us even after we had traveled a great distance. Though it tore my heart I turned my face away, took the hand of Meri and led her toward the dimmer light of the cities of men.
The End (for now . . .)
Father & Son
A New Afterword to Memoirs of an Ape-Child
Copyright © 2003
All of us are fascinated with autobiographies and biographies of famous people, especially when they tell us secrets long hidden from the general public. Thus, it is doubly interesting when an author of fiction such as Edgar Rice Burroughs allows us a rare look into the early lives of some of his most enigmatic characters. Despite the many accounts written about Burroughsí own childhood and his rather adventurous youth, the author saw fit to write a completely fanciful autobiographical sketch when asked for a record of those formative years. He did, however, write sterling accounts of the childhood and education of both Tarzan in Tarzan of the Apes and The Jungle Tales of Tarzan and of Tarzanís son, Jack, in The Son of Tarzan.
The feasibility of actual lives such as the ones Burroughs describes has been the basis of much discussion and debate by ERB fans over the years since both of these humans were basically raised by apes. Of course, Tarzanís history has passed into the realm of common knowledge the world over, while the story of his son is one that interests the aficionado. Jack Clayton is first presented in Son of Tarzan as a child living in civilization with his parents, yet he rapidly becomes a man while living among anthropoid apes in the wild as did his famous father. One might imagine that Burroughs simply rewrote his Tarzan of the Apes from a different angle, yet he managed to create a totally different character in Korak, whom Jack becomes during his savage education.
Many see Korak as a darker form of Tarzan, for he earns his name as a man-killer, and he remains a loner torn between two worlds. For even though Korak does take a bride and live like a gentleman the rest of his life, Burroughs portrays him as somewhat of a mystery man in subsequent novels -- one who goes off to war in his teens -- and one who later slogs through deserts and swamps with a gun and a grim determination that might frighten even his father. There are happier mentions of Jack in later novels, but by then ERB seems committed to a kinder and gentler version of both Tarzan and Tarzanís Family. It is the first version of Korak that grips our imagination -- the civilized boy who became a savage.
One might compare these two characters of ERB to Jack Londonís double novels about dogs since London was confronted with the same problem: how to write another classic using the same basic material. However, in ERBís case the problem was in reverse. Londonís famous novel, Call of the Wild is about a tame dog who reverts to the wild, a theme that reminds one of Korakís story. Tarzan is like Londonís White Fang, a wild dog who comes in from the cold. Itís not beyond the realm of possibility that ERB saw the solution of his writing problem in Londonís earlier work. London was much taken with the idea of a reversal of his Call of the Wild theme when he wrote White Fang, and we know that ERB too was fond of this type of thematic transformation.
I must say that the three novels of education: Apes, Jungle Tales, & Son were my favorites during my childhood probably because they were about children my own age or near the age I was about to become. In those tender years, they seemed to me as "possibility" books. In the case of Son of Tarzan, the story seemed like things that might happen to me someday even though I was not raised in the jungle by apes. It is the typical childhood fantasy of your "real" parents being other than the ones you happen to be living with. Your real parents are British nobility who are extremely wealthy, live in a castle and spend their summers on an African estate riding elephants and wrestling with lions. Itís almost as good as being actually raised by apes. You can have your cake and eat it too. You can live in the jungle with savage mangani and go home at night to be tucked in by mommy. Yet Burroughs writes more than this.
Jack carries a knife and he kills men, and that is the thing that made Son as good as Call of the Wild to a starry-eyed boy curled up in his tree on a summer afternoon so long ago. Burroughs turned my back-yard into Waziri country, and this is part of what I wanted to write about in "Memoirs of An Ape's Child."