An aristocratic English family is marooned off the coast of West Africa. They find their way into the interior of the dense jungle that lines the coast and here, Lord Greystoke is killed by a predatory ape. Lady Greystoke survives with her infant boy, but in a few months, she too succumbs to the perils of jungle life. The baby is adopted by a maternal she-ape who nurses him along with her own child. This marks the dawn of a legend – Tarzan of the Apes. Edgar Rice Burroughs was an American novelist who turned to fiction writing after an unsuccessful stint as a pencil sharpener salesman. His shrewd business acumen and marketing blitzkrieg ensured that Tarzan burst upon the world in the form of novels, comic-strips, films and merchandise. The legend of Tarzan took on the proportions of an icon that has endured ever since it first appeared in 1912. Since then, nearly 26 books and short stories featuring the Lord of the Jungle appeared in various magazines and in serial form. It seemed as if the world could not get enough of this rough hewn nobleman, clad in leopard skin and leaping through the magnificent forests of darkest Africa.
John and Alice (Rutherford) Clayton, Viscount and Lady Greystoke from England, are marooned in the western coastal jungles of equatorial Africa in 1888. Sometime later, their son John Clayton II is born. When he is one year old his mother dies, and soon thereafter his father is killed by the savage king ape Kerchak. The infant is then adopted by the she-ape Kala.
Clayton is named "Tarzan" ("White Skin" in the ape language) and raised in ignorance of his human heritage.
As a boy, feeling alienated from his peers due to their physical differences, he discovers his true parents' cabin, where he first learns of others like himself in their books. Using basic primers with pictures, over many years he teaches himself to read English, but having never heard it, cannot speak it.
Upon his return from one visit to the cabin, he is attacked by a huge gorilla which he manages to kill with his father's knife, although he is terribly wounded in the struggle. As he grows up, Tarzan becomes a skilled hunter, exciting the jealousy of Kerchak, the ape leader, who finally attacks him. Tarzan kills Kerchak and takes his place as "king" of the apes.
Later, a tribe of black Africans settle in the area, and Tarzan's adopted mother, Kala, is killed by one of its hunters. Avenging himself on the killer, Tarzan begins an antagonistic relationship with the tribe, raiding its village for weapons and practicing cruel pranks on them. They, in turn, regard him as an evil spirit and attempt to placate him.
A few years later when Tarzan is 21 years of age, a new party is marooned on the coast, including 19 year old Jane Porter, the first white woman Tarzan has ever seen. Tarzan's cousin, William Cecil Clayton, unwitting usurper of the ape man's ancestral English estate, is also among the party. Tarzan spies on the newcomers, aids them in secret, and saves Jane from the perils of the jungle.
Among the party is French naval officer Paul D'Arnot. While Tarzan is rescuing D'Arnot from the natives, a rescue ship recovers the castaways. D'Arnot teaches Tarzan to speak French and offers to take Tarzan to the land of white men where he might connect with Jane again. On their journey, D'Arnot teaches him how to behave among white men. In the ensuing months, Tarzan eventually learns to speak English, as well.
Ultimately, Tarzan travels to find Jane in Wisconsin, USA where he rescues her from a fire. Tarzan learns the bitter news that she has become engaged to William Clayton. Meanwhile, clues from his parents' cabin have enabled D'Arnot to prove Tarzan's true identity as John Clayton II, the Earl of Greystoke. Instead of reclaiming his inheritance from William, Tarzan chooses rather to conceal and renounce his heritage for the sake of Jane's happiness.
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