The Tarzan story has spawned so many spin-offs that it's not surprising the original story is on the list of great books. I was eager to read the original.
Burroughs does escapist literature well, and this is the best kind of escapism. Tarzan is the hunkiest of heroes, described over and over again as exceedingly handsome, muscular, a giant, and as having a perfect body - the ideal physical form. Burroughs' florid language recalls a romance novel at times (Tarzan 'smothered [Jane's] upturned, panting lips with kisses) and the physical conflicts are described in language equally as vivid.
The setting is the primoridal rain forest of the coast of Africa (populated with ecologically inaccurate wild beasts such as lions and elephants for Tarzan to do battle with) and Tarzan, a primeval Adam, masters them all. Tarzan's descent from 'good stock' - English noblemen - overcomes his upbringing by the wild 'anthropoids' to instill an innate nobility of spirit and chivalry and to give him the intelligence to construct tools to master his enemies. He becomes the king of his tribe of apes, killing his 'step-father' and the brutal Kerchak, befriends the elephant and blithely wrestles lions. The tools he uses in these fights are the gifts of his heritage - the knife his father used and he rediscovered, and a wrestling hold - the half-Nelson - that he rediscovers by accident.
When he meets men for the first time, they are black (and cannibals), and he preys on them rather than attempting to join them. Although they are human, he somehow recognizes that he is not of their kind and keeps to his solitary ways in the forest.
The plot strains credulity at times - no less than three mutineering crews and a buried treasure are involved, not to mention that one of the men stranded near Tarzan who lead to his introduction to civilization is his cousin and the bearer of the title that is rightfully his. And that leaves aside the technical inaccuracies and the rampant racism. Notwithstanding, it is a great read, and a great story. The ending actually managed to surprise me.