Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Tarzan revisited

The story of Tarzan is familiar to millions of readers and movie fans all over the world. In addition to the original narrative (Tarzan of the Apes), more than 20 subsequent Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs fleshed out the story and concomitantly the parameters of what is ultimately a myth, mainly, but not exclusively set in Africa. The paradox about this myth is that, in the course of his adventures, Tarzan emerges, first, as the “Lord of the jungle” – that is, a powerful, respected as much as feared adventurer and owner of an estate on the East coast of Africa, who acts (in quasi-feudal fashion) as defender of those people and animals who look to him for protection from unscrupulous exploiters of Africa and its resources.

However, he is also the caring husband to Jane and father to Jack, or, as he becomes known later (after appropriating his place as son of Tarzan), Korak. The Greystoke family spend most of their time on their African estate because Tarzan prefers not to live in the cities of western civilization. There is a tension, therefore, in the figure of Tarzan – an ambivalence regarding his paternalistic (and patrician) protector-status vis-à-vis Africa and its inhabitants, on the one hand, and his chosen distance from London, where he has a seat in the House of Lords. This is a conflict between Tarzan, mythical Lord of the jungle, which, while ruling over it, he nevertheless valorizes, and (not unconnected with this) Tarzan, critic of effete, corrupt civilization which, while representing it as English nobleman, he yet despises. There is plenty of evidence in Burroughs’s Tarzan books for both of these ambivalently related positions.

This image is established in the original Tarzan narrative by his ability, due to his superior intelligence, to compensate for his comparative physical shortcomings in his dangerous jungle-life among the apes. In Tarzan of the Apes (p. 86), Burroughs emphasizes this superiority: “But there was that which had raised him far above his fellows of the jungle – that little spark which spells the whole vast difference between man and brute – Reason. This it was which saved him from death beneath the iron muscles and tearing fangs of Terkoz.”

Interestingly, Burroughs’s overriding criterion – always underpinned by his belief in Darwinian evolution – for assessing cultural or racial compatibility between Tarzan and others seems to be intelligence and shared interests, or the degree to which this intelligence has enabled people to rise to reciprocal respect above petty hatreds and suspicion. The following excerpt from Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (p. 158) is a case in point, where Tarzan and Jane are pictured returning from a hunt in the company of members of the Waziri tribe and a black man called Mugambi (who comes from a different people):

“Lord and Lady Greystoke with Basuli and Mugambi rode together at the head of the column, laughing and talking together in that easy familiarity which common interests and mutual respect breed between honest and intelligent men [sic] of any races.”

This is not to overlook the thorough ambivalence of Tarzan as ape-man, simultaneously savage beast AND English nobleman – an embodied oxymoron, as shown in this passage (p. 95): “Above him poised the savage brute that was today bent upon the destruction of a human life – the same creature who a few months before, had occupied his seat in the House of Lords at London, a respected and distinguished member of that august body.”

The ambivalence in his character is further emphasised by the fact that Tarzan is depicted as being superior to the other inhabitants of the jungle, but that he simultaneously directs relentless criticism at western culture because of its distance from nature. As “savage brute” Tarzan is part of nature, and as English Lord he is part of civilization. At least, this is what we are led to believe. But a moment’s reflection yields the insight that the very thing which separates Tarzan from other jungle creatures, namely so-called divine reason, is also that civilizing force that is indispensable to culture and human society, and which ultimately leads to the civilized conditions detested by the ape-man. Hence, instead of being wholly natural, even in his jungle habitat, or being wholly civilized, even in his ancestral England, Tarzan is a strange, ambivalent being indeed – both natural (instinctual, unspoilt) and civilized (rational, capable of critique) at the same time.

And paradoxically, the one is the condition of the possibility of the other in a strange reciprocity: only because he is natural, having been reared among the great apes, is he sufficiently at one with nature to be able to experience its superior value and advantages. But this means that he knows this superior value, in other words, that he is able to appreciate it – an appreciation that implies his rationality, his status as a civilized or cultural being. In a nutshell: Tarzan is a critic of civilization because he is first and foremost a natural being, and he is a natural being because he is able, as rational human being, of appreciating the gifts of nature as opposed to culture. (One should not overlook the fact, either, that it is this ambivalence that endows Tarzan with the unassailable power that he wields over his enemies.) Many passages bear this out, such as the following one from Tarzan and the jewels of Opar (Burroughs 1963:15):

“His civilization was at best but an outward veneer which he gladly peeled off with his uncomfortable European clothes whenever any reasonable pretext presented itself. It was a woman’s love which kept Tarzan even to the semblance of civilization – a condition for which familiarity had bred contempt. He hated the shams and the hypocrisies of it and with the clear vision of an unspoiled mind he had penetrated to the rotten core of the heart of the thing – the cowardly greed for peace and ease and the safeguarding of property rights. That the fine things of life – art, music and literature – had thriven upon such enervating ideals he strenuously denied, insisting, rather, that they had endured in spite of civilization…’ Show me the fat, opulent coward,’ he was wont to say, ‘who ever originated a beautiful ideal. In the clash of arms, in the battle for survival, amid hunger and death and danger, in the face of God as manifested in the display of nature’s most terrific forces, is born all that is finest and best in the human heart and mind.’…And so Tarzan always came back to Nature in the spirit of a lover keeping a long deferred tryst after a period behind prison walls. His Waziri, at marrow, were more civilized than he. They cooked their meat before they ate it and they shunned many articles of food as unclean that Tarzan had eaten with gusto all his life and so insidious is the virus of hypocrisy that even the stalwart ape-man hesitated to give rein to his natural longings before them. He ate burnt flesh when he would have preferred it raw and unspoiled, and he brought down game with arrow or spear when he would far rather have leaped upon it from ambush and sunk his strong teeth in its jugular….”

There are many things in this passage that some readers might find distasteful, such as his carnivorous preferences, but at least this is set in the context of his prey being able to defend itself, or flee, or outwit the ape-man, unlike our present civilization, where people can kill other animals with impunity, not endangering themselves at all.

All in all, the Tarzan narratives are far more complex than most people may suspect, and are worth revisiting from a culture-critical perspective.

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