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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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Comrade Koos Comrade Koos 24 November 2013

    Interesting piece. Have read it through twice. Captures the conundrum we find ourselves in. I like the second last paragraph.

  2. baz baz 24 November 2013

    Will History of Man , repeat itself? Interesting reading.
    The Late Johnny Weissmuller for me, was the best portrayed Tazan.
    With Maureen O’Sullivan as his Jane. That golden era of Hollywood,
    long gone, never to be repeated or revisited.

  3. Rory Short Rory Short 24 November 2013

    Our trouble as I see it is that culturally and thus in our minds we have consciously distanced ourselves from the rest of creation. In my understanding this is not what we should be using our consciousnesses for. The right use of our consciousnesses is to work in cooperation with the rest of creation, or to put it simply, with Nature. We are the products of Nature not its overlords. Nature begun to manifest 3.8 billion years ago when life first emerged on earth and through evolution Nature refined the manifestation until eventually self-consciousness emerged in the shape of our life form. Along with consciousness goes choice. We do not have to but we can, if we consciously choose to do so, seek to relate to the over-arching consciousness that evolved us. I have been a practicing Quaker for fifty years now and that is what we we strive to do in our Silent Meetings for Worship and in our daily lives. Anybody is welcome to share the experience of this communion with us.

  4. Eugene Eugene 25 November 2013

    Interesting piece. I read the Tarzan novels many years ago, and what I remember about them most is that they struck me as quite shockingly racist. Of course, they may well have actually been liberal for the time!

    It seems to me though as if Burroughs succumbed to the same fantasy as Rousseau did: the idea of the life of a savage as somehow more pure and happy than that of the civilized. Alas, it is little more than naive fantasy, as indeed is his notion that Greystoke’s English genes will express themselves in the jungle in pretty much the same way they would have done in England.

  5. Trevor Trevor 27 November 2013

    Always fascinating to see how bygone tales have deeper, enriching layers to them. One virtually dismisses these (boyhood?) stories as a little silly, to be dismissed in adulthood.

    Not so, apparently.

    Thanks Bert.

  6. Alon Serper Alon Serper 27 November 2013

    Tarazan is the extreme form of apartheid and colonialism. A White English lord who prefers the company of apes on the company of African tribe people. He can relate to and interrelate with apes more than to and with the tribes who are less human than the apes The tribes fight him. He feels more comfortably with the apes. He learns to speak ape and not an African language. This is the worst form of colonialist dehumanisation. Digusting.

    Congratulations to Casper Lötter’s upon his submission of his very interesting MA dissertation/thesis.

  7. Maria Maria 28 November 2013

    Alon, how little you understand how to analyze a text as discourse, which is what Bert has done here (a brief account of a book chapter that appeared some time ago). If you have read Burroughs’ Tarzan books at all, you will know that Tarzan’s / Burroughs’ standards for judging other people are not racist at all (which is amazing at the time these books were written), but developmental, or evolutionary, as Bert has said. This is why he treats the Waziri, an African tribe, as equals, but not so other African tribes, or, for that matter, effete, “over-civilized” Westerners, who have lost all contact with tneir wellspring, nature. Trevor got it right – these texts are more layered than meets the eye. Go read them. Or read Bert’s book-chapter. I think the book’s title is something like “Africa and Europe – Myths and Masks”.

  8. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 29 November 2013

    Actually, you have no reason to prefer one discourse over another.

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