Heredity, Environment, and a Few Dead Lions: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes

For a naked man to drag a shrieking, clawing man-eater forth from a window by the tail to save a strange white girl, was indeed the last word in heroism.

By his own account, Edgar Rice Burroughs ended up falling into a prolific writer’s career more or less by accident, when, during a spate of boredom and plenty of free time, he found himself with little else to read other than a stack of pulp magazines. He was not impressed, saying later that he immediately dismissing the stories as “rotten.” Anyone, he thought, could write at least that badly. He could write at least that badly. And so, in an optimistic spirit, to try to earn a bit of cash, he did.

His first stories focused on John Carter, an ex-Confederate immortal soldier who survives gold prospecting and Apache attacks only to land on Mars and encounter a group of highly colorful Martian nudists (Burroughs uses the term “destitute of clothes,” but we can all tell what he meant) fond of exploding radium bullets, kidnapping, airship battles, political intrigue, and overwrought dialogue; who then ends up in a nice tomb with a spring lock “which can be opened only from the inside.” It was quickly purchased and published—under a pseudonym—by All-Story Magazine, perhaps because of the nudity, or because of the airships, chapters enticingly entitled “Love-Making on Mars,” and sentences like “John Carter, if ever a real man walked the cold, dead bosom of Barsoom, you are one.”

By early 1912, the John Carter stories were appearing in a regular serialized format in All-Story (they would later be collected and reprinted in novel form), bringing Burroughs some much needed cash. It was enough to encourage him to write about his next idea: a wild man living among apes. The first chapters of Tarzan of the Apes started to appear in All-Story Magazine in a serialized format in October 1912. They were an immediate hit.

Tarzan of the Apes starts off with a disclaimer from its narrator admitting that its story may not be “credible,” which is a bit of an understatement. Moving on. John Clayton, Lord Greystoke—a strong, virile man, the narrator hurriedly assures us—has been sent with his wife Alice to a British West African colony to investigate claims that black slaves there have been or are being abused. This is not the implausible part of the story, but it doesn’t matter that much, since the two of them NEVER ARRIVE, thanks to a mutiny aboard their ship that leaves them stranded on a nice shore with, on the bright side, all their luggage. Within two years, both of them are dead, mostlykilled by apes, leaving behind only “the piteous wails of a tiny man-child.”

Fortunately, the toddler is picked up by one of the killer apes, Kala, who immediately starts breast feeding him, since her own little baby ape was tragically and somewhat conveniently killed, making her long for a replacement baby. This allows Tarzan to grow up with apes, and develop super strength. This is also about when Burroughs starts referring to Tarzan as a superior being, especially compared to an ape, thanks to his intelligence. Although since he’s grown up with apes, the poor kid doesn’t think so—he’s constantly feeling terrible about his lack of fur and his ugly face. (It’s ok, Tarzan: generations of Hollywood stars will be working to improve your self esteem on this one.)

Tarzan also manages to teach himself to read, thanks to a suspiciously convenient trove of picture books left behind by his parents. And, despite living with a tribe of largely vegetarian apes, he slowly learns to hunt, using his father’s knife and weapons stolen from a nearby village of black warriors. (Burroughs more or less explains this away by saying that Tarzan is descended from a group of “meat-eaters” and then having Tarzan pound his chest. Burroughs, as we’ll see, was very into ideas of evolution and the power of heredity, which in his mind included a desire to eat meat.) The stealing is mostly ok because, well, he’s Tarzan, and also because the villagers killed his ape mother.

Eventually superior intelligence allows Tarzan to become the King of the Apes. Not that he’s very fond of this, since “kingship meant the curtailment of his liberty.” Responsibility sucks for us all, Tarzan.

Fortunately, before he can suffer too much from his responsibilities, a number of people—not ape people, human people—start randomly arriving, including, in no particular order: two easily distracted scholars; Tarzan’s cousin Clayton, under the understandable impression that he is the real Lord Greystoke; various evil sailors (Tarzan doesn’t like them); a black woman named Esmerelda, who, after seeing the various skeletons, wild apes, and so on, really wants to return to Baltimore (she has a point); various Frenchmen; and oh, yes, Jane. She’s the daughter of one of the two scholars. Esmeralda appears to have come along as her chaperone, although a remarkably ineffective one. Various encounters and near-encounters occur, then lions appear, all eventually leading to this:

He took his woman in his arms and carried her into the jungle.

I have more than a few things to say about this—notably, uh, Tarzan, I get the whole raised by apes thing, but just a few seconds ago, Jane was striking Tarzan’s giant breast with her tiny hands (it’s that sort of book) protesting Tarzan’s burning kisses (as said, it’s that sort of book) and repulsing him, so what is this “his woman” stuff? Anyway, off to the jungle they go, where, after a night of gift giving including fruit and a golden locket Jane falls headlong in love with him. (Did I mention it’s that sort of book?)

Incidentally, I was rather crushed to discover that the famous—or infamous—”Me, Tarzan, you, Jane,” is nowhere in the book—in their first meeting, they just make out, protest, grunt and use sign language, without any introductions or “me” business. By the time they meet again, Tarzan can speak perfectly fluent, grammatical English and French, thus skipping the whole “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” stuff. But I anticipate.

Anyway, since Jane has been carried off to the jungle, Clayton, the professor and the French guys all charge in after her, which leads to their discovery of the black village. The French then slaughter all the male warriors of the village, though at the very last minute they kindly decide not to burn the village to the ground and leave the women and children alive. Also, Tarzan saves one of the French guys, who agrees to teach Tarzan how to speak, and turns him into a gentleman.

At this point, many of you might be thinking that this is quite enough plot, what with mutinies, fighting apes, lion attacks, abductions, massacres, French lessons, and making out and so on. You guys are not Burroughs, who, far from ending there, threw in fingerprinting, evil suitors, ocean journeys, more lions, a forest fire in Wisconsin, pirate gold, blackmail and of course the revelation that the OTHER HEIR TO THE EARLDOM OF GREYSTOKE is also Tarzan’s RIVAL IN LOVE because if there’s one thing this novel can’t get enough of, besides burning kisses, lions, and fight scenes, it’s coincidence.

return-of-tarzanIt all ends on a terrific cliffhanger, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I did plunge right ahead to the next book, The Return of Tarzan, which manages to dial the suspension of disbelief needed for the first book well past 11 all the way up to, say, 21. I won’t spoil it, except to say that if you are searching for a book that combines cheating at poker, duels in Paris, belly dancers, sacrifices to ancient sun gods, lost cities, more dead lions, more abductions, ape men, and overwrought romantic dialogue, The Return of Tarzan is definitely your sort of thing.

So much is going on, in fact, that even the characters often forget what’s going on, saying things like “I had almost forgotten the treasure!”—something, incidentally, that I was grateful for, since by that point I, too, had pretty much forgotten the treasure. In my defense, the chest of pirate gold in question does not, unlike the apes, the lions, and the French, attack a single person, so it’s remarkably easy to forget.

It’s probably best not to subject any of this to thoughtful scrutiny or questions, mostly because if you do, this happens:

With Tantor, the elephant, he [Tarzan] made friends. How? Ask not.

Seriously, that’s a direct quote from the book. But as an Official Blogger concerned with other things beyond implausible elephant friendships, I shall give thoughtful scrutiny a try anyway.

Tarzan of the Apes was hardly, of course, the first book—or even the first book in this readwatch—to feature a human child raised by wild animals, or to have the child gain superhuman strength and speed (and in this book, a surprising gift for foreign languages) as a result. The concept goes back to ancient times, and functions as part of the origin story for many mythological heroes and, later, a few comic book characters. Tarzan is also not unique in having that child come from noble birth—most of these raised by animals mythological heroes are of either divine or royal birth, or both. The Jungle Book, with its lower class protagonist, is the outlier here.

But where Tarzan of the Apes does stand out is in its insistence that men, or at least, MANLY AND VIRILE MEN, do have the power to train themselves past their apparent limitations. Heredity is key, and more important than environment—but environment can improve on heredity. Again and again, Tarzan compares Tarzan to his cousin, Clayton, even before they meet. Clayton, like Tarzan, is noble, intelligent and strong—but never pushed past his limitations. Clayton is, therefore, for a lack of a better word, “normal.” Tarzan, with the identical heredity, was forced to keep up with young apes and fight lions, and thus becomes superhuman. Later, when Tarzan absolutely positively has to learn French, he does, and he is able to train himself to fit into European and American society within just a few months.

Realistic? No, and in that respect, The Jungle Book is a superior and more thoughtful take on the mythological concept of a child raised by animals. But as pure wish fulfillment, and in its insistence that humans can push past their limitations, Tarzan is both more hopeful and more satisfactory.

And for all of its focus on strength, brawn and skill, Tarzan continually emphasizes that what allows Tarzan to defeat his enemies—both humans and lions—is intelligence, intuition, and—eventually—weapons. Tarzan, and, later, the French, win because they can strategize and use weapons. Strength and a lack of fear are important, but as all of those dead lions indicate, they aren’t enough.

It’s a hopeful message straight from the pre-war years of the 20th century, when Burroughs and others did believe that education and technology could and would solve everything. But it’s also a tangled message, since Tarzan draws much of his strength from his training in the jungle, which makes him superior physically to virtually everyone he meets who isn’t an ape or a lion. This is a book that wants us to believe in the superior power of the intellect, training, technology, and the United States, and yet has Tarzan’s superior power come from something else entirely.

It’s not the only tangled message in the book. For instance, the 1912 Tarzan of the Apes is, on its surface, unabashedly racist, and the sequel even more so. The black characters in the book fall into two categories: savages and Esmerelda, who is a caricature of a black mammy. At one point, during a confrontation between a “civilized” Frenchman and a black warrior, Burroughs draws a contrast between their faces in unquestionably offensive terms. The white skinned Tarzan considers himself superior to blacks. And although Tarzan’s superior strength and skills come largely from his environment, Burroughs strongly believes—and simultaneously argues—that heredity is superior to environment, which helps explain why Tarzan manages to pick up French and basic table manners so quickly; it’s part of his heritage.

But for all his racism, Burroughs also spends a significant amount of time critiquing white colonialism, blaming it for most of Africa’s problems. He specifically calls out whites for exploiting black labor and workers, and slams Leopold II, King of the Belgians, calling him that “arch hypocrite,” accusing him of approving torture and blaming him for the destruction of the Congo Free State and a proud culture. That culture is black, and if Burroughs does not exactly see it as equal to the glories of America (nothing, to Burroughs, is equal to the glories of America) he strongly disapproves of its destruction.

Also interesting: a side conversation in the book, where Samuel T. Philander argues that Europe would be better off if the Moors had been able to remain in Spain, and Professor Archimedes Porter argues that Islam is an inherently unscientific religion. Porter may have the title of “Professor,” but it quickly becomes clear that Porter is not just impractical, but unwise, easily tricked, and frequently wrong, and that readers are meant to agree not with Porter, but with the slightly less educated Philander on the superiority of some aspects of Moorish culture. Granted, the main narrative purpose of this entire conversation is to keep the two scholars too distracted to note an approaching lion and to set up a comedy lion chase, but it’s one of several notes suggesting a slightly nuanced approach from Burroughs.

It’s also perhaps notable that as much as the book talks about the fear brought on at the sight of black warriors, all of the really evil people in the book are white, most of the murders and the one massacre are carried out by whites, and Tarzan, partly a product of the African jungle, is shown to be superior to pretty much everyone else in nearly every respect—not just strength and speed, but also intelligence and character. Granted, this is also because he’s a member of the British nobility—later proven by a scientific comparison of fingerprints—but he also continually refers to himself as a product of the jungle, and refuses to apologize for his heritage. And Tarzan himself more than once refuses to see whites as morally superior—particularly after his observations of their behavior.

The book’s treatment of women can also be, well, maybe not outright misogynistic, but definitely falling into certain gender patterns. Still, for all the tossing women over shoulders and taking them into the deep dark jungle, a few of the women manage to acquit themselves quite well. Alice, for instance, saves her husband’s life by shooting an ape dead even though (a) she knows nothing about guns, and (b) is nine months pregnant, which is kinda awesome. Kala stands up against the stronger apes of her tribe and keeps little Tarzan. Jane jumps on the yay guns bandwagon and shoots a lion. That sort of thing. And for all that many of the men disapprove of women joining expeditions, the women come anyway—even if Jane is doing so at least in part to delay an unwanted marriage.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the tangled messages, the improbable plots and major plot holes, and my ongoing skepticism that any adult, even Tarzan, could learn French that quickly, the book was an immediate hit. Readers deluged Burroughs with requests for a sequel even before they learned that the first book would end on a cliffhanger. He obliged, churning out a grand total of 25 sequels—while continuing to shoot out John Carter novels and other tales. Even those sequels weren’t enough; after his death, fans clamored for more, and various writers, authorized and not, obliged.

But it was in films where Tarzan really came into his own, starring in approximately 190 of them, if is correct, plus later video games. The best known of these was perhaps the 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man starring swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who frequently appeared shirtless and yelled a lot; like the novels, it proved popular enough to spawn several more sequels. These in turn were popular enough to greenlight various television shows. Tarzan also appeared in multiple comic books, newspaper strips and manga. Eventually, Tarzan even made it to Broadway, thanks to a little film we’ll be discussing next week.

Tarzan’s greatest legacy, however, may not have been as a character in his own right, but by his role as a precursor to 20th and 21st century superheroes. If Batman can be more or less traced back to Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Count of Monte Cristo, Superman—and other comic superheroes—owe quite a lot to Tarzan. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster almost certainly read Tarzan (Burroughs even uses the word “superman” in the text, although that was probably not Siegel and Schuster’s inspiration for the name) and saw some of the films, but more importantly, the popularity of Tarzan convinced publishers that something like Superman could sell. And that in turn eventually brought us the multibillion, edging towards trillions, superhero comic and movie industry.

In the meantime, Burroughs used the money from his novels to write more and buy a ranch he happily called “Tarzana.” He lived to write about 60 novels, become a World War II war correspondent, and see his character become a cultural icon. It was not a bad legacy for someone who started writing more or less out of spite.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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