Tarzan of the Apes at 100 (well, 101)

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan in 1914, after successfully serializing it in 1912, and it quickly became a modern myth: radio adaptations and movies followed as soon as technology could catch up, as well as a bewildering 22 sequels from Burroughs himself.  While the character of Tarzan is certainly nothing new, as he is equal parts Caliban, Crusoe, and Mowgli, it goes much further than any of these in its frankness about racial identity and the true meaning of civilization.  Few readers know the ‘real’ Tarzan, as the 21st century has to combat the cultural dissonance of the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” movies (he never says this or speaks like ‘Tarzan’ in the books), or the New Age noble savage we find in Disney.  Probably the closest media depiction of the book occurs in the 1984 film, The Legend of Greystoke, which preserves many of the trademark elements of the book, and interestingly casts Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman, as Tarzan (since Tarzan initially learns to speak French, not English).  What we find in the book is astonishing and quite unusual: a Tarzan who kills indiscriminately (often for the clothes on a natives’ back), yet is capable of compassion and downright maudlin behavior.  The book is at once better than you were lead to believe while at times staying true to its pulp origins.  Is it great literature?  No, but it has the makings of a great myth, and there are moments that match Kipling or Defoe, and at times anticipate the darker worlds of Conrad.  If nothing else, it merits its inclusion as a seminal work of 20th century popular culture, and should be read widely (and by young readers) because, when all is said and done (and making allowances for some of the dated contents of the book), it is full of imagination and delight. 

The background is relatively well-known: Lord Greystoke and his young wife, Alice, are traveling to Africa to begin his colonial career when the ship’s crew revolts.  The young couple is spared because they showed compassion to one of the deckhands; the crew agrees to drop them off on an isolated coast with all their baggage and the rudiments of survival.  Here Lord Greystoke, Crusoe-like, builds a simulacrum of England in a small cabin to shut out the preying eyes of the jungle.  The couple lives and thrives until one great ape decides that enough is enough, and attacks Lord Greystoke, almost killing him and his wife.  Alice never recovers from the encounter, and lives out the rest of her life in a delirium of England while nursing her young son.  When she dies, a final ape attack kills off Lord Greystoke as well, leaving their child to be adopted by Kala, an ape who recently lost her own child.  Placing her dead ape in the child’s cradle, she retreats into the wild with her “white ape.”  And as time passes, Tarzan (which means “white skin”) learns to become wise and strong in the way of the apes, slowly taking his place as one of their leaders—despite the envious disdain of their leader, Kerchak. 

What surprises the modern reader is how explicit Burroughs is about race and all the anxieties of cultural cross-contamination (foremost on the British empire’s mind in 1914).  When Kala takes Tarzan into her home, he writes, “High up among the branches of a mighty tree she hugged the shrieking infant to her bosom, and soon the instinct that was as dominant in this fierce female as it had been in the breast of his tender and beautiful mother—the instinct of mother love—reached out to the tiny man-child’s half-formed understanding...hunger closed the gap between them, and the son of an English lord and an English lady nursed at the breast of Kala, the great ape” (Penguin 33).  Throughout the book, Burroughs maintains that race is an illusion which hides the compassion and depravity of man.  The apes can easily be seen as a metaphor for any indigenous colonial society, as they have names which sound quasi-African (Kala, Tublat, Kerchak, Tarzan, etc.); while they are not noble savages, they emerge as simple, moral creatures who often contrast sharply with the ‘savagery’ of civilized man.  Much later in the book, when Tarzan learns about the new science of fingerprinting, he asks a police officer: “Do finger prints show racial characteristics?”  The officer responds, emphatically, “I think not,” but adds, in an aside, “although some claim that those of the negro are less complex” (Penguin 251).  Yet the point remains that science does not ‘see’ race nor does the law of the jungle.  The apes have their enemies as well as their tribe, which is a simple matter of survival: but they do not see Sabor, the tiger, as a lesser race, any more than they regard themselves as a superior. 

Not that the book shares our modern view of race, exactly; the tribesmen that Tarzan encounters are typically vicious and savage.  Though Burroughs explains that they invade Tarzan’s part of the jungle because they have been driven out by white colonists, still they delight in torturing their prisoners (which Tarzan finds revolting), particularly noble white prisoners—such as the Frenchman D’Arnot, which Tarzan saves from ritual dismemberment.  Being “black” and an ape is certainly superior in this book to being “black” and a man; these tribesmen are summarily dispatched by Tarzan whenever he feels like it: he uses a rope-noose to hang them from the trees to steal their clothes and arrows, and habitually sneaks into their village to steal poisonous arrows and play macabre tricks on them (like dumping dead bodies, or rearranging furniture).  They soon consider him a malicious god of the forest for whom they have to make offerings.  Yet even here Burroughs makes an enlightened remark: when Tarzan encounters tribesmen in another part of Africa, he defaults to ‘kill’ mode before D’Arnot stops him, saying, “You must not, Tarzan!...White men do not kill wantonly” (Penguin 240).  Clearly this is a joke, since Tarzan has encountered pirates who kill and eat one another, and the reader, too, knows the “wantonness” of colonial progress.  However, I should also probably mention Esmeralda, Jane’s black servant from Baltimore, who is overweight, hysterical, and speaks in dialect.  On second thought, you can read that part for yourself...

Civilization finally comes creeping into Tarzan’s world when he discovers his father’s cabin and its store of books—particularly, picture books that contain “strange little bugs” that dance about the pages.  With painstaking patience—and perhaps, a dash of preposterousness—Tarzan learns to associate the pictures with the bugs, and is soon reading entire books in English.  However, he has never heard the language nor understands that the bugs correspond to sounds, which leads to complications when another set of colonists are shipwrecked on the shore.  True to its pulp origins, the next Lord Greystoke is thrown off here by pirates along with a professor, his daughter, Jane, and their servant (as I mentioned above), and the professor’s assistant.  The quartet are quickly at the mercy of the jungle, but Tarzan performs feats of superhuman prowess to save them from the fangs of Sabor, among others.  They are quickly convinced that this is some “jungle god,” as he cannot speak and moves like an ape; even the note he leaves them, proclaiming his identity as “Tarzan of the Apes” makes little impression, since they assume this is some second jungle dweller, watching from afar.  The most interesting early part of the novel occurs when Jane is kidnapped by a rival ape, Terkoz, who decides to make her his wife.  This is straight out of the pulp tradition, though it also shares the fin-di-secle fears of colonial monsters raping virginal Englishwomen such as Dracula, etc.  Tarzan fights a bloody battle with Terkoz while Jane is left gasping against a tree, “her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration—[she] watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman—for her...the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl” (Penguin 175). 

Burroughs has great fun with this: the two young people are thrust into a fantastic Eden, where they live in solitary splendor and almost—but not quite—indulge in their deepest carnal desires.  After the battle he “took the woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses” (Penguin 176).  Pretty racy for 1914, yet Jane knows better; after a moment of intense passion, she beats him off, and feels the mortification of lacking a chaperone.  Yet soon after she admires him as a “perfect creature...Never, she thought, had such a man strode the earth since God created the first in his own image...She began to comprehend, also, that she was entirely contended by sitting here by the side of this smiling giant eating delicious fruit in a sylvan paradise far within the remote depths of an African jungle” (Penguin, 184, 191).  Here is the Tarzan from the movies, the “Me Tarzan, You Jane,” though he never speaks at all: their language is couched in looks and kisses, in a time before language or civilization.  While this can seem somewhat corny to a modern reader, it underlines Burroughs’ theme of our place in society: does civilization make us happier?  Does it lead to meaningful lives?  Are we truly free while protected from the apes and tigers of the world?  Or do we simply lock ourselves in with even greater terrors—ourselves? 

Race rears its head once again when Jane returns to Clayton, the second Lord Greystoke, who convinces her that the “forest god” is one of the “black tribesmen,” who are thieves and cannibals.  Clearly he’s jealous, and his point is well taken, for Jane soon reflects, “She tried to imagine her wood-god by her side in the saloon of an ocean liner.  She saw him eating with his hands, tearing his food like a beast of prey, and wiping his greasy fingers upon his thighs...She saw him as she introduced him to her friends—uncouth, illiterate—a boor” (Penguin 206).  She is torn between her “primeval” desire for him and the sense that a good Baltimore girl needs a man who can navigate the avenues of society (like Clayton).  Worse still, a jungle god must have a jungle wife and jungle children who would be as “black” as he is: “if he belonged to some savage tribe he had a savage wife—a dozen of them perhaps—and wild, half-caste children...when they told her that the cruiser would sail on the morrow she was almost glad” (Penguin 230).  Yes, she gladly flees her one flirtation with love and happiness to do the right thing as so many women had done before her.  Sex has no place in marriage, nor even love; one could at least respect a man who washes his fingers in rose water before cutting his meat! 

As Jane is forced into an arranged match with another suitor, one who ‘buys’ her to pay off her father’s debts, Tarzan decides to become civilized and travel to America to find her.  He accomplishes this with the help of D’Arnot, the Frenchman who teaches him to speak French and confuses the hell out of poor Tarzan (who can only read English).  Indeed, he gives Tarzan several lessons on how “white men” act which seek to underline the primacy of Western civilization: eat with knife and fork, dress properly, don’t kill wantonly, use reason before strength!  However, Tarzan’s travels fail to support these theories, as when he encounters a group of white hunters who claim that fear has no place on the hunt.  And how could it—they are safely protected by a entourage of whites and natives each with a small arsenal at their disposal.  As Tarzan counters, “to me the only pleasure in the hunt is the knowledge that the hunted thing has the power to harm me as much as I have to harm him” (Penguin 245).  He then sets out to hunt a tiger naked with his bare hands, and rejoices in the freedom of this decision (which runs counter to everything D’Arnot has taught him): “it was with an exultant freedom that he swung once more through the forest branches.  This was life! ah, how he loved it!  Civilization held nothing like this in its narrow and circumscribed sphere, hemmed in by restrictions and conventionalities.  Even clothes were a hindrance and a nuisance” (Penguin 247).  True, Tarzan learns to wear a suit and tie and eat with knife and fork, but he remains an “ape” within, never truly understanding why man would willingly submit to the yoke of society. 

The novel ends with the question posed a final time to Jane, who flees to the wilds of Wisconsin to prepare for her marriage with the sinister Mr. Canler.  There a forest fire engulfs the area and Jane is helpless once more—until Tarzan magically appears (pulp fiction, remember).  For a moment, they relive their Edenic bliss in each other’s arms, away from the watchful eye of society.  However, as soon as he takes her back, she must make a decision: Tarzan or Canler?  Passion or Preservation?  Tarzan makes the decision even easier for her: he strangles Canler almost to death until she intervenes, and Canler agrees to leave her free to marry whomever she chooses.  Now it’s between Tarzan and Clayton, the current Lord Greystoke.  However, at the fateful moment, Tarzan receives a telegram from D’Arnot confirming a scientific theory: the matched Tarzan’s thumbprints to the line of Greystoke: he is the true Lord Greystoke.  With a single word he could replace Clayton on the seat of power and take Jane with all due rank and civility.  Yet by this time she has already made her choice, asking herself “could she love where she feared?”  She is terrified of Tarzan, at least what he represents, which is a total release of sexuality at the most primal level.  As she reflects, “That she had been carried off her feet by the strength of the young giant when his great arms were about her...seemed to her only attributable to a temporary mental reversion to type on her part—to the psychological appeal of the primeval man to the primeval woman in her nature” (Penguin 274).  Women cannot re-enter the Garden of Love once the gates are closed (shades of Blake here): she must reject his passion and agree to marry Clayton, a good man who means well but who has been unable to protect her twice—once from Sabor and once from the flames. 

Tarzan realizes that she will never see him (in this book, at least) as anything more than an ape, a savage from another land.  When Clayton asks him on the last page “how the devil did you ever get into that bally jungle,” he only responds, suppressing the telegram, “I was born there...My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it.  I never knew who my father was” (Penguin 277).  Tarzan, it seems, has now truly become civilized: he has learned to tell the ever-practical social lie.  And lying about one’s origins is the very backbone of respectable society.  So ends the first of 23 volumes of Tarzan of the Apes, a book that teeters between utter conventionality and truly inspired fantasy.  At its best, it is a powerful metaphor for racial identity in a world of us and “other,” and the ability of even the “lowest” species to ape the necessary rudiments of society.  Indeed, in many ways we could argue that Tarzan has to forget more knowledge than he learns to become civilized, and even then, the lessons rarely take.  If being a proper Englishman means hunting without danger, worshipping money as a god, and sacrificing passion to propriety, perhaps true enlightenment dwells in the depths of the jungle, waiting for the shipwreck of a new Adam and Eve?