We began this little critcal essay on Saturday and paused for a more generalized consideration of freedom yesterday. Here is the conclusion of my study of Tarzan of the Apes as antiauthoritarian tract. The idea was inspired by my reaction to reading Lady Alice Greystokeʼs chapter one reviling of her husband on the subject of his duty to vested authority. I felt repulsed and then began to think and notice…
Antiauthoritarian attitudes seem always to succeed, even before such thinking benefits Tarzan. Greystokeʼs natural humanitarianism caused him to defy the vile captain of the Fulwalda, defending Black Michael against physical abuse. For that initial defiance of “vested authority,” he was effectively rewarded by not being slain for the the upper-crust nobleman that he is. Instead both he and his wife were set ashore safely with a vast supply of food and materials for survival, with which they hunted game, constructed a solid cabin (which survived untended and unmaintained for twenty years and more, considerably better than my poor home). The mutineers in the story did get trounced by nature for their unservile rebellions (unfairly, it seems to me, since both groups generously — as much so as they were capable — set their neutral passengers ashore, and humanitarianism is a virtue in life and in the book). On the other hand, their mutiny succeeded: vested authority was twice overthrown and bloodily, deservedly dispatched on the Fulwalda, less deservedly on the ship carrying the Porters and friends.
However, overall, authorities are bad, effete or weak in the book — negative in one way or another. On the mild side, Janeʼs professor father is abstracted and disconnected completely from the real world, a beloved but comical person whose exertion of parental or social authority leads to chaos and trouble, almost invariably. William, Tarzanʼs cousin, typifies the effete Englishman — a decent enough chap but thoroughly incapable (even more so in The Return). The evil captain of the Fulwalda is a villain, bringing his undoing on his own head through his own dictatorial and abusive actions. Neither Tarzanʼs ape stepfather Tublat nor the tribal ape-king Kerchak are decent authorities either, envying and hating Tarzan, vindictively making the young nonapeʼs life a torturous misery until he must under the pressure of events kill each one. Both the awful father-figure and the inept ruler deserve disrespect and defiance (they are, after all, villains and must deserve the fates for which they are destined). As king himself, Tarzan exhibits a laissez-faire leadership that helps and advances the tribe (and he doesnʼt particularly want to be king, a point more strongly made in the third book among a different ape tribe). The hidebound cannibal ruler Mbongo exhibits no respectable behavior, either, just fear and savagery (the tribe of blacks in torturing and nearly consuming DʼArnot earn evidently their extermination).
The key antiauthoritarian point is that our hero disobeys authorities right and left, defying and frustrating both stepfather Kublat and king ape Kerchak for years, always going his own independent, freethinking, individualistic way (as the character continues to do for about the first ten books). He does what he wants at every turn, and unlike the villains, what he wants is usually beneficial not just to himself (so long as you are not poor Kulonga, for whom I have always had a sneaking sympathy, or any other of Mbongaʼs cannibals). He even defies the king of the jungle and savannah repeatedly (in every book, again and again), killing lions with a nineteenth-century great-white-hunter abandon; even the king of beasts, Numa, receives no special honor from our hero. Naturally, raised in the wild, the ape man also has no respect for established civilized authorities, although he does esteem friendship and therefore acquiesces to his friendsʼ desires for him to conform, particularly the noble DʼArnot. On no account, however, does Tarzan feel without personal or friendly motives a social sense of duty (and he was raised in a society …of apes) nor obligation to respect what his mother reverently termed “vested authority.” He shares in Burroughsʼ general mother-adoration, but for Tarzan Kala was the only love he had ever known… Authority for Tarzan must earn his respect, and few authorities (letʼs be honest — none) deserve that honor in his experience.
Tarzan thinks for himself, figuring out his own situations and his own answers. He is willing to learn what others may be able to teach him (at least he as a small child acquired the apesʼ skills and socialization), but he is always the outsider, not quite at one with any culture in which he becomes enmeshed. Naturally, he is human, not an ape, so an outsider among his ape family and tribe. He hangs back from the cannibal blacks of Mbongaʼs village (fortunately) and by his own outsideness (and violence) becomes their god. He teaches himself to read and begin to understand civilization, just as he forms his own view of white society from watching, not joining, the Porter party. In fact, his distance from the castaways equals his separation from the blacks, and his detachment serves the stranded whites well, as he is usually in a position to rescue the bumbling Americans and Clayton from perils unheeded by them. Going his own way makes Tarzan free and noble. He even ultimately resists DʼArnotʼs attempt to prove his noble Greystoke heritage, electing on his own to ignore the evidence in order to promote what he believes will be Janeʼs happiness. No social duty, no deferential respect for weak or despotic authority. The wild ape man thinks freely for himself, perhaps in some ways the ultimate antiauthoritarian.
And that was the kind of hero to which I exposed myself as a child, reading first the John Carter of Mars books but then permitting the rather too famous Tarzan within my scope, I think when I was about thirteen. What was the effect of this liberal (for he is generous and humanitarian), freethinking individualist on me? I guess my own significantly less noble wide-ranging lack of respect for pomposity and overweening authoritarianism, as exhibited already in this blog if not daily in my life, may owe a little at least to the Untamed, Terrible, Invincible and Triumphant One. Oh, what hath Burroughs wrought?