Tarzan, Untamed and Terrible

Here is the unified version of two posts, constituting 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…

my copy (an older one having vanished evidently in an assigned reading recounted in this post)

Recently, I again re-read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes (actually I read both it and the second book, The Return of Tarzan, and I plan on reading at least the next three in that interminable series as well; I remember the first ten or a dozen as actually entertaining — after that the ape man just encounters too many cities lost in the trackless jungles, over and over and over). I enjoyed Burroughs’ second novel possibly as much as I ever have in possibly a dozen other readings. Fortunately or unfortunately, I tend to forget details of most books that I read so that in rereading them, many of the turns of the plot and felicities of phrasing come as pleasant novelties even after many repetitions. Sadly for me, my most recent rereading of A Princess of Mars, the authorʼs first book, and the next two, comprising the opening trilogy in the Martian series, did not provide as much pleasure — maybe next time. Nor can I say that Burroughs’ style, although he may have introduced my preteen vocabulary to the word “greensward,” is more than utilitarian. I kept finding myself revising mentally turns of phrase and even whole sentences in both Burroughs (especially in The Mad King — his version of The Prisoner of Zenda — which I just finished Wednesday night) and Wilbur Smith’s newest, Assegai, although definitely better than either the wretched The Quest or the tepid The Triumph of the Sun. (At least both men keep the story moving, which is more than I can generally say for myself.)

But I didnʼt want to quibble about the stylistics of my own chosen junk lit. In rereading Tarzan, a book I kind of forced on an unwilling junior for his first or second critical essay about a decade ago without reviewing it myself then, I realized that it definitely has a theme, at least until poor, shipwrecked Jane Porter and cohorts appear on the scene, transforming the book into turn-of-the-last-century romance (and I may have just gotten too involved in the action and/or finishing the book to appreciate the theme continuing into those Franco-Brit-Americansʼ relationships and hazards). What I realized, having suggested to my former junior that Tarzan was deservedly heroic because he was a simply better and more decent person than everyone else (a easily demonstrable theme perhaps best fitted to the closing action and the second novel), is that Tarzan of the Apes is a radically antiauthoritarian tale.

Admittedly, the rebellious tone and plot may have been unintended by the middle class and conservative Burroughs, whose stories right through the Forties emphasize, illustrate and advocate traditional values and virtues (and sadly the limitations of those ordinary attitudes, as in the really rather racist, stereotypical and stereotyped portrayal of Africans, whom Tarzan slays with guiltless excess — although the writer comes across less rigidly negrophobic than near contemporary, Robert E. Howard, who never shunned an excuse to dwell in detail on thick lips, kinky hair and bestially anthropoid carriage and behavior; but then Burroughs had those imaginary apes to fill the BEM role). We know, after all, that Tarzan, by birth Lord Greystoke, is heroic and praiseworthy because of his exalted, upper class (“noble”) Anglo-Saxon (and genuinely British) antecedents, regardless how vapid one may find his dutiful father and insipid mother, both doomed from the beginning (and pretty casually terminated by the author, who never hesitated to butcher spearcarriers and minor characters — another bone I have to pick with him: all you need do to survive and thrive in Burroughs-reality is befriend the stalwart, lightning-quick, grey-eyed hero; otherwise youʼre probably toast). Although Burroughs/Tarzanʼs are virtues that I find, well, virtuous and admirable — thus my suggestion to the former junior — such as self-sacrifice, courage and individual independence, the principles also features the usual steadfast suspects in Edwardo-Victorian morality (including the maudlin matriology — sentimental adoration of motherhood, whatever the term should be — promoted through dear dead Lady Greystoke and poor, pitiful Kala). Nevertheless, whether intended or not, the book and Tarzan himself enact a vital and rebellious antiauthoritarian ethic.

The story is classically simple from the stranding by low-caste mutineers of Lord and (barely pregnant) Lady Greystoke on the desert strand of western Africa (on a bay that would over the course of the books become the most frequented place for shipwrecked and abandoned folks who either already do or soon will know each other on record), through the sad demise of Lady Alice not long after childbirth, the later slaughter of Tarzanʼs grieving father and the rescue of the puling babe by bereft ape-mother Kala, Tarzanʼs upbringing among the great apes (whatever they are, they arenʼt gorillas) and wonderful self-education through his fatherʼs books in the abandoned (but safely locked) cabin of his birth, his achievement of jungle excellence through his (super-)human intelligence plus a rope and knife (and eventually tropical clothing, spears and poisoned arrows through the serial slayings and social terrorizing of otherwise innocent through wicked cannibals) to his encounter with white society in the persons of the lovely Jane Porter and Tarzanʼs own cousin, the current Lord Greystoke (among so many others who end up at the cabin, deposited by a different group of scum mutineers) and ultimate renunciation of his birthright for love of Jane. It took the second book to bring the lovers together and rid the fictional world of the inconvenient (but necessarily — because of blood and biology — not wicked) William Cecil Clayton, undeserving Lord Greystoke. The first novel ends in heroic, noble and (until the second book) unrecognized self-sacrifice by the “savage” Tarzan, in direct contrast to the weakness, self-interest and greed (free enterprise?) of the “civilized” persons. The ape man, naturally (thereʼs a pun there), behaves as the perfect gentleman when living (for a few days) in blissful isolation with the beautiful Jane (unlike the ostracized and lustful Terkoz the ape, from whose vile clutches Tarzan must rescue her). So where is the disrespect?

Early in the novel, mother Lady Greystoke sets forth the the standard opinion, when her husband (wisely) wishes to quietly turn a blind eye on some mutineers in the interest of saving his and his wifeʼs noble British hides. When he says, “… from purely selfish motives I am almost prompted to ʼkeep a still tongue in my ʼead.ʼ Whatever they do now they will spare us in recognition of my stand for this fellow Black Michael, but should they find that I had betrayed them there would be no mercy shown us, Alice,” she piously (and wrongheadedly) responds, “You have but one duty, John, and that lies in the interest of vested authority. If you do not warn the captain you are as much a party to whatever follows as though you had helped to plot and carry it out with your own head and hands. … Duty is duty, John, and no amount of sophistries may change it. I would be a poor wife for an English lord were I to be responsible for his shirking a plain duty.” It is all so simple for the little lady: “duty is duty,” always and forever (how like Hamletʼs Claudius), and duty instructs us to always and faithfully support and obey “vested authority.” Naturally, sheʼs just wrong. Dutiful Lord Greystoke does reveal the plot to the unbelieving, tyrannical captain and is roundly rebuked for his efforts. The mutiny goes bloodily ahead, and only his act of kindness in the face of abusive authority (his “stand for… Black Michael”) even permits the couple the slight (and unsuccessful) chance of survival, stranded like Crusoe on the edge of the jungle. Lady Aliceʼs sanctimonious love of duty and authority earn her nothing but isolation, terror and finally death. John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, likewise does not survive. Fortunately, their ape-raised son had no public school-Oxbridge set of ethics dunned into his wilderness-aware mind, and he becomes the rebellious survivor, even exceeding the effete limits of civilzation.

the edition in which I first encountered the liberating influence of the ape man

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?

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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