In 1912 author Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced what would be one of the most well known literary characters in the world, second only behind Sherlock Holmes: Tarzan of the apes.
The allure is obvious. An infant (from a well bred, high class family in England) is left alone in the African jungle when his parents die and is raised by apes. Growing in the wild, he becomes a specimen of near physical perfection, far surpassing his civilized counterparts, and most interestingly, freed from the taint of corrupt human civilization, he is free to assume his proper inner nature which is of course Burrough’s ideas of the ideal white male, which includes courage, loyalty, monogamy, excellent intelligence and language acquisition and always siding with the underdog.
We’ll discuss this in a moment.
Before i get all deconstructionist on Tarzan i want to take a moment and celebrate the actual fun of it. Tarzan was an early staple of the burgeoning literary form of pulp novels, also exemplified in the great characters of Doc Savage and The Shadow, who were huge and beloved in their day, but who have faded in popularity. Indeed the entire pulp medium was replaced slowly and surely by superheroes, who now assume their place as protagonists of fantastic adventures and acts of incredible courage and excitement, in no small part thanks to Stan Lee’s reinvention of the genre during the 60s. Tarzan, however, still remains, standing tall and well known after most of his counterparts have faded.
Tarzan came on the scene early in the early days of the pulp movement, 1912, as Lovecraft was barely beginning and Robert E. Howard hadn’t even started yet. The awesome premise that would inspire any imaginative boy, and over the course of 24 novels, Burroughs creates fantastic worlds and adventures. The premise of Tarzan couldn’t last for if Burroughs hadn’t gotten so imaginative. He put all sorts of ruins in the jungle. Ancient civilizations long forgotten or never known at all by present humans are unearthed time after time and these are the imaginative heart of the series. Tarzan’s run in and struggle with modern society had very short legs and when after a few books Burroughs moved on to the more fantastic, he cemented Tarzan in the mental wonderland of kids for years and years.
Pulp fiction is of course not a high brow form of literature. Tarzan never had the same quality of writing as Sherlock Holmes. Burroughs isn’t even Stephen King. But he tell a ripping good yarn and Tarzan branched out into first a newspaper comic strip, which was a big form of entertainment in the day before actual comic books, two radio drama series, several television shows the best of which was an animated series which ran in the late 70s and early 80s, and most importantly, the movies.
Johnny Weismuller starred in about 12 Tarzan films which were an enormously huge franchise in the 30s and 40s. In addition the 30s featured a couple of great Tarzan serial movies. It is from these 30s movie versions of the character most people know Tarzan’s characteristics from. For instance, in the books, Tarzan learned English flawlessly and in fact was brilliant at languages. It is from the Weismuller flicks that we get the speaking style of “Me, Tarzan. You, Jane.” It is also from these that we get the chimpanzee sidekick ‘Cheeta’ who is not in any of the books. Also, who can forget the famous Tarzan yell?
So which is more racist, the books or the movies?
The books themselves have racist overtones, although they can often portray the African people surrounding Tarzan in a respectful light, IF one takes into consideration that Burroughs was clearly not intentionally racist. His racism, which is certainly and unquestioningly there, was not necessarily intentional so much as ignorant. He was a product of his day and did not question the inherent racism his culture assumed and projected.
The movies, though often fun, can be shockingly and over the top racist. I watched them all many years ago as… you know, just one of those kicks you get one. And they can be infuriating, much more so than the books. I am sure this is discussed in much better length elsewhere on the net and i want to talk about another aspect of the Tarzan mythos, but you cannot discuss the character, his very IDEA or his history without bringing up the racist angles involved. Because, my oh my, but there are a lot of them. This post could be three times as long only talking about the racism angle.
But i’d like to touch on something else.
Burroughs idealized an idea that actually was quite popular in the post Renaissance eras. Namely, that it was society that corrupted the individual. The noble savage is what we would all be if not for the taint of degraded civilization. Burroughs gives us a man raised by animals, in a jungle who is a greater specimen of health, virility and MORALITY then any man he meets in the civilized world. And Burroughs did not pull this out of a hat. This notion was widely discussed and many notable Philosophers and Doctors including Rousseau argued this passionately.
Well. Interestingly, there are a few cases of feral children, the most famous of which might be Victor of Aveyron.
A feral child lived in the woods of Southern France for years (and was sighted numerous times over the years but never tracked down) before finally in 1800 emerging from the forest on his own. (This was the inspiration for Kipling’s Mowgli)
His age was estimated be around 12 although it was impossible to say. Lack of nutrition, the inability to speak, scars, and an absolute inability to communicate on any meaningful level made it impossible to know much about him.
Eventual investigation produced the theory that he was abandoned in the woods around age 5 and survived for 7 years.
So this child, Victor was taken to the Institute of the Deaf in Paris and put under the care of Dr. Sicard. He was NOT deaf, but he was absolutely unresponsive to language and emotional cues and the idea that he developed Precocious schizophrenia, infantile psychosis, or autism has been conjectured.
Progress was slow and painful and the boy just didn’t respond to any attempt to teach him language.
A young medical student, Jean Itard, who championed the idea that two things separated humans from animals, empathy and language, eventually took over the boy’s care and “education”. He tried desperately to teach Victor to speak and to communicate human emotion. Victor showed significant early progress in understanding language and reading simple words but failed to progress beyond a rudimentary level. Itard wrote “Under these circumstances his ear was not an organ for the appreciation of sounds, their articulations and their combinations; it was nothing but a simple means of self-preservation which warned of the approach of a dangerous animal or the fall of wild fruit.”
In the end, and this is kind of interesting, the only two phrases that Victor ever actually learned to spell out were ‘ milk’ and ‘Oh God’. He never did learn to understand tone of voice but he did develop an action based form of communication and did learn to understand and respond to basic emotions. The breakthrough came one day while Itard’s housekeepers was sitting one day crying over the death of her husband, and Victor suddenly came over to her and displayed consolatory behavior.
A lot has been theorized about children needing social interaction during a young age else wise the ability never develops. Tarzan, in other words, would be a basket case and would not respond to culture, civilization or Jane or RECOGnize their methods of communication in any logical way. Deprived of civilization, one becomes alien to civilization and civilization alien to it and the noble savage is a fantasy, a projection of a culture’s values placed onto a person with no relation to the culture or its values whatsoever.
This would NEVER happen:
I will sign off by mentioning that the Victor discussion can go a lot deeper. For instance no one knows if he was abused prior to his 7 years in the woods or if he was born with some issue or another. But still, it is a fascinating case of the closest thing to real life Tarzan yet documented. There are many other cases, but most of those are hoaxes.
The case of Victor was made into a movie, L’enfant Sauvage, the English subtitled version of which is The Wild Child.