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Tantor Trumpets - by Ken Webber

The Return of Tarzan
A Mythic Quest of Manhood

From ERB-APA #26
Internet version copyright © 2000,
All Rights Reserved.


As I go back from time to time and reread the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I find that I have a growing appreciation for his gift as a natural storyteller, and as such, a master of the mythic form. In the course of writing an action packed adventure, he also touched upon a core of basic human truths and explored many insights about man's common estate. This is the purpose of myth in our cultures. It is thus one of the primary reasons that Burroughs commands such a lifelong holding power over so many of his readers. He will certainly endure as a literary figure for his ability to touch and examine that pure human nobility that is essential to what is best in all of us.

Return of Tarzan, Wyeth cover

In The Return of Tarzan this can be illustrated. In this novel, the underlying mythic theme that ERB wrote about was the coming into maturity and manhood of his young hero, Tarzan, Lord Greystoke. In mythology there are four basic roles that a man must develop to come into maturity and his full manhood. These are to come into his identities as the son of his father, a provider and or a protector, the warrior, and the lover of a woman. We can find that ERB addressed all four of these issues in this book.

We need to briefly examine the preceding novel, Tarzan of the Apes, wherein Burroughs points out the factors that allowed his young orphan of the wild to rise above his adverse circumstances, and become a very unique and heroic specimen. He gives strong significance to the fact of his noble heritage, being born into a quality bloodline. The next factor to consider is the child's fierce but devoted adoptive ape mother, Kala, whose dedicated and loving nurture and 'good enough mothering' helped to give her little charge a healthy mind and body. These are the two important pillars of heredity and a supportive environment. Upon this foundation we find the young lad ready to venture out and makes his critical steps leading to his self-determination. His strong curiosity leads him to explore the small cabin of his long dead parents. He ignores them as just other carcasses in the violent world he lives in. But he discovers the treasures of the books that they had brought on their journey, many of which were meant to be used to school him. And his other find is the knife of his sire and with it comes the equalizing power to match the fangs and teeth of the forest. With these new tools, we find him now rapidly growing in stature, both within and without.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Paul D'Arnot arrives upon the scene and becomes Tarzan's male mentor and bridge to the civilized world. Under the Frenchman's patient tutelage the savage child of the jungle ascends into his humanity and even begins to taste and master the complexities of proper society. Later in the opening chapters of Return, we see this early teaching influence spur him to spend many quiet hours in the libraries and museums of Paris and attend the various places of culture and entertainment. His curiosity even finds him tasting the vices of civilization as coffee, liquor and Paris' nightclubs.

In the closing scenes of Apes, we find the stage dramatically set for the themes to be addressed in the next chapters of the ape man's life. He is unable to claim the love of a woman, and sacrificially defers to his cousin, William Cecil Clayton, in the mistaken belief that she would be better off with his rival. Tarzan feels his is lacking at this point of his life. He has amply proven to the young woman who has won his heart that he can protect her. He has done it in the dark jungles of his Africa and the also in the forest fire of her native Wisconsin. But the question of his being able to also provide for her is at the forefront of his mind. He must address this issue before he can be a man to seek out a mate. But note closely the statement that he makes in his closing words, "I never knew who my father was." Thus he must undertake his personal journey to connect with his father, become a provider and then to complete his quest for his manhood when he will finally gain the love of the maiden in our story.

Whether ERB intentionally developed his hero to wrestle with these basic themes of myth we can only surmise but it is a mark of a natural storyteller of the tribe to do so. Many of us can attest that his power is that of the shaman weaving a spell with his storytelling around a lone campfire. The fact that he utilizes the basic mythologies imprints his tales deep into our souls.

Now let us examine the young Tarzan in Return. He is seeking his true identity and we find him assuming a series of symbolic identities in his quest for his true self. It is significant that some of these that some of these are of his own choosing and some identities are imposed upon him.

Initially he is Jean C. Tarzan, an African adventurer abroad in Paris. Jean C. Tarzan learns a most serious lesson about women in his relationship with the beautiful Countess DeCoud. He is innocently caught in a compromising situation with the lady by her husband and almost forfeits his life on the dueling field to reclaim his honor and protect her good name and give her husband satisfaction. He is less innocent about women thereafter. His experience with the opposite sex has not been too successful so far. He nobly gave up his first love, Teeka, the young she ape of his childhood to a better suited rival ape. He then years later repeated the same move by surrendering Jane to another competing rival in the belief it was better for her. Now he finally must go through with a duel over a woman that he likes but does not want for himself.

His next adventure on this quest for his manhood finds him working as an agent for the French government in North Africa. He is operating under an imposed assumed name (curiously never given to us!) posing as an American traveler and hunter. During this engagement he rescues the dancing girl of Sidi Aissia. But this time he keeps a respectful distance from any involvement that could be in anyway considered romantic. He develops a healthy mutual respect with her and through her a strong bond with her desert tribesmen. It is a wholesome plutonic relationship with a woman he needed.

He leaves Algeria under the assumed name of John Caldwell, a London traveler. Aboard ship he meets Hazel Strong, who happens to be a friend of Jane Porter. But before he can take advantage of this golden opportunity to learn more about the woman he loves, he finds himself fighting for his life in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. He was not yet ready to pursue the woman he wants. He has more to learn before he is ready to claim the heart of the damsel. He has a healthy knowledge and respect for women. The lessons he still needs to learn are about himself.

I do not view it as a coincidence that when Tarzan comes ashore after his ordeal at sea that he is at the mouth of the river at the location that his father had built the cabin he was born in so many years before. In the proper sequence of myth it is, at last, his time to reaffirm his roots and to finally identify with his father. Once safely on the shore he does two very natural things. He voices the challenging battle cry of the bull ape as he recognizes the beloved forests of his youth. But he completely comes into his own as he visits the cabin.

He now understands what he did not know as the exploring child that this is his parent's cabin. After seeing it again, but for the first time knowing its place in his life, he sees its contents in a new light. He understands the provision of his father for his life and can sense the emotional completeness of that moment. In his simple and direct nature, he notes, "that his eyes are satisfied." This understanding is almost missed by the reader since it is so understated but it is a milestone in his life. He has come full circle and is finally at peace with his dual nature, and had embraced his identification as the 'son of his father,' the basic core issue that he had recognized so agonizingly at the end of Apes. It is major stepping stone in his maturity. From this point on we see him making increasingly strong and sure steps toward his own maturity and place in the world.

The next keynote in his life is his bonding with the Waziri. He establishes himself as a warrior, protector and provider to such an extent that they bestow upon him the title of Waziri, chief of the tribe of Waziri. He now wears another name, so we know that he is making another transition in his life. In the African culture the passage of a young man into manhood is a solemn ritual that involves the recognition and participation of all of the men of the tribe. Naming him their Waziri acknowledges Tarzan as a man among men. (Such an event of passage is sadly missing in our own western cultures.) ERB uses this event to openly bear witness that our young hero has arrived at last into his manhood and maturity.

Tarzan's mythic focus now turns from the affairs of his new tribe and he begins to focus with concern about providing for his own future. He justifies the dangerous trek to loot the ruins of Oar because the gold the Waziri have told him about that lies therein will more than adequately provide for his own future needs and wants. Then he will also be prepared to provide for his intended, the beautiful Jane of Baltimore.

La of Opar, Tangor © 2000

But there awaits for him in Opar a danger that he had not anticipated. He will be tempted and tested by the exotic temptress Queen La, High Priestess of the Flaming God. But his resolve is firm and he refuses her advances (and in a gentlemanly way) and also the offered title of High Priest of Opar as her mate. He is getting more certain of his true identity. This is the first name offered that he has turned down. But La will remain a presence and a question in his heart over the ensuing years. (Even we readers have mixed emotions about their relationship.)

His journey is almost complete. He must survive some misunderstandings of romance and trials of the heart with Jane herself; yet, when that point arrives he proclaims himself John Clayton, the true Lord Greystoke, his own name at last. He then has conquered all of the barriers and himself to finally claim the love of the woman. He marries her in the shadow of the cabin to the silent witness of the ghosts of his long dead parents, the quiet curiosity of his jungle brethren, and the gaze of his jubilant Waziri kinsmen.

We have thrilled with Tarzan as he has risen from hopelessness to achieve a place of power, honor, respect, confidence and maturity in his life. Burroughs so deftly gives us a rousing story that it is easy to overlook the mythic depths he plumbed and the thoroughness to which he so ably addressed the issues he found. He is a very enjoyable reading experience but it is the gift of his craft that makes such a lasting impression.