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Nkima Speaks Cranial Trauma Explored

Greystoke: Cranial Traumas Explored

David A. Adams


There have been many "amnesia" articles written by fans over the years, the majority based on the author's utilization as a plot element. For the first time in ERB scholarship David Adams explores the actual physical and psychological effects the Tarzan character might have experienced were John Clayton, Lord Greystoke--Tarzan of the Apes--a real person. The many head injuries the Tarzan character suffered during a 26 book lifetime had to have had an effect. Adams offers a fascinating glimpse of Tarzan in human form.


Four years ago, in the summer of 1997, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, a social worker who deals with people suffering from a variety of mental problems. We had for some time been meeting at my home once a week to talk about literary topics, for we were both great readers and book collectors. That evening, as I remarked upon Tarzan's numerous head injuries, my friend suggested in a joking way that perhaps Tarzan was suffering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and that all of his adventures were imagined as a result of a delusional condition. We even discussed the possibility of presenting Tarzan's case to a neurologist acquaintance of his for analysis, but I never actually got past the note-making phase of that project.

Later, I gathered up my Tarzan/TBI notes and sent them to Jeff Long, who edited them to fit into a pastiche on his Barsoomian Blade called "Dear Sigmund." About a year ago, Tangor suggested that I expand my original notes into the present more serious article. Since I am not an expert on brain injuries, none of the material in this article should be taken as anything other than speculation. It is simply an exercise in literary analysis that explores possibilities that were raised in the writings of an author of adventure fiction. I have had to rely on my own reading and brief conversations with experts in the field while writing this article, which was created for fun and should not be taken as therapeutic information presented by someone with medical knowledge.

As a general guideline in the area, a friend who works with the recovery of TBI patients told me that in organic injuries the patient usually demonstrates a consistency of behavior with all people and in all situations, while a psychological impairment fluctuates over time and depends upon the people he is dealing with -- there are "ups and downs" in behavior.

Tarzan is the famous character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in a series of 26 novels which were written over a 35 year period beginning in 1911, when he started writing "Tarzan of the Apes," through 1946, when he left a story unfinished which was later completed by Joe R. Lansdale as "The Lost Adventure." Although this character displays a great deal of complexity, as one would expect given the long period of time allowed for his development, the stories actually present a man who was rather limited in his ability to fully socialize with his own kind.

Tarzan's feral infancy and childhood makes a clear assessment of Tarzan's frequent head injuries doubly problematical. His is such an unusual case that to simply apply the normal tools for accessing brain injury impairments would be misleading, since many of his odd behaviors may actually be due to the formative events his unprecedented childhood.

Initial Head Injuries of Tarzan

Tarzan of the Apes experienced many head injuries between 1912 and 1946. The character was knocked unconscious so often in the series that a diligent reader begins to wonder what the results of such constant battery might be in real life.

The definition of a mild traumatic brain injury involves "any period of loss of consciousness" due to trauma, and this indeed happened to Tarzan quite frequently. Some of the usual effects of head injuries are present in Tarzan's personal history, including: being accident prone, exhibiting noted changes of behavior, being impulsive in action and entering dangerous situations, having a tendency toward violent acts, and displaying difficulties in judging reality (

"Depending on the severity and location of brain damage, the possible complications, the age of the person, current and former health status, and preexisting intellectual and personality characteristics, the outcome of head injury will be different. Some persons who experience head injury will be unconscious a few minutes, some will be in a coma for weeks. some will 'wake up' very gradually over the course of days, others will seem to have regained normal arousal almost instantly. Sometime there will be a veil of confusion, of being 'not with it,' of a 'distance' that will persist and vary for weeks or months. In addition to cognitive (thinking) changes, the injured person may show self-centeredness, a lack of affectionate responsiveness, and a lack of depth to the personality." (Swiercinsky, 5).

The following is a brief description of Tarzan's initial injuries, as presented in Tarzan of the Apes , (TA) Jungle Tales of Tarzan , (JT) and The Return of Tarzan , (RT). (The parenthetical citations give the novel and chapter in which the incident in question is found.)

The infant Tarzan was orphaned at the age of 13 months and was raised entirely by a loving and caring foster mother who happened to be an ape. His foster father was mentally and physically abusive toward the child, beating him when the mother was not present for protection. We are not apprised of any notable injuries during this period, however, the situation was unusual and extremely dangerous to say the least, and the formation of his mental patterns during this critical time cannot be compared with other human cases other than those of extremely abusive ones. However, Tarzan does not appear to have suffered by what are termed "shaken baby" brain injuries.

Tarzan was a very strong, robust type. When he was ten years old he was fully as strong as the average man of thirty, and far more agile than the most practiced athlete ever becomes. Day by day his strength increased rather than waning, as one might normally expect had he suffered serious brain injuries. (Apes, 5).

Significant facts of Tarzan's Initial Head Injuries

#1. At the age of ten, Tarzan met with an accident in a fight with a gorilla in which he suffered severe injuries. There were throat, chest, and arm wounds where the flesh was torn away with much loss of blood. A portion of his chest was laid bare to the ribs, three of which were broken. One arm was nearly severed, and a great piece had been torn from his neck, exposing his jugular vein. He lay for days in a wild delirium of fever. However, within a month he was as strong and active as ever. (TA-6)

Once at an early age (before the age of thirteen) Tarzan fell from a tree, quite forty feet to the ground, alighting on his back in a thick brush which broke the force of the fall. However, a cut upon the back of his head showed where he had struck the tough stem of the shrub and explained his unconsciousness. In a few minutes he was as active as ever. (JT -7).

This is the first head injury recorded in the Tarzan series. Even though he recovered from his unconscious state after a few minutes, it does provide documentation that might indicate the beginning of more serious problems.

Dr. Thomas Kay in his "Minor Head Injury: An Introduction for Professionals" states that "there is no demonstrable relationship between length of unconsciousness and severity of problems. Significant functional deficits can occur even with transient loss of consciousness." (Brain Injury Association of Minnesota).

It was at about this time when Tarzan killed his ape foster father while protecting his ape mother from her "husband's" violence. (TA, 7). No injuries to the man were recorded in this encounter.

Tarzan's head injury after his fall and his subsequent killing of his father do not have to be related other than in a circumstantial way. Even though traumatic brain injury can lead to unpredictable, violent behavior, this violent event does not seem to be inappropriate since it falls within the bounds of the social behavior of the apes among whom he is living.

Male apes of the tribe called "the mangani" seem to fall into extreme fluxes of blinding rage that are extremely dangerous. These displays of aggression have been noted by Jane Goodall among chimpanzees during times of emotional excitement -- when arrival at food sources, when joining up with another group, or simply out of frustration, or in competition for status.

"There was a time, toward the start of this battle for dominance, when Hugo and I feared for Goliath's sanity. After attacking a couple of youngsters and charging back and forth dragging huge branches, he would sit, with hair on end, his sides heaving from exertion, a froth of saliva glistening at his half-open mouth, and a glint in his eyes that to us looked not far from madness." (Goodall, 115)

At the age of eighteen, Tarzan's foster mother mother was murdered by a native. When he arrived upon the scene, she was already dead. His grief and anger at her death was unbounded, and he fell upon her body and sobbed out the sorrowing of his lonely heart. To lose the only creature in all his world who ever had manifested love and affection for him, was a great bereavement indeed. (TA, 9).

After the violent death of his mother, Tarzan does seem to exhibit more violent behaviors. He becomes a frequent killer of men, his victims being the local natives who were responsible for his foster mother's death.

These actions may indicate an emotional and behavioral impairment due to his previous head injury. Dr Kay writes that neurologically more serious injuries are sometimes overlooked. The person may even return to normal activities unaware that they suffer such deficits. However, behavioral changes can suddenly occur.

"Emotions may suddenly and unpredictably erupt out of control, only to subside quickly when the context changes, with none of the usual emotional carryover. The person may be irritable and quick to anger, and describe his or her feelings as running "close to the surface." Strongly felt emotions may be experienced and expressed in extreme form." (Brain Injury Association of Minnesota).

# 2. Tarzan was knocked unconscious several times during the events related in Jungle Tales, which presumably happened at around the age of eighteen. Tarzan seemed to be rather accident-prone, despite his strong, physical nature. On one occasion, he fell into a hole in the ground and was knocked unconscious. He fell backwards and struck his head on a wooden stake. There was a swollen spot at the base of the brain which indicated the nature of his injury. In this case, he came to rather quickly, and was fully conscious in a few minutes. (JT, 2).

#3. Tarzan was knocked unconscious by a falling tree during a lightning storm. This time, it took him much longer to regain consciousness. (JT-7)

#4. Tarzan was beaten into an unconscious state by rocks and dead tree limbs. He became conscious in a few minutes, but only slowly realizes what has happened. (JT-8).

At this point in his life, Tarzan seemed to be having problems with vivid nightmares. There are problems reported of distinguishing reality from dreams -- even in waking states. He seems to not even being aware of dreaming before this age. In this flux, he mistakes reality for a dream and is bitten in the shoulder by a wild animal. (JT-9)

After these experiences, Tarzan seemed to become increasingly prone to violence. When he was angered, he could become deaf with rage, and a red mist seemed to cover his eyes as he performed violent deeds. This seems to indicate that he was blinded by rage upon certain occasions, finding it difficult to use calm judgment in his actions.

#5. Around the age of eighteen, Tarzan also sustained another of his many serious head injuries. This one involved a partial scalping in which his scalp was half torn from his head, so that a great piece hung down over one eye. In this case, by ten days he was quite sound again, except for a terrible, half-healed scar, which, starting above his left eye, ran across the top of his head, ending at the right ear. (TA, 12-13).

The occasion of this injury took place as Tarzan was attempting to protect an old female from a beating by a young male. He impulsively leaped into a dangerous situation where he could have expected bodily harm. This impulsive behavior demonstrates a lack of normal caution, which is one of the signs of brain trauma. These reckless behaviors often leads to further traumatic injuries.

After this violent encounter Tarzan moved about but little, traveling slowly through the jungle for several days. Within ten days he was quite sound again except for the noticeable scar.

Tarzan has now suffered from what neurologists call "Coup/Conte-Coup Lesions (literally "blow/counter'blow) injuries. However, none of the usual neuropsychological impairments to language, perception, sense of smell, motor functions, or sequencing seem to have occurred at the time.

These impairments do become more noticeable at a later time in the Tarzan series, especially in "The Eternal Lover" and "Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar," in which Tarzan does exhibit an apparent loss of his previously keen sense of smell. During "The Eternal Lover" he almost seems to be "another person," which is a common impairment due to head injury.

"... the head injured survivor is experienced by others (but not necessarily by the individual) as "a different person." The individual may relate differently to others, be interpersonally "off," act egocentrically, and respond much differently than he or she used to. The capacity for intimacy may be decreased, and close relationships may suffer. While this is dramatically true for persons with more severe head injuries, even after minor head injury one often hears that the person "just hasn't been the same" since his or her accident." (Brain Injury Association of Minnesota).

The Return of Tarzan

In The Return of Tarzan, the sequel to Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan suffers from gun shot wounds, one which strikes his head causing a period of unconsciousness.

#6. Around the age of twenty, Tarzan suffered two gun shot wounds, one in the left shoulder and one in the left side -- both bloody flesh wounds. He was confined to bed for several days, but he considered it to be a superficial incident -- and exhibited signs of impatience regarding the necessary medical attention he was provided with. He described the quite serious injuries as "pin pricks." (RT-6)

A person with head injuries may not suffer from pain in a normal way. On the Rancho Los Amigos Cognitive Scale, one of the tools used by neurologists, in accessing the degree of coma, Level 1 of response is "No response to pain, touch, sound, or sight ;" Level 2 is a "Generalized reflex response to pain; "Level 3 is "Localized response to physical discomfort. " The most normal level response to pain is number 7, "Purposeful -- Appropriate." (Brain Injury Association of Minnesota)

Tarzan's general response to pain throughout his life is one that ERB attributes to his feral childhood -- one of an animal who suffers quietly in silence with a Stoic indifference to pain.

#7. Later, Tarzan was gun shot again in a grazing blow to his head, a slight scratch which had furrowed the flesh across his temple and rendered him unconscious. The wound bled profusely, so that dried and clotted blood smeared his face and clothing. He regained consciousness after some time, but remained silent for hours.

Immediately after this injury he was pummeled for a short time with stones and sticks, then, bound by ropes, kicked about the face and side by a man with heavy boots. He suffered from thirst, and felt waves of madness sweep over him. (RT-10)

These repeated injuries to Tarzan's head in only the first two novels of a series of 26 are quite remarkable and surely not without serious consequences.

In the next chapter Tarzan admits that he sees himself as another creature when killing. " It is because I forget," he said, "sometimes that I am a civilized man. When I kill it must be that I am another creature." (RT-11).

At this point in Tarzan's life, he marries. The union soon produces a single child, a son. There are no further children in this marriage, but the husband and wife remain together and faithful only to each other. However, Tarzan seems to have a very difficult time remaining at home, and often goes away on long journeys. He is more often separated from his wife and son than he is with them. (RT-26).

ERB's Head Injury

Burroughs himself suffered from a head injury and subsequent hallucinations. It happened when he was a youngster in an Idaho saloon where he" somehow got in the way of a policeman's billy club." Porges reports that "He received a severe blow on the head and wound up in the hospital where stitches were taken in his scalp. Long afterward, he complained of dizziness and reported having strange hallucinations" (Porges, 74).

"In later years, responding to a general questionnaire from the Boston Society for Psychic Research, he offered his recollections of the happening and of an unusual incident that followed:

"In 1899 I relieved a heavy blow on the head which, while it opened up the scalp, did not fracture the skull, nor did it render me unconscious, but for six weeks or two months thereafter I was the victim of hallucinations, always after I had retired at night when I would see figures standing beside my bed, usually shrouded. I invariably sat up and reached for them, but my hands went through them. I knew they were hallucinations caused by my injury and did not connect them in any way with the supernatural, in which I do not believe." (Porges, 74).

This event may have prompted Burroughs' later convenient literary device of Tarzan's blows to the head and periods of amnesia. However, the frequent use of these devices may have only been a certain laziness on the part of the author. It was a tried and true method of getting an almost invulnerable hero into situations of at least a slightly more human state of vulnerability and relative weakness.

Philip Jose Farmer has a great deal of fun with ERB's literary device in his pastiche "Adventures of the Peerless Peer" where Tarzan gets knocked out and reverts to his former animal state at a crucial moment of danger.

Farmer follows up with a piece of amateur psychology of his own in the voice of Sherlock Holmes. Tarzan begins the dialogue:

"For some reason I seem to be prone to receiving blows on the head," he said. "I have a thick skull, but every once in a while I get such a blow that even its walls cannot withstand the force. Sometimes, say about one out of three times, a complete amnesia results. I then revert to the state in which I was before I encountered white people. I am once again the uncivilized apeman; I have no memory of anything that occurred before I was twenty years old. This state may last for only a day, as you have seen, or it may persist for months."

"I would venture to say," Holmes said, "that this readiness to forget your contact with civilized peoples indicates an unconscious desire to avoid them. You are happiest when in the jungle and with no obligations. Hence your unconscious seizes upon every opportunity, such as a blow on the head, to go back to the happy primal time" (Farmer, 105).

Farmer rewrote this story as "The Adventure of the Three Madmen ten years later in 1984 for his collection "The Grand Adventure," in which he substitutes Kipling's Mowgli for Tarzan with a greatly diminished effect since nearly everything else in the story remains the same.

Part two of this study will consider the "odd Tarzan" that appears in ERB's Eternal Lover, and the history of Tarzan's bouts with amnesia, which began in "Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar."

For additional thoughts on "The Madness of Normal Bean" please refer to my article in "Nkima Speaks" at Tangor's ERBmania!


Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, Brain Injury Association Resource Guide, 1999.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice, Tarzan of the Apes, G&D

----------------- , Jungle Tales of Tarzan, G&D

Farmer, Philip Jose, The Adventure of The Peerless Peer, The Aspen Press, 1974.

Goodall, Jane, In The Shadow of Man, Houghton Mifflin, 1988. - Brain Injury Definition

Swiercinsky, Dennis P, Price, Terrie L, and Leaf, Leif Eric, Traumatic Head Injury, The Brain Injury Association of Kansas & Greater Kansas City, Inc., 1999.