THE CODE OF TARZAN
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 1999
For many readers of the Tarzan novels it is the main character's upbringing among the apes which captures the attention. The various descriptive phrases used by Edgar Rice Burroughs to delineate the physical attributes of the jungle lord only reinforce this perception. Tarzan's battles with the beasts of the jungle enhance this vision of ape in human form, the ferocity of combat and the depiction of the ultimate foot upon vanquished foe and uttering the mangani victory cry cements the vision that here, unequivocally is the supreme beast in the jungle.
Unfortunately for those readers who see little more than the above, the true nature and code of Tarzan is lost. Tarzan is much more than the stealthy, strong, and successful jungle animal. Tarzan of the Apes is of the apes only by upbringing. He is first, and foremost, a human being who is the beneficiary of an unusual and arduous youth. While it is true that Tarzan prefers to hunt and kill his own food, and then to consume it warm, raw, and dripping blood, this extraordinary human has a sense of morality and fairness, as well as compassion, decency, and a very real capacity for loyalty and love, that he not only rises above the feral environment of his youth, but above the majority of men anywhere or in any time.
Long before the events chronicled in Tarzan the Untamed our hero, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, had embraced civilization. His wife Jane, whom Tarzan adores above all others, had given him a son now grown and married. Jane ably managed the ancestral home in England and their extensive African estate as well. There is no doubt of the affection and romance between Tarzan and Jane, nor of the success they had achieved farming their holdings in British East Africa. Clayton took every advantage of his special knowledge of the jungle and his relationship with the Waziri tribe to enhance and expand his plantation in the years prior to World War I. During these years Tarzan lived the life of a gentleman landowner and English citizen. But when the conflagration engulfing the European continent spilled over into the British held territories in Africa, the idyllic life of Tarzan and Jane were forever shattered.
Learning of the outbreak of war Clayton hurries home to fetch Jane to safety.
When necessity demanded, Tarzan of the Apes sloughed the thin veneer of his civilization and with it the hampering apparel that was its badge. In a moment the polished English gentleman reverted to the naked ape man.
His mate was in danger. For the time, that single thought dominated. He did not think of her as Lady Jane Greystoke, but rather as the she he had won by the might of his steel thews, and that he must hold and protect by virtue of the same offensive armament.
It was no member of the House of Lords who swung swiftly and grimly through the tangled forest or trod with untiring muscles the wide stretches of open plain -- it was a great he ape filled with a single purpose that excluded all thoughts of fatigue or danger.
When he arrives, to his horror, he finds the farm burned, natives butchered, and the charred body of his beloved wife.
No tear dimmed the eye of the ape-man, but the God who made him alone could know the thoughts that passed through that still half-savage brain. For a long time he stood there just looking down upon the dead body, charred beyond recognition, and then he stooped and lifted it in his arms. As he turned the body over and saw how horribly death had been meted he plumbed, in that instant, the uttermost depths of grief and horror and hatred.
Nor did he require the evidence of the broken German rifle in the outer room, or the torn and blood-stained service cap upon the floor, to tell him who had been the perpetrators of this horrid and useless crime.
For a moment he had hoped against hope that the blackened corpse was not that of his mate, but when his eyes discovered and recognized the rings upon her fingers the last faint ray of hope forsook him.
In silence, in love, and in reverence he buried, in the little rose garden that had been Jane Clayton's pride and love, the poor, charred form and beside it the great black warriors who had given their lives so futilely in their mistress' protection.
At one side of the house Tarzan found other newly made graves and in these he sought final evidence of the identity of the real perpetrators of the atrocities that had been committed there in his absence.
Here he disinterred the bodies of a dozen German askaris and found upon their uniforms the insignia of the company and regiment to which they had belonged. This was enough for the ape-man. White officers had commanded these men, nor would it be a difficult task to discover who they were.
Burroughs would have us believe that Tarzan is beast first and man second primarily because it makes for better prose in a fictional setting, but in reality it was not Tarzan of the animals who undertook a mission of revenge against the Germans responsible for the atrocity; it is the man, John Clayton of the special abilities and burning hatred, who embarks on a novel-length tale of rough justice and retribution. No animal could be so dedicated and tenacious, guided by a keen intellect and reason. Would a primal being raised as a mangani take a hand in the conflict of nations? Only a human, a member of the species called mankind, guided by intellect and human emotions, would engage in such activities.
Tarzan has a patience exceeding that of the denizens of the jungle. He has the ability and will to control his desire for retribution when necessary. His strategies of warfare eclipse the simplistic "kill for food, kill when threatened" reactions of animals. Though his combat is as savage and as unrestrained as the great apes who reared him half a continent away, Tarzan's battles are by choice and desire and by intent and design; continually directed against those who wronged him, his family, and his country.
John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, however, is one confused human being. His youth spent among the mangani has left an indelible imprint upon his psyche. Tarzan is a being between two worlds, worlds in which he must exist, but in neither does he belong.
He wanted to hasten on in the direction of the booming noise, for he knew that there would be Germans fighting against the English. For an instant his bosom swelled with pride at the thought that he was English and then he shook his head again viciously. "No!" he muttered, "Tarzan of the Apes is not English, for the English are men and Tarzan is Tarmangani;" but he could not hide even from his sorrow or from his sullen hatred of mankind in general that his heart warmed at the thought it was Englishmen who fought the Germans. His regret was that the English were human and not great white apes as he again considered himself.
The above regret aside, Tarzan is also a crafty fellow. Attuned to the jungle as no human of modern times has ever been, he is like a ghost or a shadow. He can come and go without leaving a trace and in this regard his animal upbringing and accumulated skills gives the human John Clayton an edge over his counterparts.
No one saw Tarzan, yet he was here and there about and among them for two hours. He inspected the insignia upon their uniforms and saw that they were not the same as that which he had taken from one of the dead soldiers at the bungalow and then he passed on ahead of them, unseen in the dense bush. He had come upon Germans and had not killed them; but it was because the killing of Germans at large was not yet the prime motive of his existence -- now it was to discover the individual who slew his mate.
After he had accounted for him he would take up the little matter of slaying ALL Germans who crossed his path, and he meant that many should cross it, for he would hunt them precisely as professional hunters hunt the man-eaters.
So, once again we see the dichotomy which is Tarzan: human-beast or beast-human. Which is Tarzan? Both, as regards his jungle skills, but it is obvious that only the human brain consciously directs his enormous energies and special abilities.
Tarzan locates the Germans and begins his reprisals. A black sentry is questioned, identities of German officers involved at the atrocities at the Greystoke plantation are learned, and the native is summarily executed for his part in the raid. Some may say that Tarzan's own hand having committed the act is an example of the beast side of John Clayton. Others, like myself, see it as a justified--though obviously vigilante--act. Centuries of eye-for-an-eye justice coupled with the unnecessary brutalization of non-combatants by the Germans and the murder of Lady Greystoke wail loudly for the miscreants to suffer ultimate justice. Tarzan delivers that justice.
Greystoke spies on the Germans. He sees Fraulein Kircher, whom he labels as a beautiful but dangerous spy. And then Major Schneider is brought into the room. Tarzan bursts into action, taking Schneider out of the room and into the jungle. As he forces the German to walk before him, Tarzan considers the following:
Until now Tarzan had given little thought to the details of revenge. Now he pondered what form the punishment should take. Of only one thing was he certain -- it must end in death. Like all brave men and courageous beasts Tarzan had little natural inclination to torture -- none, in fact; but this case was unique in his experience. An inherent sense of justice called for an eye for an eye and his recent oath demanded even more. Yes, the creature must suffer even as he had caused Jane Clayton to suffer. Tarzan could not hope to make the man suffer as he had suffered, since physical pain may never approach the exquisiteness of mental torture.
Tarzan devises the perfect solution to effect Schneider's punishment: A tree and a hungry lion. No animal would operate in such a fashion and thus, by demonstration, we are given further proof that the white ape known as Tarzan of the Apes is a human after all.
The white ape grimly rejoiced his delicious justice over Schneider, taking great pleasure in imaging the terror the German must feel before he was finally killed by the lion either in a dash for water or falling out of the tree when fingers were too weak to support him. Yet, a prick of conscience began to grown in John Clayton's mind. Englishmen were being killed by the superior German forces in Africa and that knowledge weighed heavy on his thoughts.
...and more and more the ape-man found himself thinking of the English soldiers fighting against heavy odds and especially of the fact that it was Germans who were beating them. The thought made him lower his head and growl and it worried him not a little -- a bit, perhaps, because he was finding it difficult to forget that he was an Englishman when he wanted only to be an ape. And at last the time came when he could not longer endure the thought of Germans killing Englishmen while he hunted in safety a bare march away.
Ultimately John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, otherwise known as Tarzan of the Apes, allies himself with his adoptive countrymen and wages war against the Germans. In the process he provides aid to a woman he believes is a spy, a lost British aviator, and tackles the might of Germanic forces in Africa.
Tarzan the Untamed is one of the longest Tarzan novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is filled with intricate sub-plots and diversions. This novel is also one of the keystone texts which prove beyond doubt that Tarzan of the Apes is a human being, guided by human emotions, and enhanced by the special abilities and knowledge gained from his early years as a member of the mangani tribe of Kerchak. When Tarzan kills a jungle beast, it is a matter of live or die, but when he kills a human being, it is justified, beyond a shadow of doubt, that person deserves to die under the ordinary social laws which have driven human culture since time began.
We see something of the human nature of Tarzan the man in Tarzan the Untamed, which is most revealing; a forgiveness and sense of personal choice that is divinely, as some might say, the province of humans only. Tarzan makes a heartfelt emotional choice, something no beast could ever do.
He knew that his country was at war with Germany and that not only his duty to the land of his fathers, but also his personal grievance against the enemy people and his hatred of them, demanded that he expose the girl's perfidy, and yet he hesitated, and because he hesitated he growled -- not at the German spy but at himself for his weakness.
The code by which Tarzan lives, the very essence of his existence, is that of law and order. Some readers like to think that Tarzan is a law unto himself, and in some respects this is true, but there is no doubt that the justice Tarzan dispenses is based on right over wrong, good over evil, or simply a case of survival necessity. Tarzan operates in deadly force mode at all times in the jungle, regardless of threat by beast or human, but the use of deadly force is a conscious decision made on demand by a logical, thinking brain and is never the mere instinctive reaction of a wild animal.
Tarzan has a code to which all "right-thinking" humans subscribe: right backed by might, right backed by equal justice, right in the aspects of Anglo-Saxon, Christian-Judeo, knights of the Round Table terms. The hero of the Tarzan books is recognized world-wide as a MAN who cannot be corrupted and whose every action is reasonable and justified. Tarzan's Law is Everyman's Law and that, my friends, is the Code of Tarzan.
First Appeared: ERBzine, March 1999. Copyright © 1999 by David Bruce Bozarth, All Rights Reserved.