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TARZAN, MAN OR BEAST?

David Bruce Bozarth


A series of replies by David Bruce "Tangor" Bozarth to an interesting discussion regarding the true character of Edgar Rice Burroughs' most famous creation: Tarzan of the Apes. This messaging exchange originally appeared on Jim Thompson's ERBCOF-L Listserver during the month of March, 1999. Tangor's excellent debate opponents were Rod "Nu" Hunsicker and Bob "Tarak" Woodley.

The discussion began over a question regarding commentary that Tarzan was courteous to a pair of female characters. The exchange eventually evolved into a wider exploration of Tarzan's duality, his human and feral sides. Many great points were made on both sides of the issue. There was a significant amount of agreement on some basic tenets regarding the Tarzan character's makeup; however there was marked disagreement as to the basic nature of Tarzan. This exhibit will show Tangor's stance that Tarzan is a MAN not an ANIMAL, and is endowed with a conscience and the many attendent attributes one associates with human psychology and motivations. This exhibit is, obviously, one-sided... my side! ... and does contain additional text and clarifications to make the reading more complete and entertaining. I urge Nu and Tarak to post THEIR complete responses on their web sites for the amusement and enlightenment of all fans of Tarzan of the Apes.

Tangor responses are in normal text, those of my esteemed opponents are in italics. Editorial commentary is in bold face.


The macho theory is without substance IMHO. Tarzan rarely acts to impress anyone, certainly not in any cheap macho manner.

Ah, but he does, though unconsiously and quite often from a state of silent contempt. He views all non-jungle bred humans as weak or without ability, most especially deprived in what he considers ordinary survival skills. His very acts and deeds make him a man above men (machismo) that is clearly recognized by friend and foe alike. The term macho does not mean rude male posturing, though I'll admit the word has gained that connotation in recent years.

The COURTESY Tarzan displays is to avoid speaking his private opinions to those under his protection and care. This courtesy is as common a refrain as Tarzan's protection and care, and rings loudly throughout the Tarzan tales. ERB used this writing device to impress upon the reader those special skills that Tarzan has and everyone else lacks.

It all comes down to whether the reader believes that there was an element of courtesy in Tarzan's deed.

True. That is the immense fun we all have reading ERB's works, not just the Tarzan books. The question arises, however, as to where duty, which ERB uniformly applied toward the protection of women and children, and courtesy begin and end. In the specific instant under discussion, I tend to think the character acted protectively rather than courteously.

Tarzan rarely does anything without a reason.

You mean...without ERB's reason. Tarzan is, after all, a literary character. :)

... it is because it was his purpose to establish who was the boss, not to show anyone how tough he was.

But the toughest guy ended up as boss, right? In Foreign Legion Tarzan simply states his leadership (he's grown up and no longer feels compelled to assert his authority physically), and even though he admires his companions for their various strengths—none of them are as capable as he.

I'm not sure what you mean (ED: regarding Tangor's writing device statement). ERB explains why Tarzan is silent.

Tarzan's inner thoughts, as expressed by ERB's prose, indicates the ape-man's general contempt for humanity and civilization. That he does not address this in dialogue at every opportunity is a possible example of courtesy, courtesy in the unusual sense of refraining from pointing out the shortcomings of others or their cultures. On the other hand, Tarzan is usually shown to have no desire to interact with humanity in any manner, slinking away like a beast instead. Alas, ERB never intended that Tarzan be so lucky to escape such contact as every book ever published deals specifically with his feral man interacting with individuals of other cultures.

An example of Tarzan in a social situation, from the "Lion Man" "She talked incessantly, but Clayton managed to ask her if she knew Rhonda Terry."

Since the word "incessantly," when applied to speech is a comment on irritating behavior, as you noted, that Tarzan did not slap her to silence to get the answer to his question is a courtesy restraint. Slight joshing. ERB does indicate the character exhibits considerable patience (another form of courtesy) with the characters in his books.

The debate at this point focuses on a scene from Tarzan and the Lion Man which my opponent labeled as a courtesy and I viewed as yet another example of Tarzan's contempt for humanity in general.

".....Say that bunch is still talking about the way he killed lions and gorillas with one hand tied behind him."

Clayton smiled politely.

Or perhaps this is a moment of amused contempt? Most likely the exchange was a contrived irony on the part of the author intended to amuse the reader who, after all, has all the facts.

I will admit that the thought I intended may not have been expressed with full clarity. The implication of the above was to illuminate a common thread in ERB's Tarzan works where we, as readers, know more than the characters in the story. Tarzan's restraint at such times is both amusing and illustrative of Tarzan's low esteem toward humans in general. Contempt is a human emotion and is not considered an attribute of animal instincts. This plot device, or window dressing if you prefer, is what sets Tarzan apart from the the beasts and the other characters, underscoring the ape-man's feral upbringing but also expressly addressing his human and most obvious intellect and psychology.

Tarzan was first a literary creation by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Understanding Ed Burroughs is the first step to understanding the creation. Second, Tarzan is whoever the reader wants the character to be. That's the fun of it!

I believe the slight divergence in opinion recently expressed in this pleasant exchange is based on my personal conception of Tarzan as a successful vehicle used by a middle-aged salesman turned writer to express his inner hopes and dreams—his fantasies—and served as a bully pulpit for expousing various scientific and psychological interests and amusements enjoyed by the author and, not the least, to make money. Some fans of the Tarzan works attempt to deal with Tarzan, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke as if the character were flesh and blood and therefore available for psychological analysis in the same context as a real human being.

As much writing as I do, it is difficult to impossible for me to separate the author from the work—the work cannot exist without the author. Once created, however, a character may take on a life of its own as has the Tarzan of radio, tv, film, books, comics, etc. Few of these extensions of the Tarzan tale are true to the characterization in the original works—each expresses the author, illustrator, or studio's interests and desires, though for them the silent Tarzan is generally an uneducated Tarzan.

In the small matter of courtesy v protection or courtesy v contempt the line is too vague—but either viewpoint forwards the story equally well as far as the readers of the works are concerned. That's the beauty of ERB's writing! He left it up to the reader/participant to fill in the appropriate (for them) emotional responses in a loosely directed manner rather than painting exact representations that can be interpreted in only one way.

...fears that don't ultimately revolve around fear of death. Perhaps there is no difference after all...

Bang me. Hit me. Color me whatever... Tarzan is the expression of Edgar Rice Burroughs of what he IMAGINES a fearless hero to be. Tarzan is a null, he does not exist—he is, however, the express imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs of the kind of hero that ERB believed in, desired, fantasized. The fearless protagonist, the deux machina being without fear, is not unique to the Tarzan tales... look to the classic literatures that ERB studied and memorized to see the forerunners of the character he created.

Call me stick-in-the-mud, perverse, anti-Tarzan, if you will, but let's agree that Tarzan is the creation of Ed Burroughs, not a real-life person. Let us also agree that ERB wrote in parables of what HE thought was an admirable icon to which we all should aspire. These are the meat and potatoes of his writing—what we might be if we were in Tarzan's (Lara-bootless) shoes.

Tarzan was my first love when I was a kiddie in the early 60s, but like ERB himself, I came to realize that:

  1. I (ERB) have trademarked this character/name and can't afford to sully it.
  2. This character is money, though I am sick to death of writing it.

Whatever "character" ERB desired to relate regarding Tarzan was done in the years prior to 1924. After that year Tarzan was a business and there was no way Ed Burroughs was going to do other than the straight and narrow, fully upright Tarzan. This was business! One does not trash one's own trademark. One actively promotes, enhances, or otherwise holds up their product as good and wholesome. To this day the lawyers for ERB continue that direction and tradition.

Ed tried to kill off Jane but Emma, Ed's Jane, objected—as did all the followers of Tarzan to date. (Was Tarzan-Ed and Jane-Emma? sounds like a Nkima essay to me.) Brow-beaten by commerce, a desire to live the good life, and a healthy distrust of the IRS, Ed backed off from the logical extensions of tales about a feral beast-man to feed the reading audience's popular desire to continue "as is."

Tarzan was FEARLESS because that is the desire of every man/person to be so. Ain't no biggie here, folks, Tarzan's bravery is just a fantasy supported by every daydreamer and, of course, the lucre earned for fulfilling those daydreams.

However, if one could measure the amount of preoccupation that fans attach to this unreal character, one might wonder if Tarzan exists as a part of every fan's imagination...

Or that Tarzan is simply every fan's desire to Be Like Mike? Is Tarzan a mythical presence or an expressed set of ideals that are aspirable and desirable? The character traits ERB depicted for Tarzan were not new or unique in the history of literature; honorable heroes willing to do the right thing existed long before Ed Burroughs picked up a pen. What ERB did, however, was include those traits in a story that struck a popular chord, and thereby created several generations of starry-eyed fans.

At this time a point was raised pondering the distant future:

...we know are fiction, believing that there might have been a person like Tarzan long ago. Just one perspective.

How many people believe Zeus, Mars, Hercules, etc were real people?

The above was an impatient and not fully stated response by Tangor. Bear with this aside for a paragraph or two longer. Some interesting questions are raised and addressed by all parties. The following remarks upon small side-tracks regarding Tarzan's character, though still adhering to the general topic of discussion.

I differ in that I see character in later Tarzan books.

There is character in the latter books. In fact, all ERB novels are principally about character. Tarzan is represented as a fine, upstanding, fair, compassionate, and capable individual; savage only when attacked or for the preservation of those under his protection—in the later novels we do not see again the savage beast of the first few books. In this much the character was deliberately tamed and changed, and that was not, in the long run, a bad thing.

On a small aside, continuing the references to mythology:

I presume that there are pagans out there who believe in Roman or Greek gods.

The majority of folks believe these gods are myths—and as Tarzan has been elevated to that level during these discussions, examining the elements of myths and mythic heroes seems appropriate. Tarzan appears deeply rooted in the fabric of Greek and Roman myths.

We now enter the nitty-gritty of the debate. In a previous post not displayed in this exhibit, my opponet suggested that Tarzan was an animal in his reactions to outside events. Toward supporting that claim a section of Tarzan and the Leopard Men was quoted. The intention was to illustrate the "animal" side of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, otherwise known as Tarzan. The quote was selective in nature, that is, it focused on a specific scene, and failed to take into consideration the text immediately preceeding or following. Tangor, of course, pounced like Numa!

...that Tarzan is an animal first, a man second. I tried to make this clear in my previous posts. Let me make one more attempt.

We do not see the animal side of Tarzan, even after he has lost his memory, until very late in Chapter 3. At the beginning, pinned beneath the tree when Orando finds him, Tarzan speaks language, not having lost that capacity, and suggests that Orando move to a better position to kill him.

What sort of man was this? Had he no fear of death? Most men would have begged for their lives. Perhaps this one sought death.

"Are you badly injured?" demanded Orando.

"I think not. I feel no pain."

"Then why do you wish to die?"

"I do not wish to die."

"But you told me to come around and shoot you in the heart. Why did you say that if you do not wish to die?"

"I know that you are going to kill me. I asked you, to make sure your first arrow enters my heart. Why should I suffer pain needlessly?"

"And you are not afraid to die?"

"I do not know what you mean."

"You do not know what fear is?"

"I know the word, but what has it to do with death? All things die. Were you to tell me that I must live forever, then I might feel fear."

Later...

"You will not kill me?" (Orando)

"Why should I? If you do not try to kill me I shall not try to kill you." (Tarzan)

Still later...

The stranger, leaning on his spear, had been silently watching the warrior, noting the signs of grief and rage reflected in the mobile features.

"You knew him?" he asked. (the murdered Nyamwegi)

"He was my friend."

Orando follows the giant "demon" who was not a bad demon and inspired confidence and a sense of security.

"Where are you going?" he called after the retreating figure of the giant white.

"To punish those who killed your friend."

There is no "animal" in this Tarzan. Even without his John Clayton memories, he is intelligent, defusing a near-attempt on his life with reason and also shows a philosophical side as well (living forever/fear and live-and-let-live). He then befriends the man who rescues him. Tarzan also displays loyalty to his saviour by embarking on a justified hunt for the murderers of his new companion's friend. Though Tarzan makes beast sounds fighting with the Leopard Men they trailed, the battle is to protect his friend and to avenge the murdered Nyamwegi.

We do, however, see something of the animal side as they feast on the fresh-kiled okapi. After inviting Orando to join him, Tarzan carves a steak and squats down to eat raw meat.

Orando hesitated. He perferred his meat cooked, but he dreaded losing face in the presence of his muzimo. He deliberated for but a second; then he approched Muzimo with the intention of squatting dwon beside him to eat. The forest god looked up, his teeth buried in the flesh from which he was tearing a piece. A sudden, savage light blazed in his eyes. A low growl rumbled warningly in his throat. Orando had seen lions distrubed at their kills. The analogy was perfect. The warrior withdrew and squatted at a distance. Thus the two finished their meal in silence broken only by the occasional low growls of the white.

In this passage Tarzan offers food, then reverts to animal behavior while eating. I sympathize... I'm kind of a bear when interrupted at the dinner table. :)

Haven't read this one (Leopard Men) in 35 years, but ERB's general characterization of Tarzan seems intact: a human with skills other humans do not have, but still a human with the ability to reason, feel loyalty, anger, hate. A man with admirable qualities that Orando recognizes immediately. Tarzan is on the right side of things and is fighting for right and it is obvious to the reader that this is so. Were it otherwise we could find nothing to endear the character to us. Tarzan's youth gave Tarzan the man a set of special skills that make him unique in the wilderness, but it is Tarzan the huMAN, the righter of wrongs, the protector, the avenger (justified only), and loyal friend that excites us and keeps us coming back for more.

The above commentary provoked a response from opponent #2.

When he regains his memory, he is not much different. He kills without necessity. He in fact leads the natives in a raid against a village of the Leopard Men which results in the slaughter of men, women, and children.

Was Tarzan allied with the natives or not? If so, then the killing was necessitated by the actions of the Leopard Men upon his friends. Justifiable.

Having been forced to revisit Tarzan and the Leopard Men to respond to my worthy opponents, it is necessary to report the basic premise of the novel to give the remainder of the comments suitable context. In Leopard Men Tarzan suffers a state of amnesia that suppresses, for half the book, his Tarzan/Clayton mentality. A tree has fallen upon him in the aftermath of a violent storm and he is rescued by Orando, a black native. Tarzan has no memory of his real self and is ready to accept Orando's statement that the white man is "muzimo," a spirit. Tarzan takes the descriptive as a name. ERB, meanwhile, has clearly stated the politics of the local jungle—a secret and mysterious cult of blacks who worship the leopard and commit attrocities garbed in leopard skins. They murder with metal claws on their hands and indulge in cannibalistic rites. The Leopard Men are the foes of Tarzan's new friend and savior. Muzimo (Tarzan) allies himself with Orando's tribe against the vile and evil Leopard Men. There is a sub-plot revolving around Old Timer, The Kid, and Kali Bwana, three whites who also run afoul of the Leopard Men.

I've never seen much change in Tarzan throughout the books, as I've said repeatedly.

Agreed for the most part. Tarzan has always been truthful, trustworthy, good, loyal, brave, and kind (to his friends). About the only change that occurred in Tarzan's character was giving up killing for pleasure and black-baiting (the early books).

That trademark taken out guaranteed that Tarzan could never be other than one of the good guys.

I remind all that ERB was fond of reverses and puns—many of the worst sort. Reversing the sun for the moon, etc. Get with the program, kiddies. ERB is more fun in the reverse.

Nu's recent quotes from Leopard Men got me to reading it. Amazing analogies in this, the second highest paid magazine serial in ERB history. War takes the big hit here... old men, young men, diplomacy, etc. are razed to the high and low. The roots of what became WWII were beginning to take fire and a smart fellow like Ed Burroughs was probably reading the newspapers. He also had the experiences of what we now call WWI upon which to base his commentary.

Sly fellow. A preacher and teacher. Largely ignored by intelligensia and too subtle for the starry-eyed Tarzan fans. A Treasure.

Or not, if one ignores the author in favor of the charcter.

Leopard Men is, unfortunately, one of the worst ERB tales ever written, yet it has its charm in displaying yet once again the skill of telling the tried and true, the tired and sagging, the oft-repeated heroic tales of Tarzan.

Whoops, that won't happen unless there are more stories! Emma... another Scotch. Tell the kids to be quiet. I have 4,000 words to crank out tonight.

Accused as I am of being cynical as related to Tarzan, I am all the more an enthusiastic fan regarding the grim determination of Ed Burroughs to continue writing about a fellow he wished might disappear—excepting that the royalites, etc. should continue to pour in.

Hats off to the master.