Put this Article in Perspective
Back in 1997 the author and ERB Inc had a minor disagreement. The matter was resolved within a few months time, but during that period this article was written. The author freely admits his review of Tarzan of the Apes is presented in the darkest and most negative terms possible, and that it was produced as a statement to legal professionals attempting to squelch free speech.
The point was taken.
Over the many years since, there is has grown a warm cordiality between the author and ERB Inc., and specifically Danton Burroughs, the grandson of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Dan was instrumental in calling off the legal beagles and, at the same time, recognized that this negative review of Tarzan of the Apes was an attempt to make a legal point, and is also a well-researched look at the content of that novel.
I have been asked several times why I, a fan of the Tarzan books, keep this article on erblist.com. I maintain it because it is truthful. Some parents may wish to protect younger children from reading Tarzan of the Apes until they have acquired the reading skills and life experience to know the difference between a fantasy story and real life.
TARZAN OF THE APES: Child's Tale or Adult Fantasy?
A review which parents of young children may wish to read.
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 1997.
A lawyer working for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. wrote the following to me in October 1997:
"As you know, for over seventy years Edgar Rice Burroughs and our client Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. ("ERB") have successfully striven to maintain the good, wholesome and attractive image of TARZAN and of the TARZAN stories in all of the forms and media in which these have appeared. This has been particularly important to our client given that many TARZAN fans are children."
This astonishing statement bears examination as Tarzan of the Apes is far from being a children's story. It is the examination of a bestial man, a creature so savage that the torture, mutilation, and slaughter of animals for pleasure or embarking on years of genocidal aggression toward a tribe of black natives are portrayed as positive character traits. Tarzan is repeatedly extolled as a successful bully, a "practical joker" who physically torments dumb beasts by strangulation with a rope or, in a movie version, by urinating on them.
It is true that Edgar Rice Burroughs eventually tamed his feral man in the 1930's in an effort to make him more palatable to the masses, but the early books were deemed sufficiently demeaning that Ballantine Books excised offensive and derogatory racial references during the 1960's ERB publishing rebirth; but this was not the first time that happened! Shortly after WWII editors bowdlerized at least one Tarzan book to remove references to Jews. It appears some publishers felt that Tarzan, and the Tarzan novels as initially created by ERB, embodied a savage and racist tenor.
This look at Tarzan's feral and savage character deals primarily with the creation portrayed in the first six novels. I will not compare Tarzan in light of today's oft times misguided and excessive "politically correct" viewpoints; it would be unfair to apply the social conventions of this era to an earlier time. However, there are behaviors which are unacceptable in any era, and it is these--usually expressed as "virtues" by ERB--that we will address. Later, we shall look at the Tarzan character as presented in other media wherein the claim that a "wholesome" or "attractive" image was maintained is offset by many offensive behavior examples.
Tarzan of the Apes opens with Clayton and his wife Alice witnessing mutiny and murder. An adult accepts this murder and mayhem as a plot device, but a child may find it a horrorific promise of life-to-come. A shipwreck stranding two survivors on the west African coast would have accomplished the same thing, with the added benefit that natural disasters are more easily understood by children. Thus, from the onset, it is apparent ERB had no intentions of writing a "children's tale".
Tarzan is presented as a naked savage who does not learn to wear clothes until he murders a black then, because he covets them, he robs his victim of clothing and accouterments. Now clad in the dead black's loincloth, Tarzan sees himself as above his ape "family". The superior savage treats the mangani (apes) in a condescending manner. Tarzan thinks it is amusing to lasso unsuspecting victims with his rope, strangling them unconscious, or to death. He pelts animals with thrown objects to torment them. He kills animals for pleasure; described in a particularly offensive passage where ERB suggests that humans who hunt do it purely for the thrill.
... That he joyed in killing, and that he killed with a joyous laugh upon his handsome lips betokened no innate cruelty. He killed for food most often, but, being a man, he sometimes killed for pleasure, a thing which no other animal does; for it has remained for man alone among all creatures to kill senselessly and wantonly for the mere pleasure of inflicting suffering and death. (Tarzan of the Apes)
Tarzan, the predator and murderer, is a wild man given to blind rages and acting upon them; fighting with teeth more savagely than Mike Tyson by ripping out throats, gouging eyes, cowardly killing from ambush. This a character out of control in combat, fighting as the animals fight, tooth and nail, without human kindness or mercy. There are some societies in history where this casual attitude toward human life was valued, but darn few. Tarzan is a predator--and makes no bones about it.
Others have claimed Edgar Rice Burroughs was a racist. I would not make that claim as Civil Rights was not yet a dream in 1912, but ERB was apparently immune to the very real, and recognized in his own time, inequities between races. Burroughs' Tarzan character is as militantly White as any white racists past or present. On many occasions the author ignored reality and asserts that there are higher types of white men, and his creation was one. To Tarzan all blacks and other races are inferior. The black African was shown to be childlike, in need of paternal guidance, and portrayed as superstitious cannibals--contemptible and debased in their society. In the book and film versions, Tarzan prefers the jungle "...except among the black men, and they to my mind are in most ways lower in the scale than the beasts." (Return of Tarzan) Notwithstanding his contempt for the black race Tarzan becomes the black Africans' lord and master in books as well as film.
ERB may have intended Tarzan's murderous rage at the death of Kala, the she-ape who mothered him from infancy, to be a justifiable eye-for-an-eye revenge, but to have the Tarzan character embark on a years long vendetta of murder, terrorization, burglary, and destruction is excessive. The ape man's genocidal vendetta is disturbing to normal sensibilities by the very ferocity and inhuman methods used to kill black tribesmen from ambush.
The early ERB Tarzan was abusive and inconsiderate of women. Tarzan kidnapped a young girl (Jane) and assaulted her in the jungle. Some may claim that Tarzan "rescued" Jane from Terkoz--but the text and tone reveals that Tarzan desired the "white she" and he took her from an opposing male and his intentions weren't all that honorable. Jane Porter had to beat him aside for fear of her person and life. In later books it is revealed the youthful Tarzan character contemplated animal sodomy. In many Tarzan adventures animals, usually great apes or creatures of a primate-like species, are constantly stealing human women for the purpose of sexual use. How many children, having read these passages, have a misconception regarding sexuality between humans, or fear of animals having sex with them? If it is just one, it is one too many.
Women were presented in all Tarzan books as the weaker sex, the fair sex, damsels in distress yet, as others have noted in on-line discussions at alt.fantasy.er-burroughs, ERB's heroines appear insufficient and tend to faint when faced with hardship or danger. Some reviewers declare this over-reliance on a recognized human trait to be demeaning to women.
Women characters are prominent in ERB's later tales, but they are usually presented as amoral schemers. Jane and Esmeralda as characterized in Tarzan of the Apes follow stereotypes of the era. Jane is nineteen, beautiful, and apparently resourceful and intelligent. Other than having to fight off Tarzan's lustful advances after he kidnaps her, she is rather unremarkable. Esmeralda, however, is presented as a black nanny stereotype. Her character old darky dialogue is an affront to all women and to all blacks, even by the standards of ERB's own era.
Tarzan of the Apes ends before we are shown that Tarzan of the Later Books routinely abandons his wife and family on obsessive feral man junkets. Each time he reverts from civilized society to re-enter the jungle Tarzan usually commits murders of native blacks or incites riot in reclusive societies by defying established authorities. During WWI he embarks on a personal vendetta against Germans in Africa, becoming a grim and methodical executioner. The body counts in all Tarzan books are excessive--and most are killed by the apeman himself. In WWII Tarzan slaughters "monkey men" (Japanese soldiers) in a killing frenzy obviously sparked by wartime sentiments--but the murderous savagery is damaging and damning to the character nonetheless.
ERB's creation is unfaithful to his wife on at least one occasion (La of Opar), though it is possible to infer that few opportunities were missed when carnal offerings existed. Perhaps these sexual innuendoes are expressions of ERB's own unhappy marriage, a desire by a middle-aged man to change his lot in life--as he did by divorcing his wife and marrying another woman four months later (who he subsequently divorced). These themes of adultery, cohabitation, and lust are acceptable or at least understandable to adults; children, however, are presented a confused look at fidelity and love, conventions deeply ingrained in human societies and given poor exposure in the Tarzan novels. Tarzan and many other characters are continually shown in positions of weakness or extramarital desire.
In 1964 a California librarian removed Tarzan books from her shelves because of perceived decency considerations based on the film versions. Many libaries across the U.S. followed suit, and it is unknown how many have yet to allow the tales of Tarzan to be readmitted to their stacks. I checked my local library--ERB's Venus, Mars, Moon and Westerns are well represented...but no Tarzan!
The Tarzan character is "indecent" by many standards--nudity, violence, sexual innuendo, bestiality, racism. Community standards differ widely because the Supreme Court of the land has chosen not to rule on "decency" issues, preferring local communities to set their own standards. Therefore, what is "indecent" in one part of the U.S. may be mildly amusing in others--thus Tarzan continues to survive because ADULTS are free to read or reject whatever they choose. Can we expect children to approach the degenerative behaviors recorded in Tarzan of the Apes with adult understanding? I think not.
But Tarzan, the literary character, is not known to the general public, rather, Tarzan is that yodeling character who swings on vines in more than 60 feature films and animated series. Tarzan of the Movies early on drew comment of indecency and moral outrage. The ape man was naked on screen, violent and abusive of humans and animals. Each film was more excessive than the previous. ERB's feral man creation was a deciding factor resulting in Hollywood forming a ratings/self-censorship board. This issue came to a head after 1934's Tarzan And His Mate appeard, containing full frontal female nudity, cohabitation without marriage, revealing and erotic costumes, and naked lust openly displayed. By today's standards "Tarzan And His Mate" is rather tame, but the nudity sections have been cut from the movie for display on television, an indication that the original film remains offensive even to this day.
The Tarzan film adventures have deteriorated from that period on; maltreatment of blacks continued until Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) where the issue was effectively avoided by simply ignoring it. The "inherent superiority" of the White was brought to the silver screen through the Tarzan films and it drew, in part, upon ERB's own works. By the 1980s film standards had relaxed to the point where film-makers could, by R or X ratings, show the real character of Tarzan as portrayed in the blatantly sexual escapades of the character in the Bo Derek film. This film also embraced incestuous tendencies, but to be fair, this film would not generally be shown to children. I believe ERB Inc. attempted to prevent the film from being made; but it was made, and children are not the only ones who might be offended by such open displays of carnal knowledge--all closely associated with the Tarzan character.
Tarzan of the Apes is no child's tale. It is an adult fantasy replete with explorations of degenerative human behaviors under the guise of "literature". To claim that Tarzan of the Apes is wholesome and good is outrageous; at best it is insulting, arrogant and demeaning to whole sections of humankind.
Parents will be pleased to note that Burroughs' other stories are relatively free of these undesirable inflections. Be advised to consider whether young children should read Tarzan of the Apes without guidance--the novel is dark, moody, derogatory and excessive--and is nothing like the Disney-fied Tarzan film due to be released sometime in 1999.