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WHERE'S OEDIPUS?

David Bruce Bozarth

For almost as many years as Tarzan of the Apes has been in publication there have been conversations and observations by fans, critics, or academics that Edgar Rice Burroughs' first novel of the feral jungle man is Oedipal (Freudian) in theme. I first read the myth of Oedipus about the same time I read Tarzan of the Apes and, other than a surface similarity based on the words "father" and "mother," and "husband" and "wife," in both stories, I remain unconvinced these two famous tales of adventure, romance, and tragedy are all that similar in scope.

Establishing Basic Facts

Tarzan
  1. Tarzan is human, born of John and Alice Clayton
  2. Kala and Tublat are mangani (great apes)
  3. While Tarzan is feral, he is human, not ape
  4. Tarzan, age 13, kills Tublat (purported foster father)
  5. Tarzan, at age 20, meets Jane Porter
  6. Tarzan later gives up claim on Jane in Clayton's favor
Oedipus
  1. Oracle tells Laius his son will kill him and marry his wife
  2. Oedipus, left to the wolves, was raised by the king of Corinth
  3. Eighteen years later Oedipus slays Laius, unaware of their relationship
  4. Oedipus takes Jocasta as wife, fathers four children
  5. With Thebes in decline, oracle reveals there is an "unpunished murder"
  6. Oedipus seeks the truth, eventually finds it and blinds himself after Jocasta's suicide

Readers of Tarzan of the Apes are unconfused by the facts presented in ERB's famous novel. It is the wonder of a human baby raised by animals which is the greatest entertainment for readers of Tarzan of the Apes. Obviously, it is highly unlikely that any reader truly considers the vicious Tublat as Tarzan's "father." The reader knows well in advance that Lord Greystoke, John Clayton, a human male, is Tarzan's real father. The "mother" of Tarzan is Alice Clayton, a human female who suckled her child for one year before dying of dissipation and despair. There does remain the fact that if not for the mangani female Kala's motherly protection Tarzan would have died at the hands of Tublat or some other mangani. Readers generally view Kala as a surrogate mother by action and deed and the expressed emotional interaction between her and the little "White Skin" human infant.

Oedipus, on the other hand, is a tragedy of a different color. Upon hearing the edict of an oracle Laius sought to remove any threat to his life by having his son killed. His wife Jocasta fully agreed and participated in abandoning the child. However, the unexpected sympathy of a shepherd brought the infant to the childless king of Corinth who raised Oedipus as his own. Oedipus learns in later life that he would kill his father and marry his mother, therefore took all care to not kill the father he knew or marry the mother he knew. During a trek he encounters a rude fellow, kills him, answers an oracle's riddle, and becomes king of Thebes--and since Jocasta was without husband, took her as wife. Later, as his quest for the truth reveals all the awful facts, Oedipus blinds himself.

Freud's "Oedipus complex" usually defines a wish-fulfillment in "modern psychology" of killing daddy so junior can have mommy; a sexual fantasy. In Tarzan of the Apes there is not one instance of text that suggests Tarzan ever entertained carnal desire for his adoptive mother, who was of an entirely different species, though the adopted human did have every reason to see Tublat, the abusive "foster-father," dead.

Tublat was never Tarzan's father in the sense of father/son relationships. There was no acceptance, instruction, or familial interaction. The mate of Kala was always Tarzan's worst enemy. Tublat's animosity toward the human infant is clearly stated early in Tarzan of the Apes.

Tublat, Kala's husband, was sorely vexed, and but for the female's careful watching would have put the child out of the way.

"He will never be a great ape," he argued. "Always will you have to carry him and protect him. What good will he be to the tribe? None; only a burden.

"Let us leave him quietly sleeping among the tall grasses, that you may bear other and stronger apes to guard us in our old age."

Young Tarzan returned fully his dislike and distrust of Tublat. This further illustrates that though ERB used the words "foster father" to describe the relationship there was never any love between Tarzan and Tublat. The reader, however, is fully aware that Tublat is not Tarzan's real father, which seriously blunts any inference of Oedipal conflicts.

Tublat, her mate, always hated Tarzan, and on several occasions had come near ending his youthful career.

Tarzan on his part never lost an opportunity to show that he fully reciprocated his foster father's sentiments, and whenever he could safely annoy him or make faces at him or hurl insults upon him from the safety of his mother's arms, or the slender branches of the higher trees, he did so.

When Tarzan killed Tublat it was because the great ape had gone mad and attacked the only primary care-giver known to the young boy. Had Tarzan done nothing to defend Kala, Tublat might still live, but Tarzan actively protected his "mother," and was forced to kill his "foster father."

By English or Roman standards Tarzan's slaying of Tublat is justified; however, under early Greek traditions there is only one thing worse than slaying one's father, taking one's mother as a wife. Descendents of English and Roman traditions (that's most of Western Civilization and America in particular) who have read Tarzan of the Apes are guided by non est actus reus nisi mens sit rea - there is no guilty act without a guilty mind. Therefore, the questions which arise regarding any Oedipal links to the first Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs are these:

  1. Did Tarzan slay his "father?"
  2. Did Tarzan have carnal knowledge of his mother?
  3. Did Tarzan's actions result in pollution and decay? (See Oedipus above)

The readers of Tarzan of the Apes know that Tarzan did not kill his father (John Clayton). Tarzan killed a beast. Edgar Rice Burroughs attempted to make that killing more than it was by adding a buzz-word the readers of Tarzan of the Apes have freely ignored: "father."

Tublat's relationship as mate to Kala--who was one of several females that Tublat claimed in his jungle harem, does not trulty suggest a "foster father" relationship with Tarzan--particularly when viewed in the aspect of the long term animosity this belligerent mangani male held toward Tarzan. Additionally there is the cross-species disparity which cannot be ignored by the reader. Tarzan, human. Tublat, ape.

The overlay of the Oedipus tale, however innocuous (or deliberate) by ERB on the unique and thrilling Tarzan of the Apes is merely window dressing and comes off as overly contrived by the author. We, the readers, are not fooled by this unsubtle subterfuge by Burroughs, yet cheerfully forgive this ineffectual psychological presentation because it never rises to the level of a real issue since Tublat is an ape, John Clayton has been dead 13 years, and there is nothing to suggest that the Tarzan character either pursued or endured any sexual angst regarding the surrogate care-giver "mother" Kala.

The cinch-pin aspect of the Oedipus tale is the marriage of the murdering son to his natural mother. This never happened in Tarzan of the Apes. Kala was killed by a native when Tarzan was 18 years old and at no time was there ever any sexual interest of the adopted son toward the surrogate mother.

Oedipus was forced to deal with the dissolution of Thebes by pollution and malady, this was the impetus which forced Oedipus to search for the truth of the oracle's statement that a murderer was unpunished. Oedipus eventually learned the truth. Greek tradition considers the act as most heinous rather than any extenuating circumstances such as lack of knowledge, and Oedipus blinded himself to await the judgement of the gods.

When Tarzan killed Tublat the mangani tribe continued to flourish and expanded over the next few years. Any attempt to mesh the Oedipus tale with Tarzan of the Apes continues to fail since Tarzan's greatest travail is his meeting with the humans in Jane Porter's stranded party (and she is not his mother) and the feelings and emotions which result. Tarzan's growth as a human begins at this juncture of the ERB story and there is nothing which is Freudian, Oedipal, or otherwise psychological in this growth. There is, however, a brief exposition by ERB regarding inherent eugenics (generally debunked in scientific and mainstream circles these days) to explain the Tarzan character's honorable and gentlemanly relationship with Jane Porter. Human traits, not those of a beast.

I have to ask this, once and for all, where's Oedipus regarding Tarzan of the Apes?

  1. No oracle suggests Tarzan will kill anyone, much less a father.
  2. Tarzan does not kill his natural father.
  3. Tarzan does kill a beast.
  4. Tarzan did not have carnal desire of a female beast.

...and perhaps the following is is a biggie we can't ignore...

Tarzan blinded himself

Tarzan magnanimously rejects Jane at the close of Tarzan of the Apes by repressing his desire for the blond American beauty so that she might have a better life with William Clayton. Is this an aspect of the Oedipal tale? Perhaps not because when Tarzan "blinds" himself he says:

"My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn't tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was."

If Tarzan never knew his father, Tarzan never killed his father.

It is time to lay the popular Oedpial Theme in Tarzan of the Apes to rest.