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How Tarzan's Character Changed 1912-1944

David Bruce Bozarth

First Publication of Tarzan

The following comments are sure to raise an eyebrow among long-time readers of the Tarzan tales by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950). Many will either agree, disagree, or ignore the fact that any changes took place in the character of Tarzan during the author's long career.

Tarzan of the Apes, as first presented in the landmark novel of the same name, is a human infant, one year old when he is orphaned on the shores of savage Africa. Kala, an ape mother who recently lost her balu (baby), adopts the child whom she names "Tarzan." The boy's feral upbringing is determined by the rude society of the mangani--his ape tribe--and the dangers of the jungle. By the age of ten, having survived thus far under Kala's protection and the boy's own wit, cunning, and a strength out of proportion to his chronological age, Tarzan discovers the cabin where he was born. Fortunately for him he also discovered the use of his father's knife he had found in the cabin. Attacked by bolgani (gorilla), Tarzan kills the beast with the knife but is nearly killed in the process. After his recovery, Tarzan again takes up life in his savage jungle and has many dangerous adventures before he sees his first white person at the age of eighteen.

I do not intend retelling the Tarzan tale as this near-mythic hero's early life is commonly known from book, movie, tv, and comic book presentations. But a reminder of Tarzan's savage upbringing is essential if the following points are to be made:

  1. The feral child with few human instincts
  2. The ape youth, discovering humanity
  3. The human adult, discovering human character
  4. The modern, educated, and rough philosopher


Tarzan's savage background relied heavily upon basic animal instincts; to flinch and run, or stand and fight as the case may be. Decisions were based upon exterior forces rather than any premeditation or cognitive thought. This does not mean to imply that Tarzan did not think when he was a child. We know that curiosity and puzzlement existed and that his nimble brain approached situations in a rational manner, yet Tarzan was not a deep-thinker as a youth, despite the fact that he eventually taught himself to read and write English. His whole being as a child is devoted to the simple act of surviving the predators and dangers of the jungle--and in-fighting among the mangani who still, after a dozen years, had little use for the white-skinned balu of Kala.

It is during this time of Tarzan's life we are told by the author that this child of the jungle was mostly beast, but not all. Tarzan is human enough to hunt and kill for the joy of the hunt and killing, and it is revealed that the character might torment and torture his prey before killing it for the amusement it afforded him. We are told by the narrator, who continually reveals Tarzan's thought processes throughout all the books, that this character trait is purely human and that trait sets Tarzan apart from the mangani and the other beasts of the jungle. Tarzan invests significant time considering ways of tormenting or killing large predators more adapted to hunting and killing than himself: Numa and Sabor (big cats), the apes, and gorillas top the short list of intended victims. Yet this is not a flaw in Tarzan's make-up but an extension of his desire to survive; Tarzan has adopted a fatalistic view of life: you live until something kills you.

At a Dum-Dum (mangani gathering) Tarzan is forced to fight and kill his ape father, Kala's mate, Tublat. He fights as a beast, is injured badly, yet his human thinking brain, though without the benefit of human training, is nimble enough to discover strength/leverage advantages while fighting. He survives and Tublat dies.

Not long after this event Kala is killed by a black hunter named Kulonga. Tarzan tracks the hunter down and he will kill him, but before he does, the ape-child observes this gomangani (black man) and learns about clothing and the bow and arrow. Tarzan eventually takes his revenge then begins a reign of terror over the blacks who have recently settled into the area. Tarzan's Tarzan and the Leopard Men actions are genocidal by action and deed, though the rank and file of ERB fans will decry the use of that word, so let us call his continued attacks and murders an extended vendetta upon the blacks--these gomangani who have killed his mother and who remain a threat to the mangani and himself.

Unlike a lion or leopard, which might vacate a territory rather than face human beings, Tarzan actively seeks out the natives and kills them from ambush whenever possible. When he is not carrying out lethal forays against the natives he steals from them. Tarzan is presented as an unemotional exterminator of evil and an occasional practical joker in this grim business. The reader buys this murderous vigilante activity because the natives are hideous cannibals as well as eaters of mangani and apes. The author returns to this Tarzan mindset in later stories, particularly those found in Jungle Tales of Tarzan. and (toned down considerably) Tarzan and the Leopard Men. For a detailed examination of Tarzan's morality in Tarzan of the Apes see Tarzan of the Apes: A Review.

Tarzan is now man-sized and accepted by the mangani when the event that changes his life forever takes place. Upon the shores of the west coast of Africa come Jane Porter, her father, William Clayton and others. It is Jane who will transform Tarzan from feral child to a human reborn.


The white she fascinates Tarzan. For the first time he sees people like himself. The males do strange things and the females do strange things. He observes from the tree-tops and leaves a note warning they are to not to do harm to his cabin. Over the next few days he maintains his vigil, learning by the examples given. After a time Tarzan becomes actively involved with the stranded party. He saves the lives of some of the males, feeling an utter contempt even as he does so. Tarzan later saves Jane on two different occasions, once because a big cat attacks the women at the cabin, and later when Terkoz kidnaps Jane. There is a battle royal between Tarzan and the mangani over the tarmangani (white people) she. When Tarzan kills Terkoz, he not only rights a wrong toward a woman--as far as the readers perceive--he attempts to assert his desire ala his ape upbringing, which is not-so-thinly expressed as every male's hidden desire to dominate a female. Tarzan embraces the woman, he...suddenly has a morality moment.


Like many adventure authors of the day, ERB followed current and existing scientific thought. Eugenics is a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed, and it is eugenics that is the driving force behind the human character development of Tarzan of the Apes because he is the son of an English lord.

Throughout Tarzan of the Apes the author, Ed Burroughs, has indicated Tarzan's decisions are motivated by a genetic inheritance from his human father, despite the feral child's upbringing by environment. It is this inherent genetically derived character that supposedly stops Tarzan from taking Jane as a mangani might take a mate.

I will condense the final steps toward humanity that Tarzan takes through the remainder of Tarzan of the Apes: He learns language from D'Arnot, and the value of loyalty and friendship. He learns the use of currency and, in a shadowy fashion, the necessity of the economics of civilization. He learns his world is both larger and smaller than he ever imagined and that humans are generally beneath his contempt because few are as strong or swift as he; yet, at the same time Tarzan discovers that he is as deficient in the ways of civilization as civilized people are in his jungle, and this is a humbling experience. Tarzan learns to wear clothes and acquires manners--and the knowledge that killing others is not a generally appropriate method of resolving differences or perceived threats.

Tarzan has also learned of love and his every action taken has been toward achieving love with Jane who, along with her father and the others, were rescued and returned to America. Tarzan seeks Jane and will do whatever it takes to accomplish this intense desire.

The ape-man, now appearing refined and civilized, makes his way to Wisconsin where he hopes to find Jane. He saves her from a raging forest fire and, just as he is about to propose, learns she has said yes to another. Tarzan, with a secret in his pocket that could ruin Jane's suitor forever, makes the ultimate sacrifice of denying his desire because he does not wish to destroy Jane's happiness.

Tarzan has now, tragically, completed the cycle that elevated him to humanity. Of course, readers of the first book will say that is what the tale is all about, and I agree most heartily, yet Tarzan's ascent from the apes to human is not truly complete.


The next five books of Tarzan (The Return of Tarzan, The Beasts of Tarzan, Son of Tarzan, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, and Jungle Tales of Tarzan) are near mirror images of the same character growth Tarzan initially experienced in Tarzan of the Apes. We are given the same insights into the ape-man's character by Burroughs, though this time around we have the additional fun of seeing a member of the House of Lords degenerating to the feral child's savagery when occasion demanded--and those demands were met in every volume.

Tarzan the Terrible

It is not until Tarzan the Untamed and Tarzan the Terrible that we are shown Tarzan of the Unabiding Hate, Tarzan the Patriot, and Tarzan the Grieving Husband. These attributes of human emotional character are significant because we are shown the depth of feeling that Tarzan can embrace. We are also shown that it is his human intellect and human emotions which drive his actions, not the instinctive reaction responses one expects in jungle beasts. (See CODE OF TARZAN by Tangor)

Unfortunately, this period of Tarzan's life is the beginning of his wandering through fantastic and isolated cultures infinitely boring. We see less and less of the ape-man himself, who is merely an observer of the usually flawed or distorted societies he encounters. But from time to time the savage ape-man, the sometimes unnecessary killer, is found in the stories. There was, however, a very different character direction in store for Tarzan, and it would come from a source that even the ape-man could not battle with hope of success.


Tarzan didn't stand a chance. He would change, but so subtly that neither the character or the readers of the stories would be aware of it until much later. Tarzan's general demeanor changed circa 1924 when ERB took out a Trademark that would eventually embody a wholesome and good character, a tree-hugger and friend of the beasts if you will, a fellow who wouldn't kill Bara or Horta unless it was absolutely dinner time. Burroughs intended to milk the cash cow as long as he could via licensing for advertising, other use, toys, name recognition, film, radio, and residuals, and the stories from that time forward indicate that goal. (See THE TARZAN TRADEMARK)

Tarzan gradually changed from primal force to primal enforcer. In reader realities and the pulp magazine venues, as well as the hard back follow ups every two years, the Tarzan character had to change over the three decades of publishing if the readers were going to accept Tarzan in an increasingly more complicated world. Each year Tarzan became less savage and more introspective. The pulpit from which ERB spoke in Tarzan's name was both bully and educational. So many of these changes were minute at first glance but the changes accumulated over the years and Tarzan grew as a human being--a man--, perhaps belatedly and haphazardly to those who have read all the tales of Tarzan. The ape-man's growth was certainly most annoyingly slow (as enumerated by the many wandering Tarzan tales of the middle years).

Tarzan and the Madman

The latter day Tarzan is a highly educated man; a linguistic expert and an accomplished aviator. Tarzan retains his physical prowess in the wild and yet is a Parliamentarian of the British Empire and totally loyal, personally and politically, to his father's country. Lord Greystoke, or John Clayton as we readers of all the tales believe is the "real name" of Tarzan, inserts his personal Anglo-Saxon morality into each new situation that ERB, struggling to keep the saga of the ape-man alive on a biannual basis, could contrive. That Tarzan and ERB both hung in there over the long run is an indication of growth--you work until you die.

Tarzan, however, is often a bit player in the stories of the wandering years while others take the real risks and face the obvious dangers. Tarzan sits on the sidelines and privately remarks on the idiosyncrasies of human motivations and interactions, with civilization usually coming up short in the expository monologues. Even in these non-paticipatory tales we witness Tarzan's further growth as a human being; his character has been altered by experience and observation over many adventures and by the author's determination to not sully the value of a commercial Trademark. The ape-man has learned that meddling in the emotional lives of others often incurs dire consequences. Our Tarzan of the late stories would rather be elsewhere--but when he is forced to participate Tarzan intellectually and emotionally makes his choices based on present need, friendship, loyalty, or personal morality.

And he remains true to Jane, his wife of many years. If only ERB could have enjoyed the same. Then again, REAL LIFE does not usually work well in fantasy adventure romances. The guy gets the girl and they live happily ever after. Tarzan does live happily ever after. In this one regard the character does one thing better than the creator.


Readers recognize and accept Tarzan of every book because the character and motivations of the ape-man are common refrains which are understood by all. They easily forgive Tarzan's torture and mutilation of animals because most of us have pulled the wings off flies as little kids. We understand the intense desire Tarzan felt for Jane because lust and love--aspects of procreation and domesticity--are natural forces. We admire the ape-man's sense of self-sacrifice, though we usually do not excel in that department in real life, but we hope that we might if push comes to shove. I like the ape-man of the firsts...the Tarzan who killed for pleasure simply because he was a man, and the fellow who embarked on a personal retribution upon those who killed his ape mother--a retribution which I believe was genocidal in intent but am willing to let others tone down to "intense vendetta." I found my Jane and know the depth of affection and devotion Tarzan must feel towards his mate.

Tarzan and the Lost Empire

The ape-man of the middle dreary-terraces entertained the reader without offending any, and gradually evolved into a "good guy" duex ex machina who was simply an observer of others and jake-leg philosopher as regards human nature. He is also a spokesman for ERB who felt very strongly as regards poachers and hunters--and that was in real life at his California ranch. Tarzan's frequent remarks regarding the polluting effects of civilization express the author's desire to preserve the ecology--and most of the Tarzan films from the 1930's to 1999 reflect that same attitude.

My greatest delight is truly admiring the Tarzan of the last adventure (Tarzan and "the Foreign Legion") because the ape-man's character has finally come of age and confirms finally and unequivocally that the fevered dream of a "feral man among men" that Edgar Rice Burroughs originally penned on the back of old letterheads still had the juice to excite us in a modern world.

Some scoff at the ape-man's articulation and joshing with fellow humans in the last few parts of the series but for me that interaction indicates the ape-man's nimble brain and survival instincts are running full-bore: he knew he had to adjust or perish.

And as we all know, Tarzan is if nothing else the ultimate survivor!


I have been accused of Tarzan bashing or for finding only the worst flaws and character traits in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs by long time fans of the Grand Master of Adventure's jungle tales. I do not deny that I see Tarzan's activities in a different light than most readers and that my opinions are not shared by the rank and file.

Tarzan, to me, is a jungle James Bond--a righter of wrongs who operates outside the boundaries of civilized law, yet always acts within the limits of civilized law. There isn't a person alive who would not wish to deal firm justice upon those who have killed a member of their family, nor many who would not secretly wish to use deadly force to prevent others from spoiling an environment. Tarzan is every 10 year olds' dream of justice. I, on the other hand, look at Tarzan with the eyes of a half-century's experience and all that implies. That does not mean I do not enjoy the Tarzan tales. I enjoy them for the fantasy of meting personal justice and for the sheer adventure. Tarzan remains high on my list of ERB favorites and I do not foresee that enjoyment changing in the long run.

Tarzan is great entertainment and Burroughs is a master of telling tales. The murders and killings of Tarzan are about as distressing as a coffee-stain upon a freshly-washed white shirt. Even the most savage of descriptions in any Tarzan book are merely shadow dreams which the reader can paint as they will. The majority of Tarzan fans endorse an image of a jungle beast swifter than Bara or Ara, who kills savagely, who is immortal and all-powerful. Few recognize that Tarzan's strength and character comes from a strict adherence to the tenets of Anglo-Saxon Judeo-Christian ideals. A savage above the law is more entertaining--even if that savage always operates within the ordinary laws of human society and human emotion.

Some fans believe that enforcement of the Tarzan trademark is only a recent thing and that ERB did not actively write and promote Tarzan as wholesome and good after he took out that trademark and began to sell licenses and limited use rights. The books of Tarzan stand as mute evidence of Burroughs' determination to refrain from tarnishing the name and character of Tarzan. Simply because there appears to be no history of legal actions against trademark infringers I remind folks that we live in different times--and have since the 1960's. The general population today is not as honorable as in ERB's lifetime. When ERB took out his Trademark on Tarzan in 1924 he rarely had to go after infringers because most people were law-abiding in those years. He did have to address the issue a few times in the 1930s, but for the most part it was quickly resolved and it was back to business as usual--making Tarzan pay the bills.

After Ed Burroughs' death in 1950 the books went into hiatus until the paperback reprint boom of the 1960s. It was about that same time that the lawyers entered the fray and they have been active ever since.

I am a fan of Tarzan. I merely am not the same starry-eyed fan as the majority of Tarzan readers. The Tarzan I initially enjoyed in Tarzan of the Apes eventually whimped out and became a framing device for telling adventure stories. For me Tarzan started out on top and steadily declined over the volumes until Tarzan and "the Foreign Legion." Now that was my Tarzan, after all the interminable books between; the Tarzan I knew he could become.