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Mari Ness’s Annoying But Ultimately Interesting Thoughts on Heredity, Environment, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes

Legend of Tarzan (Movie), Tarzan

There is an unfortunate smarmy, mocking,  superior, “I’m way cooler than these books I’m writing about” quality to the first half of Mari Ness’s annoying but ultimately interesting article Heredity, Environment, and a Few Dead Lions: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes — so much so that I had to really hang in there to get to the meat of it.   But if you can wade through minor errors in reciting the origins (no, ERB did not write multiple John Carter stories before he wrote Tarzan; no, Tarzan was not published first  as a serial)  and her context-less jabs at the turn-of-the-(last)-century romantic dialogue — you will be rewarded with a very thoughtful and interesting reaction to some of Burroughs’ major themes in the Tarzan books. And so although I really do wish Ms. Ness would dial back some of her attitude at the beginning of the piece,  she has a “thank you” from me for where she gets to once she gets to the point.  She has both reinforced things I was already thinking but hadn’t gotten around to writing about, and added to my understanding of why Tarzan captured the world’s imagination in the first half of the 20th century, and why he captured the imagination of yours truly as a young boy growing up in the 1960’s — a fascination that I’m still working to sort out.  So, harrumphs aside, thank you, Ms Ness.  (And I almost never ‘harrumph’.)

Having grudgingly said thank you, here are some passages that caught my attention and warrant some comment.

Proving Men Can “Train Themselves Past Apparent Limitations”

Tarzan of the Apes was hardly, of course, the first book. . . to feature a human child raised by wild animals, or to have the child gain superhuman strength and speed . . . as a result. The concept goes back to ancient times, and functions as part of the origin story for many mythological heroes and, later, a few comic book characters. Tarzan is also not unique in having that child come from noble birth—most of these raised by animals mythological heroes are of either divine or royal birth, or both. The Jungle Book, with its lower class protagonist, is the outlier here.

But where Tarzan of the Apes does stand out is in its insistence that men, or at least, MANLY AND VIRILE MEN, do have the power to train themselves past their apparent limitations. Heredity is key, and more important than environment—but environment can improve on heredity. Again and again, Tarzan compares Tarzan to his cousin, Clayton, even before they meet. Clayton, like Tarzan, is noble, intelligent and strong—but never pushed past his limitations. Clayton is, therefore, for a lack of a better word, “normal.” Tarzan, with the identical heredity, was forced to keep up with young apes and fight lions, and thus becomes superhuman. Later, when Tarzan absolutely positively has to learn French, he does, and he is able to train himself to fit into European and American society within just a few months.

Realistic? No, and in that respect, The Jungle Book is a superior and more thoughtful take on the mythological concept of a child raised by animals. But as pure wish fulfillment, and in its insistence that humans can push past their limitations, Tarzan is both more hopeful and more satisfactory.

Many have talked about Tarzan as wish fulfillment — but not quite in these terms, and I think that in breaking it down as she has, she had done a service.  The concept that Tarzan was “pushed past his limitations” by his upbringing in the jungle and that it was this, in combination with his heredity, that made him special and ultimately superhuman, is right on target and gets at one of the core elements of Tarzan’s appeal.  A lot of what I’ve read previously only gets part of the equation — that Burroughs was, for example, class-conscious (we’ll get to its ugly cousin racism later) and had a high opinion of the fact that Tarzan came from nobility — but that’s not right. As Ness notes, Clayton, a noble, is a pale doppelganger shadow of Tarzan and the difference is environment; the difference is that Tarzan has been “pushed past his limitations” and hardened and  transformed into something superior by his environment.  It’s the ultimate boot camp transformation, and what makes it appealing in a deep, mythic way is that it says to us that we too can achieve a superior nature through effort.

Tarzan Bow and Arrow St. JohnWhen I look back on my childhood infatuation with Tarzan, I think this is part of it. He was given a pretty good starting point by heredity — but his environment forged him into something spectacular.   What did that say about my own life, my own human potential, and the value of working hard both physically and intellectually?  Even if I knew that Tarzan didn’t really exist, couldn’t really exist, there was a powerful message in what he represented and that message was that I could train myself, work myself, into something special — it was out there, and the work was worth it.

Tarzan as a Technology Fable

And for all of its focus on strength, brawn and skill, Tarzan continually emphasizes that what allows Tarzan to defeat his enemies—both humans and lions—is intelligence, intuition, and—eventually—weapons. Tarzan, and, later, the French, win because they can strategize and use weapons. Strength and a lack of fear are important, but as all of those dead lions indicate, they aren’t enough.

It’s a hopeful message straight from the pre-war years of the 20th century, when Burroughs and others did believe that education and technology could and would solve everything. But it’s also a tangled message, since Tarzan draws much of his strength from his training in the jungle, which makes him superior physically to virtually everyone he meets who isn’t an ape or a lion. This is a book that wants us to believe in the superior power of the intellect, training, technology, and the United States, and yet has Tarzan’s superior power come from something else entirely.

I hadn’t thought of it that way — but in truth, Tarzan is a technology fable.  Tarzan rope and his father’s knife are instrumental in his ability to gain control over his environment.  Take the technology and mix in intelligence — and you have the ingredients for masterful control over environment.

Relax and Enjoy the Tangled Messages

It’s not the only tangled message in the book. For instance, the 1912 Tarzan of the Apes is, on its surface, unabashedly racist, and the sequel even more so. The black characters in the book fall into two categories: savages and Esmerelda, who is a caricature of a black mammy. At one point, during a confrontation between a “civilized” Frenchman and a black warrior, Burroughs draws a contrast between their faces in unquestionably offensive terms. The white skinned Tarzan considers himself superior to blacks. And although Tarzan’s superior strength and skills come largely from his environment, Burroughs strongly believes—and simultaneously argues—that heredity is superior to environment, which helps explain why Tarzan manages to pick up French and basic table manners so quickly; it’s part of his heritage.

But for all his racism, Burroughs also spends a significant amount of time critiquing white colonialism, blaming it for most of Africa’s problems. He specifically calls out whites for exploiting black labor and workers, and slams Leopold II, King of the Belgians, calling him that “arch hypocrite,” accusing him of approving torture and blaming him for the destruction of the Congo Free State and a proud culture. That culture is black, and if Burroughs does not exactly see it as equal to the glories of America (nothing, to Burroughs, is equal to the glories of America) he strongly disapproves of its destruction.

It’s also perhaps notable that as much as the book talks about the fear brought on at the sight of black warriors, all of the really evil people in the book are white, most of the murders and the one massacre are carried out by whites, and Tarzan, partly a product of the African jungle, is shown to be superior to pretty much everyone else in nearly every respect—not just strength and speed, but also intelligence and character. Granted, this is also because he’s a member of the British nobility—later proven by a scientific comparison of fingerprints—but he also continually refers to himself as a product of the jungle, and refuses to apologize for his heritage. And Tarzan himself more than once refuses to see whites as morally superior—particularly after his observations of their behavior.

One aspect of Burroughs’ mentality that has to be understood in order to extract larger meaning from his writing is that he instinctively (or intentionally) incorporate apparent contradictions whenever he could, and in doing that, create elements that intrigued.  Example: On Barsoom,  the Tharks were cold, cruel, heartless, — but were incapable of lying or being dishonest.  This pattern is repeated in dozens of ways, and manifests itself in the “tangled message” that Ness writes about.  Those who extract “racism” from the books do so without weighing both sides of the messages that emanate from Burroughs’ writings.  For every casually racist moment or situation in the books, there are, I would wager, two moments that evince a far more enlightened attitude towards the issues.  The same goes for class — Tarzan is superior not because he is from the artistocracy.  He is superior because he is from the jungle.  His aristocratic background did play a role — it did give him a platform from which to develop.  But again and again we see characters in Burroughs who are from the same aristocracy that Tarzan came from — and who are deficient.   Tarzan, through the environment he was thrust into and his reaction to that environment, has pushed himself, transformed himself without the benefit of anything other than exceptionally hard work, into something superior than either the aristrocracy to which he was born, or the jungle where he evolved.

On the racism front — unlike others who seem to read the books and come away only with the caricaturing of Esmeralda and the “racist” depiction of Mbonga and his tribe — here we also see acknowledgment that ERB in fact spends considerable ink in criticizing white colonialism.  That is good as far as it goes. What is missing here is also the ink spent depicting the Waziri as noble warriors worthy of respect on all levels.  The Waziri are described:  “In repose the faces of the men were intelligent and dignified, those of the women ofttimes prepossessing.” — more tangled messages, but perhaps the “tangled message” is an essential part of Burroughs’ method?

Damsels in Distress — but With a Kicker?

The book’s treatment of women can also be, well, maybe not outright misogynistic, but definitely falling into certain gender patterns. Still, for all the tossing women over shoulders and taking them into the deep dark jungle, a few of the women manage to acquit themselves quite well. Alice, for instance, saves her husband’s life by shooting an ape dead even though (a) she knows nothing about guns, and (b) is nine months pregnant, which is kinda awesome. Kala stands up against the stronger apes of her tribe and keeps little Tarzan. Jane jumps on the yay guns bandwagon and shoots a lion. That sort of thing. And for all that many of the men disapprove of women joining expeditions, the women come anyway—even if Jane is doing so at least in part to delay an unwanted marriage.

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 9.06.50 AMYes, and what’s missing here is context — by the standards of the day, these women characters  were arguably  “fierce” in their ability to rise to the physical occasion when needed.  She keeps her presence of mind when she and Esmeralda are attacked by a lion; she never “loses it” when being carried away by Terkoz; and when Tarzan gets a little carried away with kisses before she’s ready, she fights back with passion and purpose.   In Return of Tarzan, she  shows that she’s prepared to die from starvation rather than resort to cannibalism as Rokoff wants.  She’s not shrinking damsel, even while she embodies what were perceive to be decorous “ladylike” values of her time.

Tarzan as the First Superhero

Tarzan’s greatest legacy, however, may not have been as a character in his own right, but by his role as a precursor to 20th and 21st century superheroes. If Batman can be more or less traced back to Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Count of Monte Cristo, Superman—and other comic superheroes—owe quite a lot to Tarzan. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster almost certainly read Tarzan (Burroughs even uses the word “superman” in the text, although that was probably not Siegel and Schuster’s inspiration for the name) and saw some of the films, but more importantly, the popularity of Tarzan convinced publishers that something like Superman could sell. And that in turn eventually brought us the multibillion, edging towards trillions, superhero comic and movie industry.

And this is a point that is often missed — and worthy of more examination. Was Tarzan a superhero?  Burroughs’ favorite description of him was “demigod of the forest”.  Certain aspects of his capabilities reflect a high degree of excellence — but probably don’t rank as superhuman. He is strong, but his muscles are ultimately not super human in nature–there are other humans who could be his match.  He possesses a keen intellect — but it’s a human intellect, not a superhuman one.Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 1.09.00 PM

But there are certain areas where he genuinely is “superhuman”.   He started as a “mere mortal” of good heredity – but had he grown up in England, perhaps he would have been not much different from Clayton.   However, because his uniquely challenging environment demanded it of him, he “trained himself beyond his apparent limitations” and became, well, a superhero.  What were his superpowers?  Tarzan could, first of all, “fly” through the terraces of the jungle whereas mere mortals were forced to trudge along slowly far beneath him.  He could cover in a morning more miles than an earthbound human could pass in a week.   He senses of scent and hearing were developed, again through the rigors of environment, to superhuman levels.   Plus–his relationship with certain animals (Tantor and Jad-bal-ja come to mind) transcends the human norm.

The bottom line on all this — Ness reminds us that Tarzan remains a compelling character, more than 100 years after he first appeared on the pages of All-Story magazine.  And as he is re-introduced to a global audience with the 2016 release of Legend of Tarzan, it will be fascinating to see if, at last, we have a movie Tarzan who is actually worthy of the character Burroughs created.


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