Tarzan and Lion

Tarzan as a Demigod of the Forest? ERB’s Favorite Description and What it Reveals

ERBDOM, Tarzan, The Tarzan Files

Much has been made of Tarzan as the prototype for what would become the Superhero in the pulps and comics.  “Without Tarzan, there could be no Batman” is one way of expressing it, as James Nillson did in his Saturday Evening Post Article  How Tarzan’s Author Did it All Wrong and Got it All Right.  Others have drawn the connection between the jungle hero, with his superior physical abilities achieved through his upbringing among the apes, and subsequent superheroes, and the point is made that other heroes of the literature of 1912 were not in this mold.

It’s one thing to look at the superheroes that followed and trace them back to Tarzan.  But what was Burroughs himself thinking? There were no comic book superheroes at the time; nor did there exist  pulp heroes in the superhero mold.  Did he feel he was creating an entirely new kind of hero?  Or did he understand it to be a continuation of a literary form already in existence?

Demigod of the Forest

One important piece of evidence that appears to have not been much written about is Burroughs use of the term “demigod” in describing Tarzan.  As anyone who had studied the classics knew (and Burroughs certainly had, as would have any boy experiencing  a more or less standard education in the 1890s) — demigods were the offspring of a god and a mortal, and were therfore greater than humans in their looks and capacities, but still mortal — and often, though not always, flawed.  More formally: “a being with partial or lesser divine status, such as a minor deity, the offspring of a god and a mortal, or a mortal raised to divine rank.” The term demigod first appeared in English in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century when it was used to render the Greek and Roman concepts of semideus and daemon. Since then, it has frequently been applied figuratively to people of extraordinary ability.  John Milton states in Paradise Lost that angels are demigods. In classical literature — famous demigods who might be seen as antecedents of Tarzan are Achilles,born of mortal man and the nymph goddess Thetis; Aeneas, son of Venus; Hercules,son of Jupiter; Perseus, son of Zeus — and let’s not forget Romulus and Remus, sons of Mars — a pair referred to by Burroughs repeatedly as having been in mind when he created Tarzan.

Philip Jose Farmer, in his speculation Tarzan Alive in which he posits and literrarily pursues the idea of Tarzan as a real individual fictionalized by Burroughs, says “So Tarzan, flesh and blood, had become a well-known and even influential figure of literature. Though still living, he had passed into folklore and myth, becoming a demigod. But in spite of his superiority, making him an Odysseus and a Hercules, he is shown as having become more human.

So let’s take a look. What is the evidence from the texts themselves? As it turns out, the evidence is extensive and persuasive:

Burroughs’s Use of Demigod to Describe Tarzan

Burroughs uses demigod to describe Tarzan in Tarzan of the Apes more than once:

A personification, was Tarzan of the Apes, of the primitive man, the hunter, the warrior. With the noble poise of his handsome head upon those broad shoulders, and the fire of life and intelligence in those fine, clear eyes, he might readily have typified some demigod of a wild and warlike bygone people of his ancient forest.


This fact caused Jane to indulge in further speculation, and it taxed her imagination to picture how this beautiful ornament came into the possession of a wild and savage creature of the unexplored jungles of Africa. Still more wonderful was how it contained the likeness of one who might be a brother, or, more likely, the father of this woodland demi-god who was even ignorant of the fact that the locket opened.

and again

“I will not believe it,” she half whispered. “It is not true. You shall see,” she said, addressing Clayton, “that he will come back and that he will prove that you are wrong. You do not know him as I do. I tell you that he is a gentleman.”

Clayton was a generous and chivalrous man, but something in the girl’s breathless defense of the forest man stirred him to unreasoning jealousy, so that for the instant he forgot all that they owed to this wild demi-god, and he answered her with a half sneer upon his lip.

Nothing in Return of Tarzan, Beasts of Tarzan, or Son of Tarzan — but in Jungle Tales:

Just to have seen him there, lolling upon the swaying bough of the jungle-forest giant, his brown skin mottled by the brilliant equatorial sunlight which percolated through the leafy canopy of green above him, his clean-limbed body relaxed in graceful ease, his shapely head partly turned in contemplative absorption and his intelligent, gray eyes dreamily devouring the object of their devotion, you would have thought him the reincarnation of some demigod of old.

In Tarzan the Terrible:

The Tor-o-don beat upon his breast and growled horribly—hideous, uncouth, beastly. Tarzan rose to his full height upon a swaying branch—straight and beautiful as a demigod—unspoiled by the taint of civilization—a perfect specimen of what the human race might have been had the laws of man not interfered with the laws of nature.


Slower in wit than he, they were swept away by his greater initiative and that compelling power which is inherent to all natural leaders. And so they followed him, the giant ape-man with a dead tail dragging the ground behind him—a demi-god where another would have been ridiculous. Out into the city he led them and down toward the unpretentious building that hid Lu-don’s secret passageway from the city to the temple, and as they rounded the last turn they saw before them a gathering of warriors which was being rapidly augmented from all directions as the traitors of A-lur mobilized at the call of the priesthood.

and here is one of the best ones, in Tarzan and the Golden Lion:

Not as the muscles of the blacksmith or the professional strong man were the muscles of Tarzan of the Apes, but rather those of Mercury
or Apollo, so symmetrically balanced were their proportions, suggesting only the great strength that lay in them. Trained to speed and agility
were they as well as to strength, and thus, clothing as they did his giant frame, they imparted to him the appearance of a demi-god.

And in Tarzan and the Ant Men, there is a scene where Tarzan compares animals to men, after his companion is forced to pay a bribe in order to pass peacefully:

“Even in Minuni!” breathed Tarzan.

“What was that?” asked his friend.

“I was just thinking of my simple, honest jungle and God’s creatures that men call beasts.”

“What should they call them?” demanded Komodoflorensal.

“If judged by the standards that men themselves make, and fail to observe, they should be called demigods,” replied the ape-man.

“I believe I get your point,” laughed the other, “but think! Had a lion guarded the entrance to this quarry no gold piece would have let us pass. The frailties of man are not without their virtues; because of them right has just triumphed over wrong and bribery has worn the vestments of virtue.”

In Tarzan the Invincible:

She thought at first that she was the victim of some strange hallucination of terror; for, of course, she could not measure the time that she had been unconscious, nor recall any of the incidents that had occurred during that period. The last thing that she remembered was that she had been in the arms of a great ape, who was carrying her off to the jungle. She had closed her eyes; and when she opened them again, the ape had been transformed into a handsome demigod of the forest.

And in Tarzan Lord of the Jungle

There was a rustling among the branches of the trees a hundred feet away and suddenly the giant figure of a demigod dropped to the ground. The lion rose and faced the man. The two stood thus, eying one another for a brief moment. Then the man spoke.


There was a rustling among the branches of the trees a hundred feet away and suddenly the giant figure of a demigod dropped to the ground. The lion rose and faced the man. The two stood thus, eying one another for a brief moment. Then the man spoke.

“Jad-bal-ja!” he exclaimed, and then: “Come to heel!”

The great, golden lion whined and strode across the open space, stopping before the man. Guinalda saw the beast look up into the face of the demigod and saw the latter stroke the tawny head affectionately, but meanwhile the eyes of the man, or god, or whatever he was, were upon Guinalda and she saw the sudden relief that came to them as Tarzan realized that the girl was unharmed.

Tarzan and the City of Gold:

Tall, magnificently proportioned, muscled more like Apollo than like Hercules, garbed only in a lion skin, he presented a splendid figure of primitive manhood that suggested more, perhaps, the demigod of the forest than it did man.

Tarzan’s Quest:

Jane’s thoughts had been far away as she swung along the trail behind Tibbs and Brown that afternoon; they had been far to the west where a little, time worn cabin stood near the shore of a landlocked cove on the west coast. There had centered many of the important events and thrilling adventures of her life; there she had met that strange demi-god of the forest whom she had later come to know as Tarzan of the Apes.

What Does It Mean?

What are we to make of it?  Was Burroughs the first in modern literature to so describe a hero?  If so, was he drawing directly from the classics and putting a jungle twist on them?

A search of classical literature, and the literature that would have likely been available to Burroughs, finds numerous references to demigods — but none creating a protagonist described as one.

Dumas in the Count of Monte Christo:

Did you forget that this great man, this hero, this demigod, is attacked with a malady of the skin which worries him to death, prurigo?” And in The THree Musketeers: “Their appearance, although it was not quite at ease, excited by its carelessness, at once full of dignity and submission, the admiration of D’Artagnan, who beheld in these two men demigods, and in their leader an Olympian Jupiter, armed with all his thunders.”

Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels refers to demigods, but is not one himself:

I saw Caesar and Pompey at the head of their troops, just ready to engage. I saw the former, in his last great triumph. I desired that the senate of Rome might appear before me, in one large chamber, and an assembly of somewhat a later age in counterview, in another. The first seemed to be an assembly of heroes and demigods; the other, a knot of pedlars, pick-pockets, highwayman, and bullies.

Ishmael in Moby Dick, ruminating on the whalers of Nantucket:

Whether to admit Hercules among us or not, concerning this I long remained dubious: for though according to the Greek mythologies, that antique Crockett and Kit Carson –that brawny doer of rejoicing good deeds, was swallowed down and thrown up by a whale; still, whether that strictly makes a whaleman of him, that might be mooted. It nowhere appears that he ever actually harpooned his fish, unless, indeed, from the inside. Nevertheless, he may be deemed a sort of involuntary whaleman; at any rate the whale caught him, if he did not the whale. I claim him for one of our clan. But, by the best contradictory authorities, this Grecian story of Hercules and the whale is considered to be derived from the still more ancient Hebrew story of Jonah and the whale; and vice versa; certainly they are very similar. If I claim the demigod then, why not the prophet? Nor do heroes, saints, demigods, and prophets alone comprise the whole roll of our order

Also in Moby Dick:

Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore? But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God –so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing –straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

Jules Verne uses the term in Round the Moon to describe the reception granted his trio:

The apotheosis was worthy of these three heroes whom fable would have placed in the rank of demigods.


What do the ERB scholars have to say?

R.E. Prindle in his ruminations on Tarzan and the Golden Lion touches on it, referincing Burroughs’ use o fthe term on page 42 and noting:

So Tarzan is always compared to Mercury, Apollo and Heracles. . . . . Charles Atlas, a professional strong man, had just been voted the world’s most perfectly proportioned man. I don’ know how you could improve on Charles Atlas but Tarzan does. The latter’s muscles are not knotted or bunchy but sinuous and smooth.

And in his article on Tarzan and the City of Gold, he starts by using the quote from that book that identifies Tarzan as a demigod but quickly moves on to other topics.

Gore Vidal, in his 1967 article for esquire, shows he is well aware of the “demigod factor” when he writes about the Mittyesque quality of the experience of reading Burroughs:

How many consciously daydream, turning on a story in which the dreamer ceases to be an employee of I.B.M and becomes a handsome demigod moving through splendid palaces, saving maidens from monsters (or monsters from maidens: this is a jaded time).

The Library Journal review of Philip Jose Farmer’ Tarzan Alive notes:

Tarzan is seen [by Farmer]  as a 20th-century heroic figure having much in common with the mythical demigods of an earlier day, and this book will not fail to please and enthrall his many followers.

What About Other-ness?

Demigods are different.  There is an ‘other-ness’ about them.  What of Tarzan’s “other-ness” — the manner in which he is differentiated from normal men?  Burroughs certainly attended to that.   Take for example this passage from Tarzan and the City of Gold.

It was difficult for Tarzan to think of himself as a man, and his psychology was more often that of the wild beast than the human, nor was he particularly proud of his species. While he appreciated the intellectual superiority of man over other creatures, he harbored contempt for him because he had wasted the greater part of his inheritance. To Tarzan, as to many other created things, contentment is the highest ultimate goal of achievement, and health and culture the principal avenues along which man may approach this goal. With scorn the ape-man viewed the overwhelming majority of mankind which was wanting in one essential or the other, when not wanting in both. He saw the greed, the selfishness, the cowardice, and the cruelty of man; and, in view of man’s vaunted mentality, he knew that these characteristics placed man upon a lower spiritual scale than the beasts, while barring him eternally from the goal of contentment.

The Bottom Line

I’m not sure there is a bottom line to this … but my takeaway from this casual  investigation is that Burroughs had the classical concept of demigod firmly in mind when he created Tarzan, and consciously used that concept in what was at the time a unique application in the pulp magazines of the day.  It seems to us today to be a simple idea, and one that can or should have occurred to any numbers of writers. But it didn’t.  Burroughs was the one who came up with the idea — it worked magnificantly, and the history of global popular culture was changed.


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