Every once in awhile my incessant googling leads me someplace interesting, and today it landed me on the website of Waitsel Smith, where he has a single pretty damned glorious page on Tarzan that includes some great images and an even greater essay entitled Tarzan, Best Action Character Ever,But Is He the Ideal Man? The essay is written as an introduction to Tarzan as a character in classic literature, and Smith has some insightful things to say about what makes Tarzan and interesting and enduring character. He begins by addressing context — correctly pointing out that from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 24 books “arose the most influential fictional character in modern history, perhaps the most successful trademark franchise ever conceived, and a cultural phenomenon that is without rival — even Elvis, the Beatles, and Star Wars pale in comparison.” Now, those are pretty strong words, particularly when viewed from 2016 which, prior to Legend of Tarzan starting to make some noise, is about the quietest Tarzan has been in the full 100 plus years of his existence. So I don’t think he’s wrong.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What makes the Tarzan character so attractive is that he is not only brawny, but brainy. You don’t get that from the Hollywood versions of him[/pullquote]
He goes on to say, (and remember this is an introductory piece, pitched to people who may only know Tarzan from the movies and television):
What makes the Tarzan character so attractive is that he is not only brawny, but brainy. You don’t get that from the Hollywood versions of him, but in the books – and there are 24 of them by Burroughs – his intelligence rivals even that of Sherlock Holmes. Just to show you how thoroughly Tarzan has been misrepresented by Hollywood: Tarzan taught himself to read and write English from books he found in the jungle, long before he ever met a white person. None of this “Me Tarzan, you Jane” stuff for him. French was the first language he learned to speak, after his ape tongue, so that, when he does finally learn to speak English, he speaks it with a French accent!
Tarzan is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his dichotomy. He is both man and ape – or, so he thinks, until fingerprint evidence proves otherwise. He is both rational and brutish, civilized and savage, kind and ruthless, righteous and sinful. Those two natures struggle within him as he seeks to discover who he is and why he’s here. In that regard, he takes the same journey we all do; and that, I believe, is what makes him so universally appealing. That, and his free-spirited, back-to-nature, boyish attitude. Plus his physicality: he is a man’s man and a woman’s dream. And his heart: he always tries to do what’s right – but he struggles with that. Before he gets civilized, he reverts to murder (hanging, no less) in order to get food and weapons; but, afterwards, he realizes he doesn’t have to kill people to get what he needs. He learns to be a man – a civilized, moral man. And he grows in character like any other civilized, moral man.
Smith, who is listed as , goes on to discuss in detail much of the history of illustrations of Tarzan, then eventually comes around to discussing some film ideas that were written before the current film was on the horizon:
I wish a live actor could indeed master the look and feel of Tarzan, who is one of the great characters in all of literature and film, right up there with King Arthur, Hamlet, Scrooge and Sherlock Holmes. He has something to say to people of all generations and cultures. In the books, Burroughs used the character to comment on the state of civilization, for which Tarzan (and Burroughs) had very little respect. He thought civilized man was soft. (I’m afraid he would think he was down-right effeminate today.) He thought civilized man was more ruthless and cruel than the beasts of the jungle. (Beasts, after all, kill only for food; man kills for sport – or even worse.) And civilized man is not honorable, for the most part. But Tarzan is honorable. In fact, in many ways, Tarzan is a modern-day knight: he is chivalrous, in that he always strives to do what’s right; he is gallant, in that he fights for the honor of ladies; and he is charitable, in that he always defends the weak and helpless. That is a theme that runs through all the great characters of both literature and history, among whom Tarzan would undoubtedly rank near the top.
I highly recommend reading the whole article. Good stuff.