Of the many common threads binding works of epic fantasy/sword and sorcery together, the strongest may be the portrayal of the masculine hero. Everybody knows him. Indefatigable in a fight and chivalrous to women; civilized at the king’s banquet table, but dominant warrior in a battle; unsurpassed swordsman, yet equally skilled with his wits and tongue. Conan, Aragorn, Kellhus, Druss, Elric, Logan Ninefingers—all are some of the most recognized fantasy heroes today. And they are truly fantasy. Archetypes rather than living, breathing humans, they exist beyond the limits of our reality. But none, however, qualify as the male fantasy archetype as well as Edgar Rice Burrough’s original: Tarzan. It is his 1912 Tarzan of the Apes that introduces the ultimate in civilized male contrivances—sorry, anthropoids to the world.
Born in the jungles of Africa after his parents were marooned on a sea voyage, John Clayton is adopted by a tribe of apes after when they are suddenly killed. Raised among the tribe by Kayla, a large female ape, he comes to be called Tarzan, or ‘white skin’. Developing slowly and not without trouble in the group of primates, Tarzan eventually becomes part and parcel of the jungle. He learns to kill meat for food, eating it raw. He traverses the towering flora as an ape does, through the branches. After discovering the cabin his father and mother had built, he learns to read and write English, though not speak or understand it. And, perhaps most importantly, Tarzan comes to realize that if he is to stay alive in this savage world, he must fight for place. With cunning and strength, he works his way to the top of the food chain and becomes king of the jungle. But it is the chance arrival of a group stranded on a nearby shore that changes Tarzan’s fortunes. An American professor, his lovely daughter, mutineers, and a French militia among those without a ride home, the jungle man’s life takes a turn. Buried treasure, mutiny, war, and love also in the offing, the changes to Tarzan’s social life are just the beginning, his collision with the outside world, awaiting.
Tarzan of the Apes is an adventurous, swashbuckling tale in keeping with the popularity of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, and, to some degree, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Though sensationalized for adults (a paradox, no?), Burroughs likewise tells the story of a boy raised by wild animals in the jungle. African rather than Indian, and apes rather than wolves, Tarzan nevertheless comes to be a king of the animals. But where Kipling returns Mowgli to civilization, Burroughs keeps Tarzan firmly entrenched in the law of the jungle. Physical strength and animal cunning his strongest attributes, the manner in which he defeats, kills, and lays waste to the problems that would destroy ‘civilized’ man in the jungle are the traits Burroughs parlays into story. But as Tarzan grows from a weak boy amongst powerful apes into a powerful man amongst weak humans, he can’t also help spinning in damsels in distress, pirates, vicious lions and boars, strange jungle tribes, and a variety of other pulp elements.
There is thus a scene in Tarzan of the Apes (depicted on the cover above) wherein Tarzan fights a great ape after it has kidnapped Jane Porter, damsel-in-distress du jour. A scene that one balks at for its cheesiness, it nevertheless digs at something deeper in the human psyche—the primordial, truly animal part. For as as unsophisticated the presentation is, we all relate to the evolutionary premise: man needs woman, woman needs man, oo ooh. That being said, Burroughs develops this evolutionary aspect, little. Tarzan easily achieves the mindset of a turn-of-the-century gentleman, but his interaction with his jungle-self is rarely if ever delved into. Tarzan simply exudes the best of both worlds, pulling the needed personality effect out of the bag depending on the situation. A gentleman in civilized society and literal king in the jungle, he becomes a legend—the ultimate male fantasy archetype.
In the end, Tarzan of the Apes is a jungle adventure that stops off momentarily in evolution land for brief commentary on the primeval stuff humanity is made of before moving to its main goal: pulp antics. A larger-than-life hero created in the process, Tarzan becomes the greatest fantasy male ever, having his primeval cake and eating it, too. For my money H.G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau is the more intelligent examination of man’s inner animal, but certainly for melodrama, fun, and adventure Burroughs created a legend.