The Nobility of Tarzan

Yesterday, I’d thrown together a little something about Tarzan as an exploration of Rousseau, but in the end, I tossed it out when I did some checking and found out that Burroughs hadn’t heard of the Frenchman when he wrote Tarzan. That probably explains why the thesis of “natural man as the ideal” falls apart in so many places in Tarzan. While Tarzan himself is a superman in part because of his affinity with nature and wild upbringing, that wild and savage state he lives in only a small piece of it, else his fellow apes and the tribesmen he encounters would be just as “noble” in their savagery.

It should be noted that Rousseau’s “natural man” is not the “noble savage” concept as we generally understand it, but rather a state where a man has developed a general animal goodness rather than a morality that is constricted by traditions and society. Right and wrong are not a question for the savage man.

Though one can make the case for Tarzan’s nobility coming from his savage spirit untainted by civilization, the case can just as easily be made that it’s his Anglo heritage that enables him to transcend base beasthood from which his fellow apes and the tribesmen cannot escape. While one might not say that there is “civilized” intelligence in his blood, there is an inherent drive to learn and better himself which is in part attributed to the nobility of his birth to the house of Greystoke. Might there also be inborn nobility of the aristocrat? There’s a romantic notion that one finds in much writing of the 19th century and into the 20th that aristocratic qualities are bred and that nobility and poise are particular traits of ‘superior’ stock. I don’t suggest that Burroughs believed that aristocrats were better or more noble than common men, but do think he may have been playing with the trope so as to tell a wild and exciting story. It would be no different than if he’d played up some sort of in-born protestant work-ethic.

So where does this ‘natural man’, this Tarzan, fall in between other hominids he shares his jungle with? Somewhere in the middle, actually. The apes are in a state of nature but lack the inherent intellectual capacity which man has and endows Tarzan with reason and an existential sense beyond the mere need to survive; the tribesmen are, in fact, more civilized than Tarzan, as is shown through their fears and superstitions surrounding the white jungle man.

Ironically, Korak, Tarzan’s son, is far more vicious and brutal than his father when he goes into the wilds of Africa with Akut the great ape. Rather than be born into savagery, he descends into it from civilization (deteriorationism!?), and is battered down by his disillusionment with the nature of men and beasts. After approaching blacks, whites and apes with an innocent idealism (brotherhood of man kinda thing) and being thrice spurned, he develops not an instinctual fear but an intelligent hatred for his fellows who, due to their own ‘civilized’ nature, fear and attack him.  Strangely, the great apes can be lumped in with the civilized groups in Son of Tarzan because they have custom, culture and hierarchy (the Dum Dum rites, the king, and Akut’s aspirations for Korak to become leader all smack of ‘civilization’ rather than the ‘natural man’ of Rousseau). I can’t make any conclusions on Korak or his arc as I haven’t finished Son of Tarzan yet, but I might get around to it. Meriem’s ‘civilized’ suitor, who plans to abscond with her but not marry her, breaks the trope of the noble aristocrat, illustrating that the Greystokes’ goodness and noble nature, while possibly hereditary, are not necessarily linked to aristocracy any more than Tarzan’s intellect and reason could be linked to his savage environs. In fact, Korak’s wild spirit he inherited from his father developed in a perfectly civilized and aristocratic society!


10 responses to “The Nobility of Tarzan

  1. It’s been a long time since I read the Tarzan books, but I remember them as having a strong subtext of “nature vs. nurture”–I got the feeling that Burroughs was advancing the idea that blood will tell and that Tarzan’s innate civilization as a member of the British aristocracy won out over his savage upbringing.

    But that may have been me reading my own ideas into it.

    • It’s hard to say how intentional the subtext was; I’ve read that while Burroughs had a passing familiarity with Darwin, he was unfamiliar with Rousseau and other writers who’d explored the subject of nature vs. nurture. Son of Tarzan is an interesting counterpoint (and I can see why my collection included it and put it second), because Jack/Korak is of the same aristocratic/civilized noble blood, is brought up England under posh circumstances, is denied knowledge of his father’s past, but somehow ‘inherits’ the wild spirit of Tarzan.

      Meriem is essentially brought up in ‘civilization’ (though it’s brutal), but she quickly learns and adapts to the savage life of Korak. When she’s taken in by Tarzan (I’m assuming the unnamed Bwana and his wife turn out to be Tarzan and Jane), she becomes a cool hybrid of sophisticated proper lady and jungle badass.

  2. In the first book, Burroughs clearly attributes Tazan’s nobility coming from his bloodline. His was a noble heritage that raised him above the beasts and black savages. I haven’t read the others yet so I don’t know if he continues that line of thought or not.

    • Right, which is part of why the association with Rousseau’s ‘natural man’ falls apart. If he was just some schlub, it wouldn’t matter that he were in a ‘state of nature’, he’d get ate.

      Like I said, rather than nature vs. nurture, I think it’s just that the jungle makes you awesome or you die, and the former makes for a better story.

      • “the association with Rousseau’s ‘natural man’ falls apart” Agreed.

        Burroughs went with the rule of cool. What makes a better story? Some kid gets taken by wild apes, then dies a few days later because nature is brutal, or if the kids turns into a English nobleman that can kill anything by using his noble brains and superhuman brawn?

        Right, the second.

        Screw you, nature vs nurture, Tarzan needs to rip the head off of some slavering, wild beast in a fight to the death while protecting Jane!

      • “Of course there are no Tigers in Africa; Tarzan killed them all!”

        You need a +1 or a ‘Like’ option 🙂

  3. Tigers in Africa, yep. ERB wasn’t any kind of zoologist, and placed tigers in Africa probably in accordance with the “Rule of Cool”. Luckily, his editor caught it and changed it to Sabor the lioness. So, apparently, every scene that includes Sabor was originally an encounter with a tiger, not a lioness.

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