Tarzan of the Apes

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The kids and I just finished reading together Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was an interesting book to read for many, many reasons. The story was written as cheap fiction, probably with the author paid a penny a word or something like that but with so many of those “classic” words that Michael Clay Thompson emphasis the need for children to learn – countenance, manifest, verdure, etc. The vocabulary is exquisite – except of course for the inherently racist terms and ideas that are abundant in the colonial-era writing about Africa. As I was reading a free ecopy aloud to them I edited it, acknowledging the African background of many characters but without constantly referring to people as black.Comparing Disney's Tarzan with that of Edgar Rice Burroughs

Tarzan’s first acquaintance with humans comes when an African warrior kills his mother, so Tarzan doesn’t see any problem with killing the warriors he finds to steal their belongings. He views white people as more like him and more intriguing but still has trouble extending this common connection to those who are not white. Later a Frenchman cautions him to treat other men as enemies unless they have proven themselves to be such, and by the second book his treatment of the African villagers is much different. “It came to him that seldom if ever did civilized man kill a fellow being without some pretext, however slight. It was true that Tarzan wished this man’s weapons and ornaments but was it necessary to take his life to obtain them?” But there’s still a racist perception that the black man is not as capable of thinking, and for a while Tarzan becomes their leader just as he became the apes as the more capable being.

I cannot defend the racism in the book only discuss it thoroughly with my children. The belief in white supremacy was widely held and part of the justification of colonialism. Should I prevent them from knowing it existed or should I instead be sure they understand how wrong – and often deadly – it was? The book does provide several points for discussing colonialism, both the very accute autrocities such as those by “the arch hypocrite, Leopold II of Belgium” from whom the villagers Tarzan meets had fled, and of the possibly less horrific but still colonial attitude of the British. Tarzan’s parents had left Europe on their way to investigate “the unfair treatment of black British subjects by the officers of a friendly European power;” they are part of the colonial world that sees Britian as fit to rule over other lands.

My children found the first two chapters dull but then got into the excitement of the book. How will Tarzan best a lion? What will he do with his new found rope? How similar do they think Tarzan’s learning about how to use a rope, a rock, clothing, etc, is to how primitive man learned these things? When will the people understand that the Tarzan of the Apes who leaves them messages is the same person they describe as the forest god, who saves them time and again? By the second book the series is like a Tintin story, with Tarzan travelling around solving problems while villians attempt to defeat him.

We talked a lot about the meaning of the books. If a cheap fiction book could be considered to argue anything – and this one definitely does – it argues that a gentlemanly, intelligent personality arises from nature not nurture, but that modern civilization denies man the rough skill necessary to develop his body and instinct. Tarzan is not an idiot but a brilliant European who learns to read on his own without any knowledge of the spoken language because of his exceptional breeding. Yet at the same time he has physical skills which the normal European doesn’t. He can control himself when angered but just barely, his natural instinct is to attack and it takes time for him to learn when killing is appropriate and when it is not. Is this what we believe? (No.) Why or why not? How would it influence a person’s behaviour if they believed this?

The first book focuses on Tarzan’s “descent from a mighty race” as a source of pride, the second book looks more at the idea of descending from one’s position lower. In the second book Tarzan starts of as a civilized gentleman travelling to France to visit a friend and mope over his broken heart. The book then describes a downward fall how he becomes chief of a little African village and then back to living with the apes. The book is not subtle at all but says outright that he has fallen in those steps. Meanwhile the theme of de-evolution is explored in a long-lost city where he encounters a group of white savages, the survivors of a lost civilization (possibly Atlantis, as it sunk into the sea, but the name is not used). The priestess of their civilization explains this de-evolution:

“In fact, the apes live with us, and have for many ages. We call them the first men – we speak their language quite as much as we do our own; only in the rituals of the temple do we make any attempt to retain our mother tongue. In time it will be forgotten, and we will speak only the language of the apes; in time we will no longer banish those of our people who mate with apes, and so in time we shall descend to the very beasts from which ages ago our progenitors have sprung.”

Yet at various times too the books express Tarzan’s disappointment with humans, and how humans act compared to the apes. The books, particularly the second book, expresses skepticism about religion. Tarzan asks the priestess why she doesn’t fear the ghosts that supposedly haunt the room she has hidden him in and she explains:

“It is the duty of a high priestess – to instruct, to interpret – according to the creed that others, wiser than herself, have laid down; but there is nothing in the creed which says she must believe. The more one knows of one knows of one’s religion the less one beliefs – no one living knows more of mine than I.”

And when Jane falls into the hands of the same group:

Here some sort of ceremony was performed – that it was of a religious nature the girl was sure, and so she took new heart, and rejoiced that she had fallen among people upon whom the refining and softening influences of religion evidently had fallen. They would treat her humanely – of that she was now quite sure.

And so it was when they led her from her dungeon, through long, dark corridors, and up a flight of concrete steps to a brilliant courtyard, she went willingly, even gladly – for was she not among the servants of God It might be, of course, that their interpretation of the supreme being differed from her own, but that they owned a god was sufficient evidence to her that they were kind and good.

The reader knows of course that the same group is holding her hostage in preparation to be sacrificed to their fire god so the folly of Jane’s ideas stand out. The presence of a deity is not guarantee of anything.

After reading the book we turned to the Disney movie version and watched that. The overall theme could not be more opposite that of the original! The theme in the movie is that they are all one family: apes and humans. There is no hierarchy of beings, no evolution and the happy ending at the end is three humans content to live with a family apes. There is nothing about Tarzan outgrowing the apes or being better than them, no serious discussion of him moving into the world of men. The apes are family. They are his home. The theme song’s main phrase “two worlds, one family” that seems odd when sung over the image of the ape and human parents at the beginning makes sense at the end when it becomes obvious that Tarzan will stay with his ape family and the ape family will welcome the humans. I disliked the anthropomorphizing of all the animals though I know it is standard Disney fare.

Anthropomorphizing everything to the extent that Disney does robs Tarzan of his connection with animals. If animals are just like humans, then he’s not really different just uneducated (hence in the movie he lacks the access to books that he had in the original story – if he had access to the books, what would he have to learn from the humans?).

The anthropomorphizing robs the animals of their personality, as the original book gave the apes their own social structure and personalities. They were laid back in many ways and with, the book says, a limited vocabulary thus a limited ability to think about things. One fan-book on the subject suggests that the apes weren’t really modern apes but some left-over tribe closer to Australopithecus. When Tarzan decides to renounce his leadership of the tribe he instructs the others that should any future leader be a bad one they cooperate to unseat the leader, so that they are not dependant upon following the demands of whomever happens to be biggest and strongest.

There’s no question of what it means to be human in the movie, no question of morals. In the book the rules are different for the apes, and Tarzan has to decide if he’ll follow the rules of apes or humans. Apes could eat the body of a human but for Tarzan to would be “transgressing a worldwide law of whose very existence he was ignorant.” But in the Disney movie a life with the animals is just a different set of clothing and a different language. In one entertaining scene the gorillas tear apart the camp misusing everything in attempts to create music. It is a fun happy scene, but it is still destruction and when Jane is welcomed into the gorilla family at the end, I wonder how she would find training them – or would training be unnecessary because they’re all just going to live like animals?

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