The Legend of Tarzan and the Gothic Tradition

I just saw the new Tarzan film, The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård, and it is absolutely fantastic. In fact, I think Skarsgård may be the best Tarzan ever to hit the screen and the film also the best Tarzan movie ever made. Of course, Johnny Weissmuller is Tarzan for legions of movie fans, but as wonderful as he was, his depiction of Tarzan was not in keeping with author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vision—Burroughs’ Tarzan was highly educated and articulate, speaking in more than monosyllables. The other actors who have played Tarzan all had their good points, except perhaps Jock Mahoney—worst Tarzan ever. But no one now in my opinion holds a flame to Skarsgård.

Poster for The Legend of Tarzan

Poster for The Legend of Tarzan

Skarsgård is fabulous if for no other reason than his appearance. Not only is he appropriately tall, but he is muscular without being bulky, and has the lithe body Burroughs describes. He also has a fair number of scars on his body in the film, which is appropriate, including a noticeable scar on his forehead as he has in the books—a very Gothic element that scar—in the novels, it pulses and turns red when he grows angry—reminiscent of the mark of Cain and the Wandering Jew’s cross on the forehead—there is no Gothic or supernatural elements in this film, but nevertheless, it’s clear the screenplay writer knew the books. In addition, I thought Margot Robbie quite good as Jane also, and Christopher Waltz was an effective villain. I can’t say it was Samuel L. Jackson’s best role, but he did have a more minor part.

I also admit that the role of Opar in the film was rather disappointing—there was no stunning ancient city depicted and there was no priestess La, ready to try to seduce Tarzan. And yes, some of the vine-swinging was a bit far-fetched, but it was breathtaking regardless. The scene on the train is one of the best kickass action scenes ever filmed in my opinion. Overall, I was very impressed and will likely watch the film several more times—many of the Tarzan films are barely watchable once, by comparison. So overall, I give this film two thumbs up. I’m ready for a whole new Tarzan film franchise with ten sequels!

But why should we care about Tarzan here at the Gothic Wanderer blog? Because I believe Tarzan is the pivotal figure in the transition of the Gothic Wanderer figure into the modern day superhero.

Following is an excerpt from my book The Gothic Wanderer that describes why Tarzan is so important to the Gothic and superhero traditions.

 

Tarzan: The Gothic Wanderer Turned Superhero

Surprisingly, it would be an American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who would combine theories of evolution, the Imperial Gothic, and the Gothic wanderer figure to create a superhero Gothic wanderer free of guilt.

I realize some readers will think my discussion of Tarzan of the Apes (1914) is a stretch in terms of my defining it as being within the Gothic novel tradition, but it definitely has Gothic elements. The novel is also a celebration of Darwin’s theory of evolution in many ways. No longer does evolution distance man from God—it makes him like a god—Burroughs is especially fond of calling Tarzan the “forest god” throughout the twenty-four novels in the Tarzan series.

The opening pages of the first book, Tarzan of the Apes, are very Gothic. Lord Greystoke and his wife are aboard a ship taken over by a mutinous crew; the Greystokes see the captain and his loyal men slaughtered, but rather than kill the Greystokes, the mutineers decide to set the husband and wife ashore on the coast of Africa where they are forced to fend for themselves amid the jungle’s horrors. Eventually, the terrifying apes kill the Greystokes, but not before Alice Greystoke gives birth to a son, Tarzan, who survives because Kala, a she-ape, has recently had her own child die, so she adopts Tarzan as her son. Tarzan grows up among the apes, quite the Gothic wanderer in his outcast role among the tribe for how he is different. He is weaker than the apes, although he soon realizes he is smarter.

Gothic elements come into play when the boy discovers his parents’ cabin. Like a ruined castle full of secrets, here Tarzan learns the truth about his origins—that he is human. He also learns to read—discovering his father’s journal—one of those Gothic manuscripts that reveal family secrets. Evolution theory is used in the novel to show that while Tarzan is not physically as strong as the jungle’s beasts, he is able to use his father’s knife to kill them, and over time, he uses his intelligence to create weapons and set traps and prove his superiority, not only over the apes, gorillas, and other beasts, but ultimately, over the black natives of Africa as well—the text is very racist in this respect, but the product of Burroughs’ time. It is no accident that Tarzan is descended from English nobility—had his parents been French peasants or blacks, he doubtless would not have been so successful since evolutionary theories also resulted in racist distinctions. Ultimately, Tarzan’s superiority allows him to kill the apes’ leader, Kerchak, so Tarzan can take his own place as “king” of the apes.

Later, when Professor Porter and his party are marooned in Africa, Tarzan encounters not only Jane but also his cousin, William Cecil Clayton, who has inherited Tarzan’s ancestral estate in England because it is assumed Tarzan’s parents died and no one knows of Tarzan’s birth or existence. Tarzan eventually befriends the party, saving Jane from numerous dangers in the jungle—which provides plenty of moments of Gothic horror for everyone except Tarzan who is himself a Gothic horror to the Americans and English in the party, and later, to anyone in the series who crosses Tarzan and feels his wrath.

Dustjacket cover of the first edition of Tarzan published in 1914 following its publication in All Story Magazine in 1912.

Dustjacket cover of the first edition of Tarzan published in 1914 following its publication in All Story Magazine in 1912.

Eventually, Tarzan, with the help of a friend, is able to prove his identity as Lord Greystoke. At first, he conceals and renounces his heritage because Jane is in love with his cousin, Clayton, but everything is worked out for him in the first sequel The Return of Tarzan (1915). Tarzan’s inheritance goes back to the Gothic emphasis upon primogeniture and concerns over who has the right to inherit property and titles. Tarzan’s desire to keep his identity secret is also Gothic in the sense that he possesses a forbidden secret, one he fears will upset the social order, and especially Jane’s happiness. Tarzan is himself not all that keen on revealing his identity and going to live in civilization, which is full of hypocrisy, thieves, and liars—truly a more evil and Gothic place than the jungle where animals are incapable of lying.

In the sequels, Tarzan and Jane spend their time between England and their large property in Africa. Tarzan frequently goes off on adventures in the jungle, including visiting the lost city of Opar (in keeping with the Lost City genre that H. Rider Haggard first invented) and rescuing the occasional white person lost in the jungle.

Burroughs admittedly focuses on evolution far more than the Gothic in the novels. The most horrible creatures in the novels are actually mutants. For example, the ape men of Opar are evolutionary freaks of nature—not at all supernatural. In other novels, Burroughs makes it clear that the natives are superstitious and their religions fake. There is not space in this work to go into detail about all the references to religion and evolution in the Tarzan novels, much less in Burroughs’ other works—notably the Caspak series where characters evolve within their own lifetimes.

Burroughs turns on their head, or even rejects, Gothic themes by the way he treats religion and superstition. He also was clearly aware of many of his contemporaries and predecessors in terms of Gothic and adventure/lost city works. To this day, perhaps the best book on Burroughs’ works is Richard A. Lupoff’s Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure (1965), which includes a thorough discussion of Tarzan’s literary ancestors and his descendants. Most notable among his literary ancestors is H. Rider Haggard’s Nada and the Lily (1892), in which the main character Galazi slays a wolf, wears its skin, and finds he can command the wolves (Lupoff 225-6). Lupoff notes that we do not know Burroughs’ sources or inspiration but he analyzes the most likely sources.

Despite Burroughs’ usual rejection of the supernatural, he made one significant exception that confirms for me Tarzan’s role as a Gothic wanderer figure transformed into a superhero. Tarzan already had the typical hero and Gothic wanderer origins, but he was lacking the trait of having an extended life until late in the series. As decades passed and the novels remained set in the present day, Tarzan obviously had to be aging so Burroughs may have felt he needed a way to keep Tarzan young since obviously a fifty year old man would be less likely to perform incredible feats of strength, including wrestling with crocodiles. Consequently, Burroughs gifted Tarzan with immortal life—and he did it twice.

In Tarzan’s Quest (1936), Burroughs tells the story of two whites who seek the secret to longevity. The secret is held by a bloodthirsty African tribe that creates longevity pills composed of various ingredients, including parts of young girls; consequently, to gain eternal life by swallowing the pills, one must perform an act of cannibalism—reminiscent of Catholic theology where the consumption of the bread and wine are the literal Body and Blood of Christ and by accepting them, one accepts Christ, thereby guaranteeing one’s eternal life. By the end of Tarzan’s Quest, Tarzan has stopped the tribe from performing its rituals, but he is left with several of the pills that he, Jane, and a couple of other characters, including Nkima, Tarzan’s monkey friend, swallow; Tarzan, thereby, becomes immortal. This form of immortality might be dismissed as a scientific concoction, but curiously, Burroughs did not settle for it.

Later in Tarzan and the Foreign Legion (1947), Burroughs has Tarzan explain that he has perpetual life because of a witch doctor he helped while in his youth and who had lived since the eighteenth century. The witch doctor bestowed extended life upon Tarzan in a lengthy ceremony. As a result, Tarzan looks like he’s still in his twenties (he would have been almost sixty by the time of the novel’s publication since he was born in 1888 in the novels. Tarzan states that he might still die by a bullet or from being killed by a wild animal, but he will not die of old age. This time, Tarzan’s immortality is the result of magic or the supernatural—what Burroughs commonly mocked as superstition in his novels, but here as Burroughs himself was aging—he would have been seventy-one when this twenty-second novel in the series was published, and he lived to complete only two more Tarzan books—he finally decided to let a little of the superstitious supernatural creep into the story to keep his character forever young.

Tarzan has now gone from having a typical Gothic origin to achieving Gothic immortality, but without the Gothic preconditions of committing a transgression that would make him cursed to wander and live forever. Instead, Tarzan chooses to extend his own life—just as he has always chosen to live life on his own terms.

I need not go into great detail about Tarzan being a type of superhero. He is really the first superhero character, the first one in the popular imagination, who would quickly become a staple of film and comic books and influence the creation of other superheroes. Not only does Tarzan have incredible strength and amazing athletic abilities, but he is highly intelligent (the literary Tarzan is a far cry from the grunting Johnny Weissmuller film version), and he creates his own form of justice in the jungle. He is the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s Superman, living by his own moral code and rejecting religious paradigms, long before the comic book Superman existed, and although Burroughs prefers terms like “forest god” for Tarzan—and the books are filled with hero worship type terms for him—in Tarzan and the Forbidden City (1938) he is even referred to as “this super-man” (115). Perhaps because Superman debuted as a comic strip in 1938, Burroughs felt he could not use that term but he liked it nevertheless and realized it could be applied to Tarzan so he hyphenated it. In fact, I would argue that Tarzan, because he is human unlike Superman with super powers and from another planet, is a superior creation as far as superheroes go.

In summary, Tarzan has little of the Gothic about him, yet he has Gothic origins in his lost family history, the manuscript he discovers, and his extended life. He has no guilt, and although he has nothing to transgress against, he would not live with guilt if he did commit a transgression. He is autonomous—what the nineteenth century Gothic wanderer had originally wished for but failed to achieve. He is man free of guilt and religion and able to live on his own terms.

___________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is an expert on Gothic fiction and modern Arthurian fiction. He is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series which blends Gothic elements with Arthurian storylines. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Superheroes and the Gothic

One response to “The Legend of Tarzan and the Gothic Tradition

  1. Pingback: The Legend of Tarzan and the Gothic Tradition – Minerva Press

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