In 1932 Edgar Rice Burroughs somewhat reluctantly undertook a writing assignment for Writer’s Digest in which he was asked to explain the “theme” of Tarzan. Anyone who knew ERB and his manner of talking about his work would immediately understand that this would be a difficult task for Burroughs, who resisted efforts to elevate his work above the pulp neighborhood where they had found success. But he took on the task, and the result is an entertaining and insightful article which eventually reveals some strong insights into Burroughs thinking on Tarzan and, indirectly, on his other heroes, including John Carter. So here, then, is The Tarzan Theme, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
THE TARZAN THEME
by Edgar Rice Burroughs for Writer’s Digest
Some one is always taking the joy out of life. For twenty years I proceed blissfully writing stories to keep the wolf from my door, and to cause other people to forget for an hour or two the wolves at their doors, and then up pops the editor of Writer’s Digest and asks me for an article on the Tarzan theme.
Frankly, there ain’t no such animal; or if there is I didn’t know it.
Breathlessly, I flew to Mr. Webster, determined to create a Tarzan theme with his assistance; but I was disappointed in somehow not finding Tarzan in the dictionary. But I did find “theme”. Webster calls it: “A subject or topic on which a person writes or speaks; a proposition for discussion or argument; a text.”
That definition simplified my task, for under this definition the Tarzan theme consists of one word – Tarzan.
THE REAL ESTATE BUSINESS
This is a helpful solution because it is easy, and right now I am as busy as the w.k. one-armed paper hanger with the hives. I have to write two novels a year in addition to other writing; I am publishing my own books now, two a year, which entails a tremendous amount of detail; then there are seven newspaper strips a week in addition to motion pictures and radio. Being in the real estate business as a side-line adds to my labors, thought not greatly for the past two years, as any realtor will tell you, unless paying taxes comes under the head of labor.
On top of all this, I have recently acquired by foreclosure a championship eighteen-hole golf course at Tarzana, California, which I have partially opened to the public for tournament play.
A few days ago a good-natured columnist commented on my activities in the New York Evening Telegram as follows:
“Edgar Rice Burroughs is marketing his book, Jungle Girl, from his home in Tarzana, California. Mr. Burroughs is the nation’s sixth largest industry, now that steel and railroads are slowing up.”
Had he known about the golf course I think he might have moved me up.
There is, however, one great advantage in all these activities. I have always required a great deal of exercise, but he amount that I must now take is considerably lessened by the fact that all these things, especially the real estate business, make me sweat without any other effort.
AN UNDEMANDING THEME
Getting back to the theme — “a proposition for discussion or argument,” says Mr. Webster. The Tarzan stories are a means for avoiding discussion or argument, so that definition is out, and there only remains the last, “a text”. As this connotes sermonizing we shall have to hit it on the head, which leaves me nothing at all to write about on the Tarzan theme.
Tarzan does not preach; he has no lesson to impart, no propaganda to disseminate. Yet, perhaps unconsciously, while seeking merely to entertain I have injected something of my own admiration for certain fine human qualities into these stories of the ape-man.
It is difficult and even impossible for me to take these Tarzan stories seriously, and I hope that no one else will ever take them seriously. If they serve any important purpose, it is to take their readers out of the realm of serious things and give them that mental relaxation which I believe to be as necessary as the physical relaxation of sleep — which makes a swell opening for some dyspeptic critic.
I recall that when I wrote the first Tarzan story twenty years ago, I was mainly interested in playing with the idea of a contest between heredity and environment. For this purpose I selected an infant child of a race strongly marked by hereditary characteristics of the finer and nobler sort; and at an age at which he could not have been influenced by association with creatures of his own kind. I threw him into an environment as diametrically opposite that to which he had been born as I might well conceive.
As I got into the story I realized that the logical result of this experiment must have been a creature that would have failed to inspire the sympathy of the ordinary reader, and that for fictional purposes I must give heredity some breaks that my judgment assured me the facts would not have warranted. And so Tarzan grew into a creature endowed only with the best characteristics of the human family from which he was descended, and the best of those which mark the wild beasts that were his only associates from infancy until he had reached man’s estate.
THE BURROUGHS PHILOSOPHY
It has pleased me throughout the long series of Tarzanian exploits to draw comparisons between the manners of men and the manner so beasts, and seldom to the advantage of men. Perhaps I hoped to shame men into being more like the beasts in those respects in which the beasts excel men, and these are not few.
I wanted my readers to realize that, of all the creatures that inhabit the earth or the waters below or the air above, man alone takes life wantonly; he is the only creature that derives pleasure from inflicting pain on other creatures, even his own kind. Jealously, greed, hate, spitefulness are more fully developed in man than in the lower orders. These are axiomatic truths that require no demonstration.
ANIMALS NOT CRUEL
Even the lion is merciful when he makes his kill, thought doubtless not intentionally so; and the psychology of terror aids the swift mercy of his destruction. Men who have been charged and mauled by lions, and lived to tell of the experience, felt neither fear nor pain during the experience.
In the quite reasonable event that this statement may arouse some skepticism, permit me to quote from that very splendid work on animals, Mother Nature, by William J. Long, a book that should be read by every adult and be required reading in every high school course in the land:
“There are other and more definite experiences from which to form a judgment, and of these the adventure of Livingstone is the first to be considered, since he was probably the firs to record the stupefying effect of a charging animal. The great missionary and explorer was once severely mauled by a lion, his flesh being torn in eleven places by the brute’s claws, and his shoulder crushed by the more terrible fangs. Here is a condensation of the story, as recorded in Missionary Travels and Research in South Africa:
“‘Growling horribly close to my ear, the lion shook me as a terrier does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror.'”
Compare this, then, with the methods of the present day gangster who cruelly tortures his victims before he kills him. The lion sought only to kill, not to inflict pain. Recall the methods of the Inquisition, and then search the records of man’s experiences with lions, tigers, or any of the more formidable creatures of the wild for a parallel in studied cruelty.
Let me quote one more interesting instance given in Mr. Long’s book:
“We open at random to the experience of an English officer who, in 1895, was fearfully clawed and bitten by a lion, and who writes of the experience:
“‘Regarding my sensations during the time the attack upon me by the lion was in progress, I had no feeling of pain whatever, although there was a distinct feeling of being bitten; that is, I was perfectly conscious independently of seeing the performance, that the lion was gnawing at me, but there was no pain. To show that the feeling, or rather want of it, was in no wise due to excessive terror I may mention that, whilst my thighs were being gnawed, I took two cartridges out of the breast pocket of my shirt and threw them to the Kaffir, who was hovering a few yards away, telling him to load my rifle.'”
Perhaps I am not wise in giving further publicity to these statements, since they must definitely take much of the thrill out of Tarzan stories by placing lion mauling in a category with interesting and pleasurable experiences.
Having demonstrated that the most savage animals in their most terrifying moods reveal qualities far less terrible than those possessed by man, let us see how association with these beasts combined with the hereditary instincts of a noble bloodline to produce in Tarzan a character finer than either of the sources from which it derived.
Necessity required him to kill for food and in defense of his life, but the example of his savage associates never suggested that pleasure might be found in killing, and the chivalry that was in his blood stream prevented him imagining such pleasure in youth without such example. His viewpoint toward death was seemingly callous, but it was without cruelty.
His attitude toward women and other creatures weaker than he, was partially the result of innate chivalry; partially the natural outcome of a feeling of superiority engendered both by knowledge of his mental or physical superiority to every creature that had had come within his ken, and by heredity; and partially by an indifference born of absolute clean-mindedness and perfection of health.
THE APPEAL OF ESCAPE
His appeal to an audience is so tremendous that it never ceases to be a source of astonishment to me. This appeal, I believe, is based upon an almost universal admiration of these two qualities, and the natural inclination of every normal person to enjoy picturing himself as either heroic or beautiful or both. Linked to these is the constant urge to escape that is becoming stronger in all of us prisoners of civilization as civilization becomes more complex.
We wish to escape not alone the narrow confines of city streets for the freedom of the wilderness, but the restrictions of man-made laws, and the inhibitions that society has placed upon us. We like to picture ourselves as roaming free, the lords of ourselves and of our world; in other words, we would each like to be Tarzan. At least I would; I admit it.
Unconsciously or consciously, we seek to emulate the creatures we admire. Doubtless there are many people trying to be like the late Theodore Roosevelt, or like Robert Millikan, or Jack Dempsey, or Doug Fairbanks, because they greatly admire one of these characters. Fiction characters are just as real to most of us as are these celebrities of today or the past; d’Artagnan is as much flesh and blood as Napoleon. Perhaps the influence of d’Artagnan has had a finer influence upon the forming of character than has that of the great Corsican.
To indicate the force for good which a fiction character may exercise, I can do no better than cite the testimony of Eddie Eagan, Amateur Heavyweight Champion of the World, whose very interesting series of articles appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. As a boy Eagan read the Frank Merriwell books, and his admiration for this fiction character shaped his future life. Among other achievements Merriwell became an athlete and a Yale man, and these became two of Eagan’s ambitions. Although a poor boy, Eagan worked his way through an education, first in college in Denver, then through Yale, and finally Oxford; and he became one of the greatest athletes of our times.
Years ago, when I came to a realization of the hold that Tarzan had taken upon the imaginations of many people, I was glad that I had made of him the sort of character that I had; and since then I have been careful not to permit him to let his foot slip, no matter what the temptation. I must admit that at times this has been difficult when I have placed him in situations where I would not have been quite sure of my own footing, and it has also not been easy to keep him from being a Prude.
On the whole, however, I must have been more or less successful, for all ages and both sexes continue to admire him; and he goes his bloody way scattering virtue and sudden death indiscriminately and in all directions.
He may not be a force for good; and if he entertains, that is all I care about; but I am sure that he is not a force for evil, which is something these days.