Tarzan And The ABCs
Edgar Rice Burroughs And Cryptography
One of the most difficult problems in understanding Tarzan Of The Apes as an allegory of the progress of man has been Burroughs tale of how Tarzan learned to read and write English from books without knowing how to speak it.
I have found this part of the story a real stumbling block accounting for it by reducing the story to mere fantasy. I'm sure that most readers not repulsed by the seeming unreality did so also.
I'm happy to report that Edgar Rice Burroughs was a much better informed and deeper thinker than even I thought. I recently discovered (Sat. 2/5/05, 9:30 AM) that Burroughs' account of Tarzan's literacy is not only possible but plausible and probable. True, one has to accept that Tarzan was a mental as well as a physical giant but as you have to accept that to read the books it's not difficult.
I came across this passage in John Chadwick's work The Decipherment Of Linear B. For those not familiar with it Linear B was the script of Mycenean and Cretan Greece. Michael Ventris broke the code in 1952-54 by using the below method. It is noteworthy that he thought he was working with an Etruscan language while by following his method he discovered that he was working with an early Greek dialect. The passage which interested me is this one:Cryptology has now contributed a new weapon to the student of unknown scripts. (English was an unknown script to Tarzan.) It is now generally known that any code can in theory be broken, provided sufficient examples of coded texts are available. (Tarzan had a whole library including a dictionary.) the only method by which to achieve complete security is to ensure continuous change in the coding system, (English had no security being an unvarying code.) or to make the code so complicated that the amount of material necessary to break it can never be obtained. (N/A) The detailed procedures are irrelevant, but the basic principle is the analysis and indexing of coded texts, so that the underlying patterns and regularities can be discovered. (That's how Burroughs describes Tarzan's method.) If a number of instances can be collected, it may appear that a certain group of signs in the coded text has a particular function, it may, for example, serve as a conjunction. A knowledge of the circumstances in which a message was sent may lead to other identifications, and from these tenuous gains further progress becomes possible, until the meaning of most of the coded words is known. The application to unknown languages is obvious; (English was an unknown language to Tarzan.) such methods enable the decipherer to determine the meaning of sign-groups without knowing how to pronounce the signs. Indeed it is possible to imagine a case where texts in an unknown language might be understood without finding the phonetic value of a single sign.Burroughs certainly imagined it. There is the essential method Burroughs used to allow Tarzan to decipher English as an unknown language. Tarzan already knew ape talk which although crude was still a language so he was familiar with language. Burroughs also provided pictures at an elemental level to guide Tarzan to the meaning of words.
So now that it is proven that Tarzan could have decoded English that in turn raises another question. How did ERB come across this cryptographic knowledge. He sure didn't invent it out of whole cloth.
Just to firmly establish his antecedents let us quote from a story that we know he knew well, Edgar Allan Poe's Murders In The Rue Morgue.As the strong man exhibits his physical ability, delighting in such exercises to call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his intellect into play. He is fond of enigmas, conundrums, hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension as praeternatural. His results brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have in truth, the whole air of intuition.As far as I'm concerned this is a good thumbnail description of Burroughs. For a certain type of person this is a real mind tickler. Let us assume that ERB is bearing this quote in mind as he trundles down the road with his bindle over his shoulder. Perhaps he is also thinking of Poe's "The Gold Bug." Whistling to himself as he walked along he may have thought: 'Gosh, I wish I could write something like those two.'
Now, is there anywhere else in Burroughs' own writing that might provide a clue as to where his direction toward Tarzan's cryptanalysis may have been given an impetus. Richard A. Lupoff believes that Burroughs whole corpus was one large web of his life experience. Who am I to gainsay a Burroughs scholar of such depth and acumen?
One of the finest characters Burroughs ever created was little Willie Case of Bridge And The Oskaloosa Kid. He has a wonderful little scene reminiscent of the lives of many of us who are able to weave dreams from many summers in which Willie confronted by the great mystery of the tramps goes upstairs to consult a little volume he got through the mail entitled "How To Be A Detective."
Burroughs implies a certain familiarity with such literary efforts so he puts Willie in the ridiculous situation of trying to apply urban solutions to a rural setting. Willie throws the book across the room in disgust as I'm sure ERB may have done as a young boy.
However the most important chapter in these tomes, to many of us, was the one on how to encode secret notes. The cryptography chapter. C-R-Y-P-T. The word is so secret sounding it is almost unpronounceable. Four consonants and a pseudo-vowel. God, it was mysterious just to say it. It was Egypt. Just breathes mystery. Weird and wonderful stuff.
I don't know anybody in my neighborhood who wasn't entranced by cryptography. Just look at that word for a moment. Superstrange. I'm sure, well, we know Burroughs was entranced.
He couldn't have worked out the detailed method he gives us on the spot as he was writing. He must have begun working it out years before perhaps beginning at the same time he sent for the books on fingerprints.
So while he was sitting around waiting for orders for his pencil sharpeners he may also have had a copy of Willie Case's detective book to amuse himself which may have contained a cryptographical chapter containing at least the germ of the method for decoding an unknown language. Then he probably worked at it until he had devised a sound method which seems almost praeternatural in its solution. ERB and EAP.
At the very least ERB is more talented than we imagined.
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