What Makes Tarzan Act That Way?
By Edgar Rice Burroughs
Boston Sunday Post ~ June 19, 1938
(A revised version of the June 1932 article
from Writer's Digest: The
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.
"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
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.
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.
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
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:
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
"'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.'"
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
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
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
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