This month, the lord of the jungle completes a century of existence. The
vine-swinging, yodelling ape man, whose adventures in the dense forests
of Africa, have enthralled generations of readers, first appeared in the
pulp magazine The All Story, in the October 1912 issue. Since then,
the noble savage -- along with faithful chimp Cheeta (in film) and lady
love, Jane -- has been a popular character who has battled wild animals,
poachers, ferocious tribes and even dinosaurs.
I had a chance to recently interact with two individuals who have had
a close association with Tarzan and his creator Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The first is Bill Hillman who runs a gigantic fansite ( www.ERBzine.com
) dedicated to the author that has over 10,000 fan pages containing everything
under the sun you would ever want to know about the author and his varied
creations that include, apart from Tarzan, icons like John Carter of Mars.
Following is a detailed interview with Bill Hillman followed by an interaction
with John R Burroughs, Edgar Rice's grandson in the next post.
Why has Tarzan appealed to you so much?
Edgar Rice Burroughs,
the creator of Tarzan -- as well as a multitude of other fantastically
exciting heroes and worlds -- possessed a boundless imagination and was
a superb storyteller. Very few people dispute the brilliance of the Edgar
Rice Burroughs' Tarzan series: twenty-five
novels published in over fifty languages, and a countless stream
of comics, radio & TV shows, movies, merchandizing, spinoffs, games,
etc. Over the last century there have been billions of fans and readers,
turning Tarzan into one of the most iconic characters in literature.
The late Ray Bradbury,
himself deeply influenced by ERB, commented, "I love to say it because
it upsets everyone terribly -- "Burroughs is probably the most influential
writer in the entire history of the world." Bradbury also added: "In conversations
over drinks around our country in the past ten years I have been astonished
to discover how often a leading biochemist or archaeologist or space technician
or astronaut when asked: what happened to you when you were ten years old?
Many heroes and superheroes constantly reinvent themselves over the
years but Tarzan has remained more or less unchanged. Why is this so?
He's got everything, really. The Tarzan of ERB’s books is big,
strong, handsome, virile, has a noble spirit, is intelligent (though not
in the movies), but most importantly free from the restrictions of civilized
life. And he is human. He doesn't have super-powers. As suggested recently
by my friend Robin
Maxwell who wrote the just-released book Jane:The
Woman Who Loved Tarzan, Tarzan was the very first superhero
-- actually the first "super-natural" hero -- his powers were altogether
human and emanated from the natural world. The ape-man pre-dated Superman,
Batman, and Spider-Man. He doesn’t have super-powers or a silly costume
with a cape. He possessed neither extraterrestrial attributes nor cool
technology, but -- having been raised by a tribe of "anthropoid apes" --
he was the strongest man on earth, could "fly" through the jungle canopy,
and speak the languages of wild animals. Moreover, he possesses native
intelligence and nobility of spirit and is every man's fantasy, and every
woman's fantasy lover.
Do you feel that his appeal has reduced amongst the younger generation
of readers, who might not identify with him as much as earlier generations
This is true to some extent because there is such huge varied and changing
audience today. We must keep in mind that Tarzan was a product of Edwardian
times. Earlier generations had to read and use their imaginations. They
weren't spoon fed by the razzmatazz of short attention span social media,
YouTube bits, computer games, smart phones, etc. . . . Some of the
morals and sensibilities of the Western world of "the old days" were different,
but Burroughs was ahead of his time in the portrayal of strong women, honourable
heroes, a respect for nature and the need to preserve wildlife and their
natural habitat. He and his creations have also been on the cutting edge
of entertainment media technology over the last 100 years. . . so even
in today's fast-paced world his adventure and science fiction heroes and
stories still capture fans in each new generation.
The character has also had to deal with accusations of being racist
and confirming to a white, colonial stereotype. What is your take on this?
Too many of these critics have not read the Tarzan books, but have
levelled their criticisms at the Tarzan created by Hollywood and parodies
. . . this is not Burroughs' Tarzan. The Burroughs heroes and villains
were from all races. Most of his villains were white European/American
but I've never thought of this as being racist toward my ethnic background
since just as many of his heroes were also of this background. The same
goes for African natives . . . drawing upon accounts from early explorers
he described a few of the tribes as being savages or cannibals. . . but
members of the black Waziri tribe which appear in almost every book were
presented as noble, intelligent, brave and fearless. Equal opportunity
villains were the norm. An adventure story without villains and adversaries
would make for a very boring read.
Burroughs never visited Africa . . . he didn't want to destroy the magic
of the fictional locales he created in his Tarzan novels. But the turn
of the century was an exciting time as the unexplored vastness of
Africa started to reveal its secrets to early explorers and adventurers.
When ERB created Tarzan, Africa was still the "Dark Continent" and the
outside world knew very little about it.
He built up a personal library of resource material www.ERBzine.com/dan
and spent countless hours in the Chicago Library studying the accounts
and illustrations compiled by the early explorers who had studied the Africa
of the earlier Victorian era. Paul
Du Chaillu and J.
W. Buell, were the major sources, both direct and subliminal, of the
Burroughs mind-fix. They provided essential background reading which Burroughs
used systematically for his themes, situations and, significantly, for
There have been many changes in Africa since that time -- not always
for the better -- but the themes created by ERB remain relevant to today's
audience. The Tarzan character has been constantly reinvented and adapted
to contemporary times but Edgar
Rice Burroughs, Inc. in Tarzana,
California have a guide that all writers must follow so as to keep the
ape-man true to ERB's vision of him as a noble, fearless and respected
character. . . and certainly a role model for people of all ages and nationalities.
Do you have a favourite adventure that you dip into often? Also,
what about favourite characters?
The first half dozen novels would have to be favourites although there
are numerous later titles that also fire my imagination and invite ongoing
re-reads. A favourite among the later books is his last Tarzan novel, Tarzan
and "The Foreign Legion" -- a WWII story written during Burroughs's
time in the Pacific Theatre where he served as the oldest
correspondent in WWII -- a role that took him on bombing missions,
warships, and to islands across the Pacific which were still occupied by
The favourite character would have to be Tarzan, but there is a multitude
of other intriguing and colourful characters such as his mate, Jane, as
well as La of Opar, Jad-bal-ja, the Waziri, Korak, and so many of the characters
in the lost civilizations that Burroughs invented.