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Volume 0446
Nkima's Chattering
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Shoulder #15

The Dreams of Tarzan
David Arthur Adams

Tarzan was born the same night on the day his mother was attacked by one of the apes from the tribe that would eventually raise him.  Lady Alice suffered from the shock of the attack, which caused her to lie unconscious for two hours, during which time her mind transformed the events into a nightmare.  When she awoke, her mind no longer accepted the reality of their situation, and the shock probably hastened the birth of her son.  After John Clayton Jr’s birth, she imagined that they were living in England for the entire year before her death when she quietly passed away in the night.
"O, John, it is so good to be really home!  I have had an awful dream, dear.  I thought we were no longer in London, but in some horrible place where great beasts attacked us."

"There, there, Alice," he said, stroking her forehead, "try to sleep again, and do not worry your head about bad dreams."

That night a little son was born in the tiny cabin beside the primeval forest, while a leopard screamed before the door, and the deep notes of a lion's roar sounded from beyond the ridge. (chapter 3 - Tarzan of the Apes)

Thus Tarzan was born of a nightmare, and furthermore into the very nightmare had by his mother just before his delivery.  This presaging dream in the case of Tarzan was more than a simple nightmare because it was based upon real events and served as a foreshadowing device of the novel.  The ape who had attacked her had fallen dead across the prostrate body of Lady Alice, and thus Tarzan yet in the womb was covered and claimed by an ape in a symbolic manner.  This sign would be later fulfilled when Tarzan was claimed by Kala, his ape foster-mother.

Dreams of prediction before the birth of heroes were common in the classical legends of ancient Greece and Rome.  The father of Alexander the Great was said to have had a dream of a seal upon his wife’s body in the figure of a lion before the birth of his famous son.  (Plutarch, 802).

J. Allen St. JohnJ. Allen St. JohnJ. Allen St. JohnJ. Allen St. JohnJ. Allen St. John
Dreams in Jungle Tales of Tarzan
It seems likely that the material that made up these 12 tales of Tarzan’s youth was gathered by ERB himself during his trip to the Greystoke estate in Kenya some time during 1913 or early 1914.  [It is likely that Tarzan recounted the events of “Beasts” to ERB during this same time -- recorded in “Eternal Lover.”] (Huckenpöhler). This fact may account for the unusual short story form employed by Burroughs since he was trying to connect a series of more or less disconnected oral narratives told by Lord Greystoke when asked to supply further information about his childhood.

One of these stories, or memories of Tarzan, recounted a series of nightmares he had as a young man seven years previous when he was about 18-years-old.  They occurred about a year after the death of Kala during which he was in an adversarial position with the cannibal village of Mbonga.

Tarzan was still very much of a feral child at this time, who had just met other human beings.  He found them interesting, but still identified more with the apes than with the natives.  The fact that he killed an old man for a piece of meat reflects these facts. (chapter ten, Apes).

The following account is from my lengthy version of the chapter summary of Jungle Tales, which exists in an edited form at Tangor’s Official Summary Site.

J. Allen St. JohnJ. Allen St. JohnJ. Allen St. JohnJ. Allen St. JohnJ. Allen St. John

Chapter 9 - The Nightmare

Burne Hogarth - Jungle Tales of Tarzan graphic novel

Burne Hogarth - Jungle Tales of Tarzan graphic novel

Burne Hogarth - Jungle Tales of Tarzan graphic novel

Burne Hogarth - Jungle Tales of Tarzan graphic novel

Tarzan is hungry, for he has been unable to make a kill all day.  He watches the blacks in the village of Mbonga having a feast of elephant meat.  He does not know that it is tainted. Since there are so many warriors around the cooking pot, he knows he will have to wait until the blacks gorge themselves to stupor, then sneak into the village for scraps.

One old man stays awake gorging himself on the meat.  Tarzan is disgusted and compares him with Dango, the hyena.  He can wait no longer, so he enters the village and strangles the old man to death.  Tarzan  takes some of the meat, then shoves the dead man into the cooking pot.  There is no mercy shown.  Tarzan is about to enter into a dark adventure.

Tarzan returns to the jungle and eats the tainted elephant meat.  He did not like it, but he is very hungry.  He wants to vomit, but he holds the impulse down. Tarzan falls asleep and enters a dream.   He has a nightmare about a lion who climbs his tree and follows him into the upper terraces.

Rather fancifully, ERB calls this Tarzan’s “first dream.”  He merely states it this way for literary effect, and perhaps because it was the first dream that Tarzan told him during his visit to the Greystoke estate.  Even though Tarzan and Burroughs attribute the dream to the effects of tainted elephant meat, the details that arose from his subconscious mind, can allow a dream interpreter interesting material concerning the workings of the feral child’s unconscious psyche.

This must have been a powerful dream for Tarzan because it was still vivid in his memory so many years later.  It might be what Jungians call an “archtypal dream,” one that is indicative of the hidden parts of the mind -- what is termed “the shadow.”

Here then is a brief interpretation of Tarzan’s “first dream.”

It begins with a lion roaring from below the tree in which Tarzan is sleeping.  Tarzan thinks that he is awake, the way we often feel in dreams.  The lion’s roar is later identified as a real lion sounding off beneath his sleeping crotch, but this is merely the trigger that starts the subconscious weaving of the dream web.

When the lion climbs the tree like Sheeta, the panther, Tarzan is not surprised, but he tries to escape by climbing higher and higher.  This is a common “pursuit by an adversary” dream that is ubiquitous to human beings and will probably always will be.  Tarzan undoubtedly had this particular dream many times before, as did most likely all the apes of his tribe.  The lion may have a symbolic meaning, but it is more likely that it is simply a normal dream transposition of a member of the cat family, which were all enemies of the apes.

Burroughs is fond of telling us that Tarzan had no sense of fear, yet his unconscious mind held this shadow of fear, as it undoubtedly did for all simians.  Leopards can hunt small monkeys into the trees, although it is unlikely that this lone hunter would attack a large group of anthropoids such as the mangani.  Still there was the constant danger of ambush, as revealed in chapter 3 “The Fight for the Balu” where Tarzan saves Teeka’s baby from a leopard attack.

Jungle Tales of Tarzan ~ G&D DJ by MonroeJ. Allen St. JohnJ. Allen St. JohnJapanese Edition
Near the end of chapter 5 of Jungle TalesTarzan and the Black Boy” Tarzan is reported by ERB to have killed a Numa, a male lion, with a spear cast near the heart, then side-stepping, the ape-man finished his kill with two strokes of his knife to the lion’s spine.  No victory cry is recorded.
Since this part of the story is completely superfluous to the artistic balance or meaning of the whole, I read it as an interpolation to Lord Greystoke’s original story in which he told Burroughs how he had observed the lioness with her dead cub, which led him to return the boy to his mother.  The kill does not even seem typical with Tarzan standing in silence after making his first recorded kill of a Numa.

The difficultly of killing a male lion aside, for Tarzan was certainly capable of the act,  the dream of the young Tarzan seems to reflect the ongoing quest to accomplish this feat.  The constant struggle with Sabor, the lioness, is a strong theme in Tarzan of the Apes, and it seems unlikely that Tarzan had so casually killed a male lion previously.  Burroughs was either mistaken in his notes or he thought that the addition of a lion kill at the end of the story would spice it up a bit.

The Numa of the dream was a real threat to Tarzan because he had not yet killed one in hand-to-hand combat.  Killing a leopard or a lioness with a spear is one thing, but killing a full grown male lion with nothing more than a spear and a knife is the accomplishment of a mature hero.

The lioness was the member of “Numa’s people” that Tarzan struggled with again and again during the first half of Tarzan of the Apes.  A lioness had killed Tarzan’s cousin ape in chapter 5 when Tarzan escaped and learned how to swim in a single stroke.  After killing Tublat with his father’s knife, Tarzan was obsessed with the desire to kill and skin Sabor, the lioness.

"Many moons ago, when he had been much smaller, he had desired the skin of Sabor, the lioness, or Numa, the lion, or Sheeta, the leopard to cover his hairless body that he might no longer resemble hideous Histah, the snake; but now he was proud of his sleek skin for it betokened his descent from a mighty race, and the conflicting desires to go naked in prideful proof of his ancestry, or to conform to the customs of his own kind and wear hideous and uncomfortable apparel found first one and then the other in the ascendancy.

As the tribe continued their slow way through the forest after the passing of Sabor, Tarzan's head was filled with his great scheme for slaying his enemy, and for many days thereafter he thought of little else."  (Chapter 8, Apes )

Tarzan does finally kill and take the pelt of a lioness in chapter 11 of Apes.  He also eats of her flesh without much satisfaction.

This killing of a lioness and flaunting the carcass before Kerchak leads to the famous battle in which he becomes the King of the Apes, but this slaying of “one of Numa’s people” does not occur before the dream in question.  In fact, Tarzan does not kill a male lion until he saves another Lord Greystoke, William Cecil Clayton, in chapter 14 of Apes.

Here is the true account of a Numa killed with full symbolic intent.  Tarzan saves his cousin, who holds his title and property, from a male lion, and he does it with remarkable style.

Not content with riding on the back of the lion while plunging his knife into its side, Tarzan first marks Numa as his own with an arrow from his bow.  Then wrapping a right arm around the lion’s neck, he stands him up, rampant, on his back legs “as easily as Clayton would have lifted a pet dog.”  He then makes his kill with his left hand, striking the lion’s heart, which is made available by the extreme position held by a single arm.  He does this so quickly that the lion does not even have time to react.  It is a magnificent scene that is scarcely matched in any of his other recorded kills of male lions.  Indeed, this is Tarzan’s first kill of a male lion, not the interpolation in Jungle Tales.

When this mighty act is accomplished, Tarzan proceeds to eat the lion’s flesh (and undoubtedly his heart), motioning Clayton to join him, which he refuses, foreshadowing the fact that he will not take part in the future Greystoke succession.

This recounting of the facts of Tarzan’s life places his youthful dream in a new perspective.  The pursuit of the Numa into Tarzan’s tree represents a real threat that he will only be able to meet with success in his full maturity.  He climbs as high as he can go on this “tree of life” and finds himself literally and symbolically “out on a limb.”  Just as he is about to be struck down by the lion, he enters the “second part” of the dream, which involves the instinctive simian “fear of falling,”  another dream with which everyone is completely familiar.

Tarzan is saved from the lion by a “great bird” (one he had seen in a picture book in the little cabin).  The claws dig into his back with numbing pain, and he is carried to a great height. Tarzan stabs the bird with his knife and  falls down toward the distant jungle.

First Edition DJ by J. Allen St. JohnUK editionUK Pinnacle EditionFrank Frazetta Ace CoverJungle Tales of Tarzan by Joe JuskoCharlton Comics - Jungle Tales of Tarzan

Besides being a simple instinctive dream about primitive fears, Burroughs tells us that Tarzan linked it with his childhood at the cabin where he saw a picture in a book with “a great bird flying far above the ground with a small child in its talons while, beneath, a distracted mother stood with uplifted hands.”

It seems quite obvious that Burroughs intends the dream to symbolize Tarzan’s abduction during infancy.  It is difficult to know what the 10-year-old feral child actually thought about this picture, but it obviously affected him in a strong way.  Perhaps some screen memories of his childhood abduction by apes was at work here -- the flight of the great bird being what he vaguely remembered of being whisked through the trees by Kala.

The dream and the memory is a painful one to Tarzan.  The talons of the bird dig into his back and shoulders, and he resists the climbing bird that takes him high above the forest.  Striking with his knife, he wounds the bird, and it drops him into the very branch where he is sleeping.  In falling dreams, we usually wake up before we hit the ground.

The grasping instinct also came into play at the end of the dream for, as Tarzan wakes, he really falls out of the tree, but “clutching wildly, he succeeded in grasping the branch and hanging on.”

{I had a personal experience of the grasping instinct that left me absolutely dumbfounded.  Once when I was climbing on a huge pile of trees left in the forest by woodcutters, I fell backwards and in the next instant found myself hanging by both hands from a branch that I did not even “know” was there.  We have old reactions in us yet that we hardly realize.}

We now return to take a look at Tarzan’s “second dream” in my expanded chapter summary of Jungle Tales.

Tarzan enters a second dream.  This time Histah, the snake, comes to him with the head of the old man Tarzan had shoved into the cooking pot.  Histah tries to seize him in his jaws.  Tarzan strikes at him and the apparition disappears.  He awakens, and a caterpillar is crawling on his naked thigh.

J. Allen St. JohnBurne Hogarth ~ Jungle Tales of Tarzan
We might imagine that this dream was the beginning of a conscience in Tarzan.  Somehow he regrets having killed the old man for a piece of meat even though he does not yet consider killing natives to be wrong.

Previously, in chapter six of Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs noted that one of the picture books Tarzan saw as a child contained  images of both Sabor and Histah, so this link seems to have something to do with the civilized part of Tarzan’s past since a picture book was mentioned in the first dream.

The dream sequence referring to a kind of (human) racial memory as well as instinct does not seem out of place in ERB’s way of thinking.  Tarzan was on the verge of becoming more of a man than an ape, and these dreams reflected this internal struggle in his psyche.

Burroughs suggests that Tarzan’s dreams brought him “the first faint tinge of a knowledge of fear, a knowledge which Tarzan, awake, had never experienced.”  He goes on to explain how these fears led to superstition and religion in the history of mankind.  These thoughts lead us into theories of social science and away from the question of Tarzan’s personal shadow, which has already been revealed in the dreams themselves.

Tarzan does know the meaning of fear, but it does not paralyze his ability to act swiftly and decisively.  Perhaps, what Burroughs wanted to say was that Tarzan was neither bound nor driven by his neuroses.

Tarzan has one nightmare after another and wakes in the morning very ill.  He crawls into a thicket to die alone and unseen.  He sleeps until afternoon and wakes weak but no longer sick.  He then goes to the cabin by the sea. While looking through a picture book in the cabin he sees a Bolgani, a gorilla.  He falls asleep and awakens to see a Bolgani standing in the doorway.  Tarzan thinks he is dreaming again, but he is not.  The gorilla carries Tarzan away over his shoulder, and when he tries to escape to close the cabin door, which the ape has left open, the gorilla sinks his great fangs into his shoulder.  Tarzan kills the gorilla with his knife. He places a foot on the carcass voices the kill cry of the bull ape.  Tarzan has made the right choice, yet he smells the gorilla’s blood to make certain. Tarzan does not know what is real and what is not, but he knows he will never again eat the flesh of Tantor, the elephant.

Japanese Tarzan of the Apes from the Tom Lindgren CollectionJungle Tales of Tarzan by Burne HogarthBurne Hogarth
This episode is almost too good to be true.  Burroughs seems to be retelling Tarzan’s youthful struggle with a gorilla at his father’s cabin when he was 10-years-old in chapter 6 of Tarzan of the Apes.  If it is an authentic account from Lord Greystoke, it is quite remarkable that he would state that he did not know what was real and what was not.  Tarzan was an eminently practical man not given to philosophical speculation about anything.

“If this was a sleep adventure, what then was reality?  How was he to know the one from the other?  How much of all that had happened in his life had been real and how much unreal?” (Jungle Tales, 233).

I suspect that ERB is musing here about matters that he takes up in detail in his novel, “The Eternal Lover,” which is an account of what happened during his journey to Tarzan’s estate in 1913 during which he collected the accounts of Tarzan’s early dreams.  Nevertheless, it makes a good ending to his story on the topic of dreams, which was not often a matter taken up so directly in his writings.

[Some of the ideas in this essay are developments of my “Soul of the Lion,” the first draft of which was published in ERBapa # 47 in 1995.  This is an ongoing project that I have thought and written about for 5 years now.  It is a topic that I have not yet fully developed despite the many pages of manuscript that have come under my pen, yet it is one whose potential may someday come into fruition should I concentrate my efforts upon it without any other distractions.}


Burroughs, Edgar Rice, Tarzan of the Apes
-----------------------, Jungle Tales of Tarzan
Huckenpöhler, ERBapa No. 61, “The Author and the Characters:  A Summary of the Known Meetings Between ERB and His Principle Subjects (Part II:  The Clayton Connection)"
Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Modern Library

3227 words
Written July 16, 2000

Internet Dream References

Dreams and Nightmares
The Dream - Henri Rousseau

Online Dream Dictionary
animals: These often show our instincts, our urges. Especially aggressive and sexual urges. Animals with sharp teeth (sharks, tigers, crocodiles etc.) usually imply aggression. Our own aggression or that of others. Is somebody attacked in the dream? Remember, you yourself have created the wild animal in order to chase that particular person.
bird: Symbol of new ideas and of the soul.
forest: Ancient symbols of the unconscious. A good guide can show  you surprising parts of yourself.
night:: A symbol of the unconscious.
sun: Symbolizes insight. It is usually a very good sign if the sun is shining in your dreams.
tree: A green or flowering tree is a positive symbol. It promises life and vitality.
wounded/wound: If we get hurt in a dream, this usually indicates that we feel 'mentally wounded' (by one thing or another). Dreams in which we die can sometimes have this meaning as well.

Illustrated Dream Anthology
Dream Research Links
The Dream Foundation

Dream Quotes
Bob Dylan
 "I am against nature. I don't dig nature at all. I think nature is very unnatural. I think the truly natural things are dreams, which  nature can't touch with decay."

Lyndon B. Johnson
"Learn from your dreams what you lack."

Henry David Thoreau
"Love is an attempt to change a piece of a dream-world into reality."

Leonardo da Vinci
"Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?"

George Bernard Shaw
 "You see things and you say 'Why?'. But I dream things that never were, and I say 'Why Not?'"

Lord Alfred Tennyson

"Maybe the wildest dreams are but the needful preludes of the truth."

See ERB C.H.A.S.E.R. Jungle Tales of Tarzan
ERBzine 0492

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