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Volume 7187

by Alan Hanson

 Soothing Savage Nerves: 
Tarzan and the Cigarette
by Alan Hanson
“If he smoked too many cigarettes and drank too much absinth it was because he took civilization as he found it, and did the things that he found his civilized brothers dong.”

It’s hard to visualize the noble savage with a cigarette in his mouth, but then Tarzan was not so noble at times, as the above quote from The Return of Tarzan indicates. However, Tarzan’s periodic moral failings should not be overemphasized, for they were few in number and practiced with some discretion. His smoking of cigarettes is a good example. Tarzan did smoke, but only during those times he visited civilization. He never polluted the air of his beloved African homeland with tobacco smoke.

Tarzan seems never to have known about smoking cigarettes before the age of 20, when he left his jungle to search for the woman he loved. In Tarzan of the Apes, the only character seen smoking is John Clayton, Tarzan’s father, who calmly smoked his pipe as the Fulwada mutineers butchered their officers. Not even the natives of Mbonga smoked, despite practicing several more degrading habits.

Where did Tarzan learn to smoke, then? It could have been in Paris, where D’Arnot took him after they left Africa, or it could have been in America either before or after Jane jilted him. All that can be said for sure is that the first time Tarzan is seen smoking is in The Return of Tarzan aboard the steamer taking the ape-man back to France after his ill-fated meeting with Jane. On the third day out from New York, Tarzan entered the ship’s smoking room and lit up. There, “he sat musing over his cigarette,” thinking about the past and anticipating his return to the jungle. As he sat there, he watched a card game in a mirror and was thus able to save the honor of the Count de Coude, who had been accused of cheating.

When Tarzan is next seen smoking, it is once again in an encounter with De Coude, but under far different circumstances. Some few weeks later, Tarzan met the count on a field of honor outside Paris to answer for an intimate encounter with the count’s wife a week earlier. As Monsieur Flaubert explained the procedure for the duel, “Tarzan selected a cigarette from his case, and lighted it.” That cigarette symbolized the ape-man’s total indifference to the outcome of the duel, and at the same time saved his life, for how Tarzan handled his smoke unnerved his opponent. “The attitude of the ape-man — the utter indifference that was so apparent in every line of the nonchalant ease of his giant figure, and the even, unruffled puffing of his cigarette — had disconcerted the best marksman in France."

Of course, following the duel, Tarzan and De Coude became friends, leading the count to arrange a position for Tarzan with the French ministry of War. While serving in that position in Northern Africa, Tarzan smoked for the third and final time in The Return of Tarzan. There in the desert, Lt. Gernois ordered Tarzan to wait behind while the French soldiers scoured the hills for marauders. “The sun was so hot, he (Tarzan) sought the shelter of a nearby tree, where he tethered his horse, and sat down upon the ground to smoke.”

That may have been the last cigarette ERB ever intended Tarzan to smoke, for with his return to the jungle, the ape-man seemed to have kicked the smoking habit, along with other degenerating influences of civilization. It’s not that Tarzan didn’t have the opportunity to smoke, for on a couple of occasions he was offered a cigarette. When Tarzan and Lt. Harold Percy Smith-Oldwick were trapped in a cave by lions in Tarzan the Untamed, the lieutenant reached into his pocket. “May I smoke?” he asked Tarzan, explaining, “I have been hoarding a few cigarettes and if it won’t attract those bounders out there I would like to have one last smoke before I cash in. Will you join me?” Tarzan’s nerves apparently didn’t need soothing then, for he responded, “No, thanks,” adding, “but it will be all right if you smoke. No wild animal is particularly fond of the fumes of tobacco so it certainly won’t entice them any closer.”

Smith-Oldwick was not the only outsider to bring his cigarettes to Tarzan’s Africa. Many of the others who did were men of admirable character, such as Barney Custer in The Eternal Lover, James Blake in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, Erich von Harben in Tarzan and the Lost Empire, and Danny “Gunner” Patrick in Tarzan Triumphant. At other times, Burroughs was less than sympathetic to men who brought their civilized, and therefore disgusting habits, smoking among them, to Tarzan’s Africa. For instance, Mullargan and Marks, the heavyweight champion and his manager, in Tarzan and the Champion, had just finished mowing down a herd of zebra with a machine-gun, when they found a peaceful, shady spot to light their cigars and enjoy a few moments of relaxation. 

Tarzan didn’t use cigarettes in Africa, probably because he didn’t need to smoke. He saw smoking as a habit used to soothe society’s artificial pressures, none of which existed in the natural environment of his country. Listen to the exchange between the displaced Englishman God and Tarzan in Tarzan and the Lion Man. From a shirt pocket, God took a couple of crudely fashioned cheroots and offered one to Tarzan.

“‘Will you smoke?’ asked God.

‘I do not smoke,’ responded Tarzan.

‘You do not know what you miss,’ said God. ‘Tobacco is such a boon to tired nerves.’

‘My nerves are never tired,’ asserted the ape-man.”

Indeed, through the years, Tarzan survived in the jungle thanks to his nerves of steel. When Numa charged there was never time to soothe frayed nerves with a cigarette before acting.

After returning Tarzan to the jungle in The Return of Tarzan, ERB seemingly decided to leave Tarzan a non-smoker forever. However, 30 years and 20 Tarzan books later, Burroughs gave Tarzan back his cigarettes. When Tarzan, introduced to the crew as Colonel Clayton, boarded a B-24 bomber bound for an ill-fated reconnaissance flight over Sumatra, he used a pack of cigarettes to break the ice with the American airmen. “Then he sat down on the edge of a life raft between Shrimp and Bubonovitch. He passed around a package of cigarettes. Only Shrimp refused. Bubonovitch offered Clayton a light.”

Of course, the British colonel of Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’ was much different than the ape-man who appeared in the other 23 Tarzan books. Tarzan had always been portrayed as the ultimate individual, secure in his own abilities and even disdaining the help of others. However, in “Foreign Legion,” Tarzan is not an individual, but rather just one of a group of men, who, sharing a struggle for survival, drew strength and support from each other. In this story, cigarettes do not represent the decadence of society, as they did in previous Tarzan stories. Instead, they symbol the camaraderie of men who must face death together. But then, at its gut level, is civilized war any less primitive than life in Tarzan’s jungle? As odd as it seemed for him to pass around a pack of cigarettes, somehow it was most appropriate at that time and place for Tarzan of the Apes to share a smoke with those American airmen.

— The End —


From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
The Return of Tarzan
Tarzan of the Apes
Tarzan the Untamed
The Eternal Lover
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
Tarzan and the Lost Empire
Tarzan Triumphant
Tarzan and the Champion
Tarzan and the Lion Man
Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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