A Study in Scarlet:
by Alan Hanson
For as well-known a character as he is, Tarzan of the Apes
is rather nondescript in his physical appearance. From time to time Burroughs
described his ape-man — a tousle of black hair and stern grey eyes atop
a magnificently proportioned frame standing a couple of inches over six
feet — but it’s the kind of description that could also fit Messrs. January
through December on the latest Chippendale calendar. Burroughs, it
seems, was leaving it up to the reader to sketch his own vision of the
physical Tarzan (within the basic parameters listed above, of course),
and perhaps that is why when readers try to visualize the ape-man’s countenance,
it is the face of a favorite screen Tarzan that comes to mind instead of
any literary manifestation.
Burroughs, however, did give Tarzan one distinguishing
physical characteristic that could be used to identify him. In Tarzan
and “The Foreign Legion”, the ape-man was having a hard time convincing
a group of Dutch guerrillas that he was the real Tarzan until one of them
took a close look at his face. “There’s the scar on his forehead that
he got in his fight with the gorilla when he was a boy,” he observed,
and that settled the issue.
The scar, and how it flamed crimson in the heat of passion,
is well known to anyone who has read the Tarzan stories. It was the residue
of a bloody battle the young Tarzan fought to preserve his kingship among
the apes. Terkoz was defeated but not before he had torn Tarzan’s scalp
half from his head. Tarzan administered himself the only medical treatment
the wound received, a washing in the water of a nearby stream. The result
was a scar that began above the left eye and extended across the top of
his head to the right ear. Most of the scar would have been concealed by
his hair, with only the couple of inches of it running diagonally across
the forehead from the eye to the hairline being visible to others. As scars
go, it was apparently a mild one. Jane Porter described it as a “thin white
line.” Of course, it is well known that in certain moments of anger the
scar took on a different and terrible look, standing out as an inflamed,
crimson streak on his bronzed skin.
To the reader of the Tarzan stories, the scar at first
seems to be one of those recurring elements in the series that gives some
continuity to the ape-man’s character, like the hunting knife of his father.
However, a second, closer look at when and where the scar appeared in the
stories reveals a few surprises about how Burroughs used Tarzan’s signature
Let’s start with a quick inventory of all the times the
flaming scar appeared in the Tarzan stories. At first, it might seem that
such a complete listing would be tedious and time-consuming, but as it
turns out, the crimson scar was not seen as often as might be expected.
Appearance #1 — In Tarzan of the Apes
the scar glowed for the first time when Tarzan discovered that the mutinous
crewmembers of the Arrow had ransacked his cabin. At this point the scar
could have been half-healed at best, as it was just eleven days after the
wound was opened by Terkoz.
Appearance #2 — Later in Tarzan of the Apes,
after Terkoz abducted Jane, Tarzan flew to her rescue. The American girl
noticed the blazing scar as the mysterious ape-man rushed upon and killed
Terkoz to save her.
Appearance #3 — In a house in the Wisconsin woods
at the end of Tarzan of the Apes, Jane again saw the crimson
scar. When her fiancé Robert Canler tried to pull her toward a waiting
minister, Tarzan picked Canler up and shook him like a mouse. The flaming
scar told Jane that “murder lay in that savage heart.”
Appearance #4 — Toward the end of The Return
of Tarzan, the scar flamed again when Tarzan saw William Clayton
take Jane Porter in his arms on an African beach. His scar ablaze, Tarzan
aimed a poison shaft at Clayton’s heart, but soon his anger faded, the
arrow tip dropped, and the ape-man sadly turned back into the jungle.
Appearance #5 — A couple of months later in The
Return of Tarzan, the Oparians placed Jane on the altar of their
lost city and prepared to sacrifice her to The Flaming God. When Tarzan
arrived just in time, “the scar upon his forehead turned to a flaming
band of scarlet, a red mist floated before his eyes, and, with the awful
roar of the bull ape gone mad, he sprang like a huge lion into the midst
of the votaries.”
Appearance #6 — In The Beasts of Tarzan
the scar was activated again when Tarzan came face-to-face with the Swede
whom Tarzan believed had abducted Jane and his son. Of course, the scar
faded when Anderssen explained he was Jane’s savior, not her captor.
Appearance #7 — Later in The Beasts of Tarzan,
the ape-man, standing on the shore of the Ugambi River, voiced the “hideous,
bestial challenge of the bull-ape,” while the scar on his brow burned scarlet.
The object of his rage was the villain Nicholas Rokoff, who was floating
down the river, out of reach, in a canoe.
Appearance #8 — As Tarzan pursued Rokoff down the
Ugambi towards the ocean, “he let his mind dwell so constantly upon
the frightful crimes which the Russian had perpetrated against his loved
ones that the great scar upon his forehead stood out almost continually
in the vivid scarlet that marked the man’s most relentless and bestial
moods of rage.” In this instance, the scar didn’t fade until several
days later when Tarzan joyfully watched Sheeta tear Rokoff to pieces near
the end of The Beasts of Tarzan.
Appearance #9 — The scar made its next appearance
in Tarzan and the Golden Lion, when the angry ape-man confronted
a group of intruders (Flora Hawkes and her band of conspirators) who had
dared enter his vast domain without his permission.
Appearance #10 — Later in Tarzan and the
Golden Lion, Tarzan found that his bag of diamonds was missing,
and he assumed that one of the conspirators, whom he had just saved from
sure death in the jungle, had stolen it. The scar on his forehead flamed
just anger welled within him against the perfidity and ingratitude of the
men he had succored.”
Appearance #11 — The final appearance of the crimson
scar in the series occurred years later in Tarzan’s Quest.
The brooding ape-man was on the trail of American pilot Neal Brown, whom
he believed had wronged Jane. “The very thought of the man caused the
scar across his forehead to burn red,” noted Burroughs. As with the
Swede years earlier, however, before he acted upon his anger, Tarzan discovered
that Brown had not abused Jane, but rather had been her friend.
Some Patterns and Trends
That’s it. On a couple of other occasions, Burroughs mentioned
the scar, but only these eleven times did he describe it in its inflamed
state. Surveying the list reveals some patterns and trends, which lead
to some interesting conclusions.
Let’s start with distribution. Just looking at the story
titles in the list shows that the flaming scar was not a consistently recurring
element throughout the Tarzan series. For starters, Burroughs showed it
to the reader only eleven times over the course of twenty-four books. What’s
more, eight of those eleven times occurred in the opening trilogy of the
series. Perhaps it was Burroughs’ frequent use of it in the first three
books that fixed in the reader’s mind that the crimson scar was featured
repetitively throughout the series, when, in fact, the scar is seen burning
in anger in only two of the twenty-one books that follow the opening trilogy.
Going back to the list again, it seems obvious that in
all cases it was anger that caused the scar to darken. In reality, though,
“anger” is too weak of a word for what Tarzan felt at those times. In most
cases when the scar appeared, Tarzan was consumed with emotion to the point
of losing control of himself. As Burroughs put it in The Beasts of
Tarzan, the vivid scar “marked the man’s most relentless and bestial
moods of rage.” Indeed, “rage” is a better word than “anger” for what the
Such extreme moods of rage must have been rare in Tarzan’s
life. He was essentially a very stern and logical person, raised as he
was in an environment that rewarded with long life only those who could
master their emotions and make their decisions based on the laws of nature.
In The Beasts of Tarzan, Burroughs explained this fatalism
of the jungle that allowed Tarzan to control his emotions when most civilized
men would have lost control of theirs. Finding himself imprisoned in a
room on the Kincaid, Tarzan stoically accepted his confinement for weeks,
despite being distressed over the fate of his kidnapped son.
“For over twenty years, from infancy to manhood, the
ape-man had roamed his savage jungle haunts without human companionship
of any nature. He had learned at the most impressionable period of his
life to take his pleasures and his sorrows as the beasts take theirs.
“So it was that he neither raved nor stormed against
fate, but instead waited patiently for what might next befall him, though
not by any means without an eye to doing the utmost to succor himself.”
In fact, there were only two human emotions that Tarzan
allowed at times to overrule his logical nature, and they were curiosity
and rage, with the former being a stronger motivator than the latter. That
the scar burned so few times over the course of twenty-four books is an
indication of just how infrequently Tarzan allowed his emotions to control
If the crimson scar indicated rage, what then was it that
could take Tarzan to that level of anger? Not surprisingly, at the bottom
of it there was usually a woman, namely Jane. In eight of the eleven instances
that the scar darkened, it was the mistreatment of Jane that caused Tarzan’s
wrath. Robert Canler, William Clayton, Anderssen, Nicholas Rokoff and Neal
Brown — all of them either wronged Jane or were suspected of doing so by
Tarzan, and just the thought of each of those men caused the scar to burn.
It is interesting to note that, despite his great anger, Tarzan killed
none of those five men, although he most certainly would have killed Rokoff
had not Sheeta beat him to it.
The other three times the scar flamed the cause was someone
messing with something Tarzan considered his own. Seeing that someone had
ransacked his cabin in Tarzan of the Apes, that intruders
had entered his country in Tarzan in the Golden Lion, and
that someone had stolen his diamonds, again in the latter story, was enough
to make the streak glow on Tarzan’s forehead. Tarzan could put up with
a lot of monkey business, but not with someone fooling with his woman or
A Humanizing Effect
Although each individual appearance of the scar marked a
time when Tarzan was mastered by his own emotions, the overall effect of
the crimson scar phenomenon in the series is to add a humanizing touch
to the early development of the ape-man’s character. The quality of his
courage and morality were flawless, but it is not easy for the reader to
relate to a god. Tarzan giving in to irrational anger, signaled by the
blazing scar, is one of those gentle reminders Burroughs included from
time to time to show that Tarzan was really a human being. There was less
and less of that kind of reminder as the series progressed, and perhaps
that is one of the reasons why the later books fail to grab the reader
emotionally like the early stories do.
Finally, a disclaimer must be added. The list above should
not be taken as a complete accounting of all the times that Tarzan’s scar
turned crimson. It’s only a list of the occasions that Burroughs chose
to describe. For instance, in The Return of Tarzan, when
the ape-man was struck three times by the walking stick of Count De Coude,
the ape-man went into a primordial rage. According to Burroughs, “the
now infuriated beast charged for his adversary’s throat” and nearly
choked the count to death. On that occasion, even though Burroughs didn’t
mention the scar, certainly it must have been ablaze, as it must also have
been in Tarzan the Champion, when the ape-man caught the
American boxer Mullargan mowing down a herd of zebra with a machine gun.
Tarzan’s “anger rose so that he forgot the law of the white man.”
As with De Coude years earlier, Tarzan went for Mullargan’s throat, and
doubtless would have choked him to death had not a war party of Babango
In Tarzan and the Golden Lion, Burroughs
confirmed that there were other times off-stage when the scar was activated.
As Tarzan entered the conspirators’ camp, his scar blazing in anger that
these intruders would trespass in his country, Flora Hawkes told a fellow
plotter, “I have heard the story of that scar and I have seen it burn
scarlet when he was aroused with anger.” Flora’s observations were
based on her years of service in the Greystokes’ London townhouse. It would
have been during that period, then, that she had seen the crimson scar
and its causal rage. Somehow it’s not hard to imagine Tarzan’s anger getting
the best of him in civilization, where it must have seemed to him that
every man was either trying to get possession of his woman or his money.