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Volume 7188

A Study in Scarlet: 
Tarzan Style
by Alan Hanson

 A Study in Scarlet: Tarzan Style
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 disfigurement.

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 “as 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 scar represented.

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 his behavior.

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 his stuff.

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 warriors interfered.

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.

—the end—



From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’
Tarzan of the Apes
The Return of Tarzan
The Beasts of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Golden Lion
Tarzan’s Quest
Tarzan and the Champion

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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