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Volume 7366

The Talkative Tarzan
by Alan Hanson 

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The Talkative Tarzan
by Alan Hanson
Tarzan but nodded his head. He was a man of few words.” (The Return of Tarzan)

Certainly, from the very beginning of the Tarzan series, Edgar Rice Burroughs created the impression that his ape-man was a quiet man who communicated more through deeds than through words. Burroughs reinforced Tarzan’s dislike of human speech in many of the Tarzan stories he wrote through the years. For instance, in  he wrote of a meeting with the strongman Phobeg. “Tarzan made no reply. There seemed nothing to say; and Tarzan seldom speaks, even when others have much to say.” Again, in Tarzan’s Quest, Burroughs explained, “The ape-man seldom spoke unless that which he had to say warranted expression. Ordinarily he kept his thoughts to himself, especially in the presence of men.

However, those who have read through the Tarzan series know that Burroughs often seemed to counter his own contention that Tarzan disliked and avoided human speech. For a man who supposedly disliked human language, Tarzan learned to speak many of them. Also, a number of times in the Tarzan stories, the ape-man spoke with great eloquence and emotion, and there are other examples of the supposed reticent Tarzan speaking at relatively great length. So in the personality of Tarzan, Burroughs created a seeming contradiction — a dislike of human speech on one hand, and a great talent and ability to use human speech on the other.

The explanation for how these opposing values could coexist in one person can be found in the environment of Tarzan’s early years. Burroughs referred to Tarzan, as “naturally uncommunicative.” However, it was his upbringing among the beasts that created his quiet side. Tarzan may very well have grown to manhood with the same verbal habits and tendencies of the average civilized man had his parents not been marooned on that African shore.

The Quiet Dignity of the Wild Beast
After the death of his English-speaking parents when he was a year old, Tarzan was not to hear another human voice until 18 years later, when the native tribe of Mbonga entered the country of the great apes. It was during that period between the death of his parents and the arrival of the natives that Tarzan developed what Burroughs referred to as the “quiet dignity of the wild beast.” It was not that verbal expression was meaningless to Tarzan then. He had learned to use his voice often to do such things as issue warnings, frighten enemies, and announce victories in battle. But they were feral sounds, not human words, and, as noted earlier, the same is true for the crude languages he used to communicate with the other creatures in his world.

It was not that the young Tarzan had nothing to say. On the contrary, he had much to talk about, but he lacked both a complex language to convey it and an able audience to appreciate it. Burroughs explained in Tarzan the Untamed.

His active mind was never idle, but because his jungle mates could neither follow nor grasp the vivid train of imaginings that his man-mind wrought, he had long since learned to keep them to himself; and so now he found no need for confiding them in others.”
The inability to share his complex thoughts with the beasts was not the only factor that conditioned Tarzan to restrict his use of spoken language. The savage environment in which he was raised taught him to value silence.
The morning air, the sounds and smells of his beloved jungle, filled the ape-man with exhilaration. Had he been the creature of another environment, he might have whistled or sung or whooped aloud like a cowboy in sheer exuberance of spirit; but the jungle-bred are not thus. They veil their emotions; and they move noiselessly always, for thus do they extend the span of their precarious lives.” (Tarzan’s Quest)
In Tarzan and the Lion Man, Burroughs reinforced the idea that, for Tarzan, learning to be quiet was basic to survival. “For Tarzan there are times for silence and times for speech. The depths of the night, when hunting beasts are abroad, is no time to go gabbling through the jungle.

Throughout his early years, Tarzan depended on all his senses. There were some times when using his voice helped him avoid danger, but in his primordial world the power of speech was clearly the least important sense to Tarzan. The following passage from the second Tarzan Twins story shows how, in times of danger, Tarzan learned to submerge his voice and let his other senses take over.

Now the two boys noticed that Tarzan had grown suddenly silent. He answered their questions shortly or not at all and there was a serious expression upon his face. Often he watched Jad-bal-ja attentively and often he paused to sniff the air and to listen.

The Laconic Ape-man
In Tarzan and the Forbidden City, in answer to a question from his captors, Tarzan responded, “I do not like useless talk, but if you like to hear it, I admit that I killed some of your warriors.” The five-word introduction to Tarzan’s answer here summarizes his adult attitude about talk. Because he learned in his youth that useless speech heightened danger, he developed an ingrained reticence that carried over into adulthood. Thus he often limited his speech in civilized, social situations, even when danger was not a concern. Tarzan’s basic inclination was to avoid obvious and useless talk, and to speak only when necessary, which experience had taught him was seldom.

For instance, one common human speech pattern that Tarzan considered useless was the simple “goodbye.” At one point in Tarzan’s Quest, the ape-man gave instructions to a Waziri warrior, and then — “Without further words, without useless good-byes and Godspeeds, Tarzan swung toward the west.” And again in Tarzan the Magnificent, Tarzan left without the expected human courtesy. “He turned and was gone into the night. There were no farewells, long-drawn and useless.

In some situations with other humans, Tarzan’s quiet nature served him well, as when he and La were escaping from Opar in Tarzan and the Golden Lion.

The woman’s silence made no particular impression upon Tarzan. Had he had anything to say he should have said it, and likewise he assumed that there was no necessity for her speaking unless there was some good reason for speaking, for those who travel far and fast have no breath to waste upon conversation.
However, on other occasions, minimizing his words caused Tarzan problems. In Tarzan the Invincible, while traveling with La, he left her sleeping in a shelter one morning to go searching for food. When he returned to find her gone, he blamed his own quiet nature.
It was not difficult for him to account for her absence and for the fact that she was returning to Opar, and he reproached himself for this thoughtlessness in having left her for so long a time without first telling her of his purpose.
Of course, there were times when Tarzan saw no use in speaking at all, and so he remained silent while those around him expected and waited for a response.
He looked up into the savage, unfriendly eyes of a black man; then he glanced quickly around the circle and noted the composition of the group. He did not speak. He saw that he was outnumbered and a captive. Under the circumstances there was nothing that he could say that would serve him any purpose.” (Tarzan the Magnificent)
Then there was the time in The Quest of Tarzan when an injury temporarily took away Tarzan’s ability to speak entirely. Predictably, however, Tarzan did not feel too deprived by the temporary loss of what he considered the least useful of his senses. “He wondered if he would ever recover; but he was not greatly troubled because he could not converse with human beings.

In the jungle Tarzan combined the information from several of his highly refined senses to give him a complete picture of what was happening around him. Tarzan did the same thing while talking with someone. Like the dog whose sense of smell must confirm what it sees, Tarzan depended on his sight to confirm what he heard, “nor did he ever care much for speech with strangers unless he could watch their eyes and the changing expressions upon their faces, which often told him more than their words were intended to convey.” (Tarzan and the Lion Man)

So what then did Tarzan consider “useful” talk? As with his other senses, Tarzan used speech to gather information. But even then he usually kept his words to a minimum. In the following passage from Tarzan and the Lost Empire, Burroughs explained how the ape-man effectively used his voice to gather information essential to his future survival. 

He learned all that they could tell him about the forthcoming triumph and games; about the military methods of their people, their laws and their customs until he, who all his life had been accounted taciturn, might easily have been indicted for loquacity by his fellow prisoners, yet, though they might not realize it, he asked them nothing without a well-defined purpose.” 
Even when Tarzan chose to give information, he usually was ungenerous with his words. Notice the short, choppy answers Tarzan gave while being interrogated by his captors during his first visit to Cathne, the City of Gold. “I am from a country far to the south. An accident brought me here. I am not an enemy. I have not come to kill your Queen or any other. Until today I did not know that your city existed.

The Loquacious Ape-man
According to Burroughs, that was “a long speech for Tarzan of the Apes.” However, there are many, many instances in the Tarzan stories of the ape-man speaking at much greater length. As just one example, consider the prolonged lecture on the value of money that Tarzan gave Stanley Wood in Tarzan the Magnificent.
What would that mean to you — luxuries and power? The Kaji probably know little of luxuries; but, from what you have told me, power is everything to them; and they believe that this other fetish would give them unlimited power, just as you think that twenty million dollars would give you happiness.

Probably you are both wrong; but the fact remains that they know quite as well the value of it as you, and at least it does less harm here than it would out in the world among men who would steal the pennies from the eyes of the dead.

As the above passage shows, for a man whose ingrained nature was to speak simply and directly, when he chose to do so, Tarzan could speak not only at length, but also with eloquence and emotion. There is no better example of Tarzan’s ability to speak elegantly than his plea to Jane in the Wisconsin railroad station at the end of Tarzan of the Apes. They were words that obviously came from deep within his heart.
You are free now, Jane, and I have come across the ages out of the dim and distant past from the lair of the primeval man to claim you — for your sake I have crossed oceans and continents — for your sake I will be whatever you will me to be. I can make you happy, Jane, in the life you know and love best. Will you marry me?
We also know that the laconic Tarzan could grow loquacious even in the midst of the useless social talk for which he openly proclaimed disgust. Not only could he engage in social conversation, he could be the center of it. Of this we have the eyewitness testimony of Hazel Strong, who, in The Return of Tarzan, reminisced on her friendship with Tarzan, the man she knew as Mr. Caldwell.
She missed the quiet companionship of Mr. Caldwell — there had been something about him that had made the girl like him from the first; he had talked so entertainingly of the places he had seen — the peoples and their customs — the wild beasts; and he had always had a droll way of drawing striking comparisons between savage animals and civilized men that showed a considerable knowledge of the former, and a keen, though somewhat cynical estimate of the latter.

A Low, Deep, Commanding Voice
Finally, it is interesting to imagine just how Tarzan’s voice sounded when he spoke. Burroughs gave precious few clues about the quality of the ape-man’s voice. We know that when Tarzan first learned English, he spoke it with a French accent, since he had learned that latter language first. However, since no such accent is mentioned in any Tarzan tale after The Return of Tarzan, it can be assumed that the accent disappeared as he mastered the language of his ancestral country. The aforementioned American, Stanley Wood, commented on the quality of Tarzan’s voice. He described it as, “low and deep. It questioned, but it also commanded. It was the well modulated, assured voice of a man who was always obeyed.

In closing this survey on the talkative Tarzan, it is only fitting to give Edgar Rice Burroughs the final word, or words, in this case. It is an editorial passage Burroughs inserted in the text of Tarzan at the Earth’s Core. I have no doubt that Edgar Rice Burroughs believed it, but it is ironic that a man who made his living writing legions of words would be so critical of the spoken word.

If man spoke only when he had something worthwhile to say and said that as quickly as possible, ninety-eight per cent of the human race might as well be dumb, thereby establishing a heavenly harmony from pate to tonsil.

—The End—

From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
The Return of Tarzan
Tarzan and the City of Gold
Tarzan the Untamed
Tarzan and the Lion Man
Tarzan and the Forbidden City
Tarzan’s Quest
Tarzan the Magnificent
Tarzan and the Golden Lion
Tarzan the Invincible
The Quest of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Lost Empire
Tarzan of the Apes
Tarzan at the Earth’s Core

Burroughsian Language Banks
Sounds of Spoken Mangani
Tarzan Clans of America
Mangani / English Dictionary

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