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Volume 7368

Literally Speaking
by Alan Hanson 

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Literally Speaking
by Alan Hanson
He knew no fear, as we know it; his little heart beat the faster but from the excitement and exhilaration of adventure. Had the opportunity presented itself he would have escaped, but solely because his judgment told him he was no match for the great thing which confronted him. And since reason showed him that successful flight was impossible he met the gorilla squarely and bravely without a tremor of a single muscle, or any sign of panic.” — Tarzan of the Apes

Fearlessness — absolute and complete — was one of Tarzan of the Ape’s most alluring traits, helping to make him one of fiction’s most venerable heroes. Edgar Rice Burroughs recognized that civilization had added a considerable measure of fear to the human condition, and that one way to set aside one’s fears, at least temporarily, is to imagine one’s self a courageous superman like Tarzan.

Tarzan was only 10 years old when Burroughs first affirmed his fearlessness in the passage above. The incident also explained, at least in part, the source of his courage — the environment in which he was raised required it for survival. And, in fact, in Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, the author declared that bravery was part of the inheritance passed down to him from primitive man:

… as it does not seem reasonable that a creature so poorly equipped for offense and defense could have survived without courage, it seems far more consistent to assume that with the dawning of reason came a certain superiority complex — a vast and at first stupid egotism — that knew caution, perhaps, but not fear; nor is any other theory tenable unless we are to suppose that from the loin of a rabbit-hearted creature sprang men who hunted the bison, the mammoth and the cave bear with crude spears tipped with stone.

Of course, according to Burroughs, civilization had long since produced “numerous artificial protections” to be “thrown around its brood of weaklings.” In Tarzan of the Apes, William Clayton, Tarzan’s own cousin, modeled civilization’s cowardly brood. Cast upon the primitive African shore, Clayton “fell into an agony of fear and apprehension” when Jane Porter was in danger, and eventually nature demanded the ultimate consequence for his lack of courage.

Tarzan’s father … “brave and fearless”
Fortunately for Tarzan, though, his father was not among civilization’s “brood of weaklings.”  Burroughs described John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, as “brave and fearless, yet was he able to appreciate the awful suffering which fear entails.” His courage enabled him to survive and protect his family for 16 months in the wild before a moment’s inattentiveness cost him his life. Inherent courage was perhaps the most useful of the many qualities Tarzan inherited from his father.

Of course, Tarzan’s upbringing among the great apes developed in him an apparent absolute fearlessness that his father lacked. Not only was the ape-man courageous, but also “he had but a vague conception” of the nature of fear. Occasionally, Burroughs restated Tarzan’s ignorance of fear in later stories. In Tarzan and the City of Gold, the author noted that the ape-man “could not understand the meaning of fear.” And when told that other men “trembled” in the presence of Queen Nemone, Tarzan replied, “I have never trembled. How is it done?” In Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”, the ape-man was asked if he had been afraid while battling a tiger. “Tarzan, who had never been afraid in his life,” explained Burroughs, “was always at a loss to answer this question, which had been put to him many times before. He simply did not know what fear was.

Tarzan not always fearless
Despite Burroughs’s claims that Tarzan was completely without fear, there are a number of scattered references in the Tarzan stories of him apparently feeling that emotion. The first was a fear of water as a child. “He hated it because he connected it with the chill and discomfort of the torrential rains,” Burroughs explained in Tarzan of the Apes, “and he feared it for the thunder and lightning and wind which accompanied them.

Tarzan later admitted that fear was a general condition of his childhood. When he first told his son Jack about his early life, he described the “nakedness and fear and suffering” he had known in the jungle. As a toddler, the ape-boy had been comforted by Kala when he had been “frightened by Sabor, the lioness, or Histah, the snake.

In Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Burroughs acknowledged that, “nothing in the jungle inspired within the breast of Tarzan so near a semblance to fear as did the hideous Histah … Never willingly had he touched a snake.” It was not a real fear, Burroughs clarified, but “an inherent repulsion bequeathed to him by many generations of civilized ancestors.” Tarzan, though, used the word fear in reference to Histah when urging his ape tribe to post lookouts for the great cats. “No others need we fear, except Histah, the snake,” he explained.

Tarzan also admitted that as a child he feared members of his own ape tribe. Coming upon a different tribe in Tarzan and the Golden Lion conjured up a memory in which the ape-man saw again the “great, savage brutes he had feared in youth and conquered in manhood.”

Nightmare brought knowledge of fear
Tarzan’s nightmare experience in Jungle Tales of Tarzan suggests that the ape-boy had some conception of fear. In his sleep, he found himself wishing to “flee his enemies as fled Bara, the deer, most fearful of creatures. Thus, with a dream, came the first faint tinge of a knowledge of fear, a knowledge which Tarzan, awake, had never experienced.

That he eventually grew to manhood in his savage environment is evidence that Tarzan overcame the fears of his youth. He could not have survived to maturity without doing so. In Tarzan Triumphant, he acknowledged that his survival depended on the need “to establish himself in the minds of all lesser creatures as one who walked without fear and whom it was well to let alone.

As an adult, Tarzan’s fears were never for his own welfare but for the safety of others dear to him. Naturally, he feared most for the wellbeing of his family. “It is not that I fear for myself,” he told his friend Paul D’Arnot when he learned the villain Nicholas Rokoff had escaped from prison in The Beasts of Tarzan. “Unless I misjudge the man, he would more quickly strike at me through my wife or son than directly at me, for he doubtless realizes that in no other way could he inflict greater anguish upon me.” As he pursued her kidnappers, the ape-man became “frantic” and after he rescued her, he feared to leave her alone, even to hunt. And when he returned to his home to find it destroyed in Tarzan the Untamed, it was with a “feeling as nearly akin to terror as he ever had experienced” that he entered the ruins fearing to find there his wife’s dead body.

Tarzan expressed fear for the welfare of several friends, as well. In Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, the ape-man feared that Jad-bal-ja might have harmed the Princess Guinalda. “I was fearful when I saw him beside you … for a lion is always a lion,” he told her. And in Tarzan and the Lost Empire, he expressed concern for his friend, Maximus Præclarus: “I have been fearful that by befriending me you would bring disaster upon yourself.” The ape-man even feared for the safety of his jungle friend, Tantor. In Jungle Tales, “Tarzan tensed to the shock of a sudden fear” when he realized the elephant was about to fall into a native pit.

Tarzan “shuddered” once
Burroughs recorded a few other instances of the ape-man feeling fear. Tarzan claimed in Tarzan and the City of Gold that he had never trembled, but in The Beasts of Tarzan, he did something very much like it. While swimming across the Ugambi River, he “shuddered” when he recalled how a crocodile had dragged him underwater during a previous swim in the river. And while attempting to escape captivity in Tarzan and the Ant Men, “he feared that any sudden strains upon his series of hooks might straighten one of them and precipitate him into the abyss below.” Later in the same story, when a fellow escapee asked if a passing soldier had recognized him, Tarzan respond, “I fear that he did.” 

In Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, there are three references to Tarzan being fearful. After being carried by a thipdar to its lofty nest, Tarzan sought to escape by lowering himself over the precipice with a rope. As he descended, “he held his breath for fear” that he might topple to the jagged rocks below. The painful wounds caused by the thipdar’s claws were sore, “but his only fear lay in the possibility of blood poisoning.” Finally, after rejoining the crew of the 0-220 near the story’s end, “Tarzan was afraid to accompany [David Innes’s] fleet back to Sari for fear that their rapidly diminishing store of fuel would not be sufficient to complete the trip and carry them back to the outer world.

Such references to the ape-man’s fears are few and obscure in the Tarzan series. In most of the cases, what Burroughs termed fears could have been more accurately described as situations that caused Tarzan some concern rather than actual fear. The reality is that in his Tarzan stories Burroughs focused much more on the things that the ape-man did not fear.

For example, although Tarzan’s primitive environment was filled with deadly dangers, he faced it without doubt or fear, as would a “lord in his own domain.” He feared not even the jungle night, which brought terror to the hearts of even the bravest of civilized men. Note how the jungle at night terrified the French officer Charpentier in Apes:

“I never thought much about fear and that sort of thing — never tried to determine whether I was a coward or a brave man; but the other night as we lay in the jungle there after poor D’Arnot was taken, and those jungle noises rose and fell around us I began to think that I was a coward indeed. It was not the roaring and growling of the big beasts that effected me so much as it was the stealthy noises — the ones that you heard suddenly close by and then listened vainly for a repetition of — the unaccountable sounds as of a great body moving almost noiselessly, and the knowledge that you didn’t know how close it was, or whether it were creeping closer after you ceased to hear it? It was those noises — and the eyes.

Respect for nature, but no fear of it
Although he didn’t fear the jungle, as a youth he learned to accept his proper place in Nature’s hierarchy. “He knew no fear,” Burroughs noted in Jungle Tales of Tarzan, “but in the face of Nature’s manifestations of her cruel, immeasurable powers, he felt very small — very small and very lonely.

Because he did not fear nature, though, he was free from the superstitions that held other humans captive in darkest Africa. Burroughs explained in Tarzan the Magnificent

All too often had he been the object of the malign necromancy of potent witch-doctors to fear their magic. Like the beasts of the jungle, he was immune. For what reason he did not know. Perhaps it was because he was without fear; perhaps his psychology was more that of the beast than of man.

Throughout his life, Tarzan fought numerous battles with lions and panthers. He could not have survived all these encounters if he feared Numa or Sheeta. In Pellucidar, “ … there came strongly to his nostrils a scent that always caused the short hairs upon his head to rise, not in fear but in natural reaction to the presence of an hereditary enemy … it was the scent spoor of some sort of great cat.” 

Death held no fear for the ape-man
On several occasions, Tarzan felt he was about to die in battle with a lion, and yet he still felt no fear. In Tarzan and the City of Gold, Tarzan’s lack of fear angered Queen Nemone as she was about to have her hunting lion, Belthar, unleashed on him. Belthar caused Tarzan no terror that day because he feared no lion, as well as mankind’s ultimate enemy — death.

There was no fear in him,” Burroughs declared in The Return of Tarzan. “To a denizen of the cruel jungle, death is a commonplace. The first law of nature compels them to cling tenaciously to life — to fight for it; but it does not teach them to fear death.” Since lethal danger was ever-present in Tarzan’s daily existence, fearing death would have made his life unbearable. As he explained to his friend Gemnon in Tarzan and the City of Gold, “I cannot let fear rob me of my liberty and the pleasures of life; fear is to be more dreaded than death … Were I afraid, I should be unhappy but no safer.

Tarzan, then, faced each day’s events bravely as they came, knowing that some day death would be one of those events. He possessed what he called, “the fatalism of the jungle.” In Tarzan and the Lion Man, he explained: “Perhaps I feel that what is about to happen is about to happen and that being afraid won’t help any.” And asked if he feared dying in Tarzan and the Leopard Men, he responded, “I know the word, but what has it to do with death? All things die. Were you to tell me that I must live forever, then I might feel fear.

Of course, his fatalism about the inevitability of death did not mean he would meekly surrender to it. Death was a possible outcome on each day of his life, but he took action each day to put it off until at least tomorrow. In addition to shunning fear, he never worried. “He merely awaited the next event in his life,” Burroughs noted in Tarzan the Magnificent, “composed in the knowledge that whatever it was he would meet it with natural resources beyond those of ordinary men.”

Self-preservation and caution
Although he didn’t fear death, Tarzan had a strong primal instinct of self-preservation. Nature’s first law “activated more or less unconsciously” in the ape-man, and that, combined with reason and intelligence, allowed him to face dangerous situations with confidence. The struggle for life in the wild taught him to let caution, not fear, guide his actions.

Regardless of the fact that Tarzan felt no such fear of the lion as you and I might experience under like circumstances,” Burroughs explained in Tarzan the Untamed,He yet was imbued with the sense of caution that is necessary to all creatures of the wild if they are to survive.” In Tarzan the Terrible, the author added, “ … he was wise enough to know when discretion was the better part of valor and now, as in the past, he yielded to that law which dominates the kindred of the wild, preventing them from courting danger uselessly, whose lives are sufficiently filled with danger in their ordinary routine of feeding and mating.” Where Tarzan was concerned, then, a certain amount of intelligent caution was not inconsistent with absolute fearlessness.

In Tarzan the Untamed, Edgar Rice Burroughs provided his clearest statement on how Tarzan’s survival depended on a combination of caution and courage:

Being jungle bred he was ready to protect his kill from all comers within ordinary limitations of caution. Under favorable conditions Tarzan would face even Numa himself and, if forced to seek safety by flight, he could do so without any feeling of shame. There was no braver creature roamed those savage wilds and at the same time there was none more wise — the two factors that had permitted him to survive.”

Most of the time Tarzan was neither over-cautious nor recklessly daring. There were instances, though, when he appeared to be the latter. In Tarzan and the Forbidden City, for example, he leaped from a cliff onto the back of a dinosaur. “Only a man who did not know the meaning of fear would have taken such a risk,” observed Burroughs. However, Tarzan cast aside caution in this case to save a man who could provide him with valuable information. And, being human, Tarzan on occasion acted a bit recklessly, as he did in approaching a panther in The Beasts of Tarzan.

He might have taken to the higher branches of the trees upon the opposite side, for Sheeta cannot climb to the heights to which the ape-man can go; but something, a spirit of bravado perhaps, prompted him to approach the panther as though to discover if any feeling of gratitude would prompt the beast to friendliness.

Tarzan expected men to fear him
Being without fear of the jungle beasts with which he was raised, Tarzan naturally confronted human beings with the same confidence. Even though many of his fellow men, both primitive and civilized, meant him harm, the ape-man never displayed fear for any member of nature’s most dangerous species. Instead, it was contempt he felt for the first humans he came in contact with. He kidnapped, killed, and played jokes on the natives of Mbonga’s tribe. The villains Rokoff and Paulvitch proved to be unrelenting enemies, but though he recognized the great danger they represented, he still declared, “I do not fear them.” In Cathne he told Queen Nemone, “Everyone is afraid of you. The reason you are interested in me is because I am not.”

Because he was immune to fear himself, Tarzan instead became the object of fear for many human adversaries. “That one should fear him was no new thing to Tarzan of the Apes,” Burroughs observed in Tarzan and the Leopard Men.There were many who had feared him, and perhaps for this reason he had come to expect it from every stranger.”

Facing overwhelming odds 
When dealing with men and beasts, Tarzan felt at times that he could discount caution because he had an unshakeable self-confidence, sometimes unwarranted, that he could triumph even in the face of overwhelming odds. He demonstrated that in The Return of Tarzan when he braved the dangers of Opar alone after his Waziri warriors had run away. Then there was the time he refused to retreat before a charging army of ant men. “I do not fear them,” he announced with a smile as he shook his only weapon, a leafy branch. And twice, first in Tarzan the Terrible and again in Tarzan and the Madman, the ape-man brazenly entered hostile cities (A-lur and Alemtejo) posing as a God.

Even during those times when he was imprisoned and faced execution, Tarzan did not despair. As he was being chained to Cæsar’s chariot and being led to certain death in the arena of Castra Sanguinarius, his appearance showed “no suggestion of fear or humiliation.” And in his prison cell in Cathne, the City of Gold, Tarzan was without fear. “He did not pace his cell, fretting and worrying,” Burroughs explained. “His was more the temperament of the wild animal than the man.

In Tarzan and the Lion Man, Burroughs explored the concept of fear by setting up a contrast between Tarzan and Stanley Obroski, a civilized version of the ape-man.

We are all either the victims or the beneficiaries of heredity and environment. Stanley Obroski was one of the victims. Heredity had given him a mighty physique, a noble bearing, and a handsome face. Environment had sheltered and protected him throughout his life. Also, every one with whom he had come in contact had admired his great strength and attributed to him courage commensurate to it.

Never until the past few days had Obroski been confronted by an emergency that might test his courage, and so all his life he had been wondering if his courage would measure up to what was expected of it when the emergency developed.

He had given the matter far more thought than does the man of ordinary physique because he knew that so much more was expected of him than of the ordinary man. It had become an obsession together with the fear that he might not live up to the expectations of his admirers. And finally he became afraid — afraid of being afraid.

Tarzan unconvincing in coward’s role
Physically, the two men were so much alike that Tarzan was able to impersonate the injured Obroski in the film company. It amused Tarzan that, “they should mistake him for this unquestioned coward.” Actress Rhonda Terry had trouble reconciling the new, courageous Obroski with the craven one she had known. When they were imprisoned in God’s city, Rhonda voiced her amazement at Stanley’s newfound courage. “I keep forgetting that I am a coward,” Tarzan said laughingly. “You must be sure to remind me if any danger threatens us.”

When Tarzan saved Rhonda and other members of the film company, Burroughs’s point was made: The gift of physical courage bequeathed to mankind by his primitive ancestors still lived in Tarzan, but under the artificial security of civilization it was seldom tested in men like Obroski, and so it was supplanted with fear.

It’s doubtful that reading the Tarzan books has restored absolute fearlessness in the heart of any reader, but at least the reading of the tales reveals some understanding of the courage that nature intended all of us to have.

—The End—

From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources

Tarzan at the Earth’s Core
Tarzan of the Apes
Tarzan and the City of Gold
Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”
Jungle Tales of Tarzan
Tarzan Triumphant
The Beasts of Tarzan
Tarzan the Untamed
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
Tarzan and the Lost Empire
Tarzan and the Ant Men
Tarzan the Magnificent
The Return of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Lion Man
Tarzan and the Leopard Men
Tarzan the Terrible
Tarzan and the Forbidden City
Tarzan and the Madman

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