Andrew’s Tarzan

No, he’s not actually Tarzan, of course…I mean this.

And then this.

Hmm…so how do you update Tarzan for a new age, in such a way as to load him up with actual drama instead of just a few soap-opera elements here and there?

It’s an interesting question.  And with a tip of the hat to Harvey Jerkwater, I think I’ve found my answer…though in the end I’m sure I’ll still like Andrew’s better.

…So the first thing you have to know, is that the word Tarzan means “crazy person”, in the language of the Kasua people of New Guinea.  Except, of course, it really doesn’t:  I just made that up.  But what the hell, if I am trying to update Tarzan I am practically guaranteed to do something disgustingly colonial somewhere along the way, so maybe with this appropriation I have gotten it out of my system.

Well, we can hope.

You may have heard of the “Lost Volcano” of Papua New Guinea, where researchers recently discovered about fifty new bizarre species…and this probably shouldn’t be too surprising, given the unplumbed richness of that island.  So high a percentage of the world’s languages, so many fascinatingly-preserved birds and plants and animals and customs, so much extraordinarily rough ground, so much territory simply unexplored, both historical and physical.  It’s hard to set a Tarzan story in Africa in the 21st century without either collapsing from frustration or retiring from guilt:  if we don’t know Africa well enough by now not to consider it “the dark continent”, it’s only because we’ve chosen not to know it.  To blithely cling to Africa’s nineteenth-century “imaginative terrain” is probably even worse than clinging to the idea that a white person can be a better African than Africans themselves…the latter idea’s racist as hell, but it’s only passively despicable:  all about shoring up a European mystique of superiority that’s never really stood all that firm to begin with.  The former, on the other hand, is an active, willing refusal to accord Africa the rudimentary dignity of being a place, and the Africans the dignity of being real at all.

But New Guinea’s a different sort of imaginative terrain — the appendix of the world, long thought useless, but now recognized as the place where diversity is stored up against the day of catastrophe.  For us twenty-first century types, New Guinea isn’t the locale of atavism, but the very site of the new:  right over there, that’s where our science fiction is going to come from, postmodern, post-colonial, post-post-post…how to be new people, how to see new possibilities, how to do new things.  Forget your old futurescape narratives of motors and metals and monies and monoliths, the old clashes of technology and tribalism…because here is where the heart is.

And thus:  Tarzan.

I’ll just briefly set the stage:  our heroine Jane, an evolutionary biologist by trade, very much the career scientist, is visiting the region with her zoologist husband and botanist father-in-law — her father-in-law is a very big wheel indeed, so their expedition is pretty large, and quite well-equipped:  lots of high-powered experts, lots of high-tech gizmos.  They are going inside the region of the Lost Volcano for ten weeks to live and work — deep into the hazardous zone where no one, whether New Guinean or Western, has been before.

But of course they can’t just go in right away.  First they have to spend a couple months making day trips, scouting the region for a good base camp site, interviewing the locals (let’s make them an as-yet-unencountered group of tribesmen living very close to the crater), etc. etc., and it takes a long time because the only thing like “air support” this expedition is ever going to get is some donated satellite imaging from time to time.  The existence of this unexplored ecosystem is a treasure beyond price — the only way they’re getting in there no matter what is by being just about the most sensitive, non-intrusive expedition of this kind that’s ever been mounted.  That’s a lot of the reason why they’ve got such nifty high-tech equipment, in fact:  to make the whole operation as “clean” as humanly possible.  And I know, it sounds a bit more like The Lost World than Tarzan, but work with me here.  Anyway, but all this preparatory stuff is also pretty Big Science in its own right, you understand…and since Jane speaks the language and has a lot of similar experience, her job is doing the interviews with the local people.  And we’re going to put some sort of clock on everything here, too — say that after the ten weeks the heavy rains are going to come, and it’s going to make things a lot more dangerous and difficult:  people who go into the crater often don’t make it back out anyway, but no one who goes in there during the monsoons is ever heard from again.


So, tick-tock, tick-tock.  Time passes, and Jane compiles a lot of data.  She gets to go on just a couple of the day trips, but that’s okay because she’ll get to go on the first overnight trip when that comes along.  Eventually it does, and she does…into the exotic landscape that stirs her romantic soul so profoundly.  They could do some remarkable astronomy in there, even:  the stars are so bright.  And then of course you all know what happens next:  Jane can’t sleep, and sees Tarzan, who’s come to investigate the overnight camp.  She thinks she’s hallucinating, but then she sees him again later on.

Back outside the crater, she quizzes the tribesmen privately, and the story gradually comes out:  they are actually not the first white people ever to come there, or to be curious about the Lost Volcano.  Many years ago, a small group showed up — and what happened to them is unclear, but it appears they all went into the crater during the monsoons, and were all lost, except for one little boy.  Who, miraculously, came back out alive.  So the Kasua, for whatever reasons of their own they had, tried to rescue him and raise him…but the boy kept running off.  He wouldn’t live with them.  For years and years, just when they thought he must be dead by now, at the fringes of their firelight they would perceive an occasional shadow, listening to their talk.  And sometimes they’d catch him again, and sometimes they’d think they’d saved him for good this time, but he always got away again and ran off over the lip of the volcano.  And that’s why they call him Crazy Person…but Jane knows another word for him:  feral child.  And as Harvey informs me, feral children aren’t world-beating jungle supermen, they’re children operating at tremendous disadvantages, with tremendous cognitive and physical deficits — they don’t learn language, they’re small and weak, and they don’t generally live very long.  So it seems incredible, impossible, that one could have survived into adulthood in this uttermost wild spot.  Well, he’d gotten some help from the Kasua, so maybe that explains it a bit…but still, what an astonishing possibility this “Tarzan” represents!

So naturally, when the ten-week expedition gets underway, Jane has Tarzan on the brain, and she ends up meeting him.  And maybe our story would be different if Jane were a psychiatrist instead of an evolutionary biologist, but she’s not — she can’t help seeing Tarzan as a functional part of his environment, though she knows this is wrong.  She can’t help seeing him sympathetically instead of clinically, and scientifically instead of sympathetically, and ultimately romantically instead of scientifically, all at once.  Oh, but not that sort of “romantically”…Jane is happily married, and Tarzan is a bush-man…but rather his very existence speaks to her aforementioned romantic soul in such a way that she finds herself torn over what to do about him.  Thanks to his interactions with the Kasua, he can make a decent approximation of baby-talk in their language, and so they can talk, and become fascinated by one another…of course Jane knows she can’t really believe they are developing any sort of actual human bond of the type she knows, but part of her believes it nonetheless, interpreting Tarzan’s behaviour as though it were the behaviour of an ordinary human person.  An ordinary human child, though in an adult human body.

An ordinary human child, who needs a…


And then — you saw it coming! — something happens to trap Jane in the crater-region during the monsoon season, as the rest of her expedition is forced to escape, and she discovers that Tarzan is not like an ordinary human person, and not at all like a child.  As they go deeper into the backcountry, that seems to grow more exotic with every step, this fancy starts to desert her, to be replaced by another…she starts to see Tarzan as a beast, among other beasts:  wild and uncontrollable, mysterious, with his own private and unfathomable nature.

And yet he cannot be this, actually.  In reality, human beings are human beings the world over, and they’re all the same:  they live in groups, with language and culture to aid them in survival.  They didn’t “come up” from the beast-world in some arbitrary way, so they can’t go “back” to it that way either:  these are artificial, prejudicial distinctions.  Tarzan is very, very strange, because he’s lived his life since childhood completely free of all the ordinary evolutionary advantages that belong to human beings…

And there’s never been a human being like that!

At least, not one that lived to see maturity.

His trademarked call…what is that, anyway?

The food he eats, and gets for Jane (unwilling to eat some of the meat he gets, she’s frequently given different kinds of plants as a substitute), how did he learn about it?

The animals in the jungle…how could he have survived them?  He seems to have an extraordinarily supple sense of tactics, but he also seems…well…crazy.  He bursts in on a conclave of peculiar apes with merry abandon, and doesn’t get killed…are they playing with him, or trying to kill him and failing?  Or, is there a difference?  He can out-obnoxious monkeys and birds, he laughs to play with dangerous reptiles, he hunts jaguars by jumping on them from tree branches, it is crazy, it’s all crazy, and suddenly in a moment it comes to Jane that the animals think he’s a crazy person too…but, what makes him that way, and what makes it successful behaviour?  There’s no evolution at work here, neither past evolutionary fruits being gone back to, nor new evolutionary features being gained — that’s not how evolution works.  So it must be something else…

Tarzan learns a bit of English, and in teaching him Jane also learns a portion of his mysterious self-made language, the squeaks and grunts, the bizarre vocal expressions so unlike the vocalization of animals or people, the fractured pieces of Kasua, the odd bit of English stirred in…she is getting inside his head, and it’s a very weird place.  What must an acultural existence be like for a human being?  Is it just an endlessly shifting gallery of stimuli?  What lies beyond the fear-filled existence of the foredoomed feral child, what’s it like to be a competent feral adult? Jane begins to make the connection you have surely made already:  Tarzan’s not a savage, he’s a sophisticate.  His mode of existence has far more in common with that of a Western urbanite, than it does with the civilized, grounded existence of the Kasua — everything is in a constant state of flux for him, as it is with our own alienated masses.  He plays with language by himself, since there’s no one else to play with — he’s made his own niche in this rainforest’s startling ecosystem, out of nothing.  Not being able to evolve to fit it, he’s done something far more novel than that, he’s made it fit him, somehow…he changes the parts of it that are around him, he habitually breaks every one of its pre-existing rules, and pre-existing roles.

Tarzan survives by being an artist.

Hey, but wait a minute…

Does that actually make any sense?

Oh, shit…what in God’s name has she been eating.

He just gives her stuff, and she eats it.  But he’s a unique singleton living off in an uncharted, unsurveyed wilderness!  Jesus, he’s given her berries.  Holy shit, he’s given her mushrooms.  What in the fuck was she thinking?

How long have they even been out here?  Are the rains still falling?

Curse her romantic soul, it’s going to end up killing her!  This guy isn’t a treasure-trove of botanical knowledge, that’s the Kasua…!

So, long story short:  yes.  Jane is tripping.  She’s been tripping for days and days, but now she’s peaking.  Suddenly she sees Tarzan in vivid hallucination, first as a victim reeking of superhuman tragedy, a lost human with needs he can’t even acknowledge, nothing but mute hurt and pain…then, terrifyingly, he’s an infant cannibal, coming after her to eat her romantic soul, her brains, the soft parts of her body…

Jane freaks, takes off suddenly at a dead run into the jungle.  Tarzan is surprised, and runs after her.  To protect her?

But wouldn’t that urge be foreign to his very way of thinking?

Suddenly he is a wild beast on her trail, hunting her.  He’ll kill her if he catches her, crunch her bones, slurp down her blood…she has to get away.  But get away to where?  Back to so-called “civilization”?  But every person there is secretly a Tarzan, every person there is a singleton, negotiating their world’s capricious stimuli by practising a distant, inhuman form of art…and she’s one of them too, and she cannot even get away from herself…inside her is a Tarzan, the idea of Tarzan now coming for her, coming for her…the monster gliding deeply, coldly, under the attractive skin of her false identity…

Tarzan is now freaking a little, himself.  Jane is moving fast, really fast.  Too fast for the jungle.  He bolts up a tree, spies her charging along.  He gives his weird neither-fish-nor-fowl yell, to freeze her.  It works…

…And then a jaguar comes right at her from out of the bushes.

Tripped-out Jane’s response?

She goes for it.

Faster than a blink, she does something Tarzanesque to it, something stupidly unexpected:  she puts her whole arm right down its throat up to the shoulder and grabs its jaw with her other hand to hold its mouth open while she messes around down in there.  The jaguar is…well, let’s say startled.  Jane is toast, of course;  but she’s bought herself about a quarter of a second. Maybe just an eighth.

(Oh dear, this has gone a bit of the rails, I think…whoops…)

But fortunately this is time enough for Tarzan to swing down on a vine (on a vine! What?) and kill the jaguar before it tears Jane to shreds.  In the aftermath, Jane has her final hallucination.  Once again, she sees Tarzan…

…But this time, she doesn’t see him as a child, as a victim, as a beast, or even as an idea.  Against all expectations, she suddenly sees him, with alarming vividness, as a man.

And it is at this point that they consummate their relationship.  Very new stuff, to Tarzan!  As at last, the real irrevocable human connection is made, and cemented.

So, end Part One.

And then Part Two naturally goes like this:  the rains end, and Jane’s husband and father-in-law return, and what with one thing and another Tarzan and Jane leave the Lost Volcano for the outside world.  And here are a bunch of your major soap-opera elements, right in Part Two where they should be…but in a sense, to Tarzan it’s all one:  he’s still an environmental artist, the outside world is just as full of madness to him as was the jungle, and he deals with it the same way…I hope you can picture it all as automatically as I can…but then in Part Three he and Jane return to New Guinea, to, I don’t know, thwart the evil plans of bioprospecting poachers?  There’s a lot of new (old) knowledge in Tarzan’s jungle, but Tarzan himself is still the major repository of it…”how did he survive” is still a very important question that he will never be able to answer.  But Jane might be able to answer it, in time, and that’s her new field of research:  discovering what Tarzan knows, that he doesn’t know he knows.  And it’s very fruitful research indeed, but then that’s where the danger comes from, too.  The world spins on into the twenty-first century, and times change, but people don’t:  the last storehouses of biodiversity, as they become more vitally important to the human race, also become focusses of wealth, power, and all that crap.  Meanwhile the “archive” that Tarzan’s unmarked, uncatalogued experience represents still has Elephants’ Graveyards in it, waiting for Jane to discover them…

Oh, and I think that’s probably all I can manage for tonight.  But I think there’s enough there to do more stuff later…I mean, in order to interpret Tarzan’s experience lucidly, Jane will have to spend a lot of time with the Kasua, who as previously mentioned are the only source of cultural knowledge in the region…it probably ought to be that in Part Two it’s discovered Tarzan has not only a fortune waiting for him in the outside world, but relatives…the geopolitics New Guinea is embedded in today might easily offer thrilling extrapolations for future Tarzan stories…


Hey, just think of it as being written by Kim Stanley Robinson instead of me, okay?

Oh, this bloody thing almost killed me, and now suddenly Andrew’s got a new one up…

Curse you and your manifestoes, Andrew!  I knew nothing good could come of all this!

Since you have already MEMED everybody who reads you, I don’t suppose I should say I’d like to see what RAB’s Tarzan or Doctor Who would be like…

But, y’know…I think I will, anyway.  He did miss the Darkseid one due to Marc saying everything, after all…so that’s clearly his fault and he should be made to pay…

And hey…anyone ever read “Showboat World” by Jack Vance?

I wanna do some Jack Vance blogstuff pretty soon, I think.

Okay, now I’m just rambling.


28 responses to “Andrew’s Tarzan

  1. Holy. Freddy. Mercury.

    Andrew, your whole scheme is wonderful. Quixotic? I don’t know. But it has to be done, it is absolutely worth the effort.

    But Plok, your new Tarzan almost surpasses it. Has to be exactly what Andrew is asking for.

    I’m still absorbing it. With strange resonances, because just yesterday I posted a sketch, what to do with the Cheetah, Wonder Woman’s werecat foe. (Don’t imagine too much, it only marches through the trad B-movie horror themes, rather systematically. But it is,/i> supposed to be drama.)

    And I have been much on the Comic Book Resources WW forum at late, because I want there to be something we can do with Diana; and with the general trope of the Lost Civilization, which (remember my comments on your Indiana Jones piece?) looks completely exhausted, but could still turn and surprise us …

    … if we could only realize what theme it answered to. Oh, man, theme. I’ve been banging my head on it for months.

    When up pops Andrew and he’s just decided to knock off six becalmed genre setups just like mine, over the next couple of weeks.

    This is just what I needed to have happen.

    No. 6: Unlike me, most of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment, and will die here like rotten cabbages.

    No. 2: Keep going, they’re loving it!

  2. Hooray! Such facility Vance has — also you have to love his dignified solipsists.

    Wonder Woman…I wrote something about that once, I figured the scary thing about her is that she’s so healthy that she wants everybody else to be healthy too…totally honest with themselves about everything, and then there’ll be no more crime or war or what-have-you! It’s my nod to Marston…

    And that makes her villains all people with huge kinks and hang-ups, who collectively say “you know what, WW, screw your honesty, whaddaya think I’m wearing this Cheetah suit for, anyway, I like my divided nature…!” You know, “how dare you try to make me healthy and normal!”

    But the Lost Civilization’s probably got more surprises than that up its sleeve…gosh, lost civilizations! I want more of ’em, don’t you? Get on that, Jonathan…!

    By the way, what do you want the tags to be doing? Because I could just fix that for you, y’know.

    We could talk Jack Vance around here in a little while, I think…

  3. Damn. That’s…damn. Nice work, man. A whole new direction that feels fresh and interesting without sacrificing the core appeal of the character. Wow.

  4. The whole idea of making Tarzan more related to what feral children are really like, and using that to explore the whole meaning of acculturation (which is not exactly what you said but I see it there nonetheless), is something and a half. Kudos to you, sir!

    Since you ask…my version of Doctor Who would be Doctor Who. There’s nothing wrong with the character or the premise. It’s just bad writing and a gross misunderstanding of the character that’s ruined the current series.

    I’ve already gone on about this (at interminable length) on Andrew’s blog a while back, but my take on the Doctor is this: his view of humans should be the same as my view of dogs. What charming, intelligent, brave, friendly, affectionate creatures! How charming the simple things that make them happy! How wonderful to make the acquaintance of each one! But they can also be vicious and dangerous if mistreated, and they’re ignorant of the harm they can cause. And when a more capable creature abuses them, our duty is to rescue and protect them.

    That also tells you what the stories should be about: all the ways humans can be vicious and inhumane or innocently dangerous to one another or to another species, and all the ways we might be abused or exploited or enslaved by other races, and the Doctor stepping in to say “No, the human race is worthy of better. This bad behavior has got to stop.” And then showing us how.

    As it happens, I have an absolute dilly of an idea for Tarzan, but you’ll have to give me a moment…

  5. This is, of course, far better than my take. I’m very glad I’ve sparked some interesting stuff off here…

    And RAB, you’re right, of course, as far as the Doctor’s attitude to people goes…

  6. Well, thank you all…it turns out Tarzan is a lot harder to negotiate than I thought, actually, you have to walk a very crooked line between Mowgli, the Phantom, the Lost World, even that damn Nell movie with Jodie Foster…there’s a bit of “The Ugly Little Boy” in there too, and it was hard not to get dragged off into Greg Egan’s Teranesia along the way as well…man, but this Tarzan thing’s really old and hoary, isn’t it? Everybody’s been over this ground before, it seems. So in the end all I really did was steal Andrew’s Jane — Jane is the one thing Tarzan’s got going for him as a standalone concept, Jane and Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan Yell — and then jump on Harvey’s remarks about how Tarzan’s impossible because feral children aren’t like that. Really, I’m happiest with the Tarzan Yell being a big WTF thing — what the hell kind of a noise is that, why would Tarzan ever have learned to make it? I didn’t explain this properly, but I think it’s hearing him make that noise that gives Jane her big insight into what “niche” he fits into — i.e. no niche at all.


    The Doctor Who thing will be much more boring than this, I think. Andrew’s got me beat there already, I can tell.

  7. Also, I never tire of RAB saying his Doctor Who creed, myself. It’s a public service that he’s doing!

    But maybe I just say that because I’ve got a Doctor Who hobby-horse of my own…

  8. I’m going to bed in a few minutes, and I’m going away for the whole of the weekend, so I just want to say briefly that divorcing Tarzan from Africa is DAMN CLEVER and opens the whole thing up in the “Why the hell didn’t I (or anybody else who’s tackled this character over the years for that matter) think of that?” sort of way, which is of course the whole point of the pop-drama call-to-arms as I understand it.

    I want to do one of these eventually, but I can’t top the two Tarzans, and the only thing I would probably end up doing with Doctor Who is my *impression* from secondhand sources of what the Third Doctor was like without ever having seen a single episode with him (not a huge Who guy, me).

  9. No wait, I spoke too soon. I was brushing my teeth last night when it came to me – How To Do Who. Coming Soon then, I guess.

    By the way, on Tarzan I always find that Part Two you mention the more interesting bit – Tarzan returns to ‘civilization’ or whatever and turns out to be fabulously wealthy. I think that’s why I was so taken with the Tarzan analogue in the first issue of Planetary: less about the White Man in the Jungle, and more about the guy who brings something *back* with him from the jungle – an ‘alternate lifestyle’ beneath a genteel facade. Not that that’s necessarily any culturally/socially healthier a notion, of course.

  10. I was toying with an idea to set Tarzan in an alternative history where Britain conquered space in the 19th century with the help of Jules Verne-esque space vehicles and have the whole jungle thing represented by a wild, untamed planet – maybe a Victorian notion of the moon.

    The only problem is that such a treatment basically turns Tarzan into John Carter of Mars. Oh well, maybe my concept for a House-style Doctor Who will be more successful!

  11. I’ve always thought of Tarzan as a limited concept (prtobably because it is), but you and Andrew have made it something I’d actually read and/or watch. It got me thinking:

    Why can’t Tarzan be a native of Africa or New Guinea or wherever? Really, just make Tarzan black. He was abandoned as a child, raised by apes discovered by Jane (who can be black too, if you want, but, obviously, it’s not necessary), went back to civilization (it doesn’t have to be England), then returned to the jungle. Is a black man being feral more racist than a white man conquering Africa?

    And what do we know about Africa, these days? Parts of it are engulfed by civil war. (Black or white) Tarzan becomes a freedom fighter, protecting the oppressed as well as the animals. He’s seen Darwin’s theories at work, but the guns upset the natural order. He realizes man is set apart from the rest of nature, and begins to despise most of humanity. He can be the eco-warrior Andrew writes about. He can be like Aquaman, commanding the beasts of the jungle. Jane can be right there with him, an equal partner in all his endeavors.

  12. Mike: Oh, for sure…why does Tarzan have to be white? It totally crossed my mind, it was really irritating…I mean it’s the very crux of the whole reason why Tarzan doesn’t work well in the twenty-first century, it’s just bloody stupid that he’s white, it doesn’t mean anything. And once you strip that away, that he’s “not from Africa” doesn’t make any sense either. Actually I was watching a program the other night on Ugandan gorillas, and how gorillas and humans swap diseases so easily that to wipe out a disease in the human population, or in the gorilla population, means nothing as long as the other population is still loaded with the disease. As one guy put it, “it was easy to get rid of smallpox, because smallpox is one of the very few diseases that only affects humans.” So, Tarzan living with the apes sounds pretty goddamn dangerous for both Tarzan and the apes…and what the hell would happen when Tarzan went to “civilization”?

    It could be really interesting, actually. Forget the ivory, the ecology, and even the biodiversity — what about the disease vectors? Now there’s an issue! “Speciesism”, of course…

    I think it could totally work. But in the end I wanted to attack the part that was really ostentatiously not working more directly, so I made it all “we’re fucked, Tarzan’s fucked, on the other hand the Kasua are fine”. A little on the nose, perhaps, but…

    Justin: I completely agree, the Part Two (though I didn’t include it because a) time and space, and b) it writes itself) is the real test of what kind of zing a new Tarzan would actually, finally have…I envision it as something like Tarzan being kind of weirdly comfortable in the city, more comfortable than Jane (well, there’s a reason Jane has the job she does! And that’s sort of a callback to all the memoirs and other literature written by the old British Foreign Service people in the Fifties — who believed in Empire and playing the game and all that maybe too much to fit in their homeland, so they went out and got themselves stuck with a foot in both worlds, and then felt somehow the ideals that used to be their harmonizing force emotionally just kind of deserted them one day — actually a very interesting subspecies of literature, there’s more of it than you might think, and some of it’s very good…anyway Jane would be like that too: she doesn’t fit), more comfortable because to him it’s really just like the jungle, he just adapts to it as though it were another part of the jungle. So he doesn’t decide to leave it because he can’t handle it, he decides to leave it because he doesn’t like it, and Jane doesn’t really like it either, especially since Jane has all kinds of problems readjusting to civilization given what happened in the jungle. For one thing she has to deal with the fact that she still has a husband, yikes…!

    And I’m glad to hear you’ve got a Who, because I don’t know if I do…so you can pick up the slack if I fail to come up with anything!

    Oh, Christ. Yawn. Is that the time…

  13. The deed is done – Here’s your Doctor Who. I hope it’s got enough of the “drama”; I just let out what came naturally in a very short time and hoped it would hang together. Stan Lee apparently didn’t plan that whole dubious “The Fantastic Four’s powers represent the four elements” thing, so maybe I’ll get lucky as well.

    You know, I don’t think Tarzan *should* have to be be white, but I think people will *perceive* it as being important. I know I’m just strawmanning it up here something terrible, but I dread an audience not identifying Africa or New Guinea as “civilization.”

    Really, if nothing else, it’s an identification thing at the heart of the mythology. “Well, so what if an African guy is raised in the jungle. That’s a fine story but it’s not really relevant to my life” Whereas Tarzan was really saying, “Hey, white people: Let’s pretend this is what it would be like if *you* were raised in the jungle!”

    • Justin, I’m totally flattered. Your addendum or corollary to my bit completes it. I had only part of the picture, and you found the missing segment and boom! we’ve got a whole character.

      Now, I am otherwise staying out of the DW stuff until I finish my Tarzan…

  14. Justin, what’s dumbest of all is that lots of guys in Africa are raised in the goddamn jungle!

    It’s the jungle, for God’s sake! They’re in it!


    But I guess it takes a white guy to be raised in the jungle wrong…huh, that’s cool actually. Sure, in real life there’s exactly one way to be raised in the jungle, which is the way people are so raised. In New Guinea, you can grow up a hunter-gatherer, it’s just like that, it’s totally normal. What’s so strange about it? The attempt to make Tarzan more “of the jungle” than an African or Kasua tribesman is absurd…what in the world is “more” of the jungle? Oh, living like an actual animal is, well my goodness there you really have the racism with both barrels, eh? More African than the Africans, it isn’t about superiority it’s about inferiority. Being less human.

    But then Tarzan’s white, so AHA! He’s also more human.

    Yeesh, it’s awful when you really start peeling away at it.

    But so I guess that’s what I was doing, having Tarzan really not be “of the jungle” — he’s an environmental savant, to him different environments are just different prime numbers, and are we so different from BLAH BLAH BLAH, is I suppose what I’m saying…uh-oh, I’m starting to kind of dislike that, now…so…

    Time for bed! Plenty of time for ranting tomorrow.

  15. I think I’ve assimilated it now.

    If we’re to reinvent Tarzan, I have to ask: Would Frank Frazetta illustrate it? Russ Manning? Will there be crocodiles and savage thylacines? Will there be feats of daring and hairbreadth escapes and stuff? Will love be free and feral? These are of the essence.

    Andrew’s take is creepy and disturbing. He sets young Greystoke up as a kind of Chauncy Gardener to these rather effete-sounding British pols. You can hear him on a TV interview, saying what he thinks without dissimulation: “The forest works. The strong fight for dominance, the weak struggle or submit as they must. That is how life keeps going.” And
    the corpulent opinion-mongers nod their heads: How wise, how refreshingly straightforward. Perhaps now we’ll see a progressive front with balls. But they don’t reckon on incipient murderers suddenly getting a rush of adrenaline, even in their own clique. Still less, I would argue, would they anticipate what example the local boot boys will take from Tarzan, or smooth young aristocrats. It was a sudden vision o my brothers. We shut our glazzies in Camden Town and when we opened them it was the jungle.

    A variation. We know so much more about evolution now, all we remember of early Darwinism is “survival of the fittest”. But the most prominent theme in the narrative that collected around evolution, and Burroughs knew it for sure, was Adaptability. That’s what the mammals had and the dinosaurs didn’t, and that’s why mankind is on top. Tarzan wins out in every situation, not just because he is without pretence or inhibition, but because he takes each now environment as he finds it, without prejudice, and quickly orients himself in it by his own moral compass.

    So although it’s obviously right that Greystoke comes out of the jungle with no concern for human life, that’s not how I’d play it through. It would be more like: while these other characters are acting out their class resentments with newfound bravado, to Tarzan it’s just another case of warring tribes, and he himself will naturally home in on the heroine who needs protecting, regardless of tribe. And as for his Clermont sponsors, well you just don’t prosper as a high-placed schemer in a Burroughs story.

    Tarzan and the Lions of Lambeth!

    And now to your take, Plok.

    It’s a beaut. I love making the locus New Guinea, I love the Kasua, and I also really like the double shot of jungle psychedelics with making the Lost Volcano in the monsoon season insanely dangerous –yet that’s where the boy grows up. That’s got serious bark.

    A subtlety you don’t tease out: making Jane an evolutionary biologist. It’s the wrong discipline! The Volcano itself is a crucible of evolution, that’s why she’s there; but Tarzan himself is a behavioural, cognitive anomaly, not an evolutionary one. But this is great. Jane would need to be an anthropologist, merely to enumerate the rules Tarzan breaks; and also to have any background in recognizing what the Kasua believe, how they think and what they mean when they speak. But she’s not, and so she’ll be out of her depth, struggling gamely to comprehend.

    This gives Jane’s intelligence enormous scope, and makes her the indispensable viewpoint character. The story could be all about her wrestling with the mystery that is Tarzan. It could almost all be her diaries. Her blog?

    It’s quite reasonable that the Kasua don’t try to do what Tarzan does. It’s not that they’re cowardly, it’s that they’re rationally prudent, and they’ve collected a pile of oral material on how to stay alive, even where they reside. They could tell Jane a lot, and just how she gets to know them would be worth the price of a book. The challenge, indeed, is to give them their own voice, as she begins to converse fluently.

    Feral children, as far as we know, because they miss out on socialization, fail to develop usual intellectual skills. But Tarzan isn’t stupid. He didn’t get socialization, he got something else instead, which might use the same brain development paths in a different way. What he got, plausibly, was mimicry, improvisation and adaptability. The Shao-lin martial tradition uses animal mimicry as mnemonics and formal discipline for their bodily moves, remember. It takes continual practice. Well, that’s sort of our boy; except that Tarzan is making up the regimen as he goes along: that’s the kind of artist he is. But more than that, there’s something about what he does that’s indefinable, the intersection of plain luck with something inherent. In the end he’s Tarzan, that’s all.

    Following Andrew’s challenge with interest.

  16. Her diaries, absolutely!

    The thing I was worried about, with Jane not being an anthropologist, was that having her know the Kasua language would be a little harder to sell without giving her a great big backstory of her own. But I settled on evolutionary biology for just those reasons you discern, Jonathan, and one other: that an anthropologist wouldn’t be so swept off her feet by the romantic idea of Tarzan, and instead would end up making normal judgements about him. But Jane has to approach anthopology from the wrong end, with the wrong tools…and yet they turn out to be the right tools, because she notices that the Tarzan Yell doesn’t fit in, and doesn’t make any sense…as a strategy that evolved, it’s crazy, it doesn’t fit in with the environment or the survival tasks. Maybe an anthropologist would call it “yodelling”, would make that connection right away, but Jane doesn’t…

    A slender enough thread, to hang Tarzan’s “difference” on!

    So I had to take it.

    What you say there about Andrew’s version gets me thinking about old G.K. again, and his Napoleon…I’m more interested in the potential details of Andrew’s Act Two than I am in my own, because that’s where his themes start to gear properly…if he wasn’t set on returning Tarzan to tarzanhood, if he was a bit more 80s Alan Moore about it, that could just be the whole story, right there. Moore and Chesterton, and a little bit of American Flagg!

    Huh. Seems like there’s lots of life left in this stuff after all…who’d a thought?

  17. One of my favourite takes on Tarzan is from an episode of The Backyardigans in which animated-animal little kids Tyrone the moose, Pablo the penguin and Austin the kangaroo are all pretending to be Tarzan and accompanying Professor Uniqua to the heart of the jungle. When the three Tarzans first encounter each other they have this exchange (I found the lyrics part on a Backyardigans fansite, but the conversation parts are the best I can reproduce from memory):

    I’m Tarzan
    Music by Evan Lurie
    Lyrics by Janice Burgess and McPaul Smith

    Tyrone: “Hi. I’m Tarzan.”
    Pablo: “As it happens, I’m Tarzan too.”
    Tyrone: “Really!”(begins singing)
    “I’m Tarzan, I’m Tarzan, Tarzan the Animal Guy!
    I’m Tarzan, I’m Tarzan, Tarzan the Animal Guy!
    I live deep in the jungle, with the bugs and the beasts and the birds
    I understand their noises and they understand my words
    ‘Cause I’m Tarzan, I’m Tarzan, Tarzan the Animal Guy!
    I’m Tarzan, I’m Tarzan, Tarzan the Animal Guy!
    When I talk, I growl and squawk, and here’s the reason why
    ‘Cause I’m Tarzan, I’m Tarzan, Tarzan the Animal Guy!”

    Pablo: “I’m Tarzan…”
    Tyrone: “You’re Tarzan…”
    Both: “Tarzan the Very Strong!”
    Pablo: “I’m Tarzan…”
    Tyrone: “You’re Tarzan…”
    Both: “Tarzan the Very Strong!”
    Pablo: “I break up big boulders and grind them into sand”
    Tyrone: “And he can lift an elephant in the air with just one hand
    ‘Cause he’s Tarzan…”
    Pablo: “I’m Tarzan…”
    Both: “Tarzan the Very Strong!”
    Pablo: “I’m Tarzan…”
    Tyrone: “You’re Tarzan…”
    Both: “Tarzan the Very Strong!”
    Pablo: “I’m faster than a cheetah and mighty as King Kong”
    Tyrone: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Pablo: “I’m Tarzan…”
    Both: “Tarzan the Very Strong!”

    (Austin shows up.)
    Pablo: “Are you Tarzan too?”
    (Austin nods.)
    Pablo: “I could tell.”

    Tyrone: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Pablo: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Tyrone & Pablo: “Who Doesn’t Say Too Much!”
    Austin: “Ugh!”
    Tyrone: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Pablo: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Tyrone & Pablo: “Who Doesn’t Say Too Much!”
    Austin: “Ugh!”
    Tyrone: “He listens close to all the sounds when he takes a jungle walk”
    Pablo: “Your listening skills get really good when you hardly ever talk”
    Tyrone: “He swings through the tree tops to his viny jungle pad”
    Pablo: “He only says important things, for instance…”
    Austin (speaking): “Quicksand bad!”
    Tyrone: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Pablo: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Tyrone & Pablo: “Who Doesn’t Say Too Much!”
    Austin: “Ugh!”
    Tyrone: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Pablo: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Tyrone & Pablo: “Who Doesn’t Say Too Much!”
    Tyrone: “He rarely even bothers with nouns and verbs and such
    He’s Tarzan…”
    Pablo: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Tyrone: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Pablo: “He’s Tarzan…”
    Tyrone & Pablo: “Who Doesn’t Say Too Much!”

    Then later in the episode the song gets reprised as all three of them get to be Tarzan Who Swings on Vines.

  18. What if Tarzan is a biological weapon designed by some secret gorilla kingdom to infiltrate and enslave humanity so the world can become a version of “Planet of the Apes”?

    And did anyone ever wonder whether Lord Greystoke’s father ever worked with Dr. Moreau?

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