10 Things I Didn’t Know About Tarzan

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan of the Apes
Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan of the Apes.

When I heard that a new Tarzan movie was about to be released, I started thinking about the Tarzan of my childhood: Johnny Weissmuller.

I remember Weissmuller as a great swimmer—he usually had at least one scene in which he killed some creature in the water—and as a great screamer.

His signature call was blood-curdling and imitable. According to the Wikipedia article, “recordings of three vocalists were spliced together to get the effect—a soprano, an alto, and a hog caller.”

Tarzan's blood-curdling yell.
Tarzan’s blood-curdling yell.

Although Weissmuller never actually said, “Me Tarzan, you Jane” in any of the movies, the phrase is an apt representative of the kind of English he spoke in character. This misrepresentation of the fictional character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) must have been particularly galling to the author and his fans.

As I mused about the old Tarzan films, I realized that I’d never read even one of the twenty-six Tarzan novels. I decided to read at least one so as to be able to judge how closely the new film, The Legend of Tarzan, adheres to the Burroughs character.

Because the first novel, Tarzan of the Apes (1912), ends with Jane engaged to another man, I had to read the second, The Return of Tarzan (1913), to find out how Tarzan and Jane finally get together.

Here are ten things I learned about Tarzan by reading the first two novels in the series by Burroughs.

1. Tarzan was born in the jungle.
I always thought the infant Tarzan had been the only survivor of a plane crash in the jungle and that a female ape found him in the wreckage. Not so.

In the novel, English newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. John Clayton, aka Lord and Lady Greystoke, are travelling to a government posting in Africa. Mrs. Clayton is pregnant. Because they expect to live in Africa for five years or more, they take trunk-loads of personal belongings, including children’s books for their unborn child.

During the final stage of their journey, mutineers seize the boat they’re on and set them and their trunks ashore in a remote area. Lord Greystoke turns out to be quite handy for a civil servant and builds a solid cabin with barred windows and a stout door.

On the eve of their child’s birth,Mrs. Clayton is traumatized when she and her husband narrowly escape being killed by a gorilla. She loses her reason, but cares for her infant son for the first year of his life. On his first birthday, she dies. In his grief, Mr. Clayton leaves the door open and is killed by the leader of a gorilla tribe. A female gorilla whose baby died in a fall a few hours earlier and who is still carrying the body, exchanges her dead child for Clayton Jr.

2. “Tarzan” is a word in gorilla language.
Tarzan’s mother-tongue is the language of the apes. “Tarzan” means “White-Skin.”

3. Tarzan wore bangs.
Before he left the jungle and got a proper haircut, Tarzan wore his black hair long in back but cut the front in bangs.

4. In his youth, Tarzan was a serial killer.
In his earliest encounters with human beings, Tarzan systematically stalks and kills lone hunters in order to acquire their clothing, ornaments, and weapons.

5. Tarzan eats raw meat.
I can’t really remember depictions of meals in the Weissmuller movies, but I assume Tarzan and Jane cooked their food over a campfire. The original Tarzan likes his meat freshly hacked and dripping with blood or, even better, tenderized by having been buried for a few days.

6. Tarzan and the apes had a difficult relationship.
In the movies, Tarzan had a chimpanzee companion, Cheetah, so I always assumed he had a friendly relationship with apes. In fact, he kills a couple of disagreeable gorillas from his own tribe. The more his human faculties develop, the less he wants to live among them. He eventually abdicates as king of the apes in order to live a solitary existence. Later, he becomes chief of a native tribe.

7. Tarzan taught himself to write and read English.
When he’s ten years old, Tarzan discovers the cabin his father built and teaches himself to read from ABC books. How he does it without having a notion of spoken English is a mystery to me, but by the time he encounters his first English-speakers, he has an excellent command of written English and writes them clearly written, grammatically correct notes. He has also acquired knowledge about the outside world by reading his father’s books.

8. Tarzan learned to speak French before learning to speak English.
Another linguistic mystery is how Burroughs has Tarzan learn to speak “the white man’s language.” Tarzan already has a large English vocabulary from his reading, and the Frenchman he asks to teach him is fluent in English. Nevertheless, the Frenchman teaches him to speak French. From what I can tell, the Frenchman translates the English words Tarzan already knows to French before telling him how to say them. For example, if Tarzan writes the word tree, the Frenchman tells him to say arbre. Fortunately, Tarzan is a gifted linguist who can become fluent in any language in a matter of weeks.

9. Tarzan is a racist.
In numerous moments of reflection in both novels, Tarzan categorizes human beings according to worth. In his view, upperclass Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans are at the high end. (Jane is from a well-to-do Baltimore family.) His archenemy in both novels is a despicable Russian. And, although he has amicable relationships with some native Africans, they rate below the animals in his esteem.

10. Tarzan is a smoker.
In the second novel, Tarzan has acquired a veneer of civilization. The Frenchman who taught him to speak in the first novel has become his friend and patron, enabling Tarzan to live an idle life in Paris, where he smokes cigarettes and drinks “too much” absinth. In Tarzan’s defense, he does tire of the useless life and accepts a government job that takes him back to Africa.

Burroughs’s novels are repetitious and riddled with deplorable nineteenth-century attitudes toward race and women, but, after a hundred years, they remain an entertaining read.

I can hardly wait to see the new Tarzan movie and compare notes.