Me Tarzan, you Jane…

Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer on the phenomenon of a jungle hero in fantasy literature

If you ask from which novel the sentence "Me Tarzan, you Jane!" comes, everyone knows which hero it is. The series, comprising a total of 24 volumes, was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and its hero is still well-known even 100 years after its publication. Why is that the case?

Meyer: Burroughs wrote a tremendous story of development that is still exciting to read today, combining love, adventure and mortal danger. Consequently, we are dealing with a genre mix that offers something of many things. Consequently it appeals to a broad readership. Moreover, the more than 20 novels in the Tarzan series are real page-turners. Burroughs works with two-stranded plots and a proven cliffhanger technique: you want to know what happens next with the characters, whether they survive, whether the Tarzan-Jane couple finds their way to each other, and so on. In addition, Burroughs provides highly striking situational images, especially in the first Tarzan novel, Tarzan by the Apes. A muscle-bound man swinging through the jungle on vines, carrying a beautiful woman around pressed against his unclothed chest, talking to apes. These are scenes that are described in detail in the novel and which are also central to all pictorial representations, be it in the comic or in the more than one hundred (!) film adaptations. Including the Tarzan "yodel", which, at the latest through Johnny Weissmüller's embodiment, has also become an acoustic signature of the character. So it has a high recognition value, to which the shapely body of the title hero, described as naked in large parts of the first Tarzan novel, certainly contributes. Published at the beginning of the 20th century, i.e. at a time of relatively great prudishness, this was certainly attractive to a broad readership and still is in our body-conscious present.
The basic constellation that is at stake in Tarzan by the Apes and also in the subsequent volumes is also interesting: the relationship between man and nature. Man appears as a flawed being who, ao it seems at first, has little to offer in the face of the jungle's adversities. Tarzan's parents, for example, die after being abandoned in the jungle. Tarzan himself, however, always manages to use his wits and thus save his life and the lives of others. Burroughs repeats this refrain-like in his novels: the thing that distinguishes man from the animal is ratio. That is why man can survive even in an in hospitable or even hostile environment.

On 20 June 1921, the novel "Tarzan the Terrible" is published as the 8th volume of the Tarzan series. In it, Tarzan encounters monsters of the grey prehistoric times and tames a huge monster, the so-called Gryf. What fascinates the reader about such a parallel world?

Meyer: The Tarzan volumes are ultimately based on a real historical situation, that is the colonisation of the African continent by the English: Tarzan's parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, set off by ship on an inspection visit to a colony on the west coast of Africa. The crew mutinies and abandons the couple on the beach of an uninhabited island. They survive shortly until the birth of their son. A mother monkey who has lost her cub takes care of the little one. The rest is familiar and from this point on the narrative takes a turn into the fantastic. The 26 books that Borroughs wrote about Tarzan between 1912 and 1946 take us to various locations, most of which seem exotic to European readers. For example, to a forgotten valley where dinosaurs live. Michael Crichton with his novel Lost World may have been inspired by this! Today, we still enjoy the mental game of the question "What if...?" ! It is a characteristic of fantastic literature to transcend or alienate familiar everyday perceptions. Something extraordinary becomes recognisable. There are theories according to which fantastic literature is especially demanded in times of upheaval. This could also be said of the first Tarzan volumes. My theory on this is that the comprehensive mechanisation, globalisation, industrialisation, colonisation, which had a profound impact on all Western states at the beginning of the 20th century, promoted the longing for nature, for its secrets, for a 'wild' counterworld in a special way.

In the Anglo-Saxon-speaking world, Burroughs' work is an absolute classic of fantasy. In Germany, he has not achieved this status. Why is that the case?

Meyer: Tarzan is also popular in Germany, but less in novel form than as a comic or film. In particular, this has to do with the fact that the first novel is ultimately an examination of colonialism: Tarzan's parents, who are introduced as representatives of the English crown right at the beginning of the first novel, cannot survive in the dangerous jungle, which they are supposed to rule as superior Europeans. Tarzan grows up there among apes and thus embodies a utopia, namely the reconciliation of man and nature. Man is a friend or at least a fair opponent of the animal, lives in harmony with it and only takes what he needs to survive. Tarzan, however, is also very clearly designed as an Englishman, as a nobleman. Time and time again it is said in the novels that he cannot deny the character of a true gentleman, that it is innate in him. But he is also drawn back to Africa again and again. From an Anglo-Saxon perspective, therefore, it is not only about an exciting story, but also about the confrontation with a self-image, as Joseph Conrad, for example, also did in Heart of Darkness in 1899, albeit in a different way in terms of literature and content. This level of reception is completely lacking in the German-speaking world. No matter how adverse the circumstances, the white gentleman, the English lord, survives and ensures law and order. This is the subliminal, yet clearly audible message of the Tarzan novels.

The character Tarzan belongs to the group of so-called wolf children, people who grew up isolated from other people for a while of their youth. Does the hero status come from the fact that the reader cannot compare him to any real human being?

Meyer: In fact, Burroughs can draw on a long tradition of literary for his Tarzan novels: Starting with Romulus and Remus via Wolfdietrich, the titular character of the Middle High German heroic epic of the same name, and Mowgli from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling from 1894. Many more titles and names could be added. For example, the numerous fantastic stories in which, from the end of the 18th century onwards, the frontline position of man and ape is abandoned in favour of beings that appear to be hybrids. Particularly exciting about Burroughs' novels is that with Tarzan he has created a figure who, on the one hand, appears superhumanly strong and also possesses an extraordinarily noble character, but who, on the other hand, is also entirely human and is shown in all his initial physical and mental weakness. Again and again, the author points out the shortcomings of his creature, who at first cannot read or speak, who romps through the jungle unclothed, who likes to feed on a juicy caterpillar or who tears raw meat from a freshly killed animal and greedily devours it. In short, it behaves quite differently in many situations than a well-bred European would, showing slightly anarchic traits. Many readers are fascinated by the carefully balanced relationship between attraction and repulsion in the character Tarzan. Burroughs has written a novel of development: Tarzan becomes aware of his shape and uniqueness (much like a jungle narcissist) when he catches sight of his reflection in a pond. He teaches himself to read using the books his parents were able to bring with them to the jungle. We have the model for such an episode in Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein. Tarzan's heroism, based on enormous physical strength, is carefully built up by the author. He tells us in detail how Tarzan grows up and gains strength, indeed must gain strength, in order to survive. We also often see Tarzan weak, injured, covered in blood, once even comatose. But he always gets up again. That makes him a role model. When Tarzan leaves the jungle, he learns to speak at a French friend's house and he learns all about the fine way of life. In scenes with considerable comic potential, we witness Tarzan preferring his own fingers to a knife and fork as we read. He is thus both an ultimately indomitable, noble-minded hero and someone who must first learn about what is conventionally understood by "culture". The themes associated with this constellation prove to be timeless: dealing with one's own otherness in an initially foreign group, processes of individualisation and cultivation, dealing with one's own strengths and weaknesses.

"Tarzan" is trivial entertainment par excellence and, as the longest-serving hero in popular culture, is one of the forerunners of his fantastic kind. Who are his followers?

Meyer: Interestingly enough, in most accounts of world literature Tarzan is not mentioned at all. And this even though hardly any other character at the turn of the millennium, with the possible exception of Dracula, has had such a strong influence on popular culture and so-called entertainment literature. Like Superman, Tarzan is a good character who has legendary powers and remains the victor even when a fight sometimes seems hopeless. One likes to follow such a hero. On the one hand. On the other hand, one could also ask whether the time for such heroes has not passed: Tarzan as a born lord is undoubtedly a figure of British imperialism. In this, the superiority of the "white masculinity" of an "ultimate male" is embodied according to the standards of 1912, to bring some basic concepts of postcolonial gender research into play. In contrast, so-called "blacks" appear exclusively stereotyped in the novel as either cruel man-eaters or naive domestic servants unfit for life. If they are mentioned at all. One of Tarzan's main opponents is probably not entirely coincidentally Russian. And the big city that Tarzan says is more dangerous than the jungle is Paris, not London or New York. Tarzan is indeed conceived as a border crosser between social groups, classes, countries, cultures and species. This is what makes him so appealing and introduces us as readers to many different places, characters and situations, often very adventurous and extraordinary and therefore interesting. But Burroughs' descriptions do not go into depth. The novels are all strongly plot-oriented and do not question colonialism at any point. The hierarchy in the ensemble of characters, English nobility at the top, then nothing for a long time, then nobles of other origins and US Americans, followed by the non-noble population of the Western states and at the bottom everyone with darker skin, is always preserved. And Tarzan always remains the boss, whether facing man or beast. Such an unbroken perspective is probably fortunately out of date nowadays. Tarzan is therefore to be wished an attentive, critical readership that observes how enormously successful novels have contributed to forming and consolidating a colonialist mindset. And authors who continue or rewrite this exciting history for our time under new auspices.

The Tarzan story has been made into a series and a comic book adaptation, and has also been shown in cinemas several times as a live-action film, most recently in 2016. Why are we still, after 100 years, interested in a loud yodelling, liana-wielding ape-man in a loincloth?

Meyer: The Tarzan novels deal with many themes that are still of great interest today: our relationship to nature and culture, for example, ways of surviving in the 'wilderness' and our trust in our own powers. The relationship between man and animal, in most Tarzan novels presented as predominantly harmonious, is even more topical today than it was a hundred years ago. Tarzan can also be assigned to the literally strong characters we cannot get enough of: Rambo, the Terminator, Superman... Do we not all want to be at least a little bit like them?

Uwe Blass (Interview on May 21, 2021)


Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer studied General and Applied Linguistics, Modern German Studies and Romance Studies at the University of Bonn and received her doctorate in 2000. Meyer habilitated at the University of Paderborn in 2009. In 2018, she was appointed as an adjunct professor at the University of Wuppertal. She teaches Modern German Literature in the Faculty of Humanities and Natural Sciences.


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