Without condemning or condoning, it seems the practice of domination and subjugation lies within our genetics. It is human nature to seek the 'upper hand' in situations involving the politics of ruling; whereby one or only a small few exercise control over the body. This is seen in relationships, families, tribes, governments, and religions...
Charles Darwin is credited as the 'Father of Evolution'. His theories explored the questions of how plants and animals came to be in their present form in the world today. His theory of evolution basically discusses the concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest. It sparked mass controversy as it challenged both religious and secular ideologies on the subject of existence. Today evolution is commonly accepted as science and taught in school much the same as it was regarded as heresy when Galileo first proposed that the earth revolved around the sun.
According to evolution, humans are classified as primates which share common ancestry to the Great Apes. Our DNA is up to 98% identical to our ape "cousins". Through scientific observations anthropologists have noted the similarities in behavior that humans share with our ape relatives, such as emotions, intelligence, mating rituals, and social hierarchies. For example, apes have complex family structures and develop emotional attachments to their offspring and 'loved' ones (See Koko's Kittens). They are capable of communicating and exhibit emotions such as happiness, joy, playfulness, sadness, and depression. They are curious, intelligent, and resourceful. They generally live within a tribe and follow leadership based upon 'respect' gathered from displays of dominance and strength or through political maneuvering. Their leaders, typically alpha males or females, have to be able to settle tribal differences which sometimes turn violent in order to quell the pack and keep peace between the members. In turn for their leadership, these 'alphas' are usually given first opportunity for access to food, mating, and resources. The prosperity of the tribe depends largely upon the strength of their leaders and so their offspring offer the best chance to pass along the strong genes of leadership (it is our species genetic makeup to behave accordingly).
Shortly after the release of Darwin's book On the Origin of Species (1859), stories of feral children began to surface. These are children that were raised in the wild without the benefit of society or formal education; instead relying on their prowess, intellect, and natural instincts to survive. Such stories served as the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894) which detailed the accounts of the feral child Mowgli, who was raised by wolves in the jungles of India. The story was written in the prose of a children's fable to cleverly explain morality.
Another story of the feral child archetype is Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes (1914). This story is different in that it is told with a degree of metaphorical realism to speak to a maturing audience. Unlike Mowgli the boy, it heralds the accounts of its protagonist, Tarzan, as he grows into a man. (What's amazing is that Burroughs wasn't a writer, but worked many jobs before turning to writing after he decided that he could create better stories than the ones he found in pulp fiction magazines of his day.)
Tarzan was born in the savage jungles of West Africa to English Lord and Lady Greystoke (John and Alice Clayton). After being marooned on a random African cove for nearly a year, Alice dies in her sleep and his father is killed in his bed by a marauding tribe of "Great Apes", leaving baby 'Tarzan' defenseless in his cradle. One of the females among the group, Kala, a mother who had recently experienced the death of her own infant "took up the little live baby of Alice Clayton [as] she dropped the dead body of her own into the empty cradle; for the wail of the living answered the call of universal motherhood deep within her wild breast which the dead could not still".
Tarzan was raised by a powerful ape tribe and while he was never fully accepted for his conspicuous differences, he grew strong and wise in the ways of the jungle. He used his human intellect to create tools and weapons; he discovered his biological parent's cabin and personal effects which included educational books where he meticulously studied until he deciphered how to read. His use of his father's hunting knife made Tarzan more than a formidable adversary to the other bull apes and animals who might provoke him; in other words, Tarzan became the most powerful, intelligent, and resourceful hunter in all the Jungle.
His accomplishments angered the jealous leader of the apes, Kerchak, until Tarzan was forced to kill the patriarch after being challenged. This made Tarzan the de facto leader of the tribe, which wasn't part of his ambitions and he quickly grew tired of the tedious work of settling tribal disputes and the monotony of repeated hunting and sleeping. He knew that he didn't truly belong to his adopted tribe and so after selecting another leader, he left. Tarzan knew of his species through his reading and discovered that he wasn't an ape at all, but belonged to the race of man.
In his solitude, he had discovered other 'tribes' of humans indigenous to Africa living in huts near the jungle. These humans were black in color and practiced cannibalism. Tarzan decided not to engage them as he found them to be cruel in their torturing of captives before eating them. His judgement stemmed from his being raised by the laws of the jungle where almost all animals hunted exclusively to feed, except in cases of "Sheeta, the leopard, alone of all the jungle folk, [who] tortured his prey". These black humans, "were more wicked than his own apes, and as savage and cruel as Sabor [the lioness], herself."
While living alone near his parent's cabin he discovers some derelict 'white apes' of his own species. Having witnessed humans with the African cannibals he decides to observe before making contact but it was when he sees Jane for the first time that he feels 'animal attraction'. After observing some of these white humans behaving with cruelty and poor treatment of their peers, Tarzan concluded that not all humans, black or white, are to be trusted. He remained hidden from view in the lush jungle verdure while he kept a close watch on Jane, who captured his longing for companionship.
Tarzan was born into a world where he didn't belong. Only through the grace of Kala, his mother, was he able to survive. He sensed his differences at an early age and felt shame for being an outcast. Only with maturity did he embrace his differences such as his intellect and grow to become strong and capable. While he had the company of his ape tribe, he learned from his books that he belonged to the 'race' of man and felt alone. The discovery of Jane filled a desire in his heart to finally have companionship; however, he knew that he was ignorant to the language and customs of these people (except for his ability to communicate in writing). He discreetly wrote a small note to his guests (including Jane) which introduced himself and gave the jettisoned humans permission to stay in his cabin while they waited for rescue.
Tarzan watched in seclusion over his jungle guests and saved them several times from wild beast attacks before pursuing Jane after she was kidnapped and taken into the jungle by a rogue ape. She was grabbed and carried off in the trees to a far away jungle sanctuary where Tarzan was able to pursue and ultimately defeat her jungle captor.
After her abduction, Jane was startled "like a frightened deer... Tarzan comforted her as Kala had done for him by holding her close and kissing her forehead". "She could not analyze her feelings, nor did she wish to... She was content to feel the safety of those strong arms", to which she felt trust like "few other men of her acquaintance". Here, Burroughs touches upon the instinctive desire of Jane to seek safety and security through feeling and emotion over logic and reason. Her feelings transcended language and culture as Tarzan evoked her "primeval" nature in his gentle attempts to make her feel safe and secure. To wait out the dangers of night, Tarzan built a small hut of branches and leaves in addition to gathering fruit for them to eat . In an attempt to provide further security he presented Jane his father's hunting knife for her to sleep with which helped her to sleep soundly and feel safe with her rescuer watching vigilantly outside the shanty.
Burroughs tale of the feral human goes on to describe Tarzan's pursuit of Jane through the world as he travels across the globe, learning new languages, and acquiring wealth so as to learn the conduct of man.
Tarzan is the story of the alpha male. It is a cleverly written adventure that details the accounts of man's journey from defenseless and dependent child into a strong, intelligent, capable human being. It touches on the subject of eugenics or the idea of "good breeding" which I have chosen to interpret as the innate biological instinct of humans to seek a mate that is perceived to have the best genes for the survival of offspring (as opposed to the notion of a superior race).
The story first began with describing Tarzan's parents as being brave people of good character when they stood up for their beliefs in showing compassion and protecting a life from harm on their transport ship (which ironically led them to be stranded). They were from English aristocracy, which alone doesn't guaranty good character, but they were from social positions that enabled them to interact with both the rich and poor alike.
John Clayton provided and protected his wife on the ship and ultimately on the African coast; whereas, Alice nurtured and cared for her husband and child up until they day she died. They were intelligent enough to build shelter (strong enough to last more than 20 years), and survive for as long as possible before succumbing to the treachery of the jungle. They died loving one another which illustrates the kind of parents Tarzan descends from; he is the princely heir of nobility and "good breeding".
While Tarzan is raised unaware of his roots, he receives the graceful care of a nurturing mother in Kala, who protects him until he is able to survive on his own. This not unlike the parallel of a future king being born in a jungle manger who struggles between fitting in with his tribe and eventually becoming their leader.
I enjoyed reading Burroughs' Tarzan; however, I was keenly aware of the underlying subtext of imperialism at work. Descending from a country that was colonized by the British, I understand the impacts such a campaign can leave on a people many years after these events have taken place. I do not support the forceful coercion of a group to alter their beliefs through shame, selfish politics, or threat. I found many passages in his writing to be misinformed and ignorant such as lions being ubiquitously found in the African jungles (Lions are rarely found in the jungle but rather on the plains where they hunt). Burroughs had never set foot in Africa before using his imagination to write his scenic descriptions (rather he relied on hearsay and conjecture). He had originally included tigers in his African jungle setting to which his editors had him change them to lions since tigers are not indigenous to Africa. Burroughs' idea of the 'perfect' jungle man may well have been white in race, and brown in complexion (since he had to be some color for the reader to identify); however, the reason that people of non-native African descent were in Africa to begin with was for reasons of imperialism. Burroughs portrayal of Blacks and Africans are less than exemplary as illustrated with Tarzan's introductory note describing himself as "Tarzan, killer of beasts and many black men". Clearly Burroughs may not have been aware of how ignorant his writings may have come off to readers of color (he may not have even cared). Furthermore, he describes Esmerelda, the black servant caretaker of the Porter family, as an obese, fearful, and generally useless member of the party (her literary use is for comic relief). Her sole purpose is to provide contrast to the beautiful Jane who is young, intelligent, courageous, and white. Besides being ignorant of Africa, the jungle animals, and people from other races, Burroughs does a good job of telling the story of "the feral man". Critics always have an opinion, and it is my opinion that the story of a hero should appeal to everyone who stands for righteousness (regardless of race or religion). I believe Tarzan is that hero, even if his story is told with the indelicacy of racial insensitivity. His story set the tone for comic book heroes such as Superman, Captain Marvel, and Batman. Heroes that serve to inspire young and fertile minds to aspire to become more than they thought they were capable of.
Having been born and raised in a non-native habitat myself, I too can relate to Tarzan of the Apes in his struggle to find his place in the world. I recall having a similar experience to first laying eyes upon my very own "Jane" after nearly 20 years of being without companionship to someone from similar origin. I too remember the sting of ultimately having to let go of that individual as we were from two separate worlds and could not see a practical future together, much like Tarzan had to face when Jane agreed to marry one of her own kind. It's a bittersweet tale but does a beautiful job at telling the story of a man's search for meaning in his existence and what separates him from all the other 'animals' in the jungle.