By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Ray Bradbury called Tarzan’s creator ‘probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.’ What prompted such a statement? There’s no doubt that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation has become world-famous, but what is it about Tarzan that makes him such a famous character, whose name is known throughout the world? This post, which presents some of our favourite interesting facts about Tarzan, aims to get to the bottom of the character’s enduring popularity.
Before he became a successful writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs worked as a pencil sharpener salesman. Burroughs, a budding writer at the time, came up with Tarzan because his previous story was rejected for publication.
This has to go down in literary history as one of the more fortunate literary rejections: having been tasked with writing a medieval romance in the mould of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Burroughs dashed off The Outlaw of Torn (1927) in just two weeks.
However, his publisher turned it down and instead, Burroughs wrote his first Tarzan novel, in the process inventing one of the most instantly recognisable fictional characters of all time.
Before Burroughs settled on the name Tarzan for his feral hero, he considered two other names: Zantar (which is obviously very close to the eventual name) and Tublat Zan. ‘Tarzan’, it turns out, is a Hebrew word that translates as ‘dandy, fop, or coxcomb’. Whether Burroughs was aware of this is unknown.
What is Tarzan’s real name? There are two answers to this question. Tarzan’s real name is John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke. Tarzan is his ape name; his English name was revealed by Burroughs in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.
However, there’s some doubt as to whether even this is his real name: in Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs suggests that Clayton is itself a fictitious name, invented by ‘Tarzan’ to mask his real identity. Such mystery only fuelled readers’ interest in the character, himself something of a man of mystery – where had he come from? What was his life like before his life in the jungle?
Tarzan’s girlfriend, of course, is called Jane. But what is less well known is that Tarzan’s fictional adventures living among the apes inspired a real-life Jane, Jane Goodall, to devote her life to a study of primates in the wild, after she discovered the character when she was 11 years old.
Why has Tarzan endured as a fictional character, even if few people now read Burroughs’ original novels? There are arguably several reasons: he is the archetypal ‘noble savage’, a figure found throughout literature but perhaps most clearly and successfully typified by Burroughs’ hero. The idea of leaving behind civilised society and returning to the primitive world of our primate ancestors among the jungle is a powerful one in many readers’ – and movie-goers’ – imaginations.
Burroughs was also the author of The Land That Time Forgot (1918), which remains widely known – thought not as widely read – thanks to a series of film adaptations. This fact itself sheds light on the Tarzan mythos: something about the primitive history of our species, and of the world before our species arose, speaks to us.
Consider the popularity of Jurassic Park (whose curious background story we unearthed in our Five Fascinating Facts about Michael Crichton), or Conan Doyle’s earlier novel, The Lost World (1912).
But another reason that Tarzan endures in the popular imagination is that Burroughs did everything he could to make sure Tarzan endured: after writing the original novels, he turned his character into a brand, with numerous films, comic strips, and other works contributing to the ubiquity of Tarzan in everyone’s consciousness.
The region of Tarzana in Los Angeles is named after the ranch Burroughs bought there shortly after Tarzan became a huge literary success.
The famous line ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ never appeared in any of Burroughs’ books, nor in the films: it appears to have been a compacting of a longer conversation between Tarzan and Jane in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man. Tarzan’s afterlife in the cinema has been huge, with some ninety film adaptations.
Burroughs himself has some interesting film connections: his daughter Joan married James Pierce, who played Tarzan on film, while Burroughs’ great-grandson is the film director Wes Anderson.
If you enjoyed these interesting facts about Tarzan, check out our interesting Jungle Book facts.