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Thursday, 16 December 2010

Countdown to Centenary-01: Noble Savage

To see him today, it is difficult to credit that John Clayton was born in 1872. His entire life, from its bizarre beginning until this present time, has been filled with mystery, adventure, wonder and remarkable coincidence. His father was John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, who had recently married the Honourable Alice Rutherford. It was a brilliant match. In 1872 Clayton took his wife with him on a secret investigation of conditions in a British west coast African territory. They took passage in the barkentine Fuwalda and were never seen again.

The facts came out many years later. The crew of the Fuwalda mutinied and set ashore on a sandy African beach both John Clayton and his young pregnant wife. They were left with two crates of belongings, a rifle and some ammunition. Bravely facing up to the terrors of a strange primitive land, Clayton built a small hut among the trees and there they retired to relative safety, frightened by the jungle noises. Nearby, huge apes congregated, issuing terrible grunts and growls: these creatures had their own language and called themselves mangani; they were more hominid than gorilla, it seemed. Clayton wrote in his diary all his feelings, his fears and hopes. Alice gave birth to a boy, John.

It was shortly after John’s birth that a gorilla, Kerchak, attacked the couple and they barely escaped with their lives. However, a blow to the head permanently affected Alice’s view of her world: while she cared for her baby, she did not step outside the hut again, thinking herself in London. Some time later, she died while the infant slept. At about this time a female gorilla, Kala, had lost her own infant, falling to its death from the emerald canopy of the rainforest. Hearing the wailing sound of John Clayton mourning the death of his wife, the gorillas approached the hut. Kerchak barged in and killed the English Lord. But in that same instant Kala snatched up the baby from its makeshift crib, dropped her dead infant in John’s place, and rushed out with the infant John clutched to her breast.

Acting as baby John’s mother, Kala was very protective of him. The baby was called Whiteskin, Tarzan in the mangani language.

Little Tarzan survived by chance rather than his prowess, though his young mind quickly outstripped the mental capacity of his fellow apes. Being isolated from humankind, he was fortunate not to suffer any diseases. The Gabonese do not consider a man sick unless he has at least four diseases at once: malaria, filaria, intestinal worms and tuberculosis.

The next nineteen years of Tarzan’s life were to be spent largely in the interior of the closed-canopy rainforest. In his formative years he found the hut built by his father and puzzled over the children’s alphabet books, the mirrors and combs, the shoes. On seeing the depictions of men and women in the picture-books, he yearned to see others like him, for he knew that he did not resemble the rest of his tribe of apes. Eventually, he had his wish when Kulonga, a native, set out to hunt and slew Kala with an arrow. Tarzan learned all about grief then and later took the life of Kulonga with his father’s knife he borrowed from the hut: he learned about revenge, also. From that time on, he haunted Kulonga’s village, sometimes watching the tribesmen getting drunk, or fighting with other tribes, or maltreating their women or prisoners.

A child of nature, Tarzan discovered the world was not an Eden. It was harsh, filled with threat and danger from many sources. He quite understood the natural predators’ urge to seek food, but he could not fathom the sense of inflicting pain on an enemy simply because he was your enemy.

In 1891 a scientific expedition landed near to the Clayton hut. It comprised Professor Porter and his daughter Jane, her fiance William Clayton and a Frenchman, D’Arnot. Tarzan by now wore a breech-cloth to more resemble a MAN seen in his books. He rescued Jane from a gorilla and later saved D’Arnot from a savage tribe.

Having taught himself to write after a fashion in English, Tarzan learned to speak in French with D’Arnot’s aid. The party returned to America, with Tarzan. Here, D’Arnot sought help to identify Tarzan’s background and origins. When the news finally arrived that Tarzan was the inheritor of Greystoke, Tarzan kept the truth secret because he did not want to deprive Jane, William Clayton’s intended, of such wealth. His self-sacrifice for love of Jane meant he’d return to his beloved jungle.

Once back in the jungle, Tarzan became the chief of the warrior tribe of Waziri. With the Waziri he discovered the fabled lost city of Opar, whose vaults were filled with gold and jewels. In the meantime, Jane Porter’s fiancĂ© William died before they could be married and she was reunited with Tarzan. They were married. Tarzan finally came into his true inheritance as Lord Greystoke.

Many adventures befell the couple. They had a boy, Jack, who adopted the name Korak – mangani for ‘killer’ – when he took to the jungle. The Waziri lands became a protected reservation. Tarzan befriended a young lion, Jad-bal-ja, who became a staunch ally. And Tarzan adopted Nkima, a mischievous monkey.

During the Second World War Lord Greystoke enlisted in the RAF and was a successful pilot. He also served in Asia. On their travels, Tarzan and Jane discovered a supply of immortality pills, and this goes some way to explain why John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, Tarzan of the Apes, together with his wife and family, is still alive today, some 138 years after his birth.

It was decided by Lord Greystoke that if he was to preserve privacy for himself and his people – the Waziri, his family and the animals of his reservation – then he must cultivate a fictional persona. Also, he had no wish to be hounded for the secrets of immortality, or indeed the vast riches of Opar. To this end, he obtained the services of an impecunious writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who fictionalised certain sections of the Tarzan epic and juggled the chronology of events to cause confusion. The hollywoodization of the tale moved the true events even further from reality.

The above is a ‘brief biography’ of an icon. It’s based on the first two books, Tarzan of the Apes (1912) and The Return of Tarzan (1913) by Edgar Rice Burroughs, plus Tarzan Alive by Philip Jose Farmer (1972). Recommended reading.

2012 is the centenary of the publication of Tarzan of the Apes. It’s about time this great character was restored to his former glory, not as an adventurer in children’s fiction but as an exciting pulse-pounding adult hero.

Tarzan is the Trademark of Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc.


Evan Lewis said...

Fine history lesson, Nik. Though I've read all the Tarzans, these first two (which comprise a single story and really belong in one volume) are my favorites. It would be great if we saw a serious, grown-up adventure film for the Centenary. Unlikely, but we can hope.

Nik said...

Yep, I agree, Evan, and we writers are always full of hope...

Randy Johnson said...

We can only hope for a serious film. I never was a big fan of Weismuller's Tarzan, just to far removed from Burroughs' tales. There have been to few that took the original material in more than a basic level, just invented their own Tarzan.

Nik said...

Yes, indeed, Randy, let's reclaim Tarzan from the kiddies.