Having never read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original book on Tarzan, “Tarzan of the Apes,” I decided to pick it up a week or so ago. It brought me back to my teenage years when I loved Burroughs’ science fiction about trips to Mars and Venus. There is something about Burroughs’ style that appealed to me as a teenager and appeals to me today.
Now I can see what it is: his heroes are old-fashioned gentlemen, and something inside me really likes that and even liked it when I was a wayward teenager.
I mention this because Jettboy took a lot of heat for saying that we Mormons are the last traditional moralists. He is factually wrong (there are plenty of other religions with lots of traditional moralists even today), but his overall point is correct: we as a society have practically abandoned the idea of traditional morality being something to which we should aspire.
Not so with Burroughs and Tarzan.
“Tarzan,” written in 1912 and 1913, was one of Burroughs’ first of many books. The Tarzan legend has been bastardized through so many TV shows and movies and comic books that I don’t think that many people have gone back to the original view of the hero.
Much of what you know about Tarzan (if you have never read the original books) is true: he was abandoned in an African jungle as a child and raised by apes. He acquired super-human strength. He fell in love with Jane. Just as you would imagine.
But the thing that comes through most importantly, and is a reflection of the early 20th century, is that Tarzan came from a family of gentlemen. His deceased human father is a British Lord, Lord Greystroke. Tarzan is by birth a British Lord and has heriditary, evolutionary characteristics that make him better than the brutes around him. Remember the first three decades of the 20th century were the height of the eugenics movement, and most smart people those days believed that natural selection would by its very nature cause some people to be better by heredity than others. So, a British Lord was a British Lord partly because he was born that way.
And British Lords were expected to act a certain way. They were gentlemen.
How does a gentleman act? Well, when he is presented with a beautiful young white woman for the first time ever, he is attracted to her but he controls himself and his animal desires. Tarzan first encounters Jane in person when she is stolen by another ape who apparently plans to rape her. Tarzan kills the other ape and takes Jane to his jungle lair. There, he builds a home for her and brings her food. Even though he doesn’t speak her language, he makes it clear that he is her protector. He does not sleep with her, and the thought would never pass through his mind until they are able to commit to each other through some kind of marriage ceremony. So Tarzan literally sleeps at Jane’s feet while she rests in the little home he has built for her in the jungle (I thought of Ruth during this scene and her sleeping at Boaz’s feet).
Tarzan, the gentleman, always rescues damsels in distress. He instinctively favors the little guy in fights against the oppressor. He call easily discern bad guys from good guys. He has natural strength and an animal’s sense of smell and hearing, and can be brutal at times, but he also knows how to control his animal nature when necessary.
In short, Tarzan is the super-human, the ultimate creation of the perfect mixture of man and animal. He is the eugenicist’s dream.
But when it comes to morality, Tarzan is, again, very traditional. Living among apes, he presumably saw the sexual act performed regularly, and he is described as having normal sexual desires. Women throw themselves at Tarzan, but he does his best to control his sexual behavior and show that he is not an animal when it comes to this most important moral issue. He is a monogamist, forever dedicated to Jane, his first true love.
Burroughs wrote in a time when you couldn’t describe the sex act in any detail without getting censored. But other writers of his day managed to fill their works with sex. Look at Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” which is, if you think about it, almost all about sex and the lack of sexual ability getting in the way of happiness. Fitzgerald describes infidelity in painful terms in “The Great Gatsby.” I could go on and on, but the point is that Burroughs does not just describe Tarzan as a gentleman because of censorship: he is deliberately praising him as a hero precisely because of his self-control and the fact that he avoids becoming an animal.
Now, contrast this to our day. Our greatest cultural heroes are people like James Bond, who is renowned for his physical attributes, but most importantly because he has sex with any girl who comes along (and we men are supposed to admire him for it). Our movies and books have almost become formulaic: when heroes don’t jump into bed with each other, we think there is something wrong with them. They are abnormal if they act as gentlemen and gentle ladies: they must be repressed and filled with strange complexes.
We Mormons are different. Anybody who has served in the young men or young women’s organization knows that a very large percentage of our lessons and teachings are to encourage chastity and traditional morality. And the reality is that a higher percentage of Mormons do wait until they are married to have sex: it is simply a part of our religious experience that makes us unique. A lot of other religions talk about the virtues of chastity, but we as Mormons generally practice it more than other religious people.
Just remember, we are trying to be like Tarzan and Jane.