Tarzan and the new morality

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.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

17 thoughts on “Tarzan and the new morality

  1. I need to add Tarzan to my reading list. John Carter was a lot like you describe too.

  2. I thought Pixar was doing John Carter. But apparently it’s just a guy from Pixar. Too bad.

  3. Pingback: The Ridiculous and the Sublime – March 15, 2011 « The Ridiculous and the Sublime

  4. A few random, related thoughts:

    1. I have mixed feelings about Tarzan. I read about a dozen or so of ERB’s Tarzan books – and honestly, after the first three, they all pretty much had the same plot. His Mars books had a lot more variety.

    2. Also, even though I find I can overlook or at least filter the racism in writers like Robert E. Howard (who actually often undermines and subverts his racism), the racism in ERB’s Tarzan books was a bit too much for me. I did read the books, but the racism got in the way of enjoying them.

    3. Interesting, though, considering what Geoff notes here, nearly all filmed versions of Tarzan (even the early black and white ones) have sex (or at least heavily implied sex).

  5. “we as a society have practically abandoned the idea of traditional morality being something to which we should aspire.”

    The question I have is why has there been such an abandon? My own thoughts are the introduction of drugs into the mainstream during the “youth revolution” of the 60s that introduced lack of self-control. Even then, it doesn’t fully explain Europe’s almost complete moral decay that rivals the United States and perhaps Canada and South America. From what I understand, the same country that produced the gentleman Tarzan also produced (ironically from moderate conservative Fleming) James Bond.

  6. That last sentence is bothering me. Start a sentence with one thought and end up finishing with another. It should read:

    “As we know, the same country that produced the gentleman Tarzan also produced (ironically from moderate conservative Fleming) James Bond.”

  7. Jettboy, to be quite frank, and I unable to come up with a single reason for the moral decay, except to say that Satan is stirring up things before the return of the Savior. Many of the drugs that are now illegal were legal in the 19th century. People drank more alcohol per capita then. Opium dens abounded in the Western U.S. Prostitution and gambling were completely legal in most countries in the 19th century. Yet there were higher moral standards for chastity and fidelity (at least people tried to aspire to higher standards and had the concept of a gentleman as something to aspire to — that is what has disappeared).

    I think the entire picture when you look at it is much more complex than many of us think. We kind of see this decrease in morality like the price of gold, heading in a steady line up in the last decade or so, when in fact, in some ways we’re more moral and in other ways we are less so.

    To answer John F’s point in #10, I would disagree with the statement that Europe is in almost complete moral decay. Certainly marriage is on the decline there, and the idea of cohabitation is now the norm. Church attendance overall is disappearing in Europe. But there are other ways in which Europeans, depending on the country, have higher morals than Americans.

    The more I look into this issue the more convinced I am that it avoids simple answers and prescriptions.

  8. “Church attendance overall is disappearing in Europe.”

    I always figured this was because there isn’t fair competition for religions over in Europe where the state Church is often financed by taxes. So religious diversity can’t thrive.

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