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Literature / Tarzan

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"Look!" he cried, "Apes of Kerchak. See what Tarzan, the mighty killer, has done... Tarzan is mightiest amongst you for Tarzan is no ape. Tarzan is—"
But here he stopped, for in the language of the anthropoids there was no word for man...'

First created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912, Tarzan has since swung through dozens of books, films and TV series, both straight and parodied. Tarzan is the quintessential jungle hero; white but at home in Darkest Africa.

This page covers the novels; for the films and other adaptations, see Franchise.Tarzan.

In the original books, Tarzan was born John Clayton, the son of Lord Greystoke, and raised by the fictional Mangani apes after being orphaned in Africa as a baby. He was named Tarzan, meaning "white-skin" in their language. After meeting Jane and learning the basics of human interaction, he left the jungle in search of his true love. They married and settled in England, where they had a son, but eventually grew tired of civilization and returned to the jungle. These books include:

    Novels and collections by Edgar Rice Burroughs 

Tarzan's further adventures generally have one of two plots: either Tarzan discovers a Lost World (even visiting Burroughs' own hollow-earth Pellucidar in one novel), or he defends his African friends against European villains. Along the way, Tarzan and his family became immortal, if only in the literary sense. In the books, Tarzan was very intelligent, and by the end of the series, spoke something like thirty languages.

The earlier Tarzan novels (those published no later than 1926) are out of copyright in the US, while all of Burroughs' works entered the European and British public domain in 2021, after 70 years had passed since Burroughs' death—except in Spain, which retains its former "life plus 80" term for works by creators who died before 1987. The Other Wiki suggests he's also trademarked by the author's company. Altogether, that explains why The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen only refers to him as "Lord Greystoke".

Tarzan books with their own trope pages include:

The remaining books, and the series as a whole, provide examples of:

  • Acid Reflux Nightmare: Tarzan experiences one after eating some bad meat (from an elephant that had died of an illness and then been scavenged by a nearby tribe of natives) in the short story "The Nightmare" in Jungle Tales of Tarzan. Since he never had a dream before, it leads to him questioning his own sanity. The incident marks the first and last time he ever eats elephant meat.
  • Always Save the Girl: Tarzan is constitutionally incapable of ignoring a woman in distress, and he always succeeds in his rescue.
  • Archer Archetype: Tarzan's skill with a bow is on a level with Robin Hood, who according to the Wold Newton Universe may be a distant ancestor. His independence and stealth are also legendary. Finally, he conforms to the historical reality of bowmen being very strong; several times in the series, other warrior-types try to use his bow and fail utterly.
  • Atlantis: Opar used to be an outpost of an Atlantean civilization.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: As Opar fell into decadence and decline, its menfolk became increasingly enamored with the she-apes of the nearby wilderness. Initially, the Oparans tried to prevent them from interbreeding by executing any man caught doing so, but the obsession became so widespread that they stopped bothering, resulting in the Oparans devolving into their present state.
  • Blade Enthusiast: In the very first book, the boy Tarzan discovers under extreme Killer Gorilla pressure how to use his father's hunting knife. This is his first weapon, and it remains his favorite throughout the Burroughs stories.
  • Blue Blood: Tarzan eventually becomes the latest Lord Greystoke. This is obviously important in England, but Tarzan's noble pedigree comes into play a couple of times in the (then) mysterious heart of Africa, notably in Tarzan and the City of Gold and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: More than once.
  • Canon Welding: The thirteenth book, Tarzan at the Earth's Core, quite clearly defines the Tarzan and Pellucidar novels as part of the same continuity, with Tarzan and his allies heading underground for a Crossover.
  • Caretaker Reversal: Subverted in The Return of Tarzan. William Clayton takes care of fellow castaway Monsieur Thuran after Thuran catches an unidentified jungle fever. When Clayton catches the same disease, Thuran leaves him to die. This behavior foreshadows The Reveal that "Monsieur Thuran" is an alias for Nikolas Rokoff, Tarzan's arch-enemy and one of the most irredeemably evil characters in the entire series.
  • Changeling Fantasy: Meriem in Son of Tarzan is really Jeanne Jacot, the kidnapped daughter of a French general, and is reunited with her parents in the end after being raised by an Arab who kidnapped her out of revenge, then rescued by Korak and living in the trees for a while. (She's also a princess, at least her father says she's one "in her own right".)
  • Character Name and the Noun Phrase:
    • Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar
    • Tarzan and the Golden Lion
    • Tarzan and the Ant Men
    • Tarzan and the Lost Empire
    • Tarzan and the City of Gold
    • Tarzan and the Lion Man
    • Tarzan and the Leopard Men
    • Tarzan and the Forbidden City
    • Tarzan and the Foreign Legion
    • Tarzan and the Madman
    • Tarzan and the Castaways
  • Charles Atlas Superpower: Tarzan's heredity and upbringing has made him stronger, faster, and more agile than any other human (in the Wold Newton universe, his cousin excepted), and he commonly defeats ordinary human strongmen and fighters with ease. Downplayed, in that although Burroughs spends much time on Tarzan's physical feats, he also repeatedly emphasizes that it is Tarzan's superior reason that makes him the Lord of the Jungle.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: Entirely averted. The French—particularly the military officers—are depicted as uniformly chivalrous and brave. D'Arnot, Tarzan's best friend, is the best example.
  • Choice of Two Weapons: Tarzan eventually learns many weapons, but in his domain he is never without his father's hunting knife and his bow and arrows.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: Good lord! In just the first two books, Tarzan saves every single one of Jane's party at least twice; Jane herself three times before the exchange a word. He then rescues the French officer who left to rescue Jane. Then he rescues Jane both from a wildfire and an Abhorrent Admirer. It's so bad that after he makes an enemy of some Russian spies (because he rescued a woman from them) they lure him to an ambush using the cries of a distressed woman.
  • Circling Vultures: Vultures appear many times, always as a harbinger of death, but they're never represented as evil. In Tarzan the Untamed, Tarzan has to cross a large, completely barren desert region to reach an area of good hunting beyond. By the third day his food and water are gone, and the desert has no springs or other water sources, nor any edible life of any kind that he can find. There's only a single vulture circling overhead. Being Tarzan, though, he subverts the trope and makes the vulture his salvation when he lures it into arm's reach, and kills and eats it.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Tarzan will do pretty much whatever it takes to win a fight. He'll strike from ambush, attack from behind, and use every weapon available to him. He rarely leaves an enemy alive - his philosophy seems to be "the only safe enemy is a dead one" - and when he does, as with Rokoff in the first two books, it often comes back to bite him. In his younger days, he wasn't even above using poisoned arrows. The only time he doesn't act like this is in The Return of Tarzan when he honestly believes he deserves to die because he unintentionally impugned a lady's honor.
  • Contrived Coincidence: More than once. The one that brings all the key players together at the end of The Return of Tarzan, at a significant location none of them had particularly been aiming for, is especially egregious.
  • Damsel in Distress: There is at least one per book.
    • Tarzan: Jane, more than once.
    • Return of Tarzan: The Countess Olga de Coude, Kadour ben Saden's daughter, Jane again.
    • Son of Tarzan: Meriem.
    • Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar: Jane (if Jane appears, it's a safe bet she'll eventually be distressed), La
    • Tarzan the Untamed: Fraulein Bertha Kircher
    • Tarzan and the City of Gold shows the lengths to which this is taken: in this one, the D.I.D. is Doria — a young woman whom Tarzan has met precisely once, and whose only connection to the Lord of the Jungle is that she's the betrothed of his friend Gemnon.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: William Clayton, at the end of The Return of Tarzan, leaving the way clear for Jane to marry Tarzan.
    • The same thing happens in Son of Tarzan to the Honorable Morison Baynes, rival of Korak for Meriem's affections.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The first Tarzan novel begins with an explicit statement that Burroughs was told the story by one who was there, and that the names have been changed to protect the etc. When the Tarzan series took off, this aspect of the story proved impossible to keep up, and was quietly dropped; however, fans (including Philip José Farmer, who used it as the launching pad for his Wold Newton Family research) still make use of it when discussing what Tarzan's life was "really" like.
  • Doomed Hometown: Tarzan's homestead in Africa gets pillaged and burned multiple times throughout the series.
  • Evilutionary Biologist: 'God' in Tarzan and the Lion-Man.
  • Frazetta Man:
    • The mangani who raised Tarzan are a missing-link "anthropoid ape" species (not, as many adaptations make them, common mountain gorillas). This makes them a very rare example of a positive portrayal of this trope. At the time of Burroughs' writing, primatology was in its infancy and gorillas were assumed to be brutal and violent, so Burroughs invented a species 'gentle' enough to adopt Tarzan.
    • The bestial menfolk of Opar are a straighter example. It's justified in that they are literally man-ape crossbreeds.
    • The Lost World of Pal-ul-don, where Tarzan the Terrible is set, has three distinct tribes of primitive man: the Waz-don, covered in black hair; the Ho-don, with thin hair over pale skin; and the more primitive, bestial Tor-o-don. All three look and act basically human and have human-level intellect, but they also have chimpanzee-like feet with an opposable big toe, as well as long prehensile tails.
  • Genius Bruiser: Tarzan is very intelligent, and contrary to his usual depiction in adaptations can speak fluent English by the end of the first book (as well as French, and later several other languages).
  • Gladiator Revolt: Tarzan stages one in Tarzan and the Lost Empire.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: In Tarzan and the City of Gold, Tarzan has to contend with Nemone, the beautiful but jealous and temperamental queen of Cathne, the City of Gold. She became queen at the age of 12 and was manipulated and blackmailed by an old black woman name M'duze who, it was speculated, was Nemone's mother. The queen was considered a bit mentally unstable. For example, she was so jealous of her physical beauty that she had any woman who might rival her in looks either mutilated or killed.
  • Great White Hunter: In The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan goes undercover as an American big-game hunter.
  • Hollywood Evolution: In the first two books, Burroughs makes this explicit: Tarzan moves through Evolutionary Levels of:
    • Ape, so he believes, until he discovers his parents' abandoned cabin and its store of books that reveal to him his true heritage
    • Primitive Man, from the time he teaches himself to read through the arrival of Jane & co.
    • "Civilized" Man, from the time D'Arnot begins to instruct him as such
    • Kingship Among Men, from the time he earns the chieftainship of the Waziri
    • Burroughs also contrasts this with the de-evolution of the Oparians.
  • Honorable Elephant: Tantor.
  • Hungry Jungle: Where he lives.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Tarzan, at the end of Tarzan of the Apes and the beginning of The Return of Tarzan, keeps away from Jane because he doesn't want her to be unhappy with her decision to marry William Clayton. He also keeps secret the evidence that he himself is the rightful heir to Clayton's title and estates.
  • Identical Stranger: In Tarzan and the Lion Man, a film crew enters Africa, bringing along an actor who is an exact double for the ape man, with predictable results.
  • Immortality Immorality: In Tarzan's Quest, the nineteenth Tarzan novel, the malevolent Kavuru tribe manufacture immortality pills from the bodies of recently killed young women.
  • Instant Waking Skills: One of Tarzan's talents, a survival instinct gained from his years in the jungle.
  • Interspecies Romance:
    • Tarzan develops a crush on Teeka the she-ape in Jungle Tales of Tarzan, but soon realizes it won't work; he does remain friends with her, and becomes protective of her and Taug's son Gazan.
    • The denizens of Opar are the result of an entire civilization's menfolk becoming increasingly sexually obsessed with female primates.
  • Jungle Drums: The dum-dum drums played by mangani, the apes that raised Tarzan, at midnight gatherings.
  • Jungle Princess: Meriem, the wife of Korak the Killer in The Son of Tarzan and later books.
  • Killer Gorilla: Gorillas, referred to as bolgani, are portrayed very large and aggressive, and deadly enemies of Tarzan's family, the mangani. However, the mangani themselves are also brutal and violent, if more noble.
  • Knows the Ropes: So well, in fact, that Tarzan teaches himself to make his own from the native grasses. In the first two books especially, his skill with lassoing is almost important as his ability with knife and bow.
  • Lamarck Was Right: Korak inherited his father's highly trained strength, reflexes, and ability to understand animals (particularly apes).
  • Lightning Bruiser: Tarzan's strength is matched by his speed; several times Burroughs explicitly compares him to "Ara the lightning."
  • Lilliputian Warriors: The Minunians, the eponymous 'Ant Men', are warring city-states of warriors one fourth the size of normal men in Tarzan and the Ant Men.
  • Living Forever Is Awesome: Tarzan and a few of his friends attain eternal life and youth by stealing some immortality pills from one novel's Big Bad (he cannot share immortality with the world, due to the pill's morally dubious manufacturing method). Tarzan has a very upbeat, "seize the day" mindset and is completely unbothered by the consequences of his immortality. When asked by someone if the thought of all his friends growing old and dying bothers him, he replies that the promise of making new friends makes up for it. When asked if he is worried about boredom, Tarzan replies that he lives such an exciting life, he doesn't worry about it.
  • Lost World: Tarzan stumbles across a number of Lost Worlds in Africa. These include:
    • Opar, first introduced in The Return of Tarzan (1913). This lost city is the last remnant of the world-spanning empire of Atlantis.
    • Athne & Cathne, the Cities of Ivory and Gold, respectively, in "Tarzan and the City of Gold" (1932) and "Tarzan the Magnificent" (1939). The mutually-dependent-hereditary-enmity society of these semi-Greco-Roman cities is one of the few "lost worlds" that Tarzan visits twice, and it is the home of the outwardly ravishing Queen Nemone.
    • The Valley of the Holy Sepulcher, in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle (1928). This valley was settled by two quarreling groups of Crusaders in the twelfth century, one of which claimed to have achieved the Holy Grail and thus the Crusade, while the other denied it. The latter group founded the city of Nimmr at one end of the valley, blocking the path of retreat to England, while the former group founded the City of the Sepulcher at the other end, blocking the route to the Middle East. The two groups have long since ceased any serious efforts to leave the valley, and have come to various accommodations with one another for their own survival.
    • Pal-ul-don, in Tarzan the Terrible, is home to three different tribes of "pithecanthropus" (primitive hominids, basically human in this case except that they have prehensile tails and chimpanzee-like feet with an opposable big toe), as well as a surviving version of a Triceratops.
  • Lottery of Doom: In The Return of Tarzan, Clayton, a Russian spy, and a sailor are in a lifeboat with no food or water, and they hold a lottery to determine which of them should die so the others may live. The sailor loses his nerve and jumps overboard while the spy cheats, but is too weak to kill Clayton afterwards.
  • Mighty Whitey: Tarzan was shown to be more successful at life in the African wilds than any of the black natives, by virtue of his physique and his extraordinary intelligence, both of which were attributed to his ancestry. (His jungle upbringing naturally played a role in developing his physique to its full potential, but it was his ancestry that was given the credit for the potential being there to be developed.)
  • Misplaced Wildlife: Tarzan fought a tiger in the original magazine serialization of Tarzan of the Apes; following reader feedback, it was corrected for the book. Also lions, which do live in Africa but on the savanna, not in the jungle.
    • There are two possible explanations for this. The first is the generally accepted explanation: Burroughs had never set foot in Africa when he wrote the stories. Thus he was relying on the literature of his day, which did not always emphasize scientific accuracy either. The second is the Wold Newton explanation: Burroughs was, as the first novel suggests, chronicling the life of a real person. However, he had to do so without subjecting the real Lord and Lady Greystoke and their friends to unbearable harassment. Thus he deliberately made mistakes to lead even suspicious readers astray.
  • Nature Hero: Tarzan; the stories have a solid claim to be the Trope Codifier.
  • Never Learned to Talk: Tarzan taught himself English from some books his birth parents had, but didn't know how to speak it. In fact when he first meets other white people, they assume he's a different man from the Tarzan who wrote the warning sign outside his parents' cabin because he can't understand their speech.
  • Never Smile at a Crocodile: Crocodiles are minor but recurring dangers. For instance, in The Beasts of Tarzan, Tarzan himself runs afoul of and is grabbed by a crocodile in an African river. Despite being stabbed by Tarzan's stone knife, the crocodile manages to drag him all the way back to its lair before succumbing to its wound.
  • Noble Savage: The apes are actually depicted this way: violent, brutal and simple, but honorable in their own way.
    • The Waziri, the African tribe whom Tarzan befriends and of whom he eventually becomes chief, are portrayed as even more noble and far less savage, especially given the stories' origin in The Edwardian Era.
  • The Nose Knows: Tarzan has incredibly sharp senses across the board, but his olfactory sense sets him farthest apart from ordinary people. Burroughs, in the first book, states his senses are simply a result of the development forced by his upbringing, but Philip José Farmer credits the Wold Newton meteorite and the genetic mutations passed down to Tarzan from those exposed to it.
  • Omniglot: Tarzan can speak at least 14 languages, and is capable of learning new ones in days.
  • Panthera Awesome: Lions and other big cats feature prominently in the stories, as scenery, adversaries, sidekicks and even Big Damn Heroes.
  • Papa Wolf: Tarzan, full stop.
  • Poisoned Weapons: In the first two books, Tarzan uses poison arrows that he "acquires" from the natives who settle near him. (Since this tribe killed his adoptive mother, he feels no compunction about killing their warriors and taking the spoils. This tactic works so well, he scares them into leaving a bundle out with some food every so often as 'tribute' to the forest spirit they think they've angered.) Later stories don't include this; for one thing, Tarzan ranges so far from his birthplace that resupply becomes impossible, and for another, Burroughs realized that his readers believed Poison Is Evil.
  • Proto-Superhero: A major inspiration for every jungle-themed hero to follow, and also for animal-influencing supers such as Aquaman.
  • Raised by Wolves: Apes, actually.
  • Relative Error: In Tarzan and the Leopard Men, part of the plot involves a girl (who is nameless throughout most of the book, only being identified as "Jessie" in the last pages) who's searching for a man named Jerry Jerome, but refuses to say why. "Old Timer" (real name Hiram), who finds her early on, becomes jealous of this "Jerry Jerome" when he first hears of him, thinking the girl and Jerry are in a relationship. It's not until the last chapters of the book that Jessie and Jerry (revealed as "Old Timer"'s friend "The Kid") reunite, and reveal in the process that Jerry is actually Jessie's long-missing brother.
  • The Remnant: In Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, Tarzan encounters two feuding groups of Knights Templar, neither of whom know that the Crusades are over.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The primary reason you never, ever want to make Tarzan really angry at you: he knows lots of ways to kill you, and lots of ways to terrify you, and he uses them all. In Tarzan the Untamed, his quest for revenge against the German Army after they burned his home and make him think they killed his wife leads to the death of dozens of German soldiers and a successful counterattack by the British that results in a major German defeat.
  • Romantic False Lead: William Clayton in the first two books.
  • Secret Underground Passage: In The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan finds the walled-up entrance to a long-forgotten passage in the room where the Oparians had imprisoned him. The passage leads him to the city's equally-long-forgotten Treasure Room, and eventually to a way out of the city completely.
  • Secondary Character Title: Son of Tarzan focuses more on Meriem, Tarzan's future daughter-in-law, than it does on his son Jack/Korak.
  • Sexy Dimorphism: The denizens of the lost City of Opar; the Oparan menfolk are stunted, hairy, ape-like brutes of diminished intellect, whilst the womenfolk are perfectly proportioned, beautiful, highly intelligent human women. It's justified in the city's backstory: the declining civilization somehow caused the men to become increasingly enamored with the local she-apes, whom they began interbreeding with. In fact, Oparans of both genders can run the full spectrum of human-like to ape-like in appearance; the present divide between the sexes is due to artificial selection—the savages kill any male babies that look "too human" as well as any female babies that look "too ape".
  • The Strength of Ten Men: Or at least of more than four men - Tarzan at one point casually and one-handedly hefts a trunk that four burly sailors are struggling with.
  • Spy Fiction: Much of The Return Of Tarzan can fairly be classed as a Dirty Martini story; Tarzan's first civilized job is as a secret agent for France, and the Saharan section of the story deals entirely with his espionage work. Further, his entanglement with the utterly loathsome Russian spy Rokoff drives all the rest of the book.
  • Temper-Ceratops: The Gryfs from Tarzan the Terrible are giant descendants of Triceratops that are not only aggressive, but Ascended to Carnivorism.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Jane, over the course of the series. In the first two books she mostly faints in the face of danger. By the third she's still getting kidnapped all the time, but now she's bashing men's heads in, bullying sailors at gunpoint, shooting villains, hijacking ships and running her own rescue. By book 8, she's a full-on Jungle Princess/Lady of Adventure.
  • Total Eclipse of the Plot: The story "Tarzan Rescues the Moon", in Jungle Tales of Tarzan, has Tarzan come to believe that Numa the lion is going to devour the moon. Later, a lunar eclipse occurs - which the mangani consider proof that Tarzan was right, prompting him to shoot arrows into the air at "Numa" until the eclipse ends and the moon reappears.
  • Treasure Room: In the process of escaping Opar (the first time), Tarzan comes across a room filled with metal ingots. The light is bad, and there are so many of them he assumes they must be some base metal. He takes one along anyway for later examination. It's solid gold; since the Oparians have long since forgotten it even exists (not that it would do them much good if they ever found it), Tarzan has a convenient lifetime source of fabulous wealth, above what he inherits as the true Lord Greystoke.
  • Trial by Combat: How Tarzan has to settle most of his disputes in his mangani tribe; it also is a key event in Tarzan and the City of Gold.
  • Villainesses Want Heroes: Tarzan was hotly pursued by his Jungle Princess Evil Counterpart Queen La, who would not take no for an answer; later, in Cathne, the above-mentioned Nemone reacts similarly.
  • Wacky Wayside Tribe: Almost every one of the Tarzan books features several of these.
  • Weak, but Skilled: Although enormously strong by human standards, Tarzan is much weaker than the apes who raised him. It is his superior skills and reason that set him apart.
  • Weapon Specialization: It's generally been lost in other media adaptations, but the Lord of the Jungle is an expert spear wielder and thrower. In each of the first two books, he uses one to save William Clayton's life.
  • Woman Scorned: La of Opar, over Tarzan. Also probably every other woman who ever tried to get under the ape man's Loincloth only to discover that he's totally loyal to Jane.
  • Worthless Treasure Twist: Tarzan and the Forbidden City features a hunt for a fabulous treasure known as 'The Father of Diamonds'. In the final chapter, the casket is opened to reveal a lump of coal. (Well, the name is accurate...)
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Tarzan goes even further; not only he refuses to harm women, but he always considers his duty to save them. In The Return of Tarzan, he saves La of Opar from an Opar man who went berserk and attacked her, even though La was just about to sacrifice Tarzan. In Tarzan the Untamed, Tarzan cannot bring himself to kill Bertha, nor even let harm befall her, despite the fact that he hates all Germans and considers himself on a lifelong mission to exterminate them all because he believes, wrongly, that they killed his beloved Jane.
  • Your Costume Needs Work: Tarzan experiences this at the end of Tarzan and the Lion Man. "Not the type", after being cast as the stupid white hunter and killing a trained Hollywood lion, he goes back to Africa.