The Theme of the Tarzan Novels - Burroughs' Romantic Hero
Burroughs’ Romantic Hero
                                                                                  An essay by Charlie
In the latter half of the Eighteenth Century, a philosophical movement arose in Europe
to replace Neoclassicism and the realist philosophies it engendered.  Called
Romanticism, this movement eschewed the horrors of the city (desease, filth,
overpopulation) for the comparative freedom and cleanliness of the natural world and of
country life in general.  Romanticism also rejected a rationalist approach to problem
solving, emphasizing instead the importance of an emotional response to the trials of
human existence.  The proponents of this movement believed that only in the natural
world, away from the evils of civilization and its rationalist laws and rules, could man
find true well-being and happiness.   

English poet Lord Byron normally gets credit for creating the archetypal hero of the
movement in his epic poem Childe Harold‘s Pilgrimage—“Childe” indicating a knight in
training.  Byron gave his somewhat autobiographical hero many contradictory
characteristics.  Childe Harold was a confident man of action, but also introspective,
moody, and plagued at times by self doubt;  attractive to women, but also dangerous to
them; and a supporter of nationalist causes, but also something of an anarchist; and his
moral code was entirely self-actuated, not based on the rules and traditions of the
civilized world.  In British literature, characters such as Joseph Conrad’s
Lord Jim or H.
Ryder Haggard’s Allan Quartermain are derived from and embody most of these traits.

In America, authors and poets dropped the bipolarizations of Byron, creating instead
more positive, appealing characters who morphed into a single literary archetype
exhibiting most of the following characteristics:

- usually has mysterious origins, or a past which haunts him in the present,
- is young, or possesses youthful qualities,
- is self-actuated, motivated from within,
- possesses purity of purpose, untainted by crass commercialism or any need for the
approval of others,
- loves nature and avoids town life.
- and perhaps most importantly, has a strong sense of honor based not on society's
rules, but on some higher principle.  This hero will always reject the rules and traditions
of civilized life in favor of his self-generated moral code.

The purest example of this American archetype in Nineteenth Century fiction is
probably Natty Bumpo, of James Finemore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales.  The
Twentieth Century can boast Jack Schaefer’s
Shane, particularly Alan Ladd’s iconic
movie portrayal, as another.  Most authors don’t use all the characteristics listed above,
bending and adapting these conventions to fit a current work.  For example, Margaret
Mitchell’s Rhett Butler of
Gone With The Wind displays most of these traits, but his
mercenary motives seem far from pure.  To some degree most of the heroes of modern
storytelling can trace their origins to this Romantic archetype.

Burroughs was a well-read individual and probably had at least a layman’s knowledge of
the philosophies and major works of the Romantic era.  However, the probability that
he might have deliberately set out to create a hero derived from Romanticism is low
indeed.  Yet this is precisely what he did.  Without intention, Burroughs used the
Romantic tradition already popular in the literature of the time to adapt this mysterious
man of action to his own pulp-fiction needs and in the process made of him a unique

Tarzan is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ feral child who grew up to become the Romantic Hero
ideal.  Burroughs described him as youthful, active, restless, athletic beyond even
Olympic standards, and tanned,  Adding an element of sexual frisson, Burroughs made
him attractive to women, and faithful only to one.  Courage, loyalty, curiosity, and
steadiness are hallmarks of his character.  He is certainly mysterious and at home only
in a natural setting.  Augmenting these Romantic traits, Burroughs’ own ideas of ethical
conduct inform all of Tarzan’s actions—kindness to women, a partiality for the
underdog, and a killer-angel callousness in the pursuit of justice.  Burroughs also
infused the character with the hallmark trait of the romantic hero—an internal moral
compass belonging only to him coupled with a complete dismissal of the mores and laws
of civilization.

When Burroughs created Tarzan, he was responding to a personal philosophic belief, an
innate distrust of the evils of civilization, which Burroughs would demonstrate in novel
after novel by comparing the actions of humans to those of animals.  With only a few
exceptions, the humans are found lacking.  Whether he realized it or not, this
philosophy springs directly from the romantic writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose
theories of the natural man, aka the noble savage, asserts that the closer man is to a
natural state, freed of civilization, the more moral (noble, good, et al.) he is. I'm not the
first to either notice or comment on this connection. In Gore Vidal's 1968 Esquire
article on Burroughs' popularity called “Tarzan Revisited” Vidal referred to Tarzan of
the Apes as “Rousseau’s noble savage reborn in Africa.“  Also, in 2009, the French
musée du quai Branly staged an extravagant production built around the Rousseau-
Burroughs theme called "TARZAN! or Rousseau and the Waziri." Any relatively well-
read individual could have made this connection, and many have.

Tarzan is indeed Rousseau’s romantic ideal placed in a mythic Africa that existed only in
the popular literature of colonial-era Europeans and the Americans who condemned
colonialism with one part of the mind, while romanticizing its Kiplingesque heroes and
heroines with the other. And of course, this mythic world was alive and well in the
mind of Burroughs himself who extended and added an American distrust of old Europe
to the myth. In the Rousseau-like mythos created by Burroughs, Tarzan is moral
because he is not civilized. Again and again Burroughs pits his moral, natural hero
against villains corrupted by their origins in civilization, whether from the known world
or a lost city, as much as by their failed characters. Other authors had explored some
version of this theme before Burroughs, notably Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 book of
moralistic short stories,
Jungle Book, and William Henry Hudson’s 1904 novel Green
.  However, it would be Burroughs who would popularize these themes, giving
them a platform in all twenty-six Tarzan novels.

Readers and movie-goers worldwide have adopted Burroughs’ primitive hero and the
philosophies for which he stands.  Primatologist Jane Goodall, author of 1971’s
In the
Shadow of Man
, attests to this influence in her own childhood. She states that “when
she first began to live among and study the chimpanzees she was fulfilling her childhood
dream of living among the great apes just as Tarzan did.” (quoted from Wikipedia)  
Writer-director James Cameron has noted this influence on his own work.  Regarding
his science-fiction jungle adventure movie,
Avatar he said “My inspiration is every
single science fiction book I read as a kid. And a few that weren’t science fiction. The
Edgar Rice Burroughs books, H. Rider Haggard — the manly, jungle adventure writers.
I wanted to do an old fashioned jungle adventure, just set it on another planet.” (quoted

On a more personal note, I, too, can also attest to this influence.  When I joined the
Army in 1964 I chose a career in the military intelligence field, because I surmised on
the flimsiest of notions I would have a better chance in that field of being stationed in
Africa.  After some finagling at my personnel office, my first overseas assignment was
to Kagnew Station in Asmara, Ethiopia (today Eritrea), where I learned the one terrible
lesson that every young romantic must learn—the real world is a dangerous place,
callous and harsh in the extreme when compared to your romantic notions of what it
should be. However, to this day, Burroughs' Africa is in some ways more real to me
than the post-colonial nightmare that I found the real Africa to be. Even with, and
perhaps in spite of, what is often world-wearied experience, this mythic idea remains
compelling . . . to me and many millions.

Charles A. Madison

------This essay was begun in December 2009, I decided to revise it in 2011, but did
not manage to complete the revision until March 2012, when I submitted it to ERB-
APA where it appeared in issue #113.  This revised, final version of the essay was
completed June 27, 2012.
Rudyard Kipling, documenter of
colonial righteousness, in 1907, the
year he won the Nobel Prize for
H. Rider Haggard, a supporter of colon-
ialism and a mystic. Haggard was a pro-
found influence on Burroughs that is
easily recognizable to anyone familiar
with Haggard's writing.  In particular you
can see his influence in the
anima characters of the Tarzan novels,  
La of Opar and Nemone of Cathne are
cast from the same mold as the
mysteriously mad seductresses so
famously created by Haggard.
Jean-Jacques Rouseau, a philosopher of the
Romantic Age and creator of the Theory of
Natural Man

“ The first man who, having fenced in a piece of
land, said "This is mine," and found people
naïve enough to believe him, that man was the
true founder of civil society. From how many
crimes, wars, and murders, from how many
horrors and misfortunes might not any one have
saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or
filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows:  
Beware of listening to this impostor; you are
undone if you once forget that the fruits of the
earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to
nobody. ”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on
                    Inequality, 1754
Romantics, George Gordon, Lord Byron, was
likewise the most fashionable poet of the day.
He created an immensely popular Romantic
hero—defiant, melancholy, haunted by secret
guilt—for which, to many, he seemed the model.
He is also a Romantic paradox: a leader of the
era’s poetic revolution, he named Alexander
Pope as his master; a worshiper of the ideal, he
never lost touch with reality; a deist and
freethinker, he retained from his youth a
Calvinist sense of original sin; a peer of the
realm, he championed liberty in his works and
deeds, giving money, time, energy, and finally
his life to the Greek war of independence.
In National Geographic author David
Quammen wrote

"On the morning of July 14, 1960, she stepped
onto a pebble beach along a remote stretch of
the east shore of Lake Tanganyika. It was her
first arrival at what was then called the Gombe
Stream Game Reserve, a small protected area
that had been established by the British
colonial government back in 1943.
She had brought a tent, a few tin plates, a cup
without a handle, a shoddy pair of binoculars,
an African cook named Dominic, and—as a
companion, at the insistence of people who
feared for her safety in the wilds of pre-
independence Tanganyika—her mother.    She
had come to study chimpanzees. Or anyway, to
try. Casual observers expected her to fail. One
person, the paleontologist Louis Leakey, who
had recruited her to the task up in Nairobi,
believed she might succeed."

And succeed she did.  Today,  Dame Jane
Morris Goodall, DBE, Ph.D. (born Valerie Jane
Morris-Goodall on 3 April 1934), is a British
primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and
UN Messenger of Peace.  Considered to be the
world's foremost expert on chimpanzees,
Goodall is best known for her 45-year study of
social and family interactions of wild
chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park,
Tanzania. She is the founder of the Jane
Goodall Institute and has worked extensively
on conservation and animal welfare issues.

". . . Jane Goodall, born in London in 1934,
was an avid reader of the popular Tarzan books
and dreamed of living amongst the wild
animals of the jungle. But, Goodall [said, with
her characteristic good humor, that she] had
higher aspirations than the fictional Jane, the
'wretched woman' Tarzan married. 'I was
frightfully jealous. I also thought she was a
wimp, and I would have made a much better
mate for Tarzan myself, which of course, I
would have.'"
Army installation in Asmara,
Eritrea on the Horn of Africa. The
installation was established in 1943
as a U.S. Army radio station, taking
over and refurbishing a pre-existing
Italian naval radio station, after
Italian forces based in Asmara
surrendered to the allies in 1941.
Kagnew Station operated until April
29, 1977, when the last Americans
The Cold War listening station,
Kagnew Station, was located nearly
on the equator and at an altitude of
7,300 feet (2,200 m) above sea level.
Its altitude and close proximity to
the equator made Kagnew Station
an ideal site for the Cold War
listening station's dishes and the
2,500-acre (10 km2) antenna farm.
In all Kagnew sprawled over 3,400
acres (14 km2) containing eight
fenced or walled tracts. Kagnew
Station became home for over 5,000
American citizens at a time during
its peak years of operation during
the 1960s.
Natty Bumpo - Hero of James
Finemore Coopers' series of novels
set on the early American frontier.  
The five novels in the series are
known as the Leatherstocking Tales.  
The name "Leatherstocking," after
his leather leggings, was a name
given Bumpo in the first novel
written in the series,
The Pioneers.
Poster for the 1959 Mel Ferrer film of William
Henry Hudson's 1904 novel
Green Mansions: A
Romance of the Tropical Forest
starring Audrey
Hepburn as the almost feral child-woman,