Tarzan The Untamed

January 3, 2008

Themes And Variations

The Tarzan Novels Of Edgar Rice Burroughs

#7 Tarzan The Untamed


R.E. Prindle


Edgar Rice Burroughs seems to be searching for his sexual identity in Tarzan The Untamed. The untamed may refer to the notion that he may be married but Emma has not domesticated the roaring Lion Man.

On my first reading of the novel I merely picked up the surface story, that, to tell the truth, I don’t find very interesting perhaps even implausible and ridiculous. On the second and third readings however the story behind the story, ERB’s psychological dilemma begins to emerge coloring the story with interest.

The story even begins to assume a certain beauty, a poetic shimmer, that takes form as you stare into it. I began to relate Untamed to other novels and stories, that seemed to me to be related and partake of the same dilemma. I don’t know that I can successfully relate them to Untamed but I’ll give it a shot.

For the last few years shifting around in the back of my mind have been the tales of E.T.A. Hoffman. Just a moment ago as I write this I finished another tale of the German romantics, a charming story that I recommend highly, Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte-Fouque. And finally although this may be difficult to see Fyodor Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Untamed begins with the murder of Jane, Burroughs aspect of female sexuality, and Tarzan’s killing of the panther or his emasculated sexuality that manifests itself as a homosexual latency.

One then is led to believe that by killing sexual desire Tarzan or ERB believes that he has eliminated the troubling sexual ambivalence of his character. Yet, just a few pages on they flicker to life again in the character of the putative German spy Bertha Kircher. Tarzan first sees Kircher as a woman in the German camp so grasping at the obvious he assumes that she is a German spy. He doesn’t realize and we won’t be told until the end of the story that she is a double agent. In reality she is an English spy posing as a German spy. There’s a complexity there that eludes me at the moment.

She is thus introduced to Tarzan as a woman. The next time he sees her is as a man disguised as a British agent in the English camp. He doesn’t recognize her although he know he has seen him somewhere before. Thus the old sexual ambivalence resurfaces. In what seems to be your standard adventure story delicate psychological nuances begin to flicker around the action story like St. Elmo’s Fire. No matter what the surface story is about the secondary story is about something else.

La Motte Fouque in his Undine also addresses the problem of a man faced with a sexual dilemma that lies within. The path is clear for the hero, Huldbrand, it is only his own weakness that creates the problem for him. In Huldbrand’s case his decision is between two women amidst elemental forces of nature that contrast with the elemental human nature. Undine is a story of astonishing beauty that I can only slaughter in interpreting . I highly recommend you read it. For those deeply into fantasy you will find Undine as fantastic as anything you have ever read; for those into myth and fairytale it is a masterpiece of the kind. Anyone who reads around in this area will have heard it mentioned. I have known of the title for many years but recently in my researches into H.G. Wells it was mentioned that Undine was a favorite of his. I thought it necessary background so I added this gorgeous story to my memory stacks. I should have waited so long; it is a superb Anima-Animus story.

In the December 14th ERBzine George McWhorter provided a list of a few post-WWII books that ERB read. As ERB titles the list, a few of the books he has read, and the list is astonishingly long from a few one can only guess that ERB’s full list must have a couple hundred or more. As reading was a lifelong habit for him and if he consumed titles at that voracious pace then it is truly difficult to guess how many books he read from, say, 1888 to 1910 just before he began writing. Of course his potential list to select from before 1910 was much shorter than ours is today. Titles as obscure today as Undine were relatively well known then. I may be wrong but I pick up hints of Crime and Punishment in ERB’s corpus from time to time. Certainly by his WWII list he had crime on his mind.

We do know that the stories that disappeared into his capacious mind from the period before 1910 gestated for decades in the back of his mind finally finding expression thirty or forty years later. I’m thinking of George W.M. Reynold’s Mysteries Of The Court Of London that burst forth in the 1938 version of The Lad And The Lion. So while I can’t say for certain that ERB read these three authors there is a certain wistfulness and fairy tale quality to the story of Tarzan, Bertha Kircher and Harold Percy Smith-Oldwick that reminds one of the three authors that I have mixed up with Untamed.

So, a woman named Bertalda sends the knight Huldbrand into the elemental forest to prove his love for her. Thus Huldbrand goes to a destiny he never imagined. In the sense of C.G. Jung’s collective unconscious which as I interpret as a set of symbols common to the Western mind, Burroughs also sends Tarzan and his two sexual identities into the elemental jungles of Africa.

La Motte-Fouque invents the water spirit Kuhleborn to forward the action. The presence of so much water indicates that the action takes place in the subconscious of Huldbrand.

Water plays a very different role in Burroughs’ story. In his tale Tarzan braves a watered land to traverse eight very deep and steep ravines that become progressively drier until in the last he almost dies of thirst. As Burroughs’ story covers the four years in his life from late 1914 until mid-1919 one may assume that he had eight bouts of progressively severe depression the eighth and last occurring as he writes his story.

On the other side of the last canyon the well watered jungle begins again. Thus the main story of Tarzan, Bertha and Smith-Oldwick takes place on the edges of the forest and a meadow.

In La Motte-Fouque’s story the elements had set up the conflict from the beginning. As we are told Kuhleborn stole the baby Bertalda away from her parents in an apparent drowning.  He then restored a child to the bereaved parents with the child Undine who was actually a water sprite. Bertalda was left by the side of the road where a noble couple found and adopted her. She is the lost daughter of the now aged couple of Undine’s adoptive parents to which Kuhleborn now leads Huldbrand.

Undine’s parents live on an isolated peninsula. As soon as the storm drives Huldbrand to the peninsula the elemental Kuhleborn in the form of a raging torrent turns the peninsula into an island from which there is no escaping. Huldbrand and Undine are thus thrown together. Elemental spirits have no souls. This notion would certainly have had great appeal for Burroughs for whom men without souls was a preoccupation. Undine can only acquire a soul, which she greatly longs for, from the love of a man who has one. She therefore in effect seduces Huldbrand. Kuhleborn disapproves but as to a point Undine’s magic is stronger than his he is reluctantly forced to accede on certain conditions.

A wandering priest is tossed up on shore by Kuhleborn who ties the knot for Undine and Huldbrand. They return to civilization and Berthalda where the conflict between a human woman with a soul and a water sprite without one puts Huldbrand to the test.

So Tarzan who is first associated with Bertha Kircher is once again presented with his emasculation conflict when Smith-Oldwick appears in the picture. The name Smith occurs in Burroughs’ work with some frequency while Old-wick may have sexual connotations unless I’m being too Freudian.

Before Smith-Oldwick does appear Tarzan has to cross the continent from East to West. His wish is to return to his father’s cabin, build an addition or two to make it more roomy and comfortable then settle in as a sort of gentleman farmer. Ah, to be so world weary.  And yet that is what Burroughs is about to do.

In a rather remarkable episode Tarzan is crossing Africa when he comes upon Bertha Kircher out there somewhere. He takes her captive but for some unknown reason doesn’t relieve her of the pistol at her side. Even stranger he walks along in front of his captive. Bertha not slow to grasp an opportunity reaches up and lays the butt of her pistol alongside the back of the Big Fella’s head. There’s one bash in the head so far.

Bertha takes off for the railroad leaving Tarzan lying face down in the trail. As he lies Sheeta the panther comes upon him. This presents a sexual problem difficult of analysis. Does it mean that Tarzan is unaware of his attraction to Bertha or what? Tarzan is all but dead as Sheeta prepares to spring on him when who should appear but the Lion whose will Tarzan broke earlier in the story. Now totally devoted to his oppressor he kills Sheeta. Tarzan regains consciousness to find himself nose to nose with Numa. Reminds you of that horrid joke Hillman told a while back about the elephant. In this case it was the same lion.

So the Lion and Tarzan are united in spirit. Tarzan is not yet known as the Lion Man but he will be. In any event the Lion is a guardian spirit for him. In the second book after this one, perhaps reflecting this lion Tarzan will raise and tame the Golden Lion who will be his helpmate and guardian angel. I suspect that the lions Tarzan kills would have been tigers if someone hadn’t objected to the fact that there are no tigers in Africa. In some ways panthers are substitutes for the tiger.

Relieved to find that this lion is his lion Tarzan gets up giving the lion a pat and then trots off down the trail in search of Bertha. In a sort of hobo flashback Bertha finds the train line and hops a freight a few steps ahead of the White Ape. Tarzan misses the connection so we find him forsaking the middle terraces for a trudge down the tracks into town.

I don’t know how many people find these two sequences funny but I do.

Tarzan loses track of Bertha so he begins the long walk to Gabon. Here he has to traverse the eight deep canyons. These canyons have vertical walls while being very deep so that even for the Ape Man these thing become too difficult. Each crevasse gets drier and drier so Tarzan gets weaker and weaker being deprived of, as it were, the feminine  water of life. By the time he hits the eighth canyon he is spent. I mean, he has had it. This may be as close to death as the Great Tarmangani has ever come.

He lays down in a manner that indicates he will never get up. The chapter is titled Blood Will Out. A little double entendre. A vulture descends to wait for his meal to die. Instead Tarzan grabs the vulture by the neck sinking his strong white teeth into it throat. Here’s the joke: Blood Will Out. Tarzan’s inherited greatness appears while the vulture’s blood saves his life. Tarzan sucks the vulture dry gaining liquid refreshment while eating the flesh. He now has just enough strength to climb out. He discovers he has crossed the desert and is now in a watered land.

One may assume then that Burroughs has fought off several bouts of severe depression from 1914 to 1919.

Back up on the surface he discover Bertha Kircher in the possession of a Black German trooper. At the same time Smith-Oldwick is flying on a reconnaissance mission when he develops engine trouble landing in a meadow. He whips out his monkey wrench, fixes the problem but before he can take off he is captured by the locals.

Thus he Tarzan and Bertha are brought together. So Tarzan having thought he had resolved his sexual hang-ups at the beginning of the book now learns he hasn’t. The old ambivalence returns in the persons of Bertha and Percy Smith-Oldwick.

In a series of interesting adventures the three Whites are brought together. Tarzan’s male figure falls in love with Bertha. The plane is relocated. An adventure with Usanga the Black German soldier intervenes that is not germane here. Tarzan’s intention is still to go off alone to his father’s cabin so he sees Smith-Oldwick and Bertha off as they begin the flight back to Kenya. Thus we have a second resolution to Burroughs’ sexual dilemma. He packs his sexual problems in a plane and flies them off  higher above him than he is high above his daily cares in the trees. He is seen standing in a tree safely above it all watching the plane disappear into the distance. The plane is soaring very high over the tree tops when it takes a dive back to earth. Thus that dream of Burroughs’ getting rid of his ambivalence crashes.

Even this attempt to resolve his sexual dilemma is doomed to failure. He can’t abandon the two so he starts back into the desert from which he almost met his death. His sexual ambivalence has landed in the eighth and most desolate canyon. Undaunted Tarzan returns to near certain death to resolve his problem.  The three are in an impossible situation from which it appears that there is no escape.

There he learns that a very unintelligent vulture had apparently mistaken the plane for a dead something. Descending on it the vulture became entangled in the propeller. Never one to lose a chance to bash someone/anyone on the head Burroughs has the bird break a piece of the propeller loose that bashes Smith-Oldwick in the forehead. The bashing definitely establishes Smith-Oldwick as Burroughs’ sexual alter-ego as he presumably now has the same scar on his forehead that both Burroughs and Tarzan sport.

The vulture is an ancient symbol of the mother. One can’t be too sure how aware Burroughs may have been of this but in the Jungian sense of the collective unconscious the symbol would have or may have suggested itself from the common fund. As a student of Africa Burroughs would certainly have had plenty of time to consider vultures especially as his idol Rider Haggard includes vultures in most of his African novels.

If Burroughs is using the vulture as a symbol for his mother that opens the interesting problem of what exactly his relationship to his mother was. First Tarzan strangles, drinks the blood and eats the flesh of the vulture, with perhaps a very sly joke of blood will out,  and then the vulture attacks his sexual identity destroying any chance Burroughs may have had of successfully resolving the issue. I merely raise the point.

Having been bashed but not knocked unconscious Smith-Oldwick recovers in time to ease that airplane down. Tarzan arrives but there seems to be no hope of the three leaving the canyon alive.

At this point the residents of the lost civilization of Xuja capture them. Once again not germane to my point here after a series of very interesting hair raising adventures the trio is rescued by some British troops searching for Smith-Oldwick.

Burroughs and Tarzan still have to resolve the sexual dilemma.

The rescue officer advises Tarzan that Jane is not after all dead. This fact apparently resolves the problem for Tarzan. Bertha and Smith-Oldwick return to get married while Tarzan now psychically reunited with Jane returns to East Africa to begin the search for Pal-Ul-Don rather than returning to his father’s cabin.

We don’t know where this leaves Burroughs in August of 1919, more or less the anniversary of the beginning of the Great War in 1914, when he finished the book. We don’t know what his relations with Emma were except that possibly they had reached an accord psychologically.

The story began in Tarzan’s mythical Africa during the War. In the novel the story must take place in 1914-15 but in real life the war ended in November of 1918. This probably coincides with Tarzan drifting off from East Africa back West to Gabon. At the same time in real life Burroughs left Chicago in January 1919 moving West to Los Angeles.

So the village of Usanga in the middle of Africa must represent Chicago. The lost city of Xuja that is located in a desert valley watered by canals brought from a distance must represent the move to LA. So that Burroughs is recording his sexual dilemma and also the move from Chicago to LA against the background of the Great War. Pretty nifty footwork.

He and Emma must have been together as it is very difficult to believe he would have absented himself from her and Tarzana so that this long separation of Tarzan from Jane must represent a mental estrangement from Emma.  Perhaps the strain of the move was more than she could bear.

In the next novel Tarzan The Terrible Tarzan makes the long trek to the lost land of Pal-Ul-Don in search of Jane. While the succeeding novel Tarzan And The Golden Lion opens with Jane, Jack and Tarzan returning from Pal-Ul-Don reunited again. At that time there is a distinct coolness between Tarzan and Jane. Whatever reconciliation took place between Emma and Burroughs it was less than satisfactory on Burroughs’ side.

In Golden Lion the two discover a lion cub on the trail that Tarzan takes home to raise as the Golden Lion. The Lion is always cool toward Jane while seeming to protect Tarzan from her. As soon as the lion is mature and trained Tarzan takes off to visit La at Opar. In this instance he and La come close to being a couple while the Golden Lion becomes a close male companion.

Thus Bertha and Smith-Oldwick have turned into La and the Golden Lion. Still unable to resolve his real life problem Burroughs ends Golden Lion by having Tarzan return to Jane. Burroughs has now resolved his emasculation problem by having the Golden Lion as Tarzan’s male buddy. As a beast he is not threat to Burroughs’ masculine identity. The Golden Lion remains Tarzan’s male pal throughout the remaining novels.

Now I have to return to Tarzan The Untamed. This is a very complex novel and I don’t know if I can do it justice.

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