On Mowgli and Tarzan: Savage Reading for Civilized Readers

Despite the incorrigible march of civilization, there will always be an inborn appeal for feral fantasies. The howls of Romulus and Remus will never fade from Rome. The call of the world will never drown the call of the wild. No matter how much machinery is crammed into human life, the pulse of animal life, however deep, will never fail to animate the human animal. The lure and love of animality is part of humanity, rooted in the ancient jungles of heredity, and echoing through ages and ages past when man walked naked and fearless with the beasts. The childlike fascination of the animal kingdom might even be a remnant of the intended human kingdom when man was but a child.

Much of this lost inheritance—this lost innocence—is invoked and cherished in literature that reconnects man to the animals through imaginative, anthropomorphic adventures. Hence the endurance of Æsop; the joy of Beatrix Potter; the nobility of The Wind in the Willows; and the status of Black BeautyWhite Fang, and Charlotte’s Web. Among these favorites that reunite mankind to animal-kind, two volumes stand tall together as companion pieces: Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. They are tales of man’s place and history among the animals, encompassing a sort of human horizon in their combined scope and allowing readers to recall the thrilling savagery that throbs with summer heat and the unbridled romance of the untamed.

The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling (1894)
Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated collection of classic stories entitled The Jungle Book is a spirited, playful safari with moments of profound gravity that both evoke and enshrine the very nature of childhood. They are tales of strange creatures, from man to mongoose, that seek the place where they belong in the wide and wild world. Although Mowgli, the man’s cub raised by wolves in the jungles of India, is the most famous protagonist of these episodes, it is a shame to allot to obscurity Kotick the White Seal, or Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the cobra killer, or Toomai of the Elephants. The Jungle Book is a book of biospheres and the creatures that teem with purpose and pleasure in distant environs. The Jungle Book is more of a jungle than a book, and its joy is the joy of the wild things together with the beautiful sovereignty of man, the wildest thing of all.

Kipling’s often criticized emphasis of patriotism—or Imperialism—and caste systems is alive and well in his Jungle Book tales, but they are not overbearing. Instead, their presence has a practical, acceptable air, like a food chain, bearing the hierarchical charm that organizes the animal kingdom with something more like cooperation than competition. It presents realms that are wild yet well-ordered, from the animals that prowl through Blake’s forests of the night to the animals that parade in a British military camp—for the great secret of the jungle is that there is a jungle law “which never orders anything without a reason.”

The Jungle Book is a delight for readers young and old because it revels in an energy that the young can relate to and the old can recall. They are tales that tap into the mysterious economy of ferocity, keeping things controlled without taming things in the least. It is a pageant of fierce creatures narrated with a formality that amuses in its ancient yet lively tone. Kipling’s skill and style capture the savage in civilized fashion, rendering The Jungle Book a graceful tour-de-force, blazing a trail through a menagerie that has more life and vigor at every turn than anything that can be seen under the dull submission of a zoo. The final power of The Jungle Book is that it is a book as well as a jungle.

Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
Tarzan of the Apes is among those marvels of human creativity that have the well-deserved distinction of being so brutal they are beautiful. Such works would never be called high art, but they are far more engaging than anything that goes by that name. Of this now-iconic piece of pulp, Rudyard Kipling said that Edgar Rice Burroughs only desired to “find out how bad a book he could write and get away with it.”

Even if Tarzan of the Apes is low art, as the first in twenty-five scintillating sequels, it is certainly high romance, possessing every feature that a civilized reader could hope for in an uncivilized novel. A wilderness of snarling beasts. Unchecked bloodshed. Human ingenuity. Exhilarating escapades. Impossible odds. Improbable feats. Epic battles. Blunt weaponry. Screaming cannibals. Cutthroat pirates. Bumbling philosophers. A willful woman. A jungle god. A buried treasure. Maroons. Mystery. Mutiny. Nobility. Virility. Love. There is nothing in the richly written prose of Edgar Rice Burroughs that fails to satisfy, making a perfect page-turner that rejoices with wild abandon in the pulse of the primitive.

It is true that Tarzan has suffered from stereotyping, but there is good reason he became a stereotype to begin with. There is an intoxicating lure in the history of the English Lord of Greystoke whose shocking fate caused him to be reared by gigantic, violent apes in Africa. Though Tarzan flies through seemingly innumerable adventures within the limited number of pages that comprise this riveting read, his greatest proves to discover not only what he is, but who he is. The unabashed brute force with which the story plunges the pithy plot on is a rush of wonder and a sheer pleasure. Tarzan of the Apes is a book as bold as its titular hero and its terrible premise. These episodes are straightforward, but they are nonetheless exhilarating and suspenseful. Their straightforwardness is like a beeline, a dash for victory, a visceral reaction to danger and delight. There is nothing circuitous about Tarzan. He is a protagonist who gets to the point with a pace and a precision that is breathless and beautiful. The wild incongruities, inconsistencies, and inconceivabilities do not matter in the least over the course of necessary, heart-pounding events. It is difficult, for instance, to worry about a flimsy thing like physics when Tarzan is swinging tree to tree chasing a raging, rabid ape that has just swept off the enchanting Jane Porter to his filthy lair. There are greater things at stake than gravity here.

Just because Tarzan’s is a simple story does not mean it is simplistic. The infamous, misquoted grunt, “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” is a gross over-simplification of what is, in truth, wonderfully simple—even beautiful and eloquent. In Tarzan of the Apes, reality becomes a thing as suspended as Tarzan himself upon his never-failing vines. Peril abounds, make no mistake, as fangs and nails slice through flesh and muscle to the bone. Death is a reality that prevails, but never to the detriment of the buoyant and brave determinism of this free-spirited, action-packed extravaganza that drinks deeply, if not drunkenly, from the cup of the uncultured, only to find that culture is not a thing to be drowned out by the crude. It is a book that soars without apology, fighting fiercely in a long-lost sylvan liberty that refreshes even as it thrills to the tempo of the wild orgy of the great Dum-Dum.

Mowgli and Tarzan: Jungle Brothers
Tarzan of the Apes and The Jungle Book are as irresistible as instinct. They are tales that seize the blood and soothe the chafing of the daily grind, for within their narratives, the human spirit finds exultation and exaltation in the face of low brutality and the unfeeling forces of nature. Humanity is given a strange ascendance when placed amidst with the bestial as it claws for base survival only. Even though the tones of these works are very different, there is a striking similarity in their themes and their heroes, Mowgli and Tarzan—young men raised by beasts who come to learn of their identity and their dignity. At their heart, these jungle epics pit heredity against habitat, and craft the emergence of the paragon of animals.

Though wildly different, Mowgli and Tarzan are a common breed. Mowgli is the leader of his pack. Tarzan is the alpha male of his tribe. None of the beasts in The Jungle Bookare able to meet the gaze of Mowgli. None of the brutes in Tarzan’s jungle are able to compete with his ingenuity and intelligence. Both have innate longings for knowledge and the truth. Both seek belonging and understanding. As jungle brothers, Mowgli and Tarzan reflect the passage from childhood to youth, from the fairy-tale to the romance. The purity of The Jungle Book is taken up and developed by the passions of Tarzan of the Apes, creating an arc that is in itself a reflection of the human destiny.

For all of their wild subject matter, these noble stories from Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs are a study in the noble savage, the inherent grandeur of man, and impart a pride of species as they romp and rush in terrible and tribal glory. Mowgli and Tarzan share a quest to find what it truly means to be human, and both are a wonder to behold in the tropical light of the primeval.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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