Untamed and Terrible: World War Tarzan

Untamed and Terrible:

World War Tarzan




In our crude, tacky age of Hollywood bean-counters it has always remained one of cinematic life’s little mysteries to me just why no one has come up with the idea of developing the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs for the 21st Century big screen.

Yes, we live in a world of ‘producers’ and even more hideously, ‘executive producers’, many of whom have not one jot of interest in their ‘product’—and isn’t that awful term alone enough to show them up for what they are—beyond how many greasy coins they can shovel into their money-hungry little paws.  So it is astonishing in these days of few original ideas that no one has plundered those books in order to create the latest big-budget franchise.  For surely Tarzan was meant for the cinema at a point when film makers can make the most outlandish worlds a reality.

Of course, since many of them don’t appear to be able to read more than a ‘treatment’ or ‘synopsis’—anything that doesn’t stretch them too much– they may have been put off by a false idea of what the Tarzan novels are about.  From the silent era days of Elmo Lincoln to the early talkies of the Johnny Weissmuller era the films have always failed utterly in grasping the potential of the Burroughs novels.

Unlike the half-wit that he is so often portrayed as, the Tarzan of ERB was complicated, morose, grimly humorous, a savage and remorseless killer and yet a man who enjoyed the beauty of the world around him and who spoke some thirty languages.  In short, he was as complex as one would expect the son of an English aristocrat—John Clayton, Lord Greystoke—to be if brought up in an African jungle.

Even Hugh Hudson’s 1984 film, Greystoke:  the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which I looked forward to with such great enthusiasm, turned out to be a damp squib.  Of course, the pretentiousness of that title should have been an indicator of what was to come, but who would have predicted that what seemed like a good idea would be turned by Hudson into something so far up its own ass?  As least screenwriter Robert Towne had the good sense to have his name taken off it.

One bright thing that did come out of it was Christopher Lambert’s arresting appearance as the jungle lord:  he is lean and athletic-looking without being muscle-bound and is as handsome, moody and intense as the Greystoke of the books comes across.  Looking at him today in some stills from that long-forgotten disaster, he in fact brings to mind a young Marlon Brando as he scowls out from under those locks.  (Although I believe that Lambert’s squint was in fact down to short-sightedness.)




If Hollywood only took a closer look at a creation that has, after all, stood the test of time since his first appearance in 1912 they would see a cast of characters that includes the blackest of villains, the noblest of heroes and the most gorgeous of women.  Indeed, to see La of the ancient Atlantean city of Opar portrayed properly would be alone worth the price of admission.



An Africa that Should have Been

And the setting!  It is an Africa that is both beautiful and hideous; where a boy can be raised amongst a tribe of carnivorous apes that are of no known species.  Instead they appear to be a sort of missing link, with their own guttural, grunting proto-language (‘Tar-zan’ means ‘White- Skin’).  In Tarzan’s Africa lions don’t roam the savannah but hunt instead in the densest forests.  And there are wonderful, awe-inspiring lost cities galore:  cities in the deepest jungle fastnesses where medieval knights have made their last stand or where ancient Romans still keep the gladiatorial traditions.

In short, it is an Africa that has never existed—but which should have, without a doubt.  And to the canny movie maker willing to open his eyes it is a gateway into untold adventure as well as, on a more venal level, what could if handled properly be a license to print money.

Obviously the first two books in the series—Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan—are where any reader should begin. We see an English Lord and his pregnant Lady marooned on the West Coast of Africa; following their deaths the baby is raised to manhood by killer apes; he is found by a French naval lieutenant who teaches him his first language outside of Mangani (Ape) and West Coast native; he moves to civilization in pursuit of his beloved, Jane Porter; he returns to his jungle home where he becomes chief of the Waziri tribe; and eventually claims his inheritance before marrying and settling on a sprawling ranch in East Africa.

These two and the next four books chronicle Tarzan’s life from 1872 up to 1914. [See separate box, below.]

Then in 1920 the seventh in the series—Tarzan the Untamed— appeared in book form, having been serialised the year before; and from the point of view of the German nation at least it was certainly the most controversial.  The character of all Germans is portrayed as one of unrelieved viciousness and naturally the Germans—who had enjoyed the novels up until this—responded with a boycott that lasted decades.  Indeed, I’m not even sure how the novels are received there today. It’s often put forward in his defence that ERB had begun writing it in 1918 when the war was still raging in many areas, but it is still pretty strong stuff by any standards.

Events take off as Lord Greystoke hears in Nairobi of the outbreak of World War.  Returning to his home (possibly in Kenya) he finds that a retreating German force, led by two of the most outrageous stereotypes—Hauptman Fritz Schneider and Underlieutenant von Goss—have been on an orgy of rape and murder; and that his home lies in ashes, with many of his loyal Waziri massacred.

Having buried the burned and blackened body of his wife Jane, Lady Greystoke, he reverts to the truly bestial Tarzan persona of his formative years and sets out on a trail of revenge against any German who is unfortunate enough to cross his path. Now, in the first novel Tarzan could be ferociously cruel and sadistic towards the blacks of the West Coast (they had, after all, killed his foster mother, the great ape Kala); but here he is not only utterly savage towards the German forces but is surprisingly callous towards the so-called lower orders; and that is something that we haven’t seen before.

Having trapped a lion by bricking it into its own den he feeds a captured German to it before disappearing for at least a fortnight, leaving the poor creature with nothing but water.  On later passing by that way again he stops, pretty much as an afterthought:

“Picking up a rock he hurled it into the gulch, where it rolled to the very entrance to the cave.  Instantly the lion appeared in the aperture; but such a different-looking lion to the great sleek brute that Tarzan had trapped there some time before.  Now he was gaunt and emaciated, and when he walked he staggered.

“’Where is the German?’ shouted Tarzan.  “Was he good eating, or only a bag of bones when he slipped and fell from the tree?’

“Numa growled.  ‘You look hungry, Numa,’ continued the ape-man.  ‘You must have been very hungry to eat all the grass from your lair and even the bark from the tree as far up as you can reach.  Would you like another German?’  and smiling he turned away.”




If he hadn’t decided that he wanted to feed it some more soldiers would the ape-man just have left the animal to die?  It seems likely.  As it happens, though, in a particularly shocking sequence he forces the lion into one of the enemy trenches where it goes berserk, rending and tearing amongst the native followers of the German army.

So, if you haven’t read the Tarzan novels before, you get the general idea:  he’s not much like the simple but heroic cipher that Johnny Weissmuller played into the ground.



The Lost City of Xuja

The ape man prepares to make the long trip back to the little cabin in the landlocked West Coast harbour where he was born; and this is a locale that is pictured with great affection by all Tarzan enthusiasts, even though it only ever featured in the first two books.

Again, he seems ready to just leave behind, without a word of explanation, his son Jack, who is off fighting in his own war. Still, having spent many years living wild in the jungle as Korak the Killer I suppose that there’s every chance he would have understood his savage father.  Tarzan, however, finds himself torn emotionally between his upbringing and his English blood, which calls to him to stay and help his fellow countrymen in the war against the German forces.  Of course, upbringing versus heredity (or ‘nature versus nurture’ as it would be called these days) is a constant theme with Burroughs and is nowhere more strongly depicted than in his Tarzan tales.  Thus, the first half of Tarzan the Untamed has Greystoke helping in the war, albeit in his own unique way, whilst the second half has him take off for the other side of the continent, only to find himself in the lost city of Xuja.

In the later (and weaker) books in the series, which would eventually run to 24 volumes, lost cities are stumbled across time and again.  But here, Xuja is only the second that Tarzan has found, the first being the fascinating lost outpost of Atlantis known as Opar.

Centuries of inbreeding have created a city of the insane who live side by side with domesticated lions.  In fact some monarchs have even been known to take the animals as their mates and co-rulers.  At which point all I can say is that I’m probably as reasonably perverted as the next guy but I would definitely be drawing the line at trying to mount a frigging lion, domesticated or not!

At the end of the book Tarzan discovers that Jane is still alive (no real surprise there) and he sets out in search of her.

Some readers don’t like Untamed because of its uneven, episodic nature.  But in fact if you take the time to read the book in the way it was first published it is a very satisfying experience.  So, if you break it down into the original six short stories, each of about twenty pages and then finish with the novella of around one hundred pages it would work out like this:

The Lion’s Cave (chapters 1-2);

When the Lion Fed (chapters 3-4);

The Golden Locket (chapters 5-6);

When Blood Told (chapters 7-8);

Dropped from the Sky (chapters 9-10);

The Black Flier (chapters 11-13).

Then finish with the short novel:

Tarzan and the Valley of Luna (chapters 13-24).

I’m open to correction, but without checking original printings that seems to me to be the logical way to break it down.

The Lost Land of Pal-ul-don

Supposedly Tarzan the Terrible opens some two months later, which would make it around January 1915; but the Chronology According to Brady isn’t buying that. I would now put it around 1916. [Again, see box below.]

Tarzan has tracked his mate to a village in the Congo Free State from which she has escaped, pursued by another outrageous German stereotype in the form of the increasingly mad (in an endearingly German kind of way) Lieutenant Obergatz.

Continuing to follow the trail Tarzan finds himself in the extraordinary country of Pal-ul-don, the Land of Man. This is one of the most fully realised environs of ERB’s fictional Africa:  almost completely isolated from the outside world as it is, conditions have let evolution take a sidetrack, so that prehistoric triceratops still roam wild and two man-like, tailed races have evolved with their own language.  One is black (the Waz-don) and one white (Ho-don), leading to this amusing passage:

“Tarzan smiled.  Even here was the racial distinction between white man and black man—Ho-don and Waz-don.  Not even the fact that they appeared to be equals in the matter of intelligence made any difference—one was white and one was black, and it was easy to see that the white considered himself superior to the other.”

I think and am glad to say that Jane really comes into her own in this novel.  Burroughs aficionados often find her irritating for the way in which she seems to get kidnapped an awful lot.  Here, though, we see her making her own way in the jungle; building her own refuge; making her own weapons and hunting game for herself.  In fact she is quite splendid, admirable and self-sufficient in every way.

There are endless adventures and the plot and action moves along at breakneck pace.  Many have sneered at Burroughs as a writer—hell, he did so himself—but no one could ever doubt his ability to tell a story that sweeps the reader along;  and which even throws in the odd social comment as well:

“At a little distance were the blue waters of Jad-in-lul [The Dark Lake] and beyond that the mountains.  It was a beautiful picture upon which he looked—a picture of peace and harmony and quiet.  Nor anywhere a slightest suggestion of the savage men and beasts that claimed this lovely landscape as their own.  What a paradise!  And some day civilized man would come and—spoil it!  Ruthless axes would raze that age-old wood;  black sticky smoke would rise from the ugly chimneys against that azure sky; grimy little boats with wheels behind or upon either side would churn the mud from the bottom of Jad-in-lul, turning its blue waters to a dirty brown; hideous piers would project into the lake from squalid buildings of corrugated iron, doubtless, for such are the pioneer cities of the world.”

Lord Greystoke as Early Environmentalist.  Well, why not?

In a little over two hundred pages Edgar Rice Burroughs created a fully-realised land, complete with many topographical details and a glossary of over 150 words from the language of Pal-ul-don.  A brief glance at the internet will provide you with maps and even articles on the flora and fauna of the place.  I smile when I think that at two hundred pages some of today’s fantasy writers would have just finished the introduction to their fictional world.  That is neither here nor there; it’s just an observation.

If this short glance at the character of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, Tarzan of the Apes makes even one person seek out and enjoy a novel then I’ll be happy.  Approach ERB with an open mind and a world of old-fashioned adventure and wonder awaits you.



“We only know that on a bright May morning in 1888, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, and Lady Alice sailed from Dover on their way to Africa.

“A month later they arrived in Freetown where they chartered a small sailing vessel, the Fuwalda, which was to bear them to their final destination.

“And here John, Lord Greystoke, and Lady Alice, his wife, vanished from the eyes and from the knowledge of men.”

Or so it says in the first chapter of Tarzan of the Apes.

Well, perhaps from the eyes of men but not from the knowledge of. Thanks to the diligent investigations of Edgar Rice Burroughs, over a long period of time, we have in fact a fairly extensive understanding of what happened to the child of that union, born on the West Coast of Africa so many years ago.

Wait. Is this guy saying that Lord Greystoke actually existed? Does this sound absolutely cracked? Well, of course it does. So let me explain.

I discovered the Tarzan novels when I was around the age of eleven or twelve. By this I mean the unabridged editions, not the kind of crappy, all-the-good-bits-cut-out copies that floated around schools back in the sixties. I was immediately into this amazing story and started getting my hands on as many of the books as I could. But when it came to the above-mentioned Tarzan the Untamed I got a sinking feeling in my stomach because something was terribly wrong with the time sequence here. And even then I was a sucker for a good chronology.

If Lady Alice was pregnant with the child who would become Tarzan at the opening of the first book, then he was very likely born in 1888. So how is it that he and Jane have a son, Jack, who is old enough to be married at the beginning of World War One, as depicted in Untamed? This might sound absolutely crazy—I’m pretty sure that the words ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ didn’t exist back then—but I was in a bit of a sweat over this. It was threatening to seriously fuck up my enjoyment, I can tell you that. So I went back to the primary source, the first page of the first volume, which opens with:

“I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own sceptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the strange tale.

“When my convivial host discovered that he had told me so much and that I was prone to doubtfulness, his foolish pride assumed the task the old vintage had commenced, and so he unearthed written evidence in the form of musty manuscript, and dry official records of the British Colonial Office to support many of the salient features of his remarkable narrative.

“I do not say the story is true, for I did not witness the happenings which it portrays, but the fact that in the telling of it to you I have taken fictitious names for the principal characters quite sufficiently evidences the sincerity of my own belief that it may be true.” [My italics.]

And that was really as far as I needed to look to establish a reason for what I later learned was known as ‘the Korak Time Discrepancy’. I was able to use that statement as a springboard from which to put down a hypothesis for myself that reasoned that if Burroughs had changed names in order to protect the identity of the English Lord then it was likely that he had messed around with the years as well. And so, to be brief, I messed around myself, pushing the ape man’s year of birth back to suit the existence of his son (as well as several other factors, of course) and after some experimenting with events in other books came up with the year of 1872, which I remain happy with more than forty years later.

Of course, the internet didn’t exist back then and at that age I had only the faintest idea of the existence of a collective fandom; so it was a long time before I realised that others had followed the same pedantic—and let’s face it, pretty anal retentive—path. In fact quite a few had even come to the same conclusion as I had, that Tarzan was born in 1872. Not all of course, the main high-profile name to argue for an 1888 birth being the science-fiction writer and Burroughs fanatic Philip Jose Farmer. However, he sticks by that date in order to incorporate his other heroes such as Doc Savage and Sherlock Holmes into an all-encompassing chronology. I’m a Tarzan nut; I’ve never read Doc Savage and only some Holmes so I choose to ignore that. (Although I would point out that thanks to a throwaway comment in The Son of Tarzan there is a good case to be made for bringing the Detective into the Tarzan continuity.)

[By the way, just to confuse things even farther: although as the series went on it became obvious that Lord Greystoke was at times narrating his adventures to Edgar Rice Burroughs, this was not the ERB who was born in Chicago in 1875 and wrote his first novel, A Princess of Mars, in 1911. This was a Burroughs who was apparently born prior to the American Civil War. But in the fear that your head may be about to explode perhaps that belongs in another article.]

Overall, 1872 works on a lot of levels because it smoothes out many later discrepancies and lets us put the events of Jungle Tales of Tarzan as taking place between 1888 and 1891. And that rather nicely lets us put in an eclipse of the moon that took place in that short story collection (Tarzan Rescues the Moon) and which happened in reality on the West Coast of Africa on November 16th, 1891 at 1:20 a.m. Perfect.

On the other hand following slavishly the 1888 date has led to mistakes aplenty. For example, I’ve just looked at Wikipedia which has Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar following chronologically from The Son of Tarzan. Wrong! According to the quite frankly brilliant Brady chronology this would have in all reason taken place during the events of the latter book; I would guess around 1911. [For an interesting discussion on this and other placement problems in Tarzan read Frank J. Bruekel, listed in the sources for this article.]

Far and away the most stimulating article I have come across on this topic is one by Henning Kure and which I only found by accident in the late nineties. Of course I don’t agree (and sometimes violently disagree) with everything in it—I suspect that every Tarzan fan has his own take on chronology—but apart from the fact that he comes through to the 1872 date by following much the same logic that I did, he has done something that I could never have thought of; and that for the reason that it is a subject that I neither take seriously nor have any interest in: astrology.

What a fascinating idea! Here he is, in part:

“Symbolically, the core of Tarzan’s being is balancing culture and nature—Lord Greystoke and the Lord of the Jungle. Going backwards from that, he must then be born in the sign of Libra (September 22-October 22). This fits well with the information in the Tarzan books—Tarzan was born in the fall. However, Tarzan does not appear to be a Libra type: He has all of the majestic bearings of Leo, and therefore must have Leo rising in his horoscope. Such a combination as described above took place on Sunday, September 29, 1872, at 3.30 a. m. Greenwich mean time.”

And there was me thinking how clever I was for pinpointing the year.

“Not only do the above character elements fit with this birthday, you can test this with any astrologer: everything in that horoscope describes Tarzan. And not only his character, but also when important events in his life (like meeting Jane) took place—and the amazing thing is that it all fits with the information of the Tarzan books, given the one change of the birth-year[from 1888 to 1872].”

This should give you an idea of how much enjoyment Burroughs enthusiasts get out of playing this kind of game. And it is endless! One final example takes in the two books under review here—Tarzan the Untamed and Tarzan the Terrible. A close reading of Untamed shows that the events from the outbreak of war in July of 1914 until the conclusion of the tale could not realistically have taken more than six months. Therefore Terrible, which features son Jack returning from the Argonne Front, must in all probability have started more than a year later at the very minimum. In fact writing this gave me a yen to read the next book in the series, Tarzan and the Golden Lion for the first time in many years. This sees Tarzan, Jane and Korak returning from Pal-ul-don prior to another trip to Opar. And given the events described, the length of travel times involved and a lion growing from a cub to full maturity, I would estimate that the events here took place between 1918 and 1922.

But that really is a story for another day.




Sources consulted:

Tarzan of the Apes (1912)

Tarzan the Untamed (1920)

Tarzan the Terrible (1921)

By Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Edgar Rice Burroughs:  Master of Adventure (1965) by Richard A.  Lupoff.

A Tarzan Chronology by Henning Kute (first published in Tarzan:  The Lost Adventure April 1995, issue #4.

The Lost Years of Tarzan by Frank J. Bruekel (first published in The Barsoomian #11) (1966); and reprinted in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Fantastic Worlds, published by James van Hise, uncertain of publication date.

Author: Charley Brady

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