Confession: I love character archetypes. I love the "Gunslinger". I love the "Dashing Rogue". Hell, I even love the "Great White Hunter". However, my most favorite is the "Wild-man". Characters that are products of nature and wilderness as opposed to civilization's refinements. I aim to explore that here.
The story of Tarzan is a simple one, with an origin so well known, it is barely worth telling. The critical reception of the character's exploits, especially the latter novels, is interesting, especially when compared to the enduring recognizability (if not popularity) of the character. Through the two dozen original tales penned by Burroughs we see Tarzan (aka John Clayton aka Lord Greystoke) travel through Europe, Africa, Jungles, Deserts, Lost Cities, and beneath the Earth's crust. He meets all manner of people, from a diminutive tribe of Pygmies, forgotten Romans, to devolved Ape-things, and even Dinosaurs. Tarzan has appeared in all kinds of media, from novels, fiction written by other authors, television, radio, comics and film. Unsurprisingly, every iteration has it's own unique sensibilities due to the time and place of the particular creations. Despite these myriad differences, many simultaneously and contradictorily bemoaned by the various fandoms centered around each creation, the core of Tarzan as an archetypal adventurer remains intact.
When thinking of Tarzan as a character template, an RPG class if you will, we begin with an individual that has been separated from civilization. In Tarzan's case, this is jolly old England. During his separation, he learns various skills and ways of life from the beasts that he grows up beside. In the case of Tarzan, these manifest as all the things you would expect from being raised by fictional apes; he can climb with trees, communicate with various animal species, he is strong, nearly inhumanly so, and his physical features (especially his hands) have become malformed from living life as an "ape". After all of our pieces have fallen into place, this character now uses his skills in feats of daring, danger, and heroics.
In many ways, the "natural vitality" of the Wild-Man seems a progenitor, or at least influence on, the blood that runs through the fantasy "Barbarian" archetype. What we have in Tarzan and his ilk, is a hero/heroine more in-tune with the their wild side, not unlike Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian. In fact, while REH only mentioned Edgar Rice Burroughs in a single letter, his library was full of ERB creations. The concept behind this seems to be a contrast between what man "is", and what it "used to be". Tarzan, while wholly human, grew up an animal, in a more "natural state" than other products of civilization. While ERB himself draws many comparison between the contrasting states of mankind, I believe this culminates in Howard's "Barbarism vs Civilization" philosophy.
Conversely, the same characteristics that make Tarzan and Conan heroes, exemplars in a savage world, makes them outsiders nearly everywhere else. Tarzan, though born to English nobility, is not necessarily welcome in High Society. This culminates in his return to Africa with Jane and son. Conan too is seen as an outsider in a world rife with burgeoning civilization. Jane Porter, the eternal love interest of Tarzan, fears that their son, Jack, will be drawn to a life like his father, outside the trapping of modern civilization. This flip-side of the bull-strength, panther-like grace, tiger ferocity, makes for compelling interactions with the rest of the world. Does this character belong with humans? What of their bestial/barbaric family? Is there a place in society for such a creation of happenstance?
In recent years, I have seen what I deem to be a new spin on the "Wild-man", specifically within the realm of video games. Two pieces of media stand out to me in particular. The first is Far Cry 3 by Ubisoft, and the second is the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. In all actuality, I could understand the argument that these represent a different archetype, but at their heart I believe they are firmly rooted within the Tarzan family.
The first, Far Cry 3, is set on a tropical archipelago teeming with wildlife and vicious pirates. The protagonist, Jason Brody, is the nothing more than a spoiled rich kid surrounded by his rich kid friends. Essentially, the same kind of elite to which Tarzan was born in to. When things go south, Jason is left to "learn the ways of the jungle", save his friends, and escape the island. To do that, he masters skills taught to him by resistance fighters, CIA operatives, and the island's reclusive native warriors. By the end of his quest, Jason is no longer recognizable by the very people he once loved. He has essentially transitioned from a spoiled brat, to a Tarzan-esque killing machine, ultimately facing ostracization from the world to which he once belonged. In the end, the player is given a choice. They can either leave on a salvaged boat and attempt a normal life, or forsake everything they once knew.
Following a similar path, the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider set out create a new Lara Croft; one shaped by her ability to survive strange environments and impossible odds. Again, we see our character born with a silver spoon in hand, Lara being the daughter of a wealthy Englishman. After her father goes dies, she sets out to prove herself and her archeological prowess by accompanying a crew of adventurers on an expedition into the Dragon's Triangle. Bad weather rips apart her ship, and Lara finds herself stranded in the Japanese Bermuda Triangle analogue, Yamatai. Throughout her adventure, Lara is molded by harrowing encounters with wolves, insane cultists, inbred samurai, and an undead princess. Whether it's shooting arrows, creating makeshift weapons, climbing and jumping from tree to crag, or solving ancient riddles, her skills are developed through the trials of the island. All the while, she too becomes an obsessive killing machine hardly comparable to her past self. This all culminates in the third (and best) installment, "Shadow of the Tomb Raider", where Lara has essentially become the Predator.
While not one-to-one comparisons, the key notes of Tarzan still ring true in these examples. Our main character finds themselves in a stranger, wilder place, where they must adapt, or die. Perhaps not literally raised by animals, the settings into which they are thrust act as the beast. Upon choosing to live, to transform, they find themselves living a new life outside of their old reality. I too have played in this sandbox, twice actually, most recently in the main character of my first novel (Remnant due out in December and published by Primal Press!). I'm sure my fascination with this archetype stems from my love of Conan, who I obviously couldn't help but name drop, but also my love of the wild places that crafted Tarzan. You see, I used to be the kid that stayed inside and played video games. I was that teenager that would rather be somewhere virtual than someplace natural. But, as I slowly grew older, I found many things in nature that I once sought elsewhere, specifically, I found a sense of adventure. Climbing rocks gave me confidence, seeing natural wonders brought me curiosity, watching animals in their habitat brought me peace. Nature and the natural world had molded me, slowly, into a new person, the person I am today. Maybe not Tarzan, far from it, but someone new. I was alive. And there it is. Perhaps that is the most enduring aspect of the Wild-man, that, given the proper scenario, we too could find the King/Queen of the Jungle inside ourselves.
What do you love about the "Wild-man" archetype? Did I get something wrong? Let's discuss, I'd love to hear from you!
- L. D. Whitney
|Tarzan and the Antmen, Frank Frazetta|