Talking to Animals for Bad Reasons

One of my favorite aspects of Tarzan is that he can talk to animals in their own languages and that they can talk back to him. I don’t want this blog to be all really super-neg about Tarzan all the time so I wanted to write this post about this aspect of the Tarzan mythos I like a lot. Disentangled from the racism, the idea of a person raised by apes and able to talk to them is pretty cool.

I thought I could illustrate this with one of my all-time favorite scenes. It’s from Son of Tarzan. In that novel, Tarzan’s adolescent son Jack manages to escape from London on a boat to Africa with an ape named Akut. Akut is Tarzan’s friend from the previous novel Beasts of Tarzan. Tarzan discovers Akut at a circus visiting London and so uses his considerable wealth to spring the beast. Unfortunately for Tarzan and Jane, Jack manages to stowaway on Akut’s voyage back to Africa. Unfortunate circumstances lead Jack to abscond to the jungle with Akut upon their arrival, where he spends the rest of his adolescence living the feral life of an ape-man. Jack takes the name Korak, which in the language of the anthropoid apes means killer.

Jane and Tarzan assume their boy is dead, but life is actually pretty good for Akut and Korak the Killer. One day Akut and Korak rescue a girl named Meriem from a band of Arab outlaws. Somehow they teach her the ape language and she and Korak become close companions. The trio live very happily together as apes.

I think the fanciful nature of the story involving animals, including the talking to animals part, illustrates that Tarzan stories aren’t just pulp, soft sf adventure but also children’s literature. Here’s the boy running away from his parents to join the jungle. The fantasy is straightforwardly appealing to kids of all ages.

Anyway, I thought I could recall this favorite passage from Son of Tarzan where the animal-talking could be experienced in its essential form disentangled from the racist aspects of the Tarzan mythos. So I turned to my fancy edition of the first six Tarzan novels and worked my way to Chapter 15 of Son of Tarzan.

I remembered there was this great scene where Korak was addressing the King of the Baboons who lived in the forest to try to get his ‘people’ to assist him in some effort. Unfortunately, I forgot what the effort was. Korak’s white-passing girlfriend (later we serendipitously learn she actually is white after they return to civilization and decide to wed) has been kidnapped by a gang of black Africans at the behest of an Arab.

“I am Korak,” he said. “I opened the cage that held you. I saved you from the Tarmangani [white people, literally white apes]. I am Korak, the Killer. I am your friend.”
“Huh,” grunted the king. “Yes, you are Korak. My ears told me that you were Korak. My eyes told me that you were Korak. Now my nose tells me that you are Korak. My nose is never wrong. I am your friend. Come, we shall hunt together.”
“Korak cannot hunt now,” replied the ape-man “The Gomangani [black people, literally black apes] have stolen Meriem. They have tied her in their village. They will not let her go. Korak, alone, was unable to set her free. Korak set you free. Now will you bring your people and set Korak’s Meriem free?” . . . .
“There are the baboons of the hill country,” suggested [a baboon]. “They are as many as the leaves of the forest. They, too, hate the Gomangani. They love to fight. They are very savage. Let us ask them to accompany us. Then can we kill all the Gomangani in the jungle.” He rose and growled horribly, bristling his stiff hair.

Korak then accompanies the baboons of the forest and their king to meet the King of the Hill Baboons. The Hill Baboons are much impressed with Korak’s ferocity and ability to speak their baboon language. They unite with Korak and go to free Meriem and make war on the black Africans.

On the one hand, it’s kind of awesome that members of the Greystoke family can be like the Aquaman of the Jungle. It would be neat to enlist an army of baboons to accomplish a task. On the other hand, it sucks that the object of Greystoke family violent animal interventions are so frequently black Africans. More to the point, that these Africans are always portrayed as cruel and ignorant, when it’s really Edgar Rice Burroughs and his contemporaries willful cruelty and ignorance towards Africans that is on display.

And the anecdote in Son of Tarzan isn’t an outlier. The book Beasts of Tarzan is 80% about Tarzan, a crew of anthropoid apes and a panther at war with African “cannibals.” The trend is also displayed in the short story “The Capture of Tarzan” in Jungle Tales of Tarzan wherein Tantor the Elephant massacres a native village to free the ape-man. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples, but I’ve only read seven of these books.

Charles R. Saunders tries redeem the trope in his short story “M’timbu,” appearing in the collection Black Pulp. The eponymous character in that story is a Congolese child raised by an African-American scientist and anthropoid apes in the jungle. He uses an army of apes and monkeys to overpower an unscrupulous poacher and rescue an African-American airwoman. The story accomplishes its goal, but it only leaves too small a taste to be satisfying.

Saunders’ attempt notwithstanding, it’s still an open question to me whether jungle adventure is a genre that can be politically rehabilitated. Perhaps “the jungle folk” (what Tarzan calls the jungle’s many animal denizens) are overly embedded in a Victorian imaginary of Africa bereft of intelligence (except that of its white colonizers). Or perhaps Charles R. Saunders’ M’timbu and some iterations of the Black Panther are building blocks for reworking a jungle adventure pulp fiction to reflect a more humanist world view.

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