11 popular misconceptions about Tarzan and his adventures
Posted July 13
There’s no question, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan is one of the most enduring characters around. In 2012, he celebrated his 100th birthday, and with the recent “The Legend of Tarzan” hitting theaters, his total number of TV and movie appearances climbs to 119, according to IMDB, placing him just behind guys such as Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and Hamlet as one of the most adapted literary characters of all time.
Naturally, though, over more than a century, a few misconceptions about the character and his adventures have taken root.
In light of that, here are 11 things people think they know about Tarzan that are wrong.
1. Tarzan’s parents weren’t shipwrecked.
The very first scene of Disney’s 1999 “Tarzan” opens on a ship engulfed in flames as a man desperately lowers a lifeboat with his wife and newborn son onboard into the churning waves. It’s a dramatic scene, but also not at all how it happened in the book.
Tarzan’s parents weren’t shipwrecked; they were marooned, according to Burroughs' first Tarzan book, "Tarzan of the Apes." After the crew mutinied, Lord Greystoke and Lady Alice, who was pregnant, were deposited on the African coast with supplies and guns to help them survive for as long as five to eight years.
2. Tarzan wasn’t raised by gorillas.
Wait, what? That’s right. Probably the biggest misconception of them all: the “great apes” who raised Tarzan, although almost always depicted as plain old gorillas, were in fact a distinct fictional species that referred to themselves as the Mangani and to their larger enemies/cousins, the gorillas, as the Bolgani.
Strikingly, though, the Mangani seem to have more in common with men than animals. In “The Jungle Tales of Tarzan,” Burroughs described them as “great, manlike apes which the natives of the Gobi speak of in whispers,” who “unlike the chimpanzee and the gorilla … walk without the aid of their hands quite as readily as with.”
The Mangani have their own language, also called Mangani, meaning “great ape” (“Tarzan” is Mangani for “white skin,” according to "Tarzan of the Apes"), and they beat on earthen drums during ritual dances, according to Chapter 7 of the book.
3. Tarzan’s lady friend wasn’t British.
Sorry to all the Maureen O’Sullivan and Minnie Driver fans out there. According to Burroughs, Jane actually hailed from the exotic city of Baltimore, Maryland, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun. For that reason, Tarzan actually spends quite a bit of time in America. (Tarzan even followed Jane to Wisconsin, though somehow, “Tarzan of Wisconsin” didn’t make the cut when Burroughs was coming up with titles.)
4. Tarzan wasn’t an uneducated brute.
Although the only language he could speak at first was Mangani, by the time Jane encountered him in the first book, Tarzan had already taught himself to read multiple languages by studying the books he found in his deceased parents’ portable library, according to Flavorwire.
Later on, he is portrayed as articulate and introspective, and throughout Burroughs’ novels, he further demonstrated his keen intellectual abilities, ultimately mastering as many as 14 languages, including French, Finnish, Dutch, Swahili, Arabic, Mayan and the native language of the fictional Ant Men, according to "The Tarzan Novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs: An Illustrated Reader’s Guide" by David A. Ullery.
5. Tarzan didn’t swing on vines.
Burroughs’ novels may require a certain suspension of disbelief, but even for him, the idea of swinging on vines was a bridge too far for one very simple reason: vines, like most plants, have roots and grow out of the ground, which means putting the weight of a fully grown man on them would more than likely cause them to come toppling down, according to a blog post by Ken Jennings on woot.com. Instead, Tarzan is described as leaping through the treetops and springing "20 feet across space at the dizzy heights of the forest top," according to the book.
6. Tarzan didn’t live in a treehouse.
It’s an iconic image that dates back to the Johnny Weissmüller days, and even the Disney theme parks feature “Tarzan’s Treehouse” as one of the attractions. But in the books, his living conditions were at once far more mundane and far more practical. According to Chapter 3 of "Tarzan and the Apes," his original home, a cabin built by his father on the beach (on the ground), was meant to be easily visible from sea in case a ship happened to pass by.
Later on, he moved to an estate in British East Africa, part of his inheritance as Lord Greystoke. In “The Son of Tarzan,” Burroughs described Tarzan’s home there as a “flower-covered bungalow behind which lay the barns and outhouses of a well-ordered African farm.”
7. Tarzan didn’t have a pet chimpanzee named Cheeta.
Cheeta the Chimp was a product of the Weissmüller Tarzan movies and was never mentioned in the books, according to Daily Mail. In some of the later books, however, Tarzan does have a pet monkey named Nkima, whose first appearance was in 1928’s “Tarzan and the Lost Empire.”
8. Tarzan’s adventures didn’t stop after he fell in love with Jane.
Even though the majority of people are probably only familiar with the story from the first Tarzan novel (and if they only ever saw the Disney version, possibly only the first part of that story), Burroughs wrote a total of 24 books starring the self-declared “king” of the apes (not to be confused with Kong of Skull Island, who arguably has a much stronger claim to the title), according to edgarriceburroughs.com.
9. Tarzan’s adventures weren’t limited to the jungle.
Tarzan’s adventures took him all over the world — and even deep inside it to Burroughs’ fictional subterranean land of Pellucidar, the setting for one of his other, less famous series.
In his travels, Tarzan encountered living dinosaurs in "Tarzan the Terrible," went on a revenge-fueled murder spree targeting German soldiers in East Africa in "Tarzan the Untamed," matched wits with a British scientist who had transplanted his brain into a gorilla’s body in "Tarzan and the Lion Man," and eventually even cured his own mortality with a pill in “Tarzan’s Quest.”
10. Tarzan was not the Earl of Greystoke (or the lost prince of Arendelle).
It’s common knowledge that Tarzan, aka John Clayton, was of noble birth. But what people tend to get wrong is his exact title.
Throughout the first several novels, he is referred to simply as Lord Greystoke. But in 1928’s “Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle,” he specifies to one of the Knights of Nimmr that he is an English viscount.
(Which means that, yes, the popular Disney fan theory that Anna and Elsa from “Frozen” are his older sisters is false.)
11. Tarzana, California, wasn’t named after him.
Contrary to popular legend, it was the other way around, according to Snopes. While living in Chicago, Burroughs become infatuated with an unincorporated part of the San Fernando Valley, buying 550 acres there that he named Tarzana Ranch after the community in which it was situated. It was only years after he achieved success as a writer that the area was “officially” named, thus giving birth to the idea that it was named after his ape-man hero.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.