It seems that some critics have taken upon themselves to embark on a holy mission: keeping you away from The Legend of Tarzan by any means possible, so that you won’t be exposed to this archetypal symbol of racism and colonialism. Because, of course, you’re too stupid to form your own opinion.
First thing first, my profound belief is that it’s completely stupid to apply real-world reasoning to imaginary tales. Tarzan doesn’t exist for real, no more so than Popeye or Superman. If you think about it for a minute, le very concept of superheroes who would place themselves above any man’s law is just filthy.
But, ok, let’s still consider the subject matter … So Tarzan would represent the White Supremacy over the African continent?
As the grandson of Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Burroughs, said at his Tarzan and John Carter Centennial panel in 2012, his grandfather would have reacted by saying: “get your head out of your …!”.
Burroughs never wrote Tarzan with a hidden agenda in mind beyond what he put on the page. Tarzan is a unique being, and if he’s archetypal, he’s the archetype of the superhero. It’s not without reasons that Jerry Siegel cites both Tarzan and John Carter as inspirations for Superman. It’s not without reasons that every superhero universe has a Tarzan-like character. Tarzan is superior to Blacks, but surprise, he’s also superior to Whites, animals, and anything that moves! And it’s not because he’s white, but because he has an exceptional heredity (an English one, just because the Burroughs family is of British descent), and thanks to his infancy spent in the jungle, where Tarzan attains the pinnacle of the human condition according to Burroughs, combining both animal and man. Animal, and man, in that order. Guess which part gets the most respect from Burroughs?
And then Tarzan would be colonialist. According to the definition of colonialism, he should thus bring the supposed assets of civilization to the poor local black tribes? Here, there’s a scoop for those who would think that way, in simple terms so they can understand: for Burroughs, white civilization is poo-poo. The end. White civilization perverts. Its soils. Tarzan takes the best of it, and throws away the rest. That means throwing away nearly everything.
If the vocabulary used may still shock modern hypersensitive ears used to political correctness, one must nonetheless consider precisely what’s in the novel. And there you understand that Chief Mbonga’s black tribe, which moves near the Mangani tribe of Tarzan, is fleeing the oppression of white people. The horrific act committed by one of the tribesmen is accomplished out of a misunderstanding, and not because he’s evil. You understand that the reason why the cannibal tribe (but Manganis themselves are no stranger to cannibalism in their ceremonies) slaughter a French regiment is because they seek retaliation for what the white people made to them. The King Léopold of Belgium is even mentioned in the text. Mbonga’s tribe fled the atrocities of Congo.
Let’s also be reminded that Burroughs wrote another excellent novel in that vein, criticized on this very site, The War Chief, which follows a white child raised by Indians. Strangely enough, this novel doesn’t provoke the same reactions than Tarzan of the Apes, even among Burroughs fans, who are supposed to know it. Is it because the hero just kills white people and Mexicans?
So all this topic is, to me, a misunderstanding at best, and cheer hypocrisy at the worst. Anyway, it’s up to you now, dear reader, to form your own opinion, as did all those who are currently making a success out of the movie. As you may have noticed, I already have strong opinions on the subject matter!