Tarzan and the Primal Man

In Tarzan of the Apes, a humorous scene finds Professor Porter and Mr. Philander wandering lost down a beach after being marooned on the jungle shore. Suddenly they notice a lion following them and the Professor thinks it’s an escaped animal from the local zoo. Mr. Philander has a little more sense and speeds up his walk, ignoring Porter’s protests at the indignity of men of high society showing any such exertion.

As they slowly break into a run, the lion bounds after them. Tarzan, who is watching from the trees, knows the lion is playing with them until it gets hungry for more meat but swoops in to save the two scholars, pulling them up into the tree. At first, they are unaware of Tarzan’s presence and share a tender moment together:

For a moment the two men clung panting to the great branch, while Tarzan squatted with his back to the stem of the tree, watching them with mingled curiosity and amusement.

It was the professor who first broke the silence.

“I am deeply pained, Mr. Philander, that you should have evinced such a paucity of manly courage in the presence of one of the lower orders, and by your crass timidity have caused me to exert myself to such an unaccustomed degree in order that I might resume my discourse. As I was saying, Mr. Philander, when you interrupted me, the Moors–“

“Professor Archimedes Q. Porter,” broke in Mr. Philander, in icy tones, “the time has arrived when patience becomes a crime and mayhem appears garbed in the mantle of virtue. You have accused me of cowardice. You have insinuated that you ran only to overtake me, not to escape the clutches of the lion. Have a care, Professor Archimedes Q. Porter! I am a desperate man. Goaded by long-suffering patience the worm will turn.”

“Tut, tut, Mr. Philander, tut, tut!” cautioned Professor Porter; “you forget yourself.”

“I forget nothing as yet, Professor Archimedes Q. Porter; but, believe me, sir, I am tottering on the verge of forgetfulness as to your exalted position in the world of science, and your gray hairs.”

The professor sat in silence for a few minutes, and the darkness hid the grim smile that wreathed his wrinkled countenance. Presently he spoke.

“Look here, Skinny Philander,” he said, in belligerent tones, “if you are lookin’ for a scrap, peel off your coat and come on down on the ground, and I’ll punch your head just as I did sixty years ago in the alley back of Porky Evans’ barn.”

“Ark!” gasped the astonished Mr. Philander. “Lordy, how good that sounds! When you’re human, Ark, I love you; but somehow it seems as though you had forgotten how to be human for the last twenty years.”

The professor reached out a thin, trembling old hand through the darkness until it found his old friend’s shoulder.

“Forgive me, Skinny,” he said, softly. “It hasn’t been quite twenty years, and God alone knows how hard I have tried to be `human’ for Jane’s sake, and yours, too, since He took my other Jane away.”

Another old hand stole up from Mr. Philander’s side to clasp the one that lay upon his shoulder, and no other message could better have translated the one heart to the other.

I think this little exchange hints at something Edgar Rice Burroughs was trying to convey in the writings about his Ape Man. In the face of tragedy and societal pressures, Professor Porter became less “human”. As the others in his party spent more time on the jungle beach, they found themselves shedding the vestiges of “civilized culture” and becoming more basically human. They learned to survive and thrive. They learned to love their environment in spite of its many dangers.

In short, they returned to their more primal form. Burroughs seems to find something virtuous in this wild side of humanity, seen especially in his superhero-esque Tarzan. Regardless of whether you agree with him, it does conjure some interesting questions. By being surrounded with so many modern conveniences, have we somehow lost our sense of humanity? In this digital age, have we missed a more flesh-and-blood connection?

While I would say we’re still human whether we get out meat from the grocery store or pick it off the bones of a slain boar, we should ask ourselves if we’re being de-humanized by modern society. Are we so wrapped up by our own status and concerns that we forget compassion toward others? Do we rely on convenience so much we lost how to take care of ourselves?

Maybe sometimes what we need is a good brush with something unsettling and shaking to rouse us from our stupor and better consider what it means to be human, as God defines it. Or perhaps a camping trip out to the country will work just as well.

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