Reading Tarzan, part one

by zunguzungu

I am working my way through Tarzan, and so, a propos of the whole “don’t you want to be an indian boy” business in Avatar (a movie I predict we will all have forgotten about before too long), I offer you the following passage from the “White Ape” chapter:

As Tarzan grew he made more rapid strides, so that by the time he was ten years old he was an excellent climber, and on the ground could do many wonderful things which were beyond the powers of his little brothers and sisters.

In many ways did he differ from them, and they often marveled at his superior cunning, but in strength and size he was deficient; for at ten the great anthropoids were fully grown, some of them towering over six feet in height, while little Tarzan was still but a half-grown boy.

Yet such a boy!

From early childhood he had used his hands to swing from branch to branch after the manner of his giant mother, and as he grew older he spent hour upon hour daily speeding through the tree tops with his brothers and sisters.

He could spring twenty feet across space at the dizzy heights of the forest top, and grasp with unerring precision, and without apparent jar, a limb waving wildly in the path of an approaching tornado.

He could drop twenty feet at a stretch from limb to limb in rapid descent to the ground, or he could gain the utmost pinnacle of the loftiest tropical giant with the ease and swiftness of a squirrel.

Though but ten years old he was fully as strong as the average man of thirty, and far more agile than the most practiced athlete ever becomes. And day by day his strength was increasing.

His life among these fierce apes had been happy; for his recollection held no other life, nor did he know that there existed within the universe aught else than his little forest and the wild jungle animals with which he was familiar.

As has been widely observed, Avatar is a mishmash of all sorts of things, and one of them is certainly Tarzan (why on earth else would it have been so important that Jake Sully learn how to quasi-fly through the jungle canopy?). But observe some of the differences between these accounts of man-animal hybridity, the difference between a time when devolution and atavistic reversion was something that our fear was to make titillating for us, exciting, and the present when we are expected to be warmly receptive to the idea of shedding the discontents of civilization. And while Tarzan will eventually be expected to grow up, his empty-headed happiness only transitory, Cameron embeds his kung-fu training montage within a desire to never have to grow up at all.