Tarzan is the son of a British lord and the lady who was marooned on the Atlantic coast of Africa by mutineers. When Tarzan was an infant, his mother died, and his father was killed by Kerchak, leader of the ape tribe by whom Tarzan was adopted. Soon after his parents' death, Tarzan became a feral child, and his tribe of apes is known as the Mangani, Great Apes of a species unknown to science. Kala is his ape mother. Burroughs added stories occurring during Tarzan's adolescence in his sixth Tarzan book, Jungle Tales of Tarzan. Tarzan is his ape name; his real English name is John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke (according to Burroughs in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle; Earl of Greystoke in later, less canonical sources, notably the 1984 movie Greystoke). In fact, Burroughs's narrator in Tarzan of the Apes describes both Clayton and Greystoke as fictitious names – implying that, within the fictional world that Tarzan inhabits, he may have a different real name.
As a young adult, Tarzan meets a young American woman, Jane Porter. She, her father, and others of their party are marooned on exactly the same coastal jungle area where Tarzan's biological parents were twenty years earlier. When Jane returns to the United States, Tarzan leaves the jungle in search of her, his one true love. In The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan and Jane married. In later books he lives with her for a time in England. They have one son, Jack, who takes the ape name Korak ("the Killer"). Tarzan is contemptuous of what he sees as the hypocrisy of civilization, and he and Jane return to Africa, making their home on an extensive estate that becomes a base for Tarzan's later adventures.
Burroughs created an elegant version of the wild man figure largely unalloyed with character flaws or faults. Tarzan is described as being tall, athletic, handsome, and tanned, with grey eyes and long black hair. He almost wears no clothes, except for a loincloth. Emotionally, he is courageous, intelligent, loyal, and steadfast. He is presented as behaving ethically in most situations, except when seeking vengeance under the motivation of grief, as when his ape mother Kala is killed in Tarzan of the Apes, or when he believes Jane has been murdered in Tarzan the Untamed. He is deeply in love with his wife and totally devoted to her; in numerous situations where other women express their attraction to him, Tarzan politely but firmly declines their attentions. When presented with a situation where a weaker individual or party is being preyed upon by a stronger foe, Tarzan invariably takes the side of the weaker party. In dealing with other men, Tarzan is firm and forceful. With male friends, he is reserved but deeply loyal and generous. As a host, he is, likewise, generous and gracious. As a leader, he commands devoted loyalty.
In keeping with these noble characteristics, Tarzan's philosophy embraces an extreme form of "return to nature". Although he is able to pass within society as a civilized individual, he prefers to "strip off the thin veneer of civilization", as Burroughs often puts it. His preferred dress is a knife and a loincloth of animal hide, his preferred abode is any convenient tree branch when he desires to sleep, and his favored food is raw meat, killed by himself; even better if he is able to bury it a week so that putrefaction has had a chance to tenderize it a bit.
Tarzan's primitivist philosophy was absorbed by countless fans, amongst whom was Jane Goodall, who describes the Tarzan series as having a major influence on her childhood. She states that she felt she would be a much better spouse for Tarzan than his fictional wife, Jane and that when she first began to live among and study the chimpanzees she was fulfilling her childhood dream of living among the great apes just as Tarzan did.
Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli has been cited as a major influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs' creation of Tarzan. Mowgli was also an influence on a number of other "wild boy" characters.
Skills and abilitiesEdit
Tarzan's jungle upbringing gives him abilities far beyond those of ordinary humans. These include climbing, clinging, and leaping as well as any great ape, or better. He uses branches and hanging vines to swing at great speed, a skill acquired among the anthropoid apes.
His strength, speed, stamina, agility, reflexes, senses, flexibility, durability, endurance, and swimming are extraordinary in comparison to normal men. He has wrestled full grown bull apes and gorillas, lions, rhinos, crocodiles, pythons, sharks, tigers, man-size seahorses (once) and even dinosaurs (when he visited Pellucidar). Tarzan is a skilled tracker and uses his exceptional senses of hearing and smell to follow prey or avoid predators, and kills only for food, yet is a skilled thief when raiding African tribal villages or hunting parties that Tarzan has judged to be brutal and deserve no pity, taking their spears, shields, bows, knives, and most importantly, metal arrowheads. A keen sense of hearing allows him to eavesdrop on conversations between other people near him.
Extremely intelligent, Tarzan was literate in English before being able to speak the language when he first encounters other English-speaking people such as his love interest, Jane Porter. His literacy is self-taught after several years in his early teens by visiting the log cabin of his dead parents and looking at and correctly deducing the function of children's primer/picture books. The books were brought to Africa by his dead mother who intended to teach her son herself. He eventually reads every book in his dead father's portable book collection, and is fully aware of geography, basic world history, and his family tree, yet is not able to speak English until after meeting human beings as he never heard what English is supposed to sound like when spoken aloud. He is "found" by a traveling Frenchman that teaches him the basics of human speech and returns him to England.
Tarzan can learn a new language in days, ultimately speaking many languages, including that of the great apes, French, Finnish, English, Dutch, German, Swahili, many Bantu dialects, Arabic, ancient Greek, ancient Latin, Mayan, the languages of the Ant Men and of Pellucidar.
It should be noted that unlike depictions in black and white movies of the 1930s, after learning to speak a language in the novels Tarzan/John Clayton is very articulate, reserved (he prefers to listen and carefully observe before speaking) and does not speak in broken English as the classic movies depict him.
He can communicate with many species of jungle animals and has been shown to be a skilled impressionist, able to mimic the sound of a gunshot perfectly.