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Imperialism: The real story behind Tarzan and Mowgli

Both Tarzan and Mowgli are ideal representations of 'the white man's burden'.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi |
Updated: July 1, 2016 7:44:34 am

When American writer Edgar Rice Burrough first conceptualised the idea of “Tarzan”, he was at a phase of life with enough time to spend on what in the Ámerica of early 20th century was known as ‘pulp magazine’. At a later date, following the huge success of his feral ‘hero’, he was reported to have remarked on how he came up with the idea by saying:

“If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten.”

Thus began the journey of one of the most popular fictional characters of the 20th century. In the decades following Burrough’s first publication of his story in ‘All-Story Magazine’, Tarzan went on to be adapted to several forms of media including comics, animations and feature films. Since 1912, when the story was first published, Tarzan has been recreated 90 times on screen alone.

tarzan, The Legend of Tarzan, tarzan review, the legend of tarzan review, the legend of tarzan movie review, the legend of tarzan movie, Alexander Skarsgård, tarzan movie review, tarzan, The Legend of Tarzan ratings, The Legend of Tarzan cast, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Movie review, Hollywood, Entertainment News Cover of book ‘Tarzan of the apes’ (1914) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The birth of Tarzan occurred at a time immediately following the birth of another favourite child of the wilderness, Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli in ‘the Jungle Book’ of 1894. The appeal of both Tarzan and Mowgli are thriving in a generation, a century ahead of the time at which the characters had been formulated.

Mowgli has already made a big screen appearance in April 2016, and set records at being one of highest revenue generating films of the current year. Tarzan, on the other hand, has been recreated by David Yates in ‘The Legend of the Tarzan’ and is all set to be released amid much anticipation, on Friday, July 1st.

tarzan, The Legend of Tarzan, tarzan review, the legend of tarzan review, the legend of tarzan movie review, the legend of tarzan movie, Alexander Skarsgård, tarzan movie review, tarzan, The Legend of Tarzan ratings, The Legend of Tarzan cast, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Movie review, Hollywood, Entertainment News Mowgli has already made a big screen appearance in April 2016, and set records at being one of highest revenue generating films of the current year. (Source: Walt Disney)

While 2016 appears to be in love with Mowgli and Tarzan for their superhuman mental and physical capacities, the time period at which they both had been conceived, the appeal of both these characters perhaps lay in the political conditions of the time.

Tarzan and Mowgli set in imperial times

Much has been said about Rudyard Kipling’s idea of the exotic and primitive East, which in his opinion will always remain inferior to the West. In the words of Kipling:

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

tarzan, The Legend of Tarzan, tarzan review, the legend of tarzan review, the legend of tarzan movie review, the legend of tarzan movie, Alexander Skarsgård, tarzan movie review, tarzan, The Legend of Tarzan ratings, The Legend of Tarzan cast, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Movie review, Hollywood, Entertainment News Rudyard Kipling (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Writing about Rudyard Kipling, Khushwant Singh had once remarked that what Rabindranath Tagore is to Bengali Literature, Kipling is to literature written on India by scholars of the west. Kipling was an Englishman born in India and raised in England. Kipling’s idea of India, however, is one in which the landscape is unique and the people are kind, but must always remain loyal to the interests and superiority of the white man. Those who challenge the West are in his opinion ‘ludicrous’, those who should not be taken seriously.

Burrough was both familiar and inspired by Kipling. At 1912, when he first published Tarzan, America was still a new entrant among the world powers. Since the Philippine-American war of 1899, the United States had been fast receiving the encouragement from the English to go down the roads of imperialism aggressively. In a famous poem written in 1899, ‘The white man’s burden’, Kipling reminded Americans of their responsibilities as new imperialists to civilise the East.

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Set against the background of this newfound imperial mindset in America, Tarzan’s appeal can be found in the political situations of the times.

Exotic East in need of the white ‘superiority’

Burrough’s story, ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ is set in equatorial Africa were a marooned English couple gives birth to John Clayton who goes on to be raised by a family of apes after his parents’ death. The apes name him ‘Tarzan’, which in the improvised language of Burrough means ‘white man’.

The story revolves around the adventures of Tarzan in the wilderness and his superior physical attributes which allow him to fight enemy beasts and protect the animals he cares for. The story is also about his high-ranking mental acumen which gives him the ability to quickly adapt to human like situations and learn English and French with ease.

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Kipling’s Jungle book has a similar setting, except that it is a forest in Madhya Pradesh, India. Mowgli has been entrusted upon the responsibility of saving the primitive world of the Indian jungle from all external atrocities. At the same time, Mowgli also has the superhuman charm of befriending the animals at his will.

The sharp distinction between the ‘white-man’ who is not just civilised but also has attributes missing in mere humans, and the natives who are exotic but nonetheless are in need of the civilising tendencies of the West, cannot be missed in both Tarzan and the Jungle Book.

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Going by the phraseology of Kipling, both Tarzan and Mowgli are ideal representations of ‘the white man’s burden’.

As per reports, The Legend of the Tarzan, set to be out on screen on Friday is an attempt by director David Yates to undo the political incorrectness of the previous adaptations of the movie. In this movie, Tarzan fights against the colonising attempts of Belgian King Leopold II in Congo during the 1880s. Apparently, it is the coloniser who has been labelled the historical evil. How successful Yates is in his attempt at rectifying the representations of colonial endeavours only time will tell.

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