AskDefine | Define Tarzan

Dictionary Definition



1 (sometimes used ironically) a man of great strength and agility (after the hero of a series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
2 a man raised by apes who was the hero of a series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs [syn: Tarzan of the Apes]

User Contributed Dictionary

see tarzan



A name created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Proper noun

  1. A heroic fictional character, raised in the jungle by apes, who wears a loin cloth.
  2. In the context of "by extension": A strong man.

Extensive Definition

Tarzan is a fictional character, an archetypal feral child raised in the African jungle by apes, who later returns to civilization only to largely reject it and return to the wild as a heroic adventurer. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan first appeared in the novel Tarzan of the Apes (magazine publication 1912, book publication 1914), and then in twenty-three sequels and innumerable works in other media, authorized or not.

The Tarzan character

Tarzan is the son of a British Lord and Lady who were marooned on the West coast of Africa by mutineers. Tarzan's parents died when he was an infant, and he was raised by the Mangani, Great Apes of a species unknown to science. Kala is his ape mother. Tarzan (White-skin) is his ape name; his English name is John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (according to Burroughs; Earl of Greystoke in later, non-canonical sources, notably the 1984 movie Greystoke). As a young adult, he meets a young American woman, Jane Porter, who along with her father and others of their party is marooned at exactly the same spot on the African coast where Tarzan's parents were twenty years earlier. When she returns to America, he leaves the jungle in search of her, his one true love. In later books, Tarzan and Jane marry and 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 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.
In Tarzan, Burroughs created an extreme example of a hero figure largely unalloyed with character flaws or faults. He is described as being Caucasian, extremely athletic, tall, handsome, and tanned, with grey eyes and black hair. Emotionally, he is courageous, loyal and steady. He is intelligent and learns new languages easily. He is presented as behaving ethically, at least by Burroughs' definitions, 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, and in numerous situations where other women express their attraction to 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 part 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 contrast to 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 a convenient tree branch which happens to be nearby 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.

Skills and abilities

In many ways, Tarzan's jungle upbringing gave him abilities above and beyond those of ordinary humans. These abilities include climbing, clinging, and leaping as well as any great ape, as well as walking on all fours exceptionally well, despite his human frame. His senses are enhanced; he is able to smell food or poachers at least two thirds of a mile away, and hear approaching stampedes from two. He can read body language exceptionally well. He is an excellent judge of character.
His strength, speed, agility, reflexes, balance, flexibility, reaction time, and swimming abilities are much better than normal. He has wrestled full grown bull apes and gorillas, rhinos, crocodiles, anacondas, sharks, big cats and even dinosaurs (when he visited Pellucidar). He has bent iron bars in his bare hands and easily lifted large treasure chests one-handed that four burly sailors had trouble with. His aim never fails.
He is capable of communicating with every species of animal in the jungle, short of predators. He can recover from wounds that would kill normal men, such as gunshot wounds to the head. He was trained as a soldier in WWI and possesses advanced learning skills which enabled him to teach himself how to read with nothing but a few books. He is attacked by a sorcerer who is using a magic rock for mind control, only to discover Tarzan is immune to mental probing. Eventually, Tarzan becomes immortal due to a witch doctor's potion.


Tarzan has been called one of the best-known literary characters in the world. In addition to more than two dozen books by Burroughs and a handful more by authors with the blessing of Burroughs' estate, the character has appeared in films, radio, television, comic strips, and comic books. Numerous parodies and pirated works have also appeared.
Science fiction author Philip José Farmer wrote Tarzan Alive!, a biography of Tarzan utilizing the frame device that he was a real person. In Farmer's fictional universe, Tarzan, along with Doc Savage and Sherlock Holmes, are the cornerstones of the Wold Newton family.
Even though the copyright on Tarzan of the Apes has expired in the United States of America, the name Tarzan is still protected as a trademark of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Also, the work remains under copyright in some other countries where copyright terms are longer.

Critical reception

While Tarzan of the Apes met with some critical success, subsequent books in the series received a cooler reception. They have been criticized for being derivative and formulaic. The characters are often said to be two-dimensional, the dialogue wooden, and the storytelling devices (such as excessive reliance on coincidence) strain credibility. While Burroughs is not a polished novelist, he is a vivid storyteller, and many of his novels are still in print.
Despite critical panning, the Tarzan stories have been amazingly popular. Fans love his melodramatic situations and the elaborate details he works into his fictional world, such as his construction of a partial language for his great apes.
Since the beginning of the 1970's, Tarzan books and movies have often been criticized as being blatantly racist. The early books give an overwhelmingly negative and stereotypical portrayal of native Africans, both "Arab" and Black. In The Return of Tarzan, Arabs are "surley looking" and say things like "dog of a Christian", while blacks are "lithe, ebon warriors, gesticulating and jabbering". Other ethnic groups and social classes are likewise rendered as stereotypes; this was the custom in popular fiction of the time. A Swede has "a long yellow moustache, an unwholesome complexion, and filthy nails" and Russians cheat at cards. Royalty (excepting the House of Greystoke), is invariably effete. In later books, there is an attempt to portray Africans in a more realistic light. For example, in "Tarzan's Quest", while the hero is still Tarzan, and the Black Africans relatively primitive, they are portrayed as individuals, with good and bad traits, and the main villains have white skins. Burroughs never does get over his distaste for European royalty, though.
Burroughs' opinions, made known mainly through the narrative voice in the stories, reflect common attitudes, widely held in his time, which in a 21st-century context would be considered racist and sexist. The author is not especially mean-spirited in his attitudes. His heroes do not engage in violence against women or in racially motivated violence. Still, the attitudes of a superior-inferior relationship are plain and occasionally explicit; according to James Loewen's Sundown Towns, this may be a vestige of Burroughs having been from Oak Park, Illinois, a former Sundown town (a town that forbids non-whites from living within it--or it may very well be the fact these were common attitudes at the turn of the century).
Like many men of his time, Burrough's racism part of what he absorbed from the culture around him. When Burroughs moved to Hollywood, his attitudes became much more liberal, and the later Tarzan books include heavy-handed satire of sexism, racism, and organized religion. In Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Tarzan adopts a little Black boy, and teaches him jungle lore. Whites who mistreat blacks are portrayed as in the wrong, and if his view of Blacks is by-and-large negative, his view of whites is no better. As for sexism, in Tarzan's Quest, we have a situation in which Jane aknowledges that a man should "naturally" be the leader of their little band, but, since none of the men present are competent to undertake the task, she assumes leadership herself.

Unauthorized works

After Burroughs' death a number of writers produced new Tarzan stories without the permission of his estate. In some instances, the estate managed to prevent publication of such unauthorized pastiches. The most notable exception in the United States was a series of five novels by the pseudonymous "Barton Werper" that appeared 1964-65 by Gold Star Books. As a result of legal action by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., they were taken off the market and remaining copies destroyed. Similar series appeared in other countries, notably Argentina, Israel, and some Arab countries.
In Israel in the 1950s and early 1960s there was a thriving industry of locally-produced Tarzan adventures published weekly in 24-page brochures by several competing publishing houses, none of which bothered to get any authorization from the Burroughs estate. The stories featured Tarzan in contemporary Africa, a popular theme being his fighting against the Mau Mau in 1950s Kenya and single-handedly crushing their revolt several times over. He also fought a great variety of monsters, vampires and invaders from outer space infesting the African jungles, and discovered several more lost cities and cultures in addition to the ones depicted in the Burroughs canon. Some brochures had him meet with Israelis and take Israel's side against her Arab enemies, especially Nasser's Egypt.
None of the brochures ever bore a writer's name, and the various publishers - "Elephant Publishing" (Hebrew: הוצאת הפיל), "Rhino Publishing" (Hebrew: הוצאת הקרנף) and several similar names - provided no more of an address than POB numbers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. These Tarzan brochures were extremely popular among Israeli youths of the time, successfully competing with the numerous Hebrew translations of the original Tarzan novels, and are recalled with nostalgia by many Israelis now in their fifties. The Tarzan brochures faded out by the middle 1960s, surviving copies at present fetching high prices as collectors' items in the Israeli used-book market. Researcher Eli Eshed has spent considerable time and effort on the Tarzan brochures and other Israeli pulp magazines and paperbacks. See: - and (Hebrew website with cover of "Tarzan's War Against the Germans").
The popularity of Tarzan in Israel had some effect on the spoken Hebrew language. As it happens, "tarzan" (Hebrew: טרזן) is a long-established Hebrew word, translatable as "dandy, fop, coxcomb" (according to R. Alcalay's Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary of 1990). However, a word could not survive with that meaning while being identical with the name of a popular fictional character usually depicted as wearing a loincloth and jumping from tree to tree in the jungle. Since the 1950s the word in its original meaning has completely disappeared from the spoken language, and is virtually unknown to Hebrew speakers at present - though still duly appearing in dictionaries.
In the 1950s Syria and Lebanon also saw the flourishing of unauthorized Tarzan stories. As could be expected, Tarzan in this version was a staunch supporter of the Arab cause and helped his Arab friends foil various fiendish Israeli plots.

Tarzan in film and other non-print media


The Internet Movie Database lists 88 movies with Tarzan in the title between 1918 and 1999. The first Tarzan movies were silent pictures adapted from the original Tarzan novels which appeared within a few years of the character's creation. With the advent of talking pictures, a popular Tarzan movie franchise was developed, anchored at first by actor Johnny Weissmüller in the title role, which lasted from the 1930s through the 1960s. Tarzan films from the 1930s on often featured Tarzan's chimpanzee companion, Cheeta. Later Tarzan films have been occasional and somewhat idiosyncratic. Disney’s animated Tarzan (1999) marked a new beginning for the ape man, taking its inspiration equally from Burroughs and Greystoke.


Tarzan was the hero of two popular radio programs. The first aired from 1932-1936 with James Pierce in the role of Tarzan. The second ran from 1951-1953 with Lamont Johnson in the title role.


Television later emerged as the primary vehicle bringing the character to the public. In 1958, movie Tarzan Gordon Scott filmed three episodes for a prospective television series. The program did not sell, but a different live action Tarzan series starring Ron Ely ran on NBC from 1966-1968. An animated series from Filmation, Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, aired from 1976–1977, followed by the anthology programs Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour (1977–1978), Tarzan and the Super 7 (1978–1980), The Tarzan/Lone Ranger Adventure Hour (1980–1981), and The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour) (1981–1982). Joe Lara starred in the title role in Tarzan in Manhattan (1989), an offbeat TV movie, and later returned in a completely different interpretation in Tarzan: The Epic Adventures (1996), a new live-action series. In between the two productions with Lara, Tarzán, a half-hour syndicated series ran from 1991 through 1994. In this version of the show, Tarzan was portrayed as a blond environmentalist, with Jane turned into a French ecologist. Disney’s animated series The Legend of Tarzan (2001-2003) was a spin-off from its animated film. The latest television series was the live-action Tarzan (2003), which starred male model Travis Fimmel and updated the setting to contemporary New York City, with Jane as a police detective. The series was cancelled after only eight episodes. A 1981 television special, The Muppets Go to the Movies, features a short sketch entitled "Tarzan and Jane." Lily Tomlin plays Jane opposite The Great Gonzo as Tarzan. In addition, the Muppets have made reference to Tarzan on half a dozen occasions since the 1960s.


A 1921 Broadway production of Tarzan of The Apes starred Ronald Adair as Tarzan and Ethel Dwyer as Jane Porter. In 1976, Richard O'Brien wrote a musical entitled "T. Zee", loosely based on Tarzan but restyled in a rock idiom. Tarzan, a musical stage adaptation of the 1999 animated feature, opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway on May 10, 2006. The show, a Disney Theatrical production, was directed and designed by Bob Crowley. The same version of Tarzan that was played at the Richard Rodgers Theatre is being played throughout Europe and has been a huge success in Holland. The Broadway show closed on July 8, 2007. Tarzan also appeared in the Tarzan Rocks! show at the Theatre in the Wild at Walt Disney World Resort's Disney's Animal Kingdom. The show closed in 2006.

Video and computer games

In the mid-1980s there was an arcade video game called Jungle King that featured a Tarzan-like character in a loin cloth. A game under the title Tarzan Goes Ape was released in the 1980s for the Commodore 64. A Tarzan computer game by Michael Archer was produced by Martech. Disney's Tarzan had seen video games released for the PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color. Tarzan also appeared in the PS2 game Kingdom Hearts, although this Tarzan was shown in the Disney context, not the original conceptional idea of Tarzan by Bourroughs. In the first Rayman, a Tarzan-like version of Rayman named Tarayzan appears in the Dream Forest.


There have been several Tarzan View-Master reels and packets, plus numerous Tarzan coloring books, children's books, follow-the-dots and activity books.

Tarzan in comics

Tarzan of the Apes was adapted in newspaper strip form, in early 1929, with illustrations by Hal Foster. A full page Sunday strip began March 15 1931 by Rex Maxon. Over the years, many artists have drawn the Tarzan comic strip, notably Burne Hogarth, Russ Manning, and Mike Grell. The daily strip began to reprint old dailies after the last Russ Manning daily (#10,308, which ran on 29 July, 1972). The Sunday strip also turned to reprints circa 2000. Both strips continue as reprints today in a few newspapers and in Comics Revue magazine. NBM Publishing did a high quality reprint series of the Foster and Hogarth work on Tarzan in a series of hardback and paperback reprints in the 1990s.
Tarzan has appeared in many comic books from numerous publishers over the years. The character's earliest comic book appearances were in comic strip reprints published in several titles, such as Sparkler, Tip Top Comics and Single Series. Western Publishing published Tarzan in Dell Comics's Four Color Comics #134 & 161 in 1947, before giving him his own series, Tarzan, published through Dell Comics and later Gold Key Comics from Jan-Feb 1948 to February, 1972). DC took over the series in 1972, publishing Tarzan #207-258 from April 1972 to February 1977. In 1977 the series moved to Marvel Comics, which restarted the numbering rather than assuming that used by the previous publishers. Marvel issued Tarzan #1-28 (as well as three Annuals), from June 1977 to October 1979. Following the conclusion of the Marvel series the character had no regular comic book publisher for a number of years. During this period Blackthorne Comics published Tarzan in 1986, and Malibu Comics published Tarzan comics in 1992. Dark Horse Comics has published various Tarzan series from 1996 to the present, including reprints of works from previous publishers like Gold Key and DC, and joint projects with other publishers featuring crossovers with other characters.
There have also been a number of different comic book projects from other publishers over the years, in addition to various minor appearances of Tarzan in other comic books. The Japanese manga series Jungle no Ouja Ta-chan (King of the Jungle Ta-chan) by Tokuhiro Masaya was based loosely on Tarzan.

Works inspired by Tarzan

In the 1940s, the Finnish writer Lahja Valakivi published several adventure novels about Tarsa karhumies, i.e., Tarsa the Bear Man. The books were obviously inspired by Tarzan, but they were adapted into a Finnish setting: as there are no apes in Finland, the hero Tarsa was raised by bears instead.
In Asia, Philippine Cinema's inclination in satirizing western entertainment produced Starzan, a comedy film loosely based on the original Tarzan franchise. It stars Filipino comedic actor Joey De Leon as Starzan, Rene Requiestas as "Chitae", and Zsa Zsa Padilla as Jane.
Tarzan appears briefly as a character in the book Lust, by Geoff Ryman.


  • Tarzana, California, where Burroughs made his home, was renamed in honor of Tarzan in 1927.
  • Michael Heseltine, a former British MP and senior government minister, is nicknamed Tarzan in honour of his having once seized the ceremonial mace in the House of Commons and swung it about his head in the middle of a debate. This action, together with Heseltine's flowing golden hair, was said to be distinctly in the style of Tarzan. The nickname has also been combined with his name into the portmanteau nickname Hezza.
  • The March 1959 issue of Man's Adventure published a story titled “The Man Who Really Was… Tarzan” by Thomas Llewellan Jones. This article claims that Tarzan was based on William Charles Mildin, 14th Earl of Streatham, who supposedly lived among the apes from 1868 (age 11) to 1883, before returning to England. None of the news stories claimed in the article exist in the archives of the London papers, and there is no record of such an Earl in the British peerage. Nonetheless, the story sometimes resurfaces as “fact.”


by Edgar Rice Burroughs

#Tarzan of the Apes (1912) (Project Gutenberg Entry:
  1. The Return of Tarzan (1913) (Project Gutenberg
  2. The Beasts of Tarzan (1914) (Project Gutenberg
  3. The Son of Tarzan (1914) (Project Gutenberg
  4. Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (1916) (Project Gutenberg
  5. Jungle Tales of Tarzan (1919) (Project Gutenberg
    • "Tarzan's First Love" (1916)
    • "The Capture of Tarzan" (1916)
    • "The Fight for the Balu" (1916)
    • "The God of Tarzan" (1916)
    • "Tarzan and the Black Boy" (1917)
    • "The Witch-Doctor Seeks Vengeance" (1917)
    • "The End of Bukawai" (1917)
    • "The Lion" (1917)
    • "The Nightmare" (1917)
    • "The Battle for Teeka" (1917)
    • "A Jungle Joke" (1917)
    • "Tarzan Rescues the Moon" (1917)
  6. Tarzan the Untamed (1920) (Project Gutenberg
    • "Tarzan the Untamed" (1919)
    • "Tarzan and the Valley of Luna" (1920)
  7. Tarzan the Terrible (1921) (Project Gutenberg
  8. Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1922, 1923)
  9. Tarzan and the Ant Men (1924)
  10. Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle (1927, 1928)
  11. Tarzan and the Lost Empire (1928)
  12. Tarzan at the Earth's Core (1929)
  13. Tarzan the Invincible (1930, 1931)
  14. Tarzan Triumphant (1931)
  15. Tarzan and the City of Gold (1932)
  16. Tarzan and the Lion Man (1933, 1934)
  17. Tarzan and the Leopard Men (1935)
  18. Tarzan's Quest (1935, 1936)
  19. Tarzan and the Forbidden City (1938)
  20. Tarzan the Magnificent (1939)
    • "Tarzan and the Magic Men" (1936)
    • "Tarzan and the Elephant Men" (1937-1938)
  21. Tarzan and the Foreign Legion (1947)
  22. Tarzan and the Madman (1964)
  23. Tarzan and the Castaways (1965)
    • "Tarzan and the Castaways" (1941)
    • "Tarzan and the Champion" (1940)
    • "Tarzan and the Jungle Murders" (1940)*Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins (1963, for younger readers)

By other authors

  • Barton Werper
    1. Tarzan and the Silver Globe (1964)
    2. Tarzan and the Cave City (1964)
    3. Tarzan and the Snake People (1964)
    4. Tarzan and the Abominable Snowmen (1965)
    5. Tarzan and the Winged Invaders (1965)
    • note: the Werper novels were never authorized by Burroughs, Inc.; they were taken off the market and remaining copies destroyed.
Farmer also wrote a novel based on his own fascination with Tarzan, entitled Lord Tyger, and translated the novel Tarzan of the Apes into Esperanto.
Tarzan in Arabic: طرزان
Tarzan in Asturian: Tarzán
Tarzan in Czech: Tarzan
Tarzan in Danish: Tarzan
Tarzan in German: Tarzan
Tarzan in Spanish: Tarzán
Tarzan in Esperanto: Tarzano
Tarzan in French: Tarzan
Tarzan in Galician: Tarzán
Tarzan in Indonesian: Tarzan
Tarzan in Italian: Tarzan
Tarzan in Hebrew: טרזן
Tarzan in Latin: Tarzan
Tarzan in Dutch: Tarzan
Tarzan in Japanese: ターザン
Tarzan in Norwegian: Tarzan
Tarzan in Polish: Tarzan
Tarzan in Portuguese: Tarzan
Tarzan in Finnish: Tarzan
Tarzan in Swedish: Tarzan
Tarzan in Tagalog: Tarzan
Tarzan in Turkish: Tarzan

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Antaeus, Atlas, Briareus, Brobdingnagian, Charles Atlas, Cyclops, Goliath, Hercules, Polyphemus, Samson, Superman, Titan, bully, bullyboy, colossus, giant, gorilla, muscle man, powerhouse, stalwart, strong man, strong-arm man, the mighty, the strong, tough, tough guy, tower of strength
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