Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Tarzan of the Apes | Chapter 12 : Man's Reason | Summary



Tarzan is a very good king. His intelligence and hunting skills bring in more food than ever, including the daily food offerings from the villagers. The villagers are "awe-struck" and terrified by the thought of a spirit coming into their village. Mbonga and his advisers discuss moving to a new location, and black warriors trek further and further into the jungle to look for a new home. The "quiet, fierce solitude of the primeval forest" is "broken by new, strange cries." They settle along the apes' watering hole, and Tarzan and his tribe (like the other large jungle animals) are forced to leave their homes.

Tarzan is loath to leave the vicinity of the cabin, and he returns to the village every month to get more arrows. Because the villagers are storing the arrows in their huts, Tarzan turns to killing solitary villagers on hunting expeditions, "stripping them of weapons and ornaments," then dropping their corpses into the middle of the village. He grows increasingly worried one of the villagers will discover the cabin, so he spends more and more time away from his apes, which causes much strife within his tribe. Upon counsel of the elders he stays home for a month, but he hates having his freedom impinged by responsibility. Tarzan feels far removed from his tribe, and without Kala around he has no reason to stay save for preventing Terkoz, Tublat's son, from taking over the kingship.

The problem is solved when Tarzan sees Terkoz beating another ape's wife. Tarzan attacks Terkoz with his knife, while Terkoz rips part of Tarzan's scalp away from his head. The knife is knocked out of Tarzan's hand, but he figures out how to do "the half-Nelson of modern wrestling," which he soon switches to a full nelson, grappling with both hands and arms from behind. Instead of breaking Terkoz's neck, he asks Terkoz to surrender. Terkoz does. His foe humiliated, Tarzan tells his tribe, "Tarzan ... is not like his people. His ways are not their ways," and says he can no longer live with them. He tells them to choose a new king and then departs for the cabin.


Tarzan has outgrown the ape tribe. He was happy with them as a child because he didn't know anything different, and as a young teenager he still enjoyed the camaraderie and protection of his fellow apes. But as an adult he feels more and more removed from the life he used to enjoy. The root of the problem is Tarzan's intelligence. He's not a genius, but (as the narrator often points out) Tarzan is a descendent of a white and noble family, so intelligence is his birthright. The apes aren't biologically capable of the same "superior wisdom" as their leader. Their language is limited, and they can't think critically. The advice Tarzan gives his tribe—take only the crops you need from the villagers and don't destroy the rest—is common sense to him but revelatory to the apes. Likewise, the apes are stymied by Tarzan's choice to let Terkoz live. From their point of view, when one has "the power to kill" an enemy, one should do it. But killing Terkoz would leave the tribe without a natural leader; humiliating him instead allows Tarzan to leave the tribe with his pride intact. The apes could never come up with such a cunning plan. Their solution to discord is always to kill.

Tarzan is no longer challenged by the life of an ape, so the next logical step is to associate with humans. His vow to find "other white men like himself" is indicative of his and Edgar Rice Burroughs's prejudices. In his quest to learn more about humanity, Tarzan completely overlooks the black villagers who are literally living in his backyard. He has never met them nor sent them any messages except threats, yet he has already determined they are inferior because of their primitive ways and the color of their skin. Tarzan isn't interested in the "base model" of humankind, which is how Burroughs portrays the African natives. He wants to associate only with people who are morally and intellectually superior, and his limited education and instinct tell him those kinds of people are white.

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