Thursday, April 17, 2008

They aren't real--but by golly, they should be: Part 3: Tarzan and Conan


Tarzan of the Apes—chief of the tribe of Kerchak—Lord of the Jungle:

He’s one of the most popular and best-known characters ever. There probably isn’t a single member of Western civilization who doesn’t recognize the name—and a fair percentage of the rest of the world would know who he is as well.

Tarzan is popular first and foremost because his creator—Edgar Rice Burroughs—was a magnificent storyteller. In Tarzan of the Apes (1912), Burroughs gave us an enthralling adventure story with a fascinating and archetypal protagonist.

One interesting thing about Tarzan’s origin is that Burroughs’ didn’t know squat about Africa. In fact, he originally had Tarzan fighting tigers—not realizing there are no tigers on the Dark Continent. But all the same, he creates a fantasy version of Africa that we can easily accept as real. The tribe of apes that adopt the orphaned baby and raise him as one of their own don’t match up to any real-life simians, but their behavior (both as individuals and as a tribe) are logical and self-consistent.

Tarzan eventually learns about the rest of the world and spends time in both Europe and America, but he never really cares for civilization, preferring the honest savagery of the jungle to the hypocrisy of modern man. Throughout the original twenty-four novels, he travels extensively throughout Africa, stumbling across a number of lost cities, often remnants of ancient civilizations. There was, for instance, a city left over from the Roman Empire, where Tarzan eventually ended up in the gladiatorial arena. Then there was a city populated by descendants of Crusaders who had gotten really, really lost on their way to the Holy Land centuries earlier.

Danger, captures, escapes and many battles would ensue, but Tarzan’s high intelligence and matchless fighting skills would always see him through. Tarzan is the ultimate in wish-fulfillment, living exactly the life he wants to, without fear and always acting capably in all situations.


Conan was created in the 1930s by pulp writer Robert E. Howard. The big barbarian, who lived in an age before the beginning of recorded history, starred in 20 short stories and one novel. The best of these are among the most visceral and purely entertaining sword-and-sorcery stories.

art by Frank Frazetta

Like Tarzan, Conan was disdainful of the hypocrisies of civilization. Conan, though, chose to leave his northern homeland of Cimmeria to spent most of his time in civilization, never hesitating to enjoy its pleasures.

Conan had a varied career, starting out as a thief, then later working as a mercenary, treasure-seeker, bandit leader, and pirate before eventually leading a revolt and becoming king of a powerful nation. Along the way, he ran into countless dangers, both natural and supernatural. He slew more than his share of giant snakes and oversized ape figures. He rescued quite a few beautiful women from fates worse than death. He encountered more than one evil sorcerer, just about all of whom met their doom on the edge of Conan’s sword.

Robert E. Howard committed suicide in 1936, while still a young man. Conan was nearly forgotten for a couple of decades, but then the stories once again found a publisher and his popularity surged. Since the 1970s, there have been countless new adventures appearing in prose, comic books, computer games and movies. Of these, few achieve the same level of quality as Howard’s original yarns. His best tales, such as “Tower of the Elephant” or “Beyond the Black River,” remain masterpieces of good storytelling to this day.

Like Tarzan, Conan was pretty close to unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat. When comparing the two, it’s interesting to speculate who would win a fight if they went at it. Personally, I have no idea which of them would win—but, boy, it’d be cool to watch.

Tarzan of the Apes and Conan of Cimmeria: They aren’t real, but by golly, they should be.

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