days weeks ago I made the huge mistake of promising myself to pull the threads and write about what I was seeing while reading the first two Tarzan books. Namely words phrases descriptions and scenarios which I had seen a year prior while reading some Robert C Howard’s Conan stories. Stuff I could not unsee and the more I looked the more it would pile up in my head.
Before I start I need to edit my claim “that Howard got Conan from Tarzan” I can’t prove Conan is modeled after Tarzan. I think there is convincing evidence but not a preponderance of it to say this with absolution. I can say that Howard read at least the Return of Tarzan and it did influence his Conan stories and likely his Kull stories as well.
To begin with the easy Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Robert E. Howard’s Conan are physically similar. Both have black hair Conan has blue eyes (which are more often then not smoldering) and Tarzan has grey. Both are tall, often described as monstrously so when looming over their poor doomed foes, broad shouldered with sun bronzed skin.
One thing about the black hair and blue/grey eyes is such a combo is relatively common among the British Celts, the eponymous black Irish, in contrast with the lighter haired Anglo-Saxons.
Conan, having an Irish name and worships the Celt god Crom, is a Cimmarian who among other things are known for their black hair and Grey/Blue eyes and in Howard’s Hyborian Age the Cimmarians are the ancestors of the Gaelic Britons.
Tarzan is the Earl of Greystoke, a real place, which is located in north east England near Scotland’s boarder right where one would expect a tall black haired grey eyed British Earl of Gaelic decent would be found. This is thin gruel for so many words. Simply know there is some evidence that Tarzan and Conan come from the same genetic stock.
Continuing on both are clean shaven. Might be just the grooming habits of the 1910s and 1930s seeping in but it does stick out considering Tarzan was raised by apes without human contact until adulthood and Conan is a savage barbarian who in many descriptions of his younger days has a wild tangled mop for hair.
Sticking to facial features both Conan and Tarzan have facial scars. Tarzan with the distinct scar he received in a battle to the death with a Gorilla that nearly killed him which when Tarzan is enraged blazes red. Conan, though I have not read where he got them, is described with a scared face.
Tarzan and Conan are often described in comparison to iron and steel particularly in regards to their muscles, arms, and grip. For Tarzan he has a “grip of steel”, “iron bands” (arms breaking a lion’s neck), “steel forearms”, “iron fingers”, “steel muscles”, “iron muscle” and “iron grip”. For Conan he has an “iron hand”, “steel-trap muscles”, “iron clasp”, “like an iron statue”, “iron arms”, “iron neck”, “left arm as ridged as iron”, “iron-thewed barbarian”, “iron endurance”, “iron strength”, “steel thews”, and is “steel hard”. Not sure what a thew is but, like Tarzan’s grip, Conan’s is iron or steel depending.
Along with various iron and steel parts Conan shares a preternatural agility with Tarzan far exceeding that of normal men. Jane says Tarzan “not only surpasses the average white man in strength and agility, but as far transcends our trained athletes and ‘strong-men’ as they surpass a day old babe” (funny enough in this same exposition of Jane’s she eludes to Tarzan being a “superman” using that very word. Perhaps John Carter was not the only character of Burroughs to influence Siegel and Shuster’s black haired blue eyed alien). Also in a tussle with a Numa (lion) Tarzan is described in action thusly:
“No ordinary man could have escaped those frightful claws when Numa sprang from so short a distance, but Tarzan was no ordinary man. From earliest childhood his muscles had been trained by the fierce emergencies of his existence to act with the rapidity of thought.”
Similarly, and in the similar circumstances being pounced on by a lion, Conan in action is described “It was Conan’s savage instinct which made him wheel suddenly; for the death that was upon them made no sound. A fleeting glimpse showed the Cimmerian the giant tawny shape, rearing upright against the stars, towering over him for the death-stroke. No civilized man could have moved half as quickly as the barbarian moved.”
The two quotes show two things. Conan and Tarzan have agility far surpassing civilized ordinary man and they both obtained it from the savage existence that reared them.
Another similarity, though minor, in regards to fighting lions, Conan in the above scenario ends up on the ground with the dead lion killed by Conan’s blade laying atop him leaving him unharmed. Tarzan in a different bout with a saber (lionness) “went down beneath the great body of his enemy, but with gleaming knife drawn and striking home” and then “realized that the inert mass laying upon him was beyond power ever again to injure man or ape.” and like Conan unharmed.
To finish up on the physical descriptions comes the use of the odd “clean-limbed”. Burroughs uses it three times in Tarzan of the Apes twice to describe Kala, Tarzan’s adoptive ape mother and once to describe Tarzan when he rescued a French soldier from a tribe of cannibals “D’Arnot saw a clean-limbed young giant emerge from the shadows into the firelight and came quickly toward him.”
It stuck out to me firstly because it is uncommon and weird. I think it means something like “rangy” and secondly because I had seen it elsewhere. Any guesses?
Yup its Conan
“Over against the bizarre mob stood the tall Cimmerian in strong contrast his hard bronzed limbs and clean-cut vital features.”
“he laid aside his sword, and waded out shoulder-deep into the blue water, went about his ablutions. When he emerged, his clean-cut bronze limbs shone, his streaming black mane no longer matted. His blue eyes, though they smoldered with unquenchable fire, were no longer murky or bloodshot.”
“He stood like a bronze image in the sand, apparently impervious to the murderous sun, though his only garment was a silk loin-cloth, girdled by a wide gold-buckled belt from which hung a saber and a broad-bladed poniard. On his clean-cut limbs were evidence of scarcely healed wounds.”
Not exactly the same but close enough and odd enough that, to me, makes a linkage.
Another odd word that one does not see everywhere is Stygian. Burroughs uses the term here “Here and there the Brilliant rays penetrated to earth, but for the most they only served to accentuate the Stygian blackness of the jungle’s depth.”
The word itself comes from the river Styx in Greek mythology. Howard uses the word differently. Stygia is a land within Howard’s world of the Hyborian Age. A Stygian being a person from Stygia. This by itself is not much but “Stygian” is not the only word Burroughs uses to describe dark blackness.
“Tarzan was spellbound. Then she extinguished the lamp and all within the cabin was wrapped in Cimmerian darkness.”
“Tarzan slept until midnight, then he arose and crept into the Cimmerian blackness of the forest.”
The next oddly distinct phrase from Burroughs come from different books he wrote and was found by master Appendix N afficiaonato and (two time?) Hugo Award Nominee Jeffro Johnson:
“I don’t think that’s too outlandish an idea given that the original D&D term “fighting man” is without question a reference and/or an homage to John Carter.”
The word is also found in Tarzan “From there on the homeward journey was slow, as these proud fighting men were unaccustomed to the duties of porters.”
And of course I would not be bringing it up unless it was also found in Howard’s Conan.
“His slightest movement spoke of steel-spring muscles knit to a keen brain with the co-ordination of a born fighting-man”
Three things. First, how did I miss “steel-spring muscles” in my iron/steel quotes? Second, the answer is yes, I bring up “fighting man” mostly to link to Jeffro’s Appendix N stuff. It really is great and got me reading these books. Lastly this hints that Howard not only read Tarzan but Burroughs’s John Carter Mars books as well.
Imagine being 13 year old Bobby scribbling down stories of brawls and exotic adventure while rifling through pages of the Jungle Book and White Fang when BOOM! Brand new just published copies of Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars materialize into the world and into your hands.
Holy cow do I envy that kid. Eons better then reading Dragon’s of Autum Twilight or The Time of the Dark or even The Sleeping Dragon or….well…ok I can’t bad talk The Indian in the Cupboard. Still you get the idea.
Oh wait. Yeah I still haven’t proven that happened yet. Moving on.
Tarzan and Conan are Noble Savages. Tarzan being a savage by right of being raised by wild animals and Conan is a savage by way of being a Barbarian. Their “nobility” shines through in how they often end up doing the right thing. Tarzan for example after gaining chiefdom among the apes that raised him dispenses fair justice and enforces peace when previous ape chiefs would more often then not go into mindless rages and be the instigators of inner tribe strife. Tarzan does this in his natural primal state as a man. His innate human reason without education or civilization or even ever any real human contact leads him to rule this way. Conan similarly as king of Aquilonia describes the gaining of his crown “I climbed out of the abyss of naked barbarism to the throne and in that climb I spilt my blood as freely as I spilt that of others.” and later to himself “it had been with no thought of anyone’s gain but his own that he had seized the kingdom originally.” yet under his rule “no Aquilonian noble dares maltreat the humblest of my subjects, and the taxes of the people are lighter than anywhere else in the world.” and while contemplating his refusal to be bought off “He would not sell his subjects to the butcher.”. Howard adds this in describing Conan “Thus subtly does the instinct of sovereign responsibility enter even a red-handed plunderer sometimes.”
This is in contrast to his royal captors whom Conan chastises “What of you? Your brother, Amalrus, holds the eastern half of your kingdom, and defies you. And you, Strabonus, your soldiers are even now besieging castles of a dozen or more rebellious barons. The people of both your kingdoms are crushed into the earth by tyrannous taxes and levies.”
Conan as a barbaric plundering savage rules his kingdom and subjects selflessly by not selling his kingdom and subjects to a butcher and more “noble” then the nobility he chastises.
There is more, a lot more, but for brevity I will not doddle any longer with noble savages. It leads down a path in which I attempt to convince you dear reader to believe Tarzan’s chivalry towards women, rescuing them, respecting their honor and whatnot, comes from wild man Enkido of Epic of Gilgamesh fame. Nobody wants that.
Both Howard and Burroughs make reference to Plato’s Atlantis. For Burroughs he describes the lost city of Opar as an outpost of a sunken civilization. High priestess La explains “We are descendants of a people who came to this savage world more then ten thousand years ago in search of gold. Their cities stretched from a great sea under the rising sun to a great sea into which the sun descends at night to cool his flaming brow.”
“they sent out a great galley to learn why no one came from the mother country, but though they sailed about for many months, they were unable to find any trace of the mighty land that had for countless ages borne their ancient civilization –it had sunk into the sea”
For Howard he names Atlantis in the faux historical introduction of his first published Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword”. It describes Atlantis’s sinking destruction and placing it in relation to the time Conan lived. Instead of quoting it I’ll let Mako Iwamatsu give an abbreviated account.
“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas there was an age undreamed of” (start at 0:35)
I don’t know if other Conan stories reference Atlantis but an essay written by Howard that was published just after his death describes Atlantis and Conan’s relationship to it.
“North of Aquilonia, the westernmost Hyborian kingdom, are the Cimmerians, ferocious savages, untamed by the invaders, but advancing rapidly because of contact with them; they are the descendants of the Atlanteans”
Conan being a Cimmerian is descended from Atlantis.
Conan and Tarzan are both clean-(cut)-limbed, black haired, blue/grey eyed, black Irish, super agile, big kitty killing, noble savages made of steal and Iron. Howard and Burroughs use some similar words phrases descriptions, scenarios and reference Plato’s Atlantis. Convincing evidence in my opinion but nothing distinct, original and identical to nail it home with absolute certainty.
This was all I had when starting this post….
But while writing it I remembered something La of Opar told Tarzan about her people.
“One by one the cities were deserted or overcome. The last remnant was finally forced to take shelter within this mighty fortress. Slowly we have dwindled in power, in civilization, in intellect, in numbers, until now we are no more then a small tribe of savage apes.”
“in time we will no longer banish those of our people who mate with apes, and so in time we shall descend to the very beasts from which ages ago our progenitors may have sprung.”
So La of Opar and her people, the last remnants of Atlantis, are descending into apes. That is original and weirdly specific.
I don’t think Plato mentioned that…..but Howard did.
From Howard’s above quoted essay “The Hyborian Age”
“A thousand years after the lesser cataclysm, the western world is seen to be a wild country of jungles and lakes and torrential rivers. Among the forest-covered hills of the northwest exist wandering band of ape-men, without human speech, or the knowledge of fire or the use of implements. They are the descendants of the Atlanteans, sunk back into the squalling chaos of jungle-bestiality from which ages ago their ancestors so laboriously crawled.”
Two more things, note that the decent into apehood in both happened in a jungle. Also note how the ending of both quotes echo each other.
“we shall descend to the very beasts from which ages ago our progenitors may have sprung.”
“sunk back into the squalling chaos of jungle-bestiality from which ages ago their ancestors so laboriously crawled.”
And there it is. My golden proof that Burroughs’s Tarzan books influenced Howard’s Conan stories.
Both works contain a description of people descended from the sunkin civilization of Atlantis descending into apes in the jungle. Distinct, original and identical so as to have come from nowhere else.
I really don’t know how to end this thing. So I just will.
Note: fun quincidance – The Sir name of the family who has resided at Greystoke for 14 generations is Howard
Note2: This is not a hit on Robert E. Howard just happy he read books I love and happy he took inspiration from them to write stories I love.
Note3: Shout out to Jeffro and Cirsova for doing what they do which got me interested in Howard and Burroughs and the soon to be read pile of books on my shelf. Everything good here blame them. Credit everything bad to me.
Note4: Update: Jeffro mentions this “I actually did not make this connection. But then… I read Conan before I read Tarzan.” I read Conan, at least some stories, before Tarzan also!! Anyway him saying this triggered a memory. Jeffro, somewhere on the Internets, makes mention of people back in the day viewing Tarzan as Sword and Sorcery. I am pretty sure him writing that preconditioned me to be looking for connections between Tarzan and Sword and Sorcery and therefor connections between Conan and Tarzan.