The Cultured Mowgli and the Uncultured Tarzan

Western civilization has always prided itself on the notion of being civilized; good manners, morality, a sturdy work ethic, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. Others, however, displeased with society’s standards retreat into more primal solitudes, attempting to be in tune with mankind’s more primitive nature. Part of being civilized is being able to repress, or reform, the natural animalistic urges we all share. Or even if they are not done away with, they must fit a moral context established by religion, politics and the like. Two classic works of literature, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books and Edgar Rice Burroughs The Return of Tarzan, present differing opinions on the worth of being a civilized human being.

Mowgli is an Indian boy growing up in the wild jungles of India. Kipling’s Jungle Books use vivid detail to describe not merely the exotic settings of the jungle but also the laws and customs that govern how the animals deal with one another. Kipling himself was born in India, but spent most of his life in Great Britain. It was in Britain that he learned to be more civilized in contrast to the cultures of India which shared different views of being cultured. As Kipling learned the laws of the West in England, so Mowgli is instructed to be self-controlled in the Jungle as well. This notion is ironic, for one would expect Mowgli to be just as vicious as the wolves that raise him for most of his life. Though he hunts for wild animals like his friends do, he is under strict orders by Baloo the bear to observe the Law of the Jungle, which dictates when and where animals can hunt. It is a custom that all the jungle folk share in common. It seems that Kipling infuses his own pride in good ethics into his jungle narrative.

It is in the Jungle that Mowgli learns how to be self-sufficient. Kipling may be using the jungle to represent society itself. Every human in the world is in competition with one another, trying to survive dangerous territory. Life is hard. It is the responsibility of every person to be aware of how to help oneself and others through the difficulties of life. But Mowgli is released back into his Indian homeland by the jungle folk. The wolves declare that it is time for him to embrace being a man at last. Until he leaves the wildness of the jungle, he will never be mature and fully developed. Mowgli must accept his responsibilities and embrace his God-given race and homeland. Veering from this set course would be unwise and disastrous.

Tarzan has something different to say. The Return of Tarzan is a sequel to Tarzan of the Apes, in which Tarzan, growing up alone in an African jungle, becomes fiercely strong and able to survive like a gorilla. At the end of the book, after Jane, a woman he falls in love with, teaches him about human culture, he leaves Africa and lives for a time in Paris, France. But in The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan becomes increasingly disillusioned, not only from his disastrous misunderstandings with men and women but also with the corruption of mankind in general, how people betray one another for vicious ends. Angry at western civilization, he abandons Paris and returns to Africa to live back with his apes in the jungle. But he doesn’t live without a piece of the life he left behind; he rescues Jane once again and they live the rest of their lives in Africa. Jane could not bring herself to marry the good-mannered, brave Clayton. She was in love with Tarzan all along, though Tarzan is not your average human being by Britain’s standards of gentility. Tarzan proves that those outside of western culture can become just as able to live honorable lives as “civilized” people.

Ever since European powers became more involved with other continents, there has always been a fierce debate on what being civilized actually means. For Kipling, not being able to repress your natural instincts, no matter if your enviroment supports those inclinations, is like embracing brutal savagery. Indeed, most people from Europe saw the cultures of Africa and India as full of barbarous folk who need to be introduced to the tenets of Christianity, with its emphases on moral purity. Yet there was an argument in favor of the “noble savage,” an individual who, like Tarzan, though they came from a less cultured background, could be just as noble as a prince from Britain. Maybe it is not an enviroment that shapes a human’s actions so much as their individual choices. In this respect, Mowgli and Tarzan are quite similar. They are both able to cast aside their desires for the need of those who are in desperate plights. They are heroes, in spite of their backgrounds.