|Philip Jose Farmer had a lifelong love affair with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters, particularly Tarzan. He was to write several books either directly referring to Tarzan or to a character that bore a striking resemblance to Tarzan.
In this anthology, edited by Farmer, he examines the question of whether it is factually possible for a human infant to survive being raised by an animal. The feral man theme (and in one singular instance, a feral girl theme) knows no nationality; stories abound from classical literature into modern times. The story gives the author an opportunity to satirize society/culture from without and to expose hypocrisy without pointing a too-obvious finger at figures who might sue you for libel or worse.
Farmer starts off with a bang by reprinting a short Burroughs’ story titled “The God of Tarzan” where Tarzan starts speculating on the origin of life and who is responsible. It certainly pokes at Christianity, and questions the reason man requires a god, and ends on a humorous note.
He then includes an extract from the memoirs of the only biographical account of a true feral man: Lord Greystoke. In this piece, Greystokes reminisces about his time with the n’k and compares their knowledge of the natural world and their customs with English society. Farmer includes a language translation guide of the n’k’s language, such as it is, for the curious.
He also includes several short stories to better illustrate the feral man theme. Gene Wolfe contributes a piece, copyrighted in 1972, that harkens to the 1960’s society in
and pits those who think to idealize the rebel and imitate but come into conflict with established authority.
There is a brilliant story from Mack Reynolds titled “Relic” which casts an aging Tarzan in a meatless, mechanized future. While dark and grim, the reader will find moments of humor.
Farmer was able to include an old piece, 1937, from William Chester which is a story of a young boy that runs away to live with a bear family. It is a true cousin of the Burroughs’ stories of Tarzan as a trickster.
Farmer refers to Kipling’s story of Mowgli as a different type of feral man story than the oft-imitated Tarzan type. He has a story titled “Shasta of the Wolves” that, while it is similar to “The Jungle Book”, is strong enough to stand on its own. It is a very well-written story and very enjoyable.
The next one causes conflict for this reader: was this a truly unique perspective or was it so unrealistic as to be unpalatable? George Bruce is the author and he starts the story during WWI with a group of flying aces who welcome a new flyer into their group that causes no small amount of consternation and even fear. The structure of the story is designed to keep the reader in the dark as long as possible but when it becomes necessary to finally tell the reader the origins of this feral man, the author abruptly drops the narrative of the WWI aviators and goes directly to the man’s history. He tries to tie it together in the end but I wasn’t satisfied.
There was an article that came out in March 1959 that purported there was a real-life person who was the basis for Burroughs’ Tarzan character. This English nobleman was supposedly shipwrecked in
in 1868 and the London Times wrote about the event. However, Farmer pretty thoroughly debunked the story. And the last piece is an essay from Farmer of “The Feral Human in Mythology and Fiction.” In it he recounts the many legends that have persisted of feral children raised by various creatures and divides them into three categories: pure fantasy, realistic literature and the third is characterized by a single novel published only in
. Farmer then characterizes each type with examples. The single example of the third type is a story written with some realistic authority by someone who obviously was familiar with living in the wild yet the protagonist engages in some obvious fantasy by conversing with wild animals. The significance of this last book is that it is the only example of a feral human story Farmer could find that was written by a woman; and, more importantly, it addresses the need we now understand that a child must be exposed to language while young or the child never develops language skills at all.
While certain parts of the book resound with Farmer’s trademark satire; other parts treat the topic seriously. A fascinating book for Farmer fans and Tarzan fans alike. ~~ Catherine Book
And now: test your knowledge of Farmer’s Tarzan stories in our new Trivia Contest. Click here.