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Tarzan swings into Paris

Museum exhibit highlights one of Africa's most potent (and misleading) myths.

PARIS — Edgar Rice Burroughs never visited Africa but he created one of the continent’s most enduring myths: Tarzan.

In his story about the aristocratic orphan boy raised by apes in the jungle, Burroughs painted a picture of a jungle Africa populated with “savages [who] danced in frantic ecstasy.” The fantasy picture of Africa was compounded when movies, such as the 1929 "Tarzan the Tiger" depicted tigers in Africa, when, in fact, they do not exist on the continent.

Now Tarzan is on show at one of Paris' most popular museums, which has dedicated its summer exhibition to the ape man. 

Viscount Greystoke, the orphan who became Tarzan (“white skin” in Burroughs’s ape language), has had a huge audience ever since he was first published in a magazine in 1912. Dozens of films, comic strips, video games and toys have been devoted to his loincloth, his famed call of the wild and his female love interest Jane, all of which are on show at the Musée du Quai Branly beside the Eiffel Tower.

“We know Africa very badly. This exhibition helps us to rethink our view of the continent,” said Pierre Hanotaux, director of the museum, which is dedicated to non-Western arts. “But we still don’t have a real image of Africa.”

It’s not clear how much the exhibition — filled with comic strips, film clips and Tarzan memorabilia — helps rethink Tarzan’s Africa, however. Spears, fetishes and animal skins line the walls and fill the showcases. There is a giant stuffed crocodile on show.

“It seems that the negative and diabolical figure of Africa is wholly contained in the figure of the crocodile,” says the museum’s publicity material.

The exhibition maintains that the Tarzan movies have “humiliated” the first books, replacing a man of 12 languages (including ape and Latin) with a grunting man-ape who can manage only “Me Tarzan; you Jane” by way of conversation with his beauty.

Burroughs originally created an altogether more thinking hero, representative of a rejection of modern society for the call of a wilder nature. He read up on Darwinian theories of evolution and was fascinated by the growing interest in eugenics. He picked and mixed myths as he pleased, more intent on creating an image of a superhero of a man surviving a primal wildness — whether it be amid Vikings, Roman armies, crusaders, Neanderthals, mermaids, Nazis or Mars, all of which Tarzan has to contend with at various points. Later renderings claimed the character as descendant of the 12th-century English king Richard the Lionheart and a cousin of 19th-century detective Sherlock Holmes.

Multiple Tarzans have certainly reflected changing social mores, whether on nudity, foreigners or modern society’s relationship with nature: the museum claims the vine-swinger was a proto-ecowarrior, beating back ivory smugglers, animal hunters and zoo traffickers. He’s even been adopted as an ecologist by the World Wildlife Fund.