The phrase "timeless beauty" appears frequently on this forum, but it is more than just a conceptual shortcut. It communicates the fact that the curvaceous ideal transcends fad or fashion, and originates at the very dawn of human existence.
As we have noted in past essays, several anthropological studies have traced the appreciation of the plus-size figure back to Neolithic times (see here
). When we recently came upon a picture of Kailee O'Sullivan modelling an intriguingly primeval costume, however, we decided to tie it in with the primordial nature of the feminine ideal via a very different text--a celebrated work of literary fiction.
The eponymous hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs's 1915 novel Tarzan
has become a cultural icon, spawning an industry comprising "two dozen more novels, over 40 movies, comic books, radio shows, television programs, toys," etc. (according to the author's official site). However, if one ignores all of this cultural dross, and reads the source material--the original novel--afresh, free of any other associations, one discovers a bona fide classic of world literature.
Burroughs's hero is a part of a grand tradition that extends throughout Western literature--the concept of the "Noble Savage." In most of the tales incorporating this archetype, the Noble Savage is a man who, in his youth, is torn from his modern community, and placed in a wild environment, where he grows up uncorrupted by society, and develops in accordance with natural human impulses. Later in life, when he finally discovers his true identity, and confronts the human world, he is a living reproach to present-day "civilization," a scourge of modern decadence, a reminder of the vitality and noble ancestry that humanity has lost, in its relentless drive towards mindless egalitarianism.
Burroughs, however, adds another dimension to his Noble Savage a--a characteristic that Hollywood has always expunged (for obvious political reasons). Burroughs makes his hero the first son of an aristocratic line, the true Lord of Greystoke. This innate nobility of character is something that even Tarzan's jungle upbringing cannot extinguish.
Thus, when Tarzan encounters human beings for the first time, he is more physically vital and more inherently noble than they are. He possesses the best of both words--the sheer might of primordial man, and the dignity of character of aristocratic blood. These traits elevate him above the savages whom he first encounters, and also above the degenerate, democratic modern men whom he later meets.
The early chapters of the novel, describing Tarzan's origins--how his family becomes marooned in the wilds of Africa, how he alone survives and is reared by jungle primates, and how, through wit and resourcefulness, he eventually becomes the unchallenged Lord of the Apes--are riveting.
But what makes Tarzan singularly interesting, as relates to the topic of this forum, is how he is affected by his first-ever encounter with a human woman--a lovely, fair-featured American girl who immediately captures his heart.
Here is how Burroughs describes Tarzan's early views of this damsel in distress:
From the trees Tarzan of the Apes watched the solemn ceremony; but most of all he watched the sweet face and graceful figure of Jane Porter.
In his savage, untutored breast new emotions were stirring. He could not fathom them. He wondered why he felt so great an interest in these people--why he had gone to such pains to save the three men. But he did not wonder why he had torn Sabor, the lion, from the tender flesh of the strange girl.
Surely the men were stupid and ridiculous and cowardly. Even Manu, the monkey, was more intelligent than they. If these were creatures of his own kind he was doubtful if his past pride in blood was warranted.
But the girl, ah--that was a different matter. He did not reason here. He knew that she was created to be protected, and that he was created to protect her. (163)
This passage reveals why the Noble Savage generally--and why Burroughs's hero specifically--is such an appealing trope. Such a character is unfettered by modern distortions of gender roles. In following the exploits of a Noble Savage, both male and female readers can vicariously live out their essential impulses, imagining themselves either as the primeval hero, or as his paramour.
In the heart of every man exists a yearning to protect the damsel he loves, and in the heart of every woman lurks a desire to be saved, to be rescued by her beloved. Not all of the social engineering in the world can lobotomize the human soul so much that it loses these essential longings. Burroughs's novel allows readers to rediscover and satisfy (albeit vicariously) those essential, emotional needs.
Burroughs's story goes even further, however, with Tarzan alone keeping Jane and her companions alive, lost and defenceless as they are in the wilds of Africa, where they are unable to fend for themselves. This allows the Lord of the Apes to discover the joy of fulfilling an essential male role.
From then on scarcely a day passed that did not bring its offering of game or other food. Sometimes it was a young deer, again a quantity of strange, cooked food--cassava cakes pilfered from the village of Mbonga--or a boar, or leopard, and once a lion.
Tarzan derived the greatest pleasure of his life in hunting meat for these strangers. It seemed to him that no pleasure on earth could compare with laboring for the welfare and protection of the beautiful white girl. (178-79)
Again, by setting his story in this unique context, Burroughs allows his hero to fulfil the destiny that is dearest to the male heart: to be a provider for his beloved. (In this case, he embodies the role quite literally, by furnishing her with sustenance--feeding her, in other words.) The dynamic that is established between this pair, of a provider and the one he provides for, gratifies the most essential human yearnings. And as the anthropological studies we noted earlier confirm, this is precisely where the male adoration of feminine self-indulgence arises--from the male suitor's wish that his beloved might thrive on the provender that he obtains.
Burroughs includes in his novel one more example of a timeless mating ritual: two males fighting for the love of a girl (although in this case, the conflict is man versus beast, as Tarzan has to battle a gorilla to protect his adored Jane):
Like two charging bulls they came together, and like two wolves sought each other's throat. Against the long canines of the ape was pitted the thin blade of the man's knife.
Jane--her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration--watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman--for her.
As the great muscles of the man's back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl. (188-89)
Notice that not only does Burroughs allow Tarzan to satisfy an essential male desire to best a rival for the hand of his beloved, but more significantly, he acknowledges her own enjoyment, even her relish for the conflict. Jane finds that she likes to be fought for; she wants to be won--in ways that she herself doesn't understand, brought up as she has been in a modern, "liberated" society. In fact, she discovers that her so-called "liberation" has been a prison, and she only truly comes alive, only genuinely feels free, when she acknowledges her natural desires, and enters into a traditional feminine role (a damsel to be saved, provided for, and won) vis-à-vis her aristocratic lord of the jungle.* * *
Incidentally, therein lies the double meaning of Tarzan's epithet, the "Lord of the Apes." Writing in the early 20th century, when Darwin's theories were gaining ground, Burroughs's Noble Savage is literally the lord of the jungle primates amongst which he lives, but he is also, metaphorically, a lord among men (men being descended from apes). Tarzan, the jungle king, is a metaphor for the aristocratic Lord Greystoke--his true identity. In civilized society, by birth and by character, he would also be a ruler, the inheritor of a noble warrior legacy (the nobility being the warrior class).
And such a man would gladly, willingly, eagerly devote his life to providing for . . . a beautiful girl from Baltimore, so that she could live at her pleasurable ease. It would be his greatest fulfilment.
As mentioned earlier, this post was inspired by an extraordinary image from the Rubie's Hallowe'en catalogue. Besides Kelsey, the company also enlisted the services of Kailee O'Sullivan to model its seasonal wares, and in this image, we see Kailee in a wild, primitive outfit.
Although they are close contemporaries, and their career paths have mirrored each other's, Kailee and Kelsey are quite distinct. Kelsey has the clear advantage in overall fullness (fans always hope to see Miss O'Sullivan become more curvaceous), but Kailee is more naturally buxom, and her ample charms are very much on display in this photo. Also, whereas Kelsey has perfected the innocent look, Kailee can exude raw passion--a talent that she draws on in this instance.
What makes the image so arresting is that while Kailee has an innate quality of girlishness, of delicacy, of fragility and vulnerability, here, with her smouldering glance, and with the unabashed display of her person, she reveals her wilder side. Her carnivorous look is one of raw hunger, and one senses that she would eagerly devour whatever provender her suitor could provide--and still demand more. It is not that she is dangerous, but that she seems to be courting danger that makes her so riveting, for one senses that she is deliberately putting herself in dire peril so that her admirer will save and protect her.
The image brings to life Burroughs's passage, above (p. 188-89). Kailee, with her soft, delicate features, is by nature a perfect, doll-like embodiment of Victorian refinement; yet here, one can see how the "veil of centuries of civilization and culture" is "swept away" from her, revealing her insatiable, rapacious feminine appetite.
We will share more of Kailee's images from the 2008 Rubie's campaign in a future post.
- Tarzan: A literary classic