This week, we’re nearing the end of Disney Renn Faire with Mulan and Tarzan. The first is based on a real historical figure from Chinese history who has become a folk legend. The second is the most frequently portrayed character in Western pop culture, beating out both Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula for sheer omnipresence. Including television, the original series of 26 novels, and the handful of stage adaptations of the story, Tarzan has appeared in over 200 films, spanning from the early years of the film industry to the present day. But first, we travel to China.
The Story We Know: Fa Mulan, daughter of a war hero, disguises herself as a man in order to fight in the army in her father’s place after a conscription order is sent out. And so Mulan must help defeat an invading army of Huns while keeping her identity a secret. She is aided by Mushu, a teeny tiny dragon who is one of the family guardians. But when her identity is discovered and she is cast out of the army, she must infiltrate the Emperor’s palace by herself in order to stop the Hun leader, Shan Yu, from assassinating the emperor.
The Actual Story: Mulan is basically the coolest person ever and the Disney movie actually does a decent job of showing this. There is some question as to what her family name was since different writers who have told her story give her different family names. The most accepted name (just because it has a poetic symmetry to it) is Hua Mulan. “Huā” means “flower.” and the word “múlàn” refers to the magnolia. This name comes from the 16th century playwright Xu Wei who told her story in the play “The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in her Father’s Place” (I apologize for the horrible translation; the original Chinese is much more elegant).
There were previous versions of her story, too. The first was a 7th century poem (sadly now lost) called “The Ballad of Mulan” which gives her the family name Mu. The historical records themselves aren’t much more helpful. The Annals of the Ming say her family name was Zhu while the Annals of the Qing say her family name was Wei. Whether or not it’s correct, history has decided that Hua Mulan is her “official” name.
It’s not clear when she lived, but sources point to her living before the Tang dynasty, perhaps the end of the Sui (c. 581-618 CE) and the beginning of the Tang (c. 618-907 CE) dynasties. It may have been even earlier. I found one source that said that she lived during the Northern Wei dynasty (c. 386-534 CE). As to where she lived, it’s generally accepted to be an area called the Central Plains.
Ok, so now you know kind of where she sits in the tapestry of history and legend. On to her story. Different versions of her legend embellish things, adding in secondary characters and dramatic happenings. The most detailed telling of her story is the Sui-Tang Romance, a 17th century historical novel by Chu Renhuo. This version, among other things, crafts a tragic finale to her story in which she commits suicide to avoid becoming a concubine to the emperor. I’m not a huge fan of this version as no previous version included any mention of anything like this. No doubt it was added to make things more dramatic.
The truth (inasmuch as such a thing can exist when dealing with history-become-legend) is actually a bit simpler. As the story goes, Mulan dressed up as a man and joined the army in her father’s place when the emperor (or Khan, as he was known) summoned him for military service but was too old to fight. Mulan served with distinction in the army for many years (the “Ballad of Mulan” says 12 years) and gained great notoriety for her bravery, finesse with weaponry, and courage. When the army was allowed to return home, the Khan offered Mulan a prestigious place in court, but she politely declined, citing her desire to retire to her home with her family. In one version, she asked for a fine horse instead of the court position, but in others she asked for nothing. It is only later on, when her former comrades in arms came to visit her, that they discovered that she was a woman.
Her military service was exemplary, but I’m crazy impressed that she was able to hide her identity for 12 years, especially when fighting and living in close quarters with the other men she was serving with. Maybe they were just very polite and pretended not to notice. Or maybe she was just really good at maintaining her privacy.
But either way, fact or fiction, Mulan was an awesome woman and we should all strive to be as cool as she was.
Now we leap to early 20th century America with:
The Story We Know: Tarzan, an orphan who was rescued by the Gorilla Kala when he was a baby, doesn’t really feel like he fits into the Gorilla troop, despite his mother’s assurances that they are a family. But when Jane Porter, an Englishwoman on a research expedition with her father and the hunter Clayton (who has ulterior motives), finds Tarzan and tries to teach him how to act “civilized,” he finds himself divided between the family he knows and the family he wants to know. Phil Collins provides the songs.
The Actual Story: Our vine-swinging hero first showed up in Tarzan of the Apes, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912. Burroughs is also the gentleman who brought us John Carter of Mars (which is another series that is crazy amounts of fun). Fan reaction was so great that Burroughs continued to publish Tarzan novels up until the 1960’s (past the point of his death). Imagine if J.K Rowling had done that with her Harry Potter series! She’d still be writing them! I won’t be able to fit ALL of his story into one short post, so I’ll just focus on the first novel.
John and Alice Clayton (Lord and Lady Greystoke) are marooned on Africa. They have a son, John Clayton, but shortly afterwards his mother dies of natural causes and his father is killed by Kerchak, the savage leader of the apes. John Clayton is rescued by Kala, a kind ape, and renamed Tarzan (which, in the ape language means “white skin” which seems somehow racist…).
He grows up with the apes, but knows he doesn’t really belong with them. Kerchak grows to resent Tarzan’s hunting prowess and becomes a rival of sorts. Eventually, Tarzan finds his parent’s home and uses the books there to teach himself how to read, forming a connection to his forgotten past.
Things take a turn for the worst when an African tribe moves in and kills Kala, his adoptive mother. He reacts by attacking and playing tricks on the tribe, to the point that they eventually come to see him as some sort of evil jungle spirit which they must appease.
Eventually, the tension between him and Kerchak reaches a boiling point and they duke it out one last time. It’s close, but Tarzan kills Kerchak and takes his place as king of the apes.
AND THEN, a new group of white folks arrive, along with Jane Porter, the first white woman Tarzan has ever seen (which means that she’s his first all-consuming crush). She is accompanied by William Cecil Clayton (coincidence? I think not!) who is not only Tarzan/John Clayton’s cousin, but the man who sneakily usurped Tarzan’s parent’s title (even though Tarzan is the LEGAL Lord Greystoke). Tarzan doesn’t like him, but in William’s defense, no one could have known that the real Lord Greystoke was working on his killer abs and swinging through jungles holding his own against huge scary animals. Tarzan and Jane become friends, but eventually she has to leave to return to America.
Tarzan later on follows her to America, but when he finds her (in Wisconsin), he learns that she is engaged to William Clayton the usurper dude. But, even though Tarzan has undeniable proof of his identity and his claim to the title of Lord Greystoke (which a French Naval officer Paul D’Arnot helped him to gather), he decides not to say anything when he realizes that Jane is actually quite happy with William Clayton who is treating her well and providing for her. Not wishing to disrupt her life, he returns to the jungle alone.
Awwwwwww! Not quite a happy ending, but it is a sweet ending.
As the main series progressed, Tarzan had many more adventures. A plot point that Burroughs brings up a couple times throughout is that of a “fake” Tarzan, someone who is impersonating him. There are also lost cities, Tarzan’s family, and even an episode where Tarzan uses his real name, John Clayton, as an alias as he joins the fighting in World War II. At one point, he is stranded with a bunch of other officers and must use his jungle survival skills to keep them all alive whilst fighting the Japanese.
Burroughs and his estate also commissioned further Tarzan novels from other authors to continue the story after he passed away in 1950.
Burroughs has been criticized for being “trashy” and “lacking substance” but I love him to pieces, so you should totally check out his Tarzan and John Carter books. They’re pretty crazy awesome.
Next week, we’ll wrap this whole thing up with a special final post looking at the collage of stories that is Fantasia 2000. See you then!