The presence of feral children in literature and film is just over a century old. In fact, two of them, Mowgli of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, are quintessential feral children. Both were abandoned in the wild and reared by wolves (Mowgli) and apes (Tarzan), and later, able to move into the human world with seeming ease. Their popularity remains even as science and literary detection have made such endeavours impractical, impossible even. Both stories have been made famous by the many film adaptations over the last century. The latest screen version of The Jungle Book has been released to acclaim the world over, while the upcoming movie The Legend of Tarzan will open in July.

The trailer of ‘The Legend of Tarzan’.

The mythical world is replete with accounts of children being reared in the wild, creatures able to change form at will, and the more benign powers possessed by some animals. Jean-Claude Schmitt, the historian of medieval Europe, wrote The Holy Greyhound (1993), about the dog Guinefort, whose grave was visited by peasants of France’s northern Lyons region as they revered his curative powers for their children.

From the 19th century, things changed somewhat. The growing reach of humans into previously inaccessible terrain and the spread of knowledge and developments in science made sceptics of many people. These old stories were found rightly wanting. Soon enough, as colonialism and imperialism emerged as conquering forces and as more of the unknown world was discovered, writers wove imaginary and yet realistic stories of feral children. They stood in as symbols of the white man’s domination (Mowgli or Tarzan) of the primitive, wild and savage East (the Seonee hills of central India or the forests of Equatorial Africa).

Kipling wrote The Jungle Book in 1894. The collection of stories featured Mowgli, the boy reared by a wolf pack who, with the help of other animals, gets the better of Shere Khan, the man-eating tiger.

In 1929, a decade and more after his first Tarzan story appeared, Edgar Rice Burroughs gave his reasons for writing these books. There was his realisation that he could write similar “rot” that he saw published in the pulp magazines of his time. And then there was his familiarity with Kipling’s tales.

The Tarzan stories were set in Equatorial Africa, comprising the west and west-central regions with rain forests where primates ruled supreme. Tarzan, who is John Clayton in a human existence, is born to parents abandoned in this region by a mutinous crew. He is bought up by the Mangani apes (a fictitious species created by Burroughs) and learns to adapt to their ways. He becomes the leader of the group once headed by Kerchak.

When Burroughs wrote his first Tarzan story in 1912, America was a comparatively late entrant as a world power. In the early 20th century, Japan was the bigger power in the Pacific. Even as the US grew in influence, intervening as the world’s peacemaker in WWI, most of its reading public knew little about the outside world.

Africa, as portrayed by Burroughs, was a land of dense forests, primitive tribes and the mysterious apes in their own groups. It was a land that needed help and rescue. Even its values and ancient honour systems needed to be safeguarded from a more selfish human world.

Tarzan realises this when he leaves his forest world to live among his own kind – a version that appears in several Tarzan films over the years. In Tarzan of the Apes (written in 1912) and in the film, Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), Tarzan leaves his jungle home for a while, for a life with Jane Porter (Parker in later books), and to his estate in Greystroke, in England. He is soon disillusioned and returns, preferring the purer, loyal forest world. This is a reversal of what happens to Mowgli, who returns successfully to his human world and, as the various films have it, in pursuit of a love interest.

The trailer of ‘Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes’.

While The Jungle Book is mainly a coming-of-age story, Tarzan spends most of his life in the forest. It is here that he grows up, progressively moving to assuming leadership of the ape group. Tarzan goes on to have several other adventures, some in the human world and some in the jungle and even on the seas (Tarzan and the Mermaid, 1948). His return to the jungle is worked out in various ways, such as in Tarzan’s New York Adventure in 1942, in which Tarzan and Jane and their adopted son Boy return after rescuing Boy from the clutches of a circus owner. Not surprisingly, Tarzan enlists the service of the circus elephants, for he is able to speak to them.

More than the Jungle Book, there have been over 90 screen versions of Tarzan, making him a perennially popular character. In the first movie, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), Gordon Griffith played the child character while Elmo Lincoln played the adult one. Johnny Weissmuller depicted Tarzan in the movies made between 1932 and 1948. As many as 18 actors have played Tarzan from the silent film era to the present. Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård will play the character in The Legend of Tarzan, in which Tarzan, as British aristocrat Lord Greystroke, returns to the Congo as a trade representative and he rediscovers his old animalistic self. Part of the films’ popularity has also been on account of Jane, Tarzan’s love interest in the films.

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan.

As with film adaptations of The Jungle Book, characters were created specifically for the big screen. For a King Louie, first a chimpanzee and then a gigantopithecus in the most recent Jungle Book movie, there is Cheeta the chimpanzee, who provides comic moments in several Tarzan films.

A tribute to Cheeta the chimpanzee.

Tarzan was also arguably among the first of the supermen-like characters that became a staple of American pulp fiction from the early 1930s. As some films show, such as The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935), Tarzan travels widely. In this movie, Tarzan and Jane are in Guatemala to recover a stolen idol.

The supermen characters were gifted with strength and intelligence and imbued with a perfect sense of morality. Tarzan picks up languages easily, defends his tribe with utmost fervor, and espouses a passionate loyalty to his lady love. Burroughs’s imagining of Tarzan also revealed the American love for the pristine outdoors, living in the wild and in solitude (an ideal set by Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book, Walden).

The old narratives about feral children endure even though such stories are hard to come by in real life and reportage and scientific studies have revealed some unfortunate truths. Most prevailing stories of feral children have been proved to be untrue. Even the book Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years (1997), was debunked as a literary hoax. Feral children are creations of historical tragedy. During WWII, thousands of abandoned children in East Europe roamed the forests, foraging for good and sustenance. As for actual feral children, their adjustment to the human world (or their more natural world) has been an agonisingly difficult one, something impossibly hard to manage. Julia Fullerton-Batten’s photos reveal in a poignant and disturbing way the painfully difficult transitions feral children have to make once they move back in the human world.

Among the many stories on the Discovery Channel documentary Feral Children (2012), anthropologist Mary-Ann Ochota tells one of John Ssebunya, who was rescued from the forests in Uganda, where he had lived among the vervet monkeys. In time, John became part of a local choir. Yet, even Ochota admitted that Ssebunya’s story is but a rare instance of a “successful” adaptation.

The new screen versions of The Jungle Book and Tarzan in the same year – even as wilderness continues to be encroached on and natural habitats interfered with – indicate that the human desire to discover strange new worlds, and enter new frontiers remains. For all that these are celluloid reenactments, they are challenging and inspiring. Jane Goodall, the renowned primatologist revealed recently that Tarzan of the Apes was in part responsible for what would become her life’s work, one devoted to understanding the world of the chimpanzee.