William Cecil Clayton in the first two of ERB’s Tarzan novels is Tarzan’s first cousin and primary rival both for the family inheritance and for Jane’s affections. As such, he plays a very important role in the story. ERB introduces Clayton with an odd mix of dramatic irony: readers are told exactly who he is and how he’s related to Tarzan, but none of the characters in the story have the slightest inkling. At the end of the first novel, a revelation and confirmation of that relationship to Tarzan himself is a key plot development. When some of my students have read that, they’ve become quite angry that Tarzan doesn’t simply reveal what he has just learned and end all the drama. Without drama, where would the story be? They usually aren’t satisfied by the response.
In Chapter 1 of Tarzan of the Apes, ERB tells us that “there were mothers and brothers and sisters, and aunts and cousins to express various opinions.” These would be relatives of Tarzan’s parents before they departed from England to sail to Africa. One of those brothers would be John Clayton’s unnamed younger brother, who (about the same time as Tarzan was born) became the father of William Cecil Clayton. Clayton shows up on the west coast of Africa in the group with Jane and her father and, through most of the book, is a somewhat hapless but mostly sympathetic character. In Chapter 12 of Return of Tarzan, however, we learn that Clayton does not share the gallant chivalry of his cousin. For those who have not read either of these first two of ERB’s Tarzan novels, I will not give away the details; suffice it to say that, while remaining somewhat hapless, Clayton redeems himself. On the other hand, he never was a worthy rival for Tarzan or a worthy suitor for Jane.
The various movie adaptations of the Tarzan story have not figured so far into these comparisons, but the Disney animated movie bears mention in relation to Clayton. Many things are changed from ERB’s version (for instance, the cabin is a treehouse, the great apes are gorillas, and there are no Africans in Africa), but the personality and movements of Tarzan seem to capture the sheer joy of the young Tarzan’s personality and movement through the trees. Not so with Clayton. Rather than a hapless weakling, Clayton is portrayed as an arrogant, square-jawed white hunter. White hunters appear in other Tarzan movies, and this is obviously a recognizable stereotype, but it is a major change for the character of Clayton. It has been quite some time since I watched this movie, but I don’t recall that Clayton and Tarzan are said to be relatives at all, let alone the first cousins of ERB’s narrative.
Robin Maxwell in Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan has followed the Disney screen writers more closely than she followed ERB for the character of Clayton. In her book, the character is Ral Conrath, an American from an unnamed small town in South Dakota. He first appears as an object for Jane’s libido and a gentleman treasure hunter and adventurer who claims to have been on certain anthropological digs which interest Jane and her father. Conrath convinces Professor Porter to go on the expedition to west Africa and soon shows himself to be the cad and much worse which the reader may have suspected all along though Jane did not. In a major change from ERB’s development of the story, he becomes the primary villain.
With my treatment of Clayton in The Diary of Miss Jane Porter (available at erblist.com), I made a major mistake. In this, I believe that I was following P. J. Farmer’s lead in Tarzan Alive, but it remains my mistake whatever its source might have been. Rather than the title in contention being Lord Greystoke as ERB named it, I gave it as the Duke of Greystoke. By the time my novel first became available to the public, I was aware that a duke is the highest rank of British nobility below the royalty, while ‘lord’ usually refers to the lowest rank, who are just above knights such as Sir Sean Connery or anyone else with that honorific. Along with the elevation in rank, I gave Clayton and the Greystoke holdings a great deal of money; for instance, the ship on which the story opens is owned by the family and is bound for the family’s mining operations in South Africa. In this version of the tale, Clayton meets a similar end to the one in ERB’s version, though without the taint of unchivalry.
One of the major changes in Diana’s Diary (for sale at smashwords.com) is with this character. First off, he is named William Godsey, Lord Maythorne, for a variety of reasons which I might go into later. He is not the cousin of Tarzan (renamed Ngozi), but his uncle, younger brother of Ngozi’s father, Eugene. Though this puts him at more than twice Jane’s age, he is still interested in making her something of a trophy bride. He has long lived in the shadow of his elder brother (who has been absent from England for more than twenty years) and has deep-seated psychological insecurities resulting from that. He and Eugene were with their parents on a tour of mission sites in British East Africa when Eugene was first lost. Their mother, who is still alive but does not appear in the novel, maintains hope that Eugene is still alive and was the driving force behind the family establishing an estate near the jungle in the far western reaches of British East Africa; from this estate, she has launched various journeys to find her lost son, and the safari which William leads visited the estate before venturing into the jungle. Though he is the leader of the safari, William is somewhat indecisive and is more nearly suited for British high society than for African exploration.
After all this, a question remains: Why is this story worth telling again? My response (admittedly as one who has told the story again… twice) is that all stories are essentially retellings of stories that have been told before. Without retellings, we would not have Tarzan, Mowgli, Robinson Crusoe, Romulus and Remus; Hamlet and The Lion King; The War of the Worlds and Independence Day. Each of the retellings, actually every story, must be judged on its own merits. Many fans of ERB’s stories won’t like or appreciate any other treatments of similar stories. Many who do not like ERB’s stories may well find in other versions something that they do like and appreciate. Give them a try.