I think some of the best writing Edgar Rice Burroughs ever did was in the twelve short stories about Tarzan's youth, before the Apeman met any Europeans. These were collected in JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN, and it would have been satisfying if Burroughs had done another series of stories like these later on (rather than some of the tired and lame books from the second half of the series). Without the need to reach novel length, most of the repetitive padding could be skipped and a short story can get to a point worth making.
From the December 1916 issue of BLUE BOOK, "The God of Tarzan" finds the young Apeman wrestling with existential problems. He seems to be a teenager at this point, fully grown
physically and struggling with difficult concepts.
First, you have to accept that (entirely on his own) Tarzan has taught himself to read. Poring over the books his father left in that little cabin, our hero has figured out that the little black ink "bugs" on the pages represent words and he has laboriously assigned values to each bug and spelled them out in his own system. Moving from the simplistic illustrated childrens' books (which were meant for him, after all) up to the dictionary and encyclopedia, Tarzan has reached the point where he can look up the meaning of unfamiliar words.
Pretty darn impressive. The kid must have an innate IQ that would qualify him as a MENSA-level genius to do all this just out of sheer curiosity and tenacity. (Later on, we find he has as an adult also taught himself Latin so he can read the Classics in the original language; Burroughs' Tarzan is not much like the movie version.)
So the young Apeman is making his astonishing intellectual journey when he stumbles upon a new and confusing word, "God". Frankly, it's a concept wiser minds than mine have spent a lifetime trying to grasp but Tarzan gamely gives it a shot. As far as he can tell, God is "a mighty chieftain, king of all the Mangani" but there seems to be more to it than that. So he starts interrogating his clan of Great Apes and gets little help. They think that weather, lightning and so forth are sent by Goro, the moon. After standing on the highest branch he can reach and yelling questions and threats at the full moon, Tarzan reasonably decides this is a dead end.
His next step is to go and observe the native tribe he has been harassing for years. Despite the undeniable racism of the early stories, even Tarzan grudgingly admits the African natives are much wiser than his Mangani family and he has learned more from watching them than he realizes. Observing a late night ritual where young men are being baptized into manhood, Tarzan suspects that the witchdoctor might be God... after all, here is a human figure with the head of a buffalo and a tail, performing inexplicable ceremonies. Unfortunately, the shaman turns out to be just a man in a costume.
Greatly disappointed and trudging away, Tarzan is then attacked from behind by the chief (who has been losing many of his warriors to this murderous jungle devil). Good luck on trying to spear a young Apeman with enhanced senses of smell and hearing. Before you can say, "Nabonga!", Tarzan has the chief flat on the ground and is whipping out his hunting knife to do a little impromptu tracheotomy. Then something unexpected happens.
"For the first time the ape-man had a close view of the chief. He saw an old man, a very old man with scrawny neck and wrinkled face -- a dried, parchment-like face which resembled some of the little monkeys Tarzan knew so well. He saw the terror in the man's eyes -- never before had Tarzan seen such terror in the eyes of any animal, or such a piteous appeal for mercy upon the face of any creature."
For the first time in his brutal life, the Apeman stops before making a kill and he isn't sure why. He is filled with contempt for this creature weaker than himself but there's something more, "something new to Tarzan of the Apes in relation to an enemy. It was pity -- pity for a poor, frightened old man."
More confused and agitated than ever, our hero leaves the village and broods over what happened. "It was as though someone greater than he had commanded him to spare the life of the old man," and Tarzan answered to no one's authority at this point. His human intelligence gave him an advantage over the Great Apes and his superhuman strength and agility gave him an advantage over the African natives, so he was used to doing exactly as he pleased. The next morning, Tarzan is still wrestling with questions about why flowers bloom and why it rains, why animals are different from each other, where did everything comes from and what does it all mean anyway?! Then a little metaphorical light bulb goes click! over his shaggy head. One of the dictionary definitions of God was The Creator, and to create meant to cause to come into being. Wait a minute, he's almost got it.....
Drat, there's another interruption as a young Mangani is being attacked by a big constrictor. Tarzan hates Histah the snake with a passion and (although neither he nor Burroughs will admit it), he's obviously afraid of the creatures as well. Despite her own terror of the big snake, the baby's mother Teeka bravely jumps the creature in a hopeless attempt to save her child. Without hesitating, Tarzan does the same and it's a good thing he has his knife in hand. As the dying serpent writhes and wriggles about, Tarzan watches Teeka hugging her little one and is again confounded. Why did she attack a snake she couldn't possibly hope to defeat? For that matter, why did Tarzan himself do it? It wasn't his offspring, after all, why did he risk his own hide?
So finally, the Apeman concludes that God is an invisible presence which commanded him to do good deeds he otherwise wouldn't. It was God who had created the jungle and all its creatures, who made the sun rise and the rain fall. Tarzan concludes all good things came from God and is satisfied for a moment that he has solved the great mystery.
But leave it to Burroughs to throw in a little stinger at the very end. Suddenly, Tarzan is unsettled by a new thought. "He could not quite reconcile it to his conception of his new-found God. Who made Histah, the snake?"
Well, it's a theological thorn which has several different possible answers and I don't intend to get tangled in it here. But the picture of the young Tarzan sitting in the branch of a tree, watching his ape brethren placidly eat grubs while he racks his brain over the Meaning of Life is an appealing one.