Undiscovered Territory

The Lost World

by Arthur Conan Doyle

A Review

‘Challenger smiled with weary and tolerant contempt, as a kindly man would meet the yapping of a litter of puppies.’

‘Beyond was an open glade, and in this were five of the most extraordinary creatures that I had ever seen …. Even the babies were as big as elephants ….’

lostworld

Arthur Conan Doyle is remembered today for his creation, the amateur detective Sherlock Holmes. Of his many other works, The Lost World is probably the most popular.

Professor Challenger is ridiculed by the Zoological Society of London when he produces evidence of prehistoric creatures still living on a mysterious plateau in an unexplored region of the Amazon basin. His detractors denounce his photographs as fakes and his blustery lecture as the ravings of a lunatic. Challenger guarantees to provide further proof of his assertions and an expedition is assembled to travel  to South America to test the matter. The adventure is narrated by Ed Malone, a journalist who joins the party along with Challenger himself, Professor Summerlee and Lord John Roxton, a well-known traveller and “sportsman”.

Because of the treachery of one of their native servants, the four men find themselves marooned on the plateau. Over the ensuing weeks, unable to find a means of escape, they discover that the stories are only too true. Dinosaurs and other ferocious creatures, believed by the world to be extinct, roam the forests. They encounter savage ape-men and a primitive tribe of “Indians” whom, with superior weaponry, they help massacre the former.

‘Behind me the thick, gasping breathing of the creature sounded louder and louder. His heavy footfall was beside me …. then suddenly there came a crash – I was falling through space …..

On returning to England to present their findings, they find the scientific community still disbelieving until Challenger releases his coup de grâce, the one piece of evidence which even the most hardened sceptic cannot deny.

Reading The Lost World is indeed like stepping into the past, not because of the novel’s fantasy element, but rather because of its literary style and content. The era to which it belongs – The Lost World was published in 1912 – was vastly different from the times we live in today. Many of the social mores and racial attitudes we find weird, if not contemptible, in this age. The belief, by white Europeans naturally, that the white races were superior to all others was deep-seated and enduring. Shooting and killing if wild animals and displaying their heads as trophies was “sportsmanlike” and “fun”. The book includes much of this sort of thing, with the ape-men considered not worthy of life and the “sportsman” Roxton portrayed as a hero.

As a writer of crime fiction, Conan was a pioneer. His stories are master classes of the genre which have deservedly stood the test of time. However, I think other writers of his  time,  though displaying the same prejudices, were much better at fantasy adventure.

The Lost World, presented as several reports by Malone back home to his editor, lacks the “oomph” of other novels in the genre. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne and HG Wells all produced bodies of work that are much more fun to read.

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