The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle (1912) – Review
Long before I had heard of Sherlock Holmes I was an enthusiastic reader of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories. I grew up near Crystal Palace (London), which boasts a Victorian park full of wonderful 19th century dinosaur sculptures. So it should be no surprise that The Lost World was a favourite read.
The Lost World would once have been described as a “Boy’s Own Story” or a “a rollicking good yarn”. Today we might say it was a delightful adventure story, keeping the thrills coming and the improbable plot clipping along at a pleasingly manic pace. The story is that of a scientific expedition sent to examine the reported claims by the iconic Professor Challenger that prehistoric life still exists on an inaccessible plateau in Brazil. This expedition discovers a lost world where dinosaurs, ape-men and humans co-exist.
There are 4 main characters, each plays an important role in the story, and also in the story-telling by ensuring multiple points of view.
Professor Challenger: A squat bull-dog of a man and an arrogant, short tempered, genius. A model for portraits of “mad professors” thereafter.
“He was too absurd to make me angry. Indeed, it was a waste of energy, for if you were going to be angry with this man you would be angry all the time.”
Professor Summerlee: A physical opposite to Challenger, a sceptic and a useful bickering partner for his fellow scholar. He represents mainstream, conservative science (and is usually wrong).
Mr. Summerlee, the veteran Professor of Comparative Anatomy, rose among the audience, a tall, thin, bitter man, with the withered aspect of a theologian.
Lord John Roxton: The aristocratic hunter-adventurer. With cool charm and a lust for life.
“He has a gentle voice and a quiet manner, but behind his twinkling blue eyes there lurks a capacity for furious wrath and implacable resolution, the more dangerous because they are held in leash.”
And lastly, Ed Malone, a reporter: I always felt that Malone was there to represent “us” – the decent, ordinary reader. Conan Doyle uses him as the eyes through which many of the adventures in The Lost World are seen.
There is a good deal of humour used in the book, without it detracting from the realism.
“Most interesting … An enormous blood-tick, as yet, I believe, unclassified.” “The first-fruits of our labours,” said Challenger in his booming, pedantic fashion. “We cannot do less than call it Ixodes Maloni. The very small inconvenience of being bitten, my young friend, cannot, I am sure, weigh with you as against the glorious privilege of having your name inscribed in the deathless roll of zoology. Unhappily you have crushed this fine specimen at the moment of satiation.”
“Well, I’m a bacteriologist, you know. I live in a nine-hundred-diameter microscope. I can hardly claim to take serious notice of anything that I can see with my naked eye.”
This book was written more than a hundred years ago and the reader should be prepared to meet some of the unenlightened language and attitudes of the time, most noticeably in the description and stereotypical speech of the ‘faithful’ black servant, Zambo: “Devil got them sure, Massa Malone”. There was less of this than I expected, but it’s certainly there. Apart from anything else, this use of cartoonish language is a set back for the realism that Conan Doyle carefully builds up. The more unlikely a story, the more believable all background detail needs to be (see how brilliantly this is handled in the ghost stories of M.R. James).
Interestingly, rereading after a very long gap, Lord John Roxton (the big game hunter) was not the unapologetic imperialist I had remembered. On a previous trip to the area he had sought out, shot and killed several people involved in the illegal slave trade. These killings have repercussions for The Lost World expedition when they arrive at the plateau.
That’s the rifle I used against the Peruvian slave-drivers three years ago. I was the flail of the Lord up in those parts, I may tell you, though you won’t find it in any Blue-book. There are times, young fellah, when every one of us must make a stand for human right and justice, or you never feel clean again. That’s why I made a little war of my own. Declared it myself, waged it myself, ended it myself. Each of those nicks is for a slaver murderer – a good row of them – what.
I have read several unattributed claims that Lord John Roxton is based on Conan Doyle’s friend, Sir Roger Casement.
Casement was a British diplomat, poet, and Irish nationalist, knighted in 1911 for his investigations into human rights abuses in the Congo and Peru. He ended up stripped of his knighthood and executed for seeking arms from Germany to use in an armed rebellion in Ireland against the British – a dangerous thing to do during wartime.
For me it is the depiction of prehistoric life in The Lost World that is most fascinating and brings the book to life. But there are other delights, such as the two iconic characters – Professor Challenger and Lord John Roxton, the humour, the period details and the rapid pace of the story. Do give it a try – you won’t regret it.