Friday, December 03, 2004

The Lost World

I have recently re-read Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s adventure novel “The Lost World”, which I had last read when in my teens, and I think in a single sitting, so exciting had I found it. So when I settled down to read it again these forty-five or so years later, I wondered whether I would be similarly enthralled. I wasn’t quite, but it was close. And this is how it should have been, since I am an older boy than I was forty-five years ago.

“The Lost World” is prefaced by a short poem, which goes:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man
Or the man who’s half a boy.

So there it is. Yes, I’m a man still half a boy, and reading again “The Lost World” after all these years gave me more than the one hour of joy as intended in the poem. So Conan-Doyle did his job well.

The book is about four men who travel to the Amazon to find the plateau where dinosaurs and other antediluvian creatures are rumoured still to dwell. The plateau had been formed through the movement of tectonic plates beneath the earth over the aeons. Because the plateau had become so inaccessible from the land surrounding it, the sentient life forms it hosted were supposed not to have become extinct. A man called Professor Challenger, on a previous expedition there, had seen some birds flying in the air, which he claimed were pterodactyls, but no-one back in Edwardian England believed him.

To gather proof of their survival, another expedition is arranged. The three intrepid men who accept the challenge to validate Professor Challenger’s claims are a newspaperman, E.D. Malone, who is the narrator; Professor Summerlee, a bird-like bookworm; and Lord John Roxton, a gun-toting adventurer given to dropping his “g”s from the ends of words when he speaks. And, oh yes, to carry their stuff and do the cooking and the like, they take along with them a couple of Indians and a large faithful negro called Zambo.

During the journey to the Amazon Professor Challenger pops up along the way, since no-one was going to leave him out of this for anything. Professor Challenger is as his name suggests – challenging. He is short and squat, with a barrel-like chest. The world is his adversary, because he loves to argue and fight. When Malone had first called on him they got into an argument, which quickly turned into a wrestling match that only ended when the momentum of their flailing punches propelled them both into the street outside.

The four heroes find the fabled plateau – called Maple White Land, after its original discoverer – and have enough adventures there to last a lifetime, including nearly getting eaten by dinosaurs and just escaping being killed by ape-men. It is touch and go whether they will be able to escape back to civilization and tell their story. They do, thanks in large part to the faithful Zambo.

Back in England they are invited to present evidence of their findings at a meeting of the Zoological Institute in the Queen’s Hall, which is packed and boisterous, since some of the doubters can’t be silenced. Our heroes, anticipating disbelief, arrange for a large box to be brought in.

Professor Challenger opens it, and out comes a loathsome stinking creature with ten-foot long leathery wings. It escapes from Challenger’s grasp, knocking and bumping against the walls like a moth trying to escape, and it does indeed, and flies off into the London night. This is the proof the crowd needs. They rise to their feet, singing “God Save the King”, and hoist the four heroes aloft.

Where could they go from there? What, particularly, could our narrator, E.D. Malone do now? The main reason he’d gone on the expedition was to prove his worth to Gladys, the young lady he wanted to marry. Going on life threatening adventures was the sort of thing young ladies of that time expected their young men to do, because they had to be, above all, brave.

When Malone knocks on Gladys’s door after he returns from his journey, he finds out she is engaged to be married to someone else, an inoffensive solicitor’s clerk. Thus Malone must now change the name of the lake he’d discovered on the plateau, from Lake Gladys to the more prosaic Lake Central.

Being now at a loose end, Lord John Roxton decides to arrange another expedition to “……have another look at the dear old plateau”. Malone asks if he can also go along if Lord John will have him. “…….Lord Roxton said nothing, but a brown hand was stretched out to me across the table”. The end.

“The Lost World” was published in 1912. It exudes the English self-confidence and jingoism of those times when the white man, particularly the English white man, was lord of the world which contained an empire on which the sun never set. Little did he know that just two years later, in 1914, the curtain would drop, the guns would be booming on the Western Front, and one million young Englishmen - an entire generation - would die in the mud and barbed wire of the trenches.

The innocent world of Professor Challenger and Lord John Roxton would be gone forever, to become a lost world.