Undoubtedly the most important of Conan Doyle's science fiction works is The Lost World, a novel which is often compared with Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Henry Rider Haggard's She: a history of adventure (a dream fantasy of a primitive people living amid the ruins of an ancient but more advanced society). Even today, The Lost World story unfolding for the first time reader still proves captivating, and along with the unsurpassed palaeo-artwork of the late Czech painter Zdenek Burian, has probably been responsible for inspiring more young would-be palaeontologists than any formal text could ever hope to. The novel was Conan Doyle's first full-length science-fiction work as well as the first story to feature the indefatigable Professor Challenger who was, after Holmes, Conan Doyle's favourite character. Conan Doyle even used to walk about London streets in full Challenger disguise complete with fake beard and eyebrows! Challenger would later appear in 4 other Conan Doyle stories, but was never again as memorable as he proved to be in his debut.
Conan Doyle was the first author to use the concept of an isolated block of land harbouring a fauna and flora elsewhere extinct, and the novel had a far greater influence than any other of his science fiction works. Pitting humans against dinosaurs or other prehistoric animals became a common premise of many subsequent science fiction works. Among the better known literary descendants of Conan Doyle's novel can be counted Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land that Time Forgot (1918), Vladimir Obruchev's educationally-oriented Plutonia: an adventure through prehistory (1924), Michael Crichton's 1991 Jurassic Park (somewhat misnamed as it featured mainly Cretaceous dinosaurs), his 1995 sequel that, to the chagrin of many, used the title The Lost World, and finally Greg Bear's Dinosaur Summer (1998) with a sequel of sorts to Conan Doyle's original story.
On the cinematic front (where if a plot succeeds well it is guaranteed endless variations), there was First National's silent 1925 screen adaptation The Lost World with animation by Willis O'Brien and Marcel Delgado (and plot details that rarely followed the book), followed by a veritable flood of films with a strong 'lost world' influence that unfortunately became something of a commercial cliché in later decades. The more memorable examples include the ever classic King Kong (RKO, 1933) with superb animation again by the O'Brien/Delgado team, and The Valley of Gwangi (Warner Bros, 1969) with a story-line saved only by Ray Harryhausen's brilliant stop-motion special effects with a model allosaur. For better or for worse, both of Crichton?s novels were also committed to film, their production beginning with stop-motion but ended up as a mixture of computer graphics and robotics. However, in spite of the host of Lost World imitators (some of whom have even tried to deny their source of inspiration), it is interesting to note that even with consideration to First National's 1925 offering (admittedly a remarkable achievement for its era), a faithful screen adaptation of Conan Doyle's story has yet to be attempted.
Although The Lost World has seen numerous editions, many reviewed versions have commentaries that focus only on the literary influences on Conan Doyle. However, because Doyle literally broke new ground with The Lost World, such factors are of relatively minor importance, and it is in fact the non-literary factors behind the novel that remain to be fully explored. It is a story (or stories as they are) often almost as unusual as the plot itself, and involves the Golden Age of Edwardian palaeontology and fortuitous finds of dinosaur fossils, a host of discoveries of some of the world's largest animals just prior to the novel being written, the barbaric slave trade associated with the great rubber boom in South America and the Belgian Congo, the exploration of the most inaccessible corners of South America (including the formidable plateaus of the Gran Sabana), and finally, the greatest scientific fraud of recent times, Piltdown Man.
Conan Doyle was an author who frequently drew his characters and stories from real life. Friends, associates, teachers and lecturers were all utilised in his writings, and real life experiences were constantly being catalogued away to be later used as background material for various mystery plots. Conan Doyle was familiar with the exploits of pioneering naturalists in the rain forests of South America, particularly Alfred Russell Wallace and Walter Bates (he had particular admiration for the scientific methodology of Wallace). He knew Sir Roger Casement (British consul in Rio de Janeiro, among other posts) and his colleague, the freelance journalist Edmund Morel, both of whom played major roles in ending the slavery associated with the dying years of the great South American rubber boom when the lives of rubber tappers were considered to be worth less than the latex they harvested. Doyle met Colonel Percy Fawcett, the South American surveyor/explorer who eventually disappeared while searching for a lost city in the vast Brazilian Matto Grosso, and he knew of Sir Everard im Thurn, the first European to climb to the summit of the 'lost world' of Mt Roraima that defines the common border of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. Doyle was also a friend of Sir Edwin Ray Lankester who was director of the British Museum and a scientist who had described several sensational new zoological discoveries (including the okapi from Central Africa).
Conan Doyle made use of the travelogues of Wallace and Bates (A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro and The Naturalist on the River Amazons, respectively) to fill in background detail for the landscapes traversed by the Challenger expedition as it made its way to the plateau, particularly in chapter VIII. For descriptions of the extinct animals encountered by the expedition, Doyle turned to Lankester's 1905 book Prehistoric Animals. Lankester himself was happy to act as technical advisor for any matter palaeontological, and suggested the inclusion of several newly-discovered fossil animals in the story, some of which Conan Doyle followed through with.
As regards the character outlines for the novel's cast, Challenger evidently possessed traits of teachers recalled by Conan Doyle from his university days (particularly the anatomy lecturer Professor Rutherford), while it was Edmund Morel, Roger Casement and Percy Fawcett who provided the main inspirations for two of the novel's other key characters, Edward Malone and Lord John Roxton. As narrator of the novel, Edward Malone was Conan Doyle's own pseudonym and was actually a mixture of a youthful Conan Doyle with aspects of Edmund Morel thrown in. Conan Doyle had campaigned and lectured with Morel in the fight against the terrible slavery prevalent throughout the Congo Free State under the rule of the Belgian king, Leopold II. Lord John Roxton had identifiable aspects of both Fawcett and Casement, and Conan Doyle had discussed his intended novel with both at various times. He attended Fawcett's London lectures on his South American explorations, and made use of details from Casement's correspondence during his Putumayo investigations into the maltreatment of Huitoto Indians enslaved by the Amazon Rubber Company in Peru. In the novel, Roxton is described as one who had also carried out a personal war against Peruvian slave traders in the Putumayo, which is part of the plot Conan Doyle used to get the expedition marooned on the plateau.
But it was Conan Doyle's chance discovery of several Iguanodon footprints while he was exploring a quarry close to his Windlesham home in Sussex during 1909 that really fired his imagination. More than any other, this single event probably set the final course for the writing of the novel (appropriately, it is a group of Iguanodons that are the first unknown animals encountered by the expedition when they ascend the plateau). Similar footprints had already been discovered elsewhere in England so the find was not considered of great scientific importance (indeed they were never formally described, but see Batory & Sarjeant, 1989). They nonetheless proved inspiring for their discoverer, who already had keen interests in archaeology and geology, and was in the habit of collecting archaeological artefacts to be displayed at his Windlesham home. Conan Doyle had plaster casts of the Iguanodon footprints made to be displayed there also, but the ultimate fate of these curiosities unfortunately is unknown, which is a shame as they would now be of great value due to the part they played in the genesis of the novel.
Although Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World primarily for younger readers, many adults actually accepted it as a true narrative. Shortly after its publication, newspapers were even reporting that a University of Pennsylvania expedition had set off to Brazil seeking evidence of the mysterious plateau. Although often quoted as evidence of how convincing the novel was, in this instance it appears to have been more a case of editors seeing fit to sensationalise an otherwise authentic anthropological expedition by the University. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that Conan Doyle's story could well appear to be within the realms of possibility, because the years leading up to 1912 saw a succession of sensational new zoological discoveries, particularly from the 'Dark Continent'. These included the mountain gorilla (the largest known primate), the okapi (a totally unknown animal), the northern subspecies of the white rhino (the second largest land animal), the Ituri Forest giant boar, and the pygmy hippopotamus, among others. Spectacular zoological finds beyond Africa included the largest known land reptile, the giant Komodo Dragon ('discovered' in 1912 after years of Komodo Islander legends concerning 'land crocodiles') and the great Eastern Siberian brown bear, again the world's largest.
A major South American archaeological find that also probably proved somewhat convenient for Conan Doyle was the uncovering of the 'lost' Inca city of Machu Picchu by the American explorer Hiram Bigham in 1911. This impressive complex of stone fortifications, buildings and terraced gardens had lain covered in jungle only 2000 ft above one of the most travelled roads in Peru. Archaeologists and the public alike were totally astounded that such a huge complex could have remained undiscovered for so long after the Spanish conquest. To readers in 1912, accustomed as they were to such sensational finds, Conan Doyle's novel must have seemed far less of a dream-wish than it does today.
Another famous discovery announced just two months after the novel was released was the strange case of Piltdown Man. Remnants of this curious 'fossil', which seemingly represented the supposed missing link between ape and Man, had been found in 1908 not far from Conan Doyle's home. The find now ranks as the most infamous scientific fake of all time (being the union of a modern human skull with an orang-utan jaw), but the perpetrator of the fraud has yet to be unmasked. Conan Doyle was suggested as a possible suspect, as was Martin Hinton, a curator at the British Museum. In 1996, the journal Nature concluded that Hinton was the culprit after some of his fossil samples were found in an unused wing of the British Museum. More recently, the evidence against Hinton has been criticised and found to be wanting (among other things, the timing does not fit at all with the first finds made at Piltdown). Certainly, The Lost World contains references that would have to be unusually coincidental indeed if they did not relate to the Piltdown fraud. There is even good evidence that Conan Doyle was, in fact, the only person who was actually capable of carrying out the entire deception. Whatever was the true story behind Piltdown, one thing is certain - Conan Doyle himself could not have conjured up a worthier mystery to test the great Sherlock Holmes himself.
Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World at his Windlesham home in Sussex during 1911. The 76,000 word text was completed in December, the photos and illustrations in early 1912. Upon completion of the text, Conan Doyle wrote to his editor at the Strand Magazine "I think it (The Lost World) will make the very best serial (bar special Holmes values) that I have ever done, especially when it has its trimmings of faked photos, maps, and plans. My ambition is to do for the boy?s book what Sherlock Holmes did for the detective tale. I don't suppose I could bring off two such coups. And yet I hope it may."
Publication in the Strand, (which had introduced many Sherlock Holmes stories to the public), was in a series of instalments running from April to November 1912 (vols. XLIII no. 156 to XLIV, no. 263) with illustrations by Harry Rountree. Circulation of the magazine in England alone is said to have reached 250,000. In October 1912 the first novel version was released by Hodder & Stoughton (London) and simultaneously by other publishers in New York and Toronto. A more elaborate and collectable edition was published later that same year, with illustrations by photographer William Ransford and watercolours by artist Patrick Forbes. Editions periodically surface and command good prices among collectors.
In the first editions, Conan Doyle included faked photographs (some of which he created himself) and maps purporting to represent the plateau of Maple White Land, which had been named by Challenger for the American who met his death shortly after making his great discovery. There were no compass directions given with any of the maps (including the aerial plan which is actually a thinly-disguised map of Sussex), with Malone claiming to have been instructed by Challenger to withhold the plateau's location. Over the years, many have searched for clues in an attempt to pinpoint a location for Conan Doyle's plateau. Mt Roraima (tepui) on the border of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana was probably the main inspiration for Conan Doyle, while another was the Ricardo Franco Hills where Fawcett almost met an untimely fate during an expedition to the River Verde on the Bolivian-Brazilian border in 1908. Maple White Land does indeed have elements of both places (eg. the Towashing Pinnacle at the southern end of Roraima which is similar to the pinnacle of ascent used by the expedition to reach the summit of Maple White Land, and the thick bamboo forests leading to both the Ricardo Franco Hills and Maple White Land etc.), but was probably not intended to actually represent either one of these places. Although there had been much speculation as to what prehistoric animal life may have survived on the summit of Roraima, the plateau had already been ascended (in 1884) by Everard im Thurn and the surface was known to be sparsely vegetated, rocky, inhospitable, and highly eroded - hardly a suitable habitat for large dinosaurs or mammals! However, the book does contain a number of clues about Maple White Land (altitude, dimensions, distances from waterways etc), and a compass bearing is obtainable if one knows where to look. Whether all these 'clues' are intentional or not is another matter, however, because although Conan Doyle was a brilliant writer, he was somewhat less concerned with finer details, a fact openly admitted in his 1924 autobiography. Consequently, if one attempts to link textual events by dates and relative geographical positions, it soon becomes evident that the novel was never intended to be analysed in such a manner. Which all goes to prove that the primary aim of the story was to entertain, and in that respect, it has been remarkably successful.
One unfortunate by-product of Conan Doyle's novel is that it can appear to foster the misconception that primitive man and dinosaurs had been contemporaneous. Even in scholarly reviews (where the term 'dinosaur' often encompasses all large prehistoric reptiles), it has been suggested that Conan Doyle used artistic latitude in having animals from different geological periods co-exist with each other and with humans. However, Challenger makes it quite clear (on more than one occasion in fact) how this strange situation came about. The plateau had a cavernous route of access from the plains below (the same one used by Maple White and his companion James Colver), and as animals from different geological eras made their way to the summit, they became isolated from the environmental changes subjected to the world below. Thus had the original lineages (as old as Jurassic) managed to survive alongside recent immigrants. Challenger envisaged the Indians and the ape-men as having been only very recent migrants, and also mentioned other recent or extant mammals that were found on the plateau (the giant elk Megaceros, anteaters, tapirs etc). In fact, an explanation for the survival of prehistoric animals into modern times had already been given by Conan Doyle in an earlier story entitled The Terror of Blue-John Gap (1910) which in some respects was a predecessor to The Lost World, a fact often overlooked in literary reviews.
It has also been claimed that Conan Doyle used well-known or 'canonical' British dinosaurs to populate his plateau. Yet of the three types of dinosaur mentioned in the text, Iguanodon, Stegosaurus and an unidentified carnivore, none was actually peculiar to England! Doyle was simply using dinosaurs (and other prehistoric animals) that were well known to science at that time. And although South American dinosaurs had been discovered as early as 1891 by the Argentinean Francisco Moreno, very little work was done on them until the German Friedrich von Heune began working on the late Cretaceous sauropods of Patagonia in 1923. If such species had been better known in 1911, Doyle no doubt would have made use of them in the story. The other major animals encountered by the explorers on Maple White Land include plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, pterodactyls, glyptodonts (not ankylosaurs as has been suggested in a recent edition!), Toxodon, and the giant bird Phororhacos. Glyptodonts, Toxodon and Phororhacos were well known South American forms.
Although The Lost World proved immensely popular, the novel was slow to receive praise from literary critics. Part of the reason is that critics' disdain for the Challenger series in general resulted in a tendency to overlook The Lost World as a work in its own right. Today, that situation has finally changed. Recent researchers, in particular the American Dana Batory and the British/Canadian geologist William Sarjeant (a well-known fiction writer under the name Antony Swithin) have dug deeper into the true background to the novel than had been attempted by earlier reviewers. The Lost World is now not only recognised as possibly being Conan Doyle's finest fiction work, but is without doubt one of the most enduring literary examples of an epic discovery combined with original and convincing fiction at its very best. One can only hope that one day, someone will be able to successfully transpose the novel onto celluloid without compromising the original story.
© 2001, John Lavas. (the author is currently completing a major collectors' edition of The Lost World with a complete history of the novel and its creator).
Batory RD, & WAS Sarjeant. Sussex Iguanodon Footprints and the Writing of The Lost World, in: Dinosaur Tracks and Traces (DD. Gillette & MG. Lockley, Eds); Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 13-18.