Lost World, new meanings: adventure story also a parable of imperialism

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 10 | Nov. 12 – 18, 2010

In the last of the Noon Hour Forums running this semester, Dr. Nils Clausson will be presenting a paper on Nov. 19, entitled “The Lost World and the Art of Popular Fiction.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, is often thought of as a popular writer of detective and adventure stories, but Claussen told the Carillon in a recent interview that Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World can be re-evaluated as a political indictment of European imperialism.

The Lost World has been of greater interest to Hollywood screenwriters than to literary critics. Since it was written in 1912, it has been adapted into five movies, two radio dramas, and a television series. In the novel, a journalist, an adventurer, and two bickering scientists launch an expedition to a mysterious plateau in the Amazon. While the journalist is the narrator, the real star of the novel is the brilliant and aggressive Professor Challenger, who is accused of being a conman when he claims that dinosaurs are not extinct, and is later vindicated when the party finds dinosaurs in a self-contained ecosystem. They stumble into an ongoing conflict between native humans and bestial apes that live in the lost world, and side with the humans to subjugate the apes with their superior technology. They ultimately return home with a prize: an egg, from which hatches a pterodactyl.

On the surface, Claussen says, this seems like an affirmation of European rationalism and culture, the civilizing mission that provided justification for colonialism. The heroes go into the primitive jungle, engage in heroic acts, and return to civilization victorious. However, this is only true if we read it as a children’s adventure story. If we ignore our preconceptions and Conan Doyle’s public support of imperialism, we find that The Lost World is an “anti-imperial fable.”

The novel subverts the popular justification of colonial policy, which was that Europeans were doing natives a favour by civilizing them. Claussen argues that “characters are described in terms of animal images,” from the raucous London audience at the beginning of the story, to an ape that bears a strong resemblance to Challenger. During the conflict, the narrator relishes his bloodlust while slaughtering the apes, but feels a strange sense of regret when the apes are enslaved by the victorious human natives. Claussen describes the story as “a parody of the European imperial effort to civilize the natives … The Europeans end up being as barbarous as the ape people.”

Claussen says that The Lost World has largely been ignored because of negative assumptions about “popular” literature. However, as post-modern criticism has broken the boundaries between serious and popular literature, he feels that the novel must be reassessed, especially since it seems to anticipate post-colonialism. Claussen is currently working on a book about Conan Doyle, who he says deserves critical recognition as a serious author.

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