Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Adventure classics -- Caution: pterodactyl crossing

The Lost World

by Arthur Conan Doyle


My family loves dinosaurs. A grandson went to his first grade class’s “career day” program dressed as the paleontologist from “Dinosaur Train.” My daughter measured her foot against the prints in Texas’ Dinosaur Valley state park. And I remember my disappointment as a child when I realized finds of dinosaur eggs were fossils that would never hatch living baby dinos. So Arthur Conan Doyle’s foray into the world of dinosaurs, The Lost World, had to make my reading list.

Actually, my first introduction to the story was a cartoon version, only one among dozens of offshoots inspired by the prolific story. Including of course, Michael Crichton’s only sequel novel.

The debt modern writers owe goes deeper than a T. rex’s footprint. As the late Michael Crichton noted in his introduction to a new edition of the 1912 tale, it “set the standard and the formula for fantasy-adventure stories since that time. The tone and techniques that Conan Doyle first refined in The Lost World have become standard narrative procedures in popular entertainment of the present day.”

image: wikimedia commons
As he did in his pioneering works of detective fiction, the Sherlock Holmes stories, Conan Doyle establishes a larger than life expert, the brilliant, irascible and very eccentric scientist Professor George Challenger. Young journalist Edward Malone plays Watson to Challenger’s Holmes, interpreting the great man’s actions and ideas for the readers of Malone’s newspaper -- and of course, for us.

When the story opens, Challenger has returned to London from an expedition to South America with the outrageous claim of finding a remote plateau he believes harbors a lost colony of dinosaurs. With Challenger’s photographs and specimens lost in an accident, he has only a sketch in a notebook left to him by dying explorer to support his story. When scientific colleagues demand more proof, an independent expedition with Malone in tow sets out to replicate Challenger’s journey.

Unfortunately for modern readers, reconstruction of dinosaur anatomy and behavior was still in its infancy in the early twentieth century, as you can see from the illustration for this post, a page scan from Conan Doyle’s original edition. Tyrannosaurus rex had received his name around the turn of the century, but still had a reputation for being slow, cold-blooded, and dim-witted. And the viciously brainy velociraptors of Jurassic Park fame wouldn’t be discovered until the decade after Conan Doyle’s story.

“Conan Doyle needs a clever antagonist to sustain his narrative,“ Crichton wrote, “and with warm-blooded, intelligent dinosaurs still fifty years in the future (he) postulates a race of savage ape-men.” The expedition’s scientists, big-game hunter, and of course, reporter, are barely a match for the atavistic ape-men (“dryopithecus of Java or pithecanthropus” the expedition scientists speculate).

But keep reading for Conan Doyle’s climactic scene of a living pterodactyl set loose in a packed London lecture hall. It’s as outrageously entertaining as any movie show down between T. rex and raptors. Makes me wish that somehow that lonely pterodactyl found its way home.

Conan Doyle’s tale, its copyright extinct as a dinosaur, is available at

The text of Crichton’s introduction is available at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics looks at another monstrously influential adventure story, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.)

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