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Primitive Possibilities: Recovery and Illusion in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World

By Leen Mshasha

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) was published at a time when the giant of British colonialism was waning, and the Romantic genres popularised at the height of British imperialism had become outmoded. It is a world coping with what Rieder calls the “ideological dichotomy between glorification of progress and nostalgia for primitive joy and simplicity” (Rieder 40). Doyle’s world is one that remains immersed in the Victorian myth of ‘progress’ while simultaneously witnessing the breakdown of the colonial modes that long sustained it. The Victorian era was a time of unprecedented faith in technological progress and invention, an age during which scientific discovery became ideologically inextricable from humanity’s development. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World grounds itself in the tradition of the popular Victorian imperial romance, a genre in which the colonial setting is framed as a reinvigorating space for adventure. The novel thus casts the journey to the prehistoric South American plateau, the so-called “Lost World,” as a recovery of both humanity and the individual’s childhood in an age defined by esoteric scientific abstraction. Doyle’s depiction of an inaccessible science grappling with fears of resource exhaustion and extinction frames the Lost World as a space rife with possibility. The sense of adventure that this generates, transports the characters back to their childhoods and the South American setting is reconstructed into the British landscape of the protagonists’ youth. In the process, the Lost World transforms into a land of fantasy and, in so doing, Doyle reveals the various illusions required to construct and maintain the heroes’ adventure. I argue that the act of recovery, when juxtaposed with the narrative’s purported driving forces of scientific discovery and colonial expedition, reveals the illusory and unstable nature of knowledge in both the scientific and the colonial contexts. 

Scientists in The Lost World occupy an elevated realm that is both insular and inaccessible. Professor Summerlee and Challenger engage in heated scientific debates throughout the novel, from which Lord John and Malone are often excluded. They are described as “two savants ascend[ing] together into some rarefied scientific atmosphere” (Doyle 113). The professors must depart from the practical, physical world to enter their esoteric, “rarefied” discussions, leaving Malone, Roxton, and the reader at a distance (Doyle 113). In this way, the science the two professors practice becomes exclusionary and estranging. By refusing the popular laymen’s voices of Malone and Roxton, the scope of scientific work is narrowed. This is literalized in the character of the bacteriologist who “live[s] in a nine-hundred-diameter microscope” (Doyle 12), a very narrow diameter by human design (Doyle 12). Doyle thus invites the reader to ponder science’s limits and their origins, successfully highlighting that the bounds and limitations of science are often self-imposed, due to the exclusion of lay voices. These bounds are illusory in the sense that they are fabricated, ensuring that only the older, established gentlemen are allowed to practice science. By narrowing the pool of ‘scientists,’ science must contend with the possible exhaustion of its epistemic resources. This fear of exhaustion within the metropole is amplified by the growing cognizance of ecological exhaustion in the Victorian era. Cowles writes about how, “in the wake of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and in the context of mid-Victorian anxieties about the natural world and human impacts on it, …the process of extinction became an object of …widespread alarm” (695). The Lost World highlights the violence of Victorian progress. It is a process guided by a select group of scientists and sustained by the mining of minerals, animals, and plants, all of which threaten to be exhausted. In this way, the novel describes a science that has become divorced from practical concerns and, as a result, threatens the extinction and exhaustion of the resources needed to maintain it, whether they be epistemic or ecological.

Fears of colonial and natural exhaustion are central to The Lost World and incite a turn backwards towards a more fruitful ‘past’ residing in the colonial fantasy of the vast ‘New’ World. As the demands of science and technology on the environment grow and warn of ecological exhaustion, novels in this period and the previous period become increasingly reliant on the “colonial and capitalist ideological fantasy of the inexhaustible natural abundance of the ‘new world’” (Rieder 37-8). The New World becomes a space for renewal where one can circumvent the exhaustion faced in the metropole. This logic extends to science itself. While travelling to the plateau, Professor Summerlee “spends his days flitting through the woods,… and his evenings in mounting the many specimens he has acquired” (Doyle 57). The journey to the Lost World and the cataloguing of newly discovered species as well as the rediscovery of what were thought to be extinct species has a reinvigorating influence on the field of zoology. Summerlee is removed from the quiet, sedentary life of the metropolitan scientific societies, and plunged into a world where his time is consumed by his zoological work. The Lost World is a space where the extinction of flora and fauna is reversed. Animal and plant species thought to belong to the past return. Dinosaurs and ape-men roam the earth once more. In this way, the New World offers up both ecological and epistemic wealth that counteracts the metropolitan fears of extinction brought on by the colonial project.

But the novel’s concept of ‘renewal’ is a problematic one, in the sense that the path to renewal turns towards the past. The Lost World displays a “tenderness towards initiation” (Riach 112). Initiation and beginnings become sentimental concepts rooted in the past. In other words, the novel is reliant on the romanticization of discovery and of a new world which holds possibilities for youthful adventure. Notably though, the novel does this by relying on an ideology that views the ‘New’ world  as “backwards,” imbued with a past temporality. Thus, a paradox emerges: the novelty of the new world is fostered by the conception of it as a primitive, “lost” space; the ‘New’ World is actually portrayed as prehistoric. Doyle’s choice of the imperial adventure as a form demonstrates this tension between the new world as a space of unlimited possibility while simultaneously being inextricably moored in the past. Early in the novel, Doyle’s characters warn of the exhaustion of the genre: “I’m afraid the day for this sort of thing is rather past… there’s no room for romance anywhere” (Doyle 9-10). The imperial Romance and the tenderness towards colonial adventure belong to the days of Doyle’s childhood, days already lived and experienced. And yet, it is within the tropes of this genre that Doyle’s adventure takes place. The very notion of adventure is intimately joined to the search for novelty and “initiation:” the journey is a “vast new project” that promises adventure and assuages the fears of its exhaustion (Doyle 47). It is a “vast” space of possibility that transports the characters away from a world where “there’s no room,” and back to the expansive world of romance. Lord John asks: “Why shouldn’t something new and wonderful lie in such a country?” (Doyle 53). The irony of course is that their adventure leads them to a prehistoric world; ‘discovery’ lies in an act of recovery. 

One of the most notable acts of retrieval in the novel is the protagonists’ recovery of their childhood, which causes them to  access the wonder, prospects, and fears of youth. Nature is made into a mother figure, as in “the great lake, the mother of strange monsters” (Doyle 174). This establishes the plateau as a space for the child’s development. More importantly however, the space is a vehicle for their “childish sense of anticipation” (Riach 111). Doyle utilises the plateau as a “metaphor by which the adult could encounter the child once again. The adventurers sustain their youth, even as they grow up” (Riach 111-2). As they explore the Lost World, their excitement turns their behaviour more and more child-like. For instance, Challenger and Summerlee’s puerile bickering leads Malone to the conclusion that “they are children both” (Doyle 66). It is not only the scientists that behave childishly, but the whole group, as when Malone says:  “We were too excited to return to camp, but must make our first exploration at once…we found ourselves climbing upon hands and knees among loose rubble” (Doyle 83). The characters lose all inhibition and take up the position of a child on “hands and knees,” revelling in their youthful excitement. Likewise, Malone is inspired to climb a tree by the recollection of “r[unning] wild as a lad in Ireland” (Doyle 116). These childlike actions demonstrate how, in the Lost World, the adventurers can once again engage in the pastimes of their youth.

However, while the child’s sense of limitless possibility generates wonder, it can simultaneously inspire fear. When Malone is temporarily separated from the rest of the group, he says: “Without them I was like a child in the dark, helpless and powerless” (Doyle 133). Deprived of the paternal protection of his older companions, Malone recovers not only the wonder of youth, but also the feeling of fear and powerlessness. Malone draws an explicit parallel between his time on the plateau and his childhood: “Memory, at least, will never fail me…every hour and every action of that period will stand out as hard and clear as do the first strange happenings of our childhood” (Doyle 164). Malone goes on to describe the various creatures they encountered on their journey, as well as the horror and bewilderment which these creatures inspired in them, demonstrating how it is the memory of fearful exhilaration which connects the plateau and childhood. The irony here is that memory often proves to be unreliable, especially when it depends on the developing perceptions of a frightened child in a world of possibilities. Malone’s separation from his companions is recalled only in vague terms: “I must have nearly lost my reason. I have a vague recollection, as one remembers a bad dream” (Doyle 132). It is this muddled recollection which prompts Malone to describe himself as a “child in the dark” (Doyle 133). His memory, supposedly “hard and clear” as he later claims (Doyle 164), is likened to a delusion and a dream, verging on the realm of fiction. Doyle thus invites the reader to question how much of childhood, and by extension, how much of the adventurer’s time in the Lost World, is fabrication and fantasy.

To maintain the fantasy of a childhood recovered for the British characters, the South American landscape is reconfigured through an English lens. The voyage to the plateau takes the travellers through a forest that is strikingly reminiscent of a British church: 

“Gothic upward curves which coalesced to form one great matted roof of verdure…amidst the majestic obscurity. As we walked noiselessly amid the thick, soft carpet of decaying vegetation the hush fell upon our souls which comes upon us in the twilight of the Abbey” (Doyle 66-7).

Besides the explicit reference to the spiritual reverence and silence that the space inspires, the “Gothic” columns, soft carpeting, and coalescing roof evoke ecclesiastical architecture common in England. Later in the chapter, the sounds that are heard are likewise integrated into this image of the English church, the forest “droned like an organ in the distance, so loud was it with insect life” (Doyle 72). Malone engages with the New World through his British references. This phenomenon repeats throughout the novel, especially when it comes to sounds: the “hissing pant” is “as regular and full-volumed as the exhaust of an engine” (Doyle 110) and “the sound…[is] like a boiling kettle” (Doyle 125). Doyle draws on the defining elements of British identity, whether they be trains, tea, or theology, to define and describe a foreign non-British space.

By transporting the characters into a space that is interpreted through the lens of their  British identity, Doyle obscures the Indigenous space. The reader’s understanding of the space is mediated by Malone’s narration and his positionality as an inheritor of colonial power hierarchies. The forest reminds Malone of England, and in so doing, is stripped of its particularity. He takes notice of the familiar beech tree, “a fellow countryman in a far land,” but neglects to mention the diversity of other vegetation with significance to the Indigenous population (Doyle 90). The reappropriation of one’s past through the journey into the ‘New’ World is therefore one that requires a level of manipulation and illusion. Here, Doyle uses “the illusion as a form of mastery over the manipulability of appearances” (Rieder 60). The characters are under the illusion that the South American landscape is akin to the Britain of their youths, a playground for their games and exploits. It is a strategy that maintains imperial hegemony and mastery over the American space, while simultaneously allowing the colonial adventurer to revel in his and humanity’s youth. The colonial way of knowing is founded on a fantasy. Indeed, it becomes increasingly clear that the entire journey is predicated on a series of such fantasies and illusions.

The Lost World, in its negotiation of recovery and discovery, exposes the illusions that define and maintain Doyle’s society. As the protagonists make their final “survey” of the land, Malone voices his worries that the plateau will “be vulgarized” becoming “the prey of hunter and prospector.” (Doyle 173-4). The narrative is steeped in the notions of fantasy, with Malone characterizing the plateau as “a dreamland of glamour and romance, a land where we had dared much, suffered much, and learned much—our land.” The New World is a space of interest and excitement, but the adventurers’ understanding of it is anything but scientific and objective. Malone’s final survey of the land reveals not only the voyeurism that the colonial space is subjected to, but also the fact that this voyeurism is transformative and illusory. The Lost World is not simply a space for childish adventure as the tropes of romance would seem to indicate, but the “the prey of hunter and prospector.” The space is a victim of colonial appropriation, mined for its ecological wealth. More importantly perhaps, this passage reveals the adventurers’ hypocrisy. While Malone speaks of “glamour” and resents the vulgarisation of the land, he obscures the extinction of plant and animal life they caused and the extraordinary violence for which they are directly responsible. He also obscures their act of appropriation as, most strikingly, Malone calls the plateau “our land.” He performs the ultimate appropriation in claiming the space as their own. In drawing the reader’s attention to the stakes the characters’ have vested in the Lost World, Doyle highlights the deception that allows the protagonists to “simultaneously [revel] in the discovery of uncharted territory and [represent] the journey as a return to a lost legacy” (Rieder 40). That is, the deception that reconfigures recovery as discovery. Their thirst for adventure and discovery frames the narrative as a search for novelty. In the process, pre-existing Indigenous histories, spaces, and life are obscured in favour of a ‘discovery’ narrative. In reality, the ‘New’ World is not new at all, but instead lost, at least from the protagonists’ perspectives. 

In light of this, the reader is forced to reflect on the novel’s many illusions: the English Amazon, the illusory return to childhood and, more importantly, the fabricated colonial and scientific knowledge structures that facilitate the narrative. As Rieder explains, “the novel makes it clear that truth is an elaborately constructed representational practice poised with inescapable uncertainty between knowledge of the real and projection of desire” (Rieder 59-60). Doyle combines various systems of knowledge (colonial, romantic, scientific) to expose the volatile nature of this knowledge and the fantasies we sustain to conceal this fact. First, Romance is mingled with science to form the catalyst for an “eruption into the stability of scientific knowledge” (Riach 105). Doyle shows that much of science is Romantic, in the sense that it is fantasy, a reflection of the beliefs and perspectives of those who practice it. Scientific ‘discovery’ in the novel is rooted in economic imperial interests and petty disputes. The same deception is at play in the colonial project, a fact Doyle makes clear by stretching the conventions of imperial Romance. The Lost World relies on the tropes of this genre to draw attention to the hypocrisy and paradox inherent to the adventurer’s voyage. The ‘new’ world proves to be the setting for a primitive past, a paradox carefully constructed to create a space of adventure engineered for the comfort of the colonial man. It is ‘new’ without being alien, other, or Indigenous. Novelty and discovery are a fantasy, both in the sense that they are romanticized and imagined. The novel buries the inconsistencies inherent to the colonial and scientific systems of knowledge in notions of dream and ‘fairyland’. The instability of these projects is rendered pleasantly dream-like in order to veil the rocky foundations upon which they rest. The reader is left questioning just how aware the characters in The Lost World, as well as Doyle’s contemporaries, are of their colonial fabrications.

Works Cited

Cowles, Henry M. “A Victorian Extinction: Alfred Newton and the Evolution of Animal Protection.” The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 46, no. 4, 2013, pp. 695–714. doi:10.1017/S0007087412000027.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Lost World. Edited by Ian Duncan, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

Jones, Susan. “Into the Twentieth Century: Imperial Romance from Haggard to Buchan.” A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary, edited by Corinne J. Saunders, Blackwell, Oxford, 2004, pp. 406–423, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229932378_Into_the_Twentieth_Century_Imperial_Romance_from_Haggard_to_Buchan. Accessed 2022. 

Riach, Alan. “In Pursuit of Lost Worlds: Arthur Conan Doyle, Amos Tutuola and Wilson Harris.” Representing Scotland in Literature, Popular Culture and Iconography: The Masks of the Modern Nation, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 101–119. Springer Link, https://link.springer.com/book/10.1057/9780230554962. Accessed 29 Apr. 2022.

Rieder, John. “Fantasies of Appropriation: Lost Races and Discovered Wealth.” Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 2012, pp. 34–60. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/book/22738. Accessed 29 Apr. 2022.

Zemka, Sue. “Progress.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 46, no. 3-4, 2018, pp. 812-816. ProQuest, https://proxy.library.mcgill.ca/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/progress/docview/2297900282/se-2, doi :https://doi.org/10.1017/S1060150318000918.