[29 July 2008]
When Indiana Jones recently dusted off his beloved fedora and bullwhip for his fourth cinematic adventure he was following a storyline that has been around for well over 100years. The ‘lost world’ adventure is a literary sub-genre that became immediately popular in the latter years of the 19th century, when the last empty spaces on the map were being filled in.
Although all of the continents had by then been discovered by the Europeans, the interiors remained shrouded in mystery, particularly in Africa and South America, where dense jungle made exploration difficult and dangerous. Pressing into these interior regions for exploration and exploitation required bravery, determination and skill. Small wonder, then, that they would provide such fuel for the imaginations of the era’s popular authors.
Writers such as H Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, already famous for creating the immortal Sherlock Holmes, saw the potential for filling in the atlas’ blank spaces with epic flights of the imagination. Lacking a genuine geographic record, these mysterious regions could be populated with literally anything. They provided writers with the same blank canvas that deep space offers their modern counterparts, and it is a joy to see just how they filled those spaces.
Conan Doyle’s The Lost World is an out-and-out adventure story, written in a simple and accessible style and with a plot that speeds forward almost without respite. It follows an expedition to a remote part of South America where dinosaurs are rumoured to prosper. Leading the expedition is Professor Challenger, a booming, arrogant bully of an academic, whose conviction that the Lost World exists is only surpassed as an article of faith by his belief that he is always right. His frank exchanges with his rival, Professor Summerlee provide a great deal of comic relief, and convey a lot of respect for the scientific tradition in the process.
However, for all the domineering behaviour of Challenger, the really interesting character is Lord John Roxton. Joining the expedition with little other purpose than easing his boredom and finding a good ‘bit of sport’, Roxton epitomises a certain type of character who abounded in the adventure stories of the time. In another age (or genre) he would have been a knight errant, a swashbuckler, army officer or astronaut, but in this he is the master of derring do, a gentleman adventurer, for whom fair play is all. His presence provides a neat counterpoint to the scientific curiosity of the novel’s academics. For Lord John, the adventure is it’s own purpose, and his determination to hunt the biggest game imaginable is a earthy corollary to the scientist’s loftier, though no less personal, ambitions,
Whilst firmly in the ‘lost world’ tradition, She is an altogether different book. Subtitled A History of Adventure, it starts out familiarly enough –an ancient mystery, handed down through the generations, ready for a new explorer to seek its origin in deepest Africa. It is, however, a far more subtle and philosophical affair than its cover blurb would have readers believe. Leo Vincey is the man of destiny who follows his father’s instructions to head to the heart of Africa to seek out the source of a mystery that had been in their family for thousands of years.
Setting out with trusty manservant Job, and his adoptive father (and narrator) Ludwig Holly, Vincey’s search takes him through treacherous storms, and dangerous terrain. Encountering a lost tribe in the heart of Africa, the men discover the fearsome rule of Ayesha, the dreaded She-Who-Must-Be Obeyed.
And here the novel takes a very different path. The journey is completed relatively quickly, and the majority of the action, if it can even be described as such, occurs within the hidden palace of She. Haggard’s book is no adventure story in the classic sense, of valiant individuals overcoming the purely physical challenges of life and death situations. Much of the story is taken up with the conversations between Holly and Ayesha, and the former’s attempt to reconcile his own philosophies with those of the latter.
Holly is a humble man, whose self-deprecating narration makes him engaging company, who invites the reader’s sympathies. He is certainly more charming than the bland Vincey, whose spends several chapters unconscious, and is barely more active when he is awake.
Ayesha herself is a curious figure. Though certainly no heroine, and despite her status as a murderess, she is far too ambiguous to be a pure villain. She herself declares that she rules by fear, but this is too simple an analysis. Her rule, and her power, is grounded in awe. Her supernatural longevity and above all her terrible beauty enthrals all around her. It is her beauty which is evil, a terrible curse on those who fall under its spell.
Of the male characters, Holly is particularly entranced, and with small wonder. This is a man whose conviction of his own hideousness is so well-set that he wears the nickname ‘Baboon’ without complaint. Were he a character of our own time, he would surely be a self declared nerd. As it is, he is a refutation of the idea that the beauty myth is a by-product of the modern media age. As She demonstrates, the Victorian era also held empty beauty of Vincey, in higher esteem than the intelligent and honest ugliness of Holly.
These books provide a somewhat sour taste of the values of the era in which they were written (modern readers will need to inoculate their sensitivities against such racial archaisms as ‘half-breed’) and the lives of non-Europeans are regarded with disposable cheapness. Nevertheless they offer a great deal more that is positive. Challenger’s expedition in The Lost World is set in the pursuit of rational scientific enquiry, and even the most ‘imperial spirited’ character, Lord John, is a heroic freer of slaves and staunch defender of the weak.
She, which contains the most endearing character of all, Mr. Holly, shows the vacuity of power pursued for its own ends, and how all the outward beauty in the world is no match for genuine decency of spirit. Old though these stories may be, they still have much to teach us, even now, about the quest for adventure, and what we can learn from each other without even leaving the comfort of our armchairs.