The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s contribution to literature is so well-known as to require little introduction, yet it’s difficult to judge which of his works is the more influential. While Sherlock Holmes is certainly enjoying a popular period (when hasn’t it?), the number of adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories could probably be outstripped by the number of novels, films, TV shows and other media which have been inspired by The Lost World – although we must of course give due credit to Jules Verne.

The Lost World is essentially an adventure story, written engagingly, with compelling characters and plenty of cliff-hangers to keep the reader hooked and wondering what misadventure will strike next or what brilliant plan the characters will devise. No doubt this is what ensured its success at the time of publication, and succeed it did; The Lost World launched Professor Challenger as a much-beloved character of Conan Doyle, a character as bizarre and distinctive as Holmes himself. The Professor recruits a small band of explorers (including an adventure-thirsty journalist, sceptical rival academic, and a game hunter) to journey to the ‘lost world’, an isolated plateau deep in South America. What the band finds there is well-known to all of us, but besides the dinosaur inhabitants, the group also encounter a tribe of primitive humans, and a society of ‘ape-men’. This introduces the tricky subject of race. Although the objective of the Professor’s quest was to find proof of the survival of ancient beasts, when engulfed in a war between the apes and the primitives the group has no qualms about destroying the ape-men entirely. This seems to run contrary to the scientists’ creed. Perhaps even more intriguingly, Professor Challenger is described as being very alike to the king of the ape men, almost a twin. It is difficult to divine what Conan Doyle intended to say with this – the human race is not so different from the ‘missing link’, the ape-men? And yet must destroy them, brothers though they may be? It’s entirely possible that Conan Doyle is throwing out ideas, arguments and challenges (look to his aptly named character) to the society he was writing for, and to seek perfection in one theme presented in the novel might be folly.

The Lost World’s cultural permeation is such that it is easy to miss reading it, purely by mistake; there are probably a few books about which you think ‘I must have read that,’ without being sure. If The Lost World is one of them, why not make it your next book choice? It may even leave you wondering if dinosaurs are still alive today…

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