Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Lost World part 3: "For Once I was a Hero"

Continuing our look at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World

Edward Malone and his companions in the Challenger Expedition have reached Maple White Land, the mysterious plateau in the Amazon jungle where antediluvian creatures have survived to the present day. Yes, I like that word. Antediluvian. But thanks to the treachery of the vengeful half-breed Gomez, they group are now stranded on top of the plateau with no way to get down.

The native guides who had accompanied the expedition thus far have had enough of the Curupuri-infested forest and are ready to go back home, but Zambo, the party's faithful black servant, is willing to remain. So they have him chuck what provisions he can across the gulf separating the stone pinnacle by which they accessed Maple White Land and the plateau; keep a couple months worth of food and supplies for himself; and send the rest back with the Indians in payment for their service.

Malone also tosses a packet containing his journal to date across to Zambo for the Indians to take down the river so it can be mailed back to London. This narrative device which Doyle uses is an effective one. Usually, a first-person narration carries with it the unspoken assumption that the writer survives to write the story down, which tends to mitigate the suspense. But here, Malone writes only one chapter at a time, and neither he nor the reader are sure what the next installment will bring. He can utilize foreshadowing -- and he does, quite well -- but only up to the end of the chapter. For now, Zambo is their only link with civilization.

Since the party is trapped for the immediate future, they scout around for a camp site. They encounter their first new species of creature; not a dinosaur, but a giant blood tick which Malone discovers feasting on his leg. Professor Challenger names it Ixodes Maloni in tribute to his discovery, but Malone fails to appreciate the scientific honor.

Under Lord John Roxton's direction, they build a barricade of thorny brush around a camp site which they name "Fort Challenger." Having set up a base camp, they set out exploring.

They find footprints resembling those of a giant three-toed bird. Challenger recognizes them as similar to fossil footprints found in Sussex.
"Wealden!" cried Challenger, in an ecstasy. "I've see them in the Wealden clay. It is a creature walking erect upon three-toed feet, and occasionally putting one of its five-fingered forepaws upon the ground. Not a bird, my dear Roxton, not a bird... No, a reptile. A dinosaur."
As expected, the trail leads them to a group of iguanodons, grazing in a peaceful glade. "If ever we get out of this alive, I must have a head with me," Roxton says. "Lord, how some of that Somaliland-Uganda crowd would turn a beautiful pea-green if they saw it!"

Further exploration leads them to a marshy pit which a gaggle of pterodactyls are using as a nesting place. They are a noisy and frightful bunch of harpies, and Malone does not share the scientific interest of Challenger and Summerlee. When the creatures spot Challenger, the entire flock rises up and attacks, and the party barely escape with their lives. Challenger, who came off relatively uninjured, is quite pleased by the scientific data they gathered. Lord John is more interested in the clay in the pit where the pterodactyl's nested, but does not say why.

During their explorations, Malone has a feeling that they are being watched, but Challenger dismisses his premonition. Nevertheless, Roxton keeps reminding the party that they are invaders in foreign territory and there may well be natives on this plateau who won't appreciate their encroachment. Lord John's warnings come home when they return to Fort Challenger and find that their camp has been ransacked; several crates have been smashed open and some of the tins of food battered to extract the contents.

The following night, they are awoken by the sound of a hideous shriek in the forest; the sound of some battle for survival between two prehistoric creatures. Challenger imagines the tableau of what must have happened and muses solemnly.
"It was surely well for man that he came late to the order of creation. There were powers abroad in earlier days which no courage and no mechanism of his could have met. What could his sling, his throwing stick or his arrow avail him against such forces as have been loose to-night? Even with a modern rifle it would be all odds on the monster."
Lord John isn't sure he agrees entirely, having a great confidence in his own rifle, but concedes that the dinos would have "a good sporting chance." And this conversation, I think, captures a part of what makes dinosaur stories like The Lost World so compelling. We like to see puny man pitting his intellect against the terrifying behemoths of an extinct era.

Within minutes, one of those behemoths, possibly the one responsible for the killing they had heard, approaches their encampment. Lord John warns his companions not to shoot; he is still concerned about their firearms attracting more attention. When the beast lunges at the thorny hedge the party has built around their camp, Roxton snatches a flaming branch from the campfire and waves it in the brute's face, driving it off.
The learned professors hesitate to identify the creature; they did not get a good enough glimpse of it to give a firm classification, and Summerlee admits that not all the creatures that lived in prehistoric times have come down to us in the fossil record and so they could hardly expect to identify every creature they meet. But from the beast's bloody maw, they can safely say that it is a carnivore, and the following morning, looking at the dead iguanodon they find near the camp, they hypothesize the it was likely an Allosaurus, or perhaps a Megalosaurus -- "one of the larger carnivorous dinosaurs."

The party continues its explorations, but Summerlee is becoming impatient. They have very little to show for their few days of scouting. Shouldn't they be devoting their energies into finding a way home?
"Let me remind you that we came here upon a perfectly definite mission, entrusted to us at the meeting of the Zoologiacl Institute in London. That mission was to test the truth of Professor Challenger's statements. Those statements, as I am bound to admit, we are now in a position to endorse."
For that reason, he insists, their primary goal now should be to return home so that they may transmit their findings, and leave a more thorough exploration of the plateau to a larger and better-equipped expedition. "Professor Challenger has devised means for getting us on to this plateau when it appeared to be inaccessible; I think that we should now call upon him to use the same ingenuity in getting us back to the world from which we came."

Challenger can hardly argue with Summerlee's reasoning, especially as it is couched in deference to Challenger's intellect, but he's reluctant to leave his Lost World just yet. Lord John would also like to know a bit more about the place before leaving, and Malone says that his editor would "never forgive me for leaving such unexhausted copy behind me." Challenger flat out refuses to even think about the problem until they have at least performed a rough survey of the plateau.

Malone comes up with an idea to do just that. He spots a tall ginko tree nearby and proposes that he climb it to get a better view of the land and draw a rough map of the plateau. His companions approve of the idea, and soon he is scrambling up the tree with his notebook in his pocket.

Partway up the tree, as Malone makes his way through the foliage, he encounters a rude shock: a face peering into his own, about a foot away, with brutish, simian features. It snarls at him and then flees. Malone was correct; something had been watching them from the trees.

Although shaken, Malone presses on and reaches the top of the ginko, from which he has a splendid view of the entire plateau. It is bowl-shaped, as the professors surmised, with a large central lake occupying what was undoubtedly once a volcanic crater. (And no, the volcano does not eventually erupt; Chekov's Geology notwithstanding, The Lost World is one of those rare instances in fiction where a long-dormant volcano remains dormant.) He sees the glade where they encountered the iguanodon herd and the pit of the pterodactyls. Beyond the lake, Mallone sees a distant cliff face along the inside lip of the plateau's edge. There are a row of black dots in it which he guesses might be caves.

Returning to his companions, Malone makes his report. Challenger wants to know more about the ape-man in the branches: "Tell me, now... did you happen to observe whether the creature could cross its thumb over its palm?" He is all for pursuing the mystery of the ape-man, but Summerlee reminds him that they need to return home.

"The flesh-pots of civilization," Challenger groans.

"The ink-pots of civilization, sir," Summerlee corrects him.

But all of his friends are pleased with Malones map, (which appears in most editions of the novel). Lord John suggests that since Malone was the first to sight the lake, that he should have the honor of naming it.
"Then," said I, blushing, I dare say, as I said it, "let it be named Lake Gladys." 
"Don't you think the Central Lake would be more descriptive?" remarked Summerlee. 
"I should prefer Lake Gladys.' 
Challenger looked at me sympathetically and shook his great head in mock disapproval. "Boys will be boys," said he. "Lake Gladys let it be."
It is only fair to observe, however, that in the published map the lake bears Summerlee's more prosaic suggestion.

That evening, Malone is pretty flushed with his accomplishment. Up to this point he's been, in his view anyway, the least useful member of the expedition. The professors are far more intelligent than he, and Lord John far braver and more experienced in jungle survival. Malone's role in the expedition has hitherto been as its Boswell. But now, having won his comrades' approval and admiration, he's feeling pumped and he's itching to do more. That night, while he's on watch and his companions are asleep, he decides to do a little exploring on his own.

He barely gets a hundred yards from the camp when he realizes that this was a mistake, but he presses on. Further into the forest he realizes that when he grabbed one of the guns on his way out, he grabbed the shotgun and not a rifle, so that the rifle cartridges he filled his pockets with will do him absolutely no good. Not a mistake Lord John would have made. But if he returns back now without accomplishing anything he'll look and feel a total fool. John Carter in A Princess of Mars said that he did brave things because the prudent alternative never seemed to occur to him; Malone admits that he does brave things because he's deathly afraid of being thought a coward.

So he keeps going until he reaches the shores of Lake Gladys. He sees several unfamiliar creatures including a colossal type of elk and a live stegosaurus; perhaps the same one Maple White drew. Looking across the lake he sees the caves he spotted earlier, but now instead of black dots in the cliff face, he sees light coming from the openings. He doubts this can be the glow of volcanic activity; it can only come from fires lit by inhabitants.

On his way back to the camp, Malone hears the noises of something large following him. He hopes that it is a gentle Iguanodon, but as it hops into the open he sees that it is a toad-faced horror like the one which attacked their camp on the earlier occasion. Malone's shotgun with the wrong cartridges is useless. He runs, and the beast chases him until Malone finds the ground disappear underneath his feet.

Earlier Challenger had stated that puny humans could not possibly vie against the gigantic beasts of the Jurassic Era. He forgot to consider man's intellect. Malone has stumbled into a pit trap, dug by some human hunters with a sharpened nine-foot spike at the bottom to impale colossal prey. The sides of the pit are not terribly steep and he has no difficulty climbing out again, although he does spend some time fretting about whether the beast which chased him has wandered off or if it's cunning enough to lie in wait for him.

Having escaped from the pit and recovered the shotgun, Malone hears a gunshot from the direction of Fort Challenger. At first he fears the worst; then he realizes that his friends have probably discovered his absence and assumed he was lost. He hurries back to the camp as quickly as he can. Dawn has come by now and the early morning light filters through the leaves as he arrives.

His first reaction was correct. The camp is in a shambles; a large area of blood lies on the ground, and his friends are gone.

NEXT:  When Ape-Men Attack! Separated at Birth? The Rescue of the Professors, the Battle for the Plateau and the Triumphant Return! "Our Eyes Have Seen Great Wonders"

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