The Lost World: Arthur Conan Doyle's Dinosaur Classic

Before Jurassic Park There Was Doyle's The Lost World

An illustration from the 1st edition of The Lost World
An illustration from the 1st edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

The Internet Archive

First published in Strand Magazine in 1912, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World explored the idea that prehistoric life might still exist in unexplored areas of the globe. Part science fiction, part adventure story, the novel marks a significant shift in Doyle's writing, as he temporarily put aside the famous Sherlock Holmes to introduce professor Challenger, a physical, rude, bear-like man who would feature in several subsequent works.

The Lost World has had a significant influence on science fiction, inspiring works including Michael Crichton's The Lost World, the related Jurassic Park movies, and The Lost World television series.

Fast Facts: The Lost World

  • Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Publisher: Serially in The Strand; book by Hodder & Stoughton
  • Year Published: 1912
  • Genre: Science fiction and adventure
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Adventure, masculinity, evolution, imperialism
  • Characters: Edward Malone, Professor Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Professor Summerlee, Zambo, Gladys Hungerton
  • Fun Facts: The first edition of the novel included a fake photo of the adventurers with Doyle posing as Professor Challenger.

Plot Summary

The novel opens with Edward Malone ("Ned") finding his declarations of love rejected by Gladys, for she can only love a heroic man. Malone, a newspaper reporter, has been assigned to write an article on professor Challenger who has returned from South America with unbelievable stories of prehistoric life in a remote location in the Amazon. The scientific community in London thinks Challenger is a fraud, so the professor plans a new excursion to bring back concrete evidence of his claims. He asks for volunteers to join him, and Malone steps forward in hopes the trip will prove his heroic nature to Gladys. They will also be joined by the wealthy adventurer Lord John Roxton and the skeptical professor Summerlee, who hopes to prove Challenger truly is a fraud.

After a dangerous journey up the rivers and through the forests of the Amazon, the four adventurers arrive at the massive plateau where they soon encounter a pterodactyl, forcing Summerlee to admit that Challenger had been telling the truth. The plateau itself appears impossible to climb, but the party finds an adjacent pinnacle that they ascend, and they then fell a tree to create a bridge over to the plateau. Through the treachery of one of their porters who holds a grudge against Lord Roxton, their makeshift bridge is soon destroyed, and the four men find themselves trapped on the plateau.

Exploring the lost world proves difficult. The expedition is attacked by pterodactyls and some kind of ferocious land dinosaur. Even more dangerous are the primate inhabitants of the plateau. Challenger, Roxton, and Summerlee are all taken hostage by a tribe of ape-men who have been at war with a tribe of native humans. Roxton manages to escape, and he and Malone then mount a rescue operation that succeeds in freeing Challenger and Summerlee as well as many natives. The natives join forces with the well-armed expedition, and they slaughter or enslave nearly all of the ape-men. Most of the natives don't want the Englishmen to leave, but a young prince they had rescued gives them information about a cave that will lead them off the plateau.

The novel ends with Challenger once again presenting his findings to Europe's scientific community. Skeptics in the crowd still believe that the evidence is all fake. Each member of the expedition has reasons to lie, photographs can be faked, and some of the best evidence had to be left behind on the plateau. Challenger anticipated this reaction, and in a shocking and dramatic moment, he unveils a live pterodactyl brought back from the journey. The creature flies over the audience and escapes out an open window. The living evidence, however, has made Challenger's victory complete.

The final pages of the novel reveal that Malone's efforts to win Gladys were in vain—she married a remarkably unheroic man while he was away. Lord Roxton, however, discloses that he had collected rough diamonds on the plateau, and he is going to split their value with the expedition. Each man will receive 50,000 pounds. With the money, Challenger will open a museum, Summerlee will retire, and Roxton and Malone begin making plans for a new adventure.

Major Characters

Edward Dunn Malone. "Ned" narrates The Lost World. He is a reporter for the Daily Gazette, has an athletic body, calm demeanor, and strong observation skills. Much of the novel is presented as his travel correspondence with a news editor back in London. Malone is motivated to join professor Challenger on his excursion to the lost world not out of scientific curiosity, but to impress Gladys Hungerton, a woman who is drawn to heroic men.

A fake photograph from the original 1912 edition of The Lost World featuring Arthur Conan Doyle as Professor Challenger.
A fake photograph from the original 1912 edition of The Lost World featuring Arthur Conan Doyle as Professor Challenger. The Internet Archive

Professor Challenger. Challenger marks a gigantic departure from Doyle's cerebral Sherlock Holmes. Loud, large, physical, impulsive, and violent, Challenger lives up to his name by challenging nearly everyone he encounters. Malone is shocked when he first sets eyes on Challenger, and he likens him to an "Assyrian bull" with a "bellowing, roaring, rumbling voice." His physicality is, however, balanced by a brilliant mind. He succeeds in proving the entire scientific community in London wrong, and he has the creativity and intelligence to build a hydrogen balloon from swamp gas and dinosaur guts.

Lord John Roxton. Malone is pleased to have the wealthy Lord Roxton as part of the expedition, for he knows of no one who has a "cooler head or braver spirit." At 46 years old, Roxton has already lived a life seeking out adventures. He has flown airplanes, and he traveled to Peru where he killed numerous slavers. He appears to be entirely fearless and cool-headed.

Professor Summerlee. Tall, gaunt, skinny, and scholarly, 66-year-old professor Summerlee at first appears to be the weakest member of the expedition, but Malone soon comes to appreciate his power of endurance. Summerlee's role in the novel is largely as a foil to professor Challenger, whom he believes is an absolute fraud. In fact, he agrees to go on the adventure for the sole reason that he wants the pleasure of seeing it fail. His caution and skepticism stand in sharp contrast to Challenger.

Zambo. Large and strong, Zambo is the faithful African who assists the four adventurers and waits tirelessly at the base of the plateau to receive orders. The racism of the novel isn't subtle when Malone describes Zambo as "a black Hercules, as willing as any horse, and about as intelligent."

Gladys Hungerton. Gladys is important to the story only in that she motivates Malone to go on the adventure with professor Challenger. She is a selfish, fickle, and aloof woman, but Malone loves her regardless. The novel opens with Gladys rejecting Malone's advances, for she can only love a man who embodies her ideal of manly heroism. Malone journeys to South America to prove that he is that man. Upon his return, he finds that Gladys Hungerton is now Gladys Potts—she married a small and boring solicitor's clerk during Malone's absence.

Maple White. Maple White isn't technically a major character in the novel, for he is dead before the narrative even begins. Nevertheless, his legacy plays a central role. His journal teaches Challenger of the lost world and its strange inhabitants, and the novel's four main protagonists attempt to follow in Maple White's footsteps. He also creates a feeling of foreboding, for the adventurers could easily meet the same fate as White.

Major Themes

Adventure. The Lost World is often described as an adventure story, and indeed, it is the journey of the central heroes into an unknown world that drives the plot and keeps the reader turning the pages. The novel certainly has some memorable characters, but none are psychologically complex or painted with fine strokes. Plot drives the story much more than character. Will the men survive the journey through the jungle? Will they be able to ascend the plateau? Will they escape the dinosaurs and natives? Will they find a way to return home safely? Throughout the journey, the men encounter strange, exotic, and unusual landscapes, life forms, and people, bringing the reader along for the adventure. At the novel's end, Malone and Lord Roxton are beginning to plan a new adventure.

Masculinity. There's no denying that The Lost World is an extremely male-centered novel. Malone is on a journey to do something heroic to impress the woman he loves. Lord John Roxton is a brave, unflappable adventurer who seeks out opportunities to confront danger and prove his manliness. Both professor Challenger and professor Summerlee are out to prove the other wrong and feed their egos. Male pride, bravery, and violence dominate the pages of the novel. The novel certainly does have a few female characters, but their roles tend to be peripheral, and often they exist to do little more than to spur men to action or, in South America, to be traded as commodities.

European Superiority. For contemporary readers, some of The Lost World can be uncomfortable reading in the way that it presents non-white and non-European characters. Zambo is the stereotype of the African servant who derives no greater pleasure than serving his white masters. The frequent mention of "wild Indians, "half-breeds," and "savages" reveal the attitude of the four European adventurers to the darker-skinned people they encounter in South America. On the plateau, the Indians seem a little less than human, and Malone narrates their frequent deaths with scientific detachment.

Evolution. Darwin's theory of evolution had been in circulation for nearly half a century by the time Doyle pens The Lost World, and the novel frequently refers to the concept. In Maple White Land we see evolution in progress as the more evolved Indians all but annihilate the less developed ape-men who are more than once described as the "missing link" between humans and apes. All of the living things in the lost world have evolved to play a specific role in a balanced ecosystem. Doyle also has a little fun questioning the limits of evolution, for despite his intelligence, professor Challenger often acts in animalistic ways and does not seem to have evolved much beyond the ape-men.

Imperialism. The Lost World enacts on a small scale the imperialistic attitudes that built the British Empire. The top of the plateau had, of course, been populated by two groups of people—the ape-men and the Indians—for millennia, but our European protagonists view it is a savage place for them to control and name. For much of the novel, the lost world is called "Maple White Land," named after the first European explorer to discover it. By the end of the novel, Malone claims they now call it "our land." Other peoples and cultures seem to exist for the primary purpose of European study, exploitation, and conquest.

Literary Context

The Lost World is undeniably a memorable and influential work of adventure writing and science fiction, but very little in it is actually original. Jules Verne's 1864 Journey to the Center of the Earth first appeared in English translation in 1872, and the adventurers in that work encounter numerous creatures once thought extinct, including ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, mastodons, and prehistoric humans.

Frank Reade's 1896 adventure novel The Island in the Air makes use of an inaccessible South American plateau for its setting. The diamonds discovered by Lord Roxton gesture towards H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, and Haggard's novel also presents a version of a "lost world" located in Africa. Finally, The Lost World's many mentions of the links between animals and humans, as well as the animal-like behavior of humans, finds parallels in Jonathan Swift's 1726 Gulliver's Travels and H.G. Wells' 1896 The Island of Dr. Moreau.

While Doyle's work owes a debt to many earlier writers, it also influenced many works that would follow. Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1924 The Land that Time Forgot certainly found inspiration in The Lost World, and Michael Crichton's 1995 The Lost World even includes a character named John Roxton.

It is probably in television and film where Doyle has had the greatest impact beginning with a 1925 silent film with stop-motion animation. At the time, its million dollar budget made it the most expensive film ever produced. Since then, the novel has been made into movies at least six more times, and two television series are based on the book. Some high budget films such as Jurassic Park and its sequels are certainly the progeny of Doyle's work, as are Godzilla and King Kong.

Finally, it is worth noting that Doyle was not done with professor Challenger after publishing The Lost World. The rude and forceful professor reappears in The Poison Belt (1913), The Land of Mist (1925), and the short stories "When the World Screamed" (1928), and "The Disintegration Machine" (1929).

About the Author

Scottish novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, 1925
Scottish novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, 1925. Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

Arthur Conan Doyle's fame rests largely in his Sherlock Holmes stories, but the reality is that Sherlock Holmes represents just a small portion of his entire body of writing. He wrote seven lengthy historical novels, short stories in many different genres, books on wars and the military, and later in his life, works of both fiction and nonfiction that focused on spiritualism. On top of his impressive writing career, he was also a lecturer, a detective, a physician, and an eye specialist.

When Doyle wrote The Lost World, he was trying to move away from Holmes and create a new type of hero. In professor Challenger, Doyle preserves the intellectual brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, but places it in the type of brash and physical man who could drive the plot of an adventure story. One could even argue that Challenger is an alter ego of Doyle. When The Lost World was first published, it contained a fake photograph of the story's four adventurers. The professor Challenger in the photograph—with his hairy hands, excessive beard, and bushy eyebrows—is none other than a heavily made-up Arthur Conan Doyle himself.