Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Challenger Of The Unknown!

That's Doyle himself in the center posing as Challenger in this bogus picture taken to advertise The Lost World.

I've spent the last several days enjoying the robust and often combative personality of Professor George Edward Challenger in the Wordsworth collection The Lost World & Other Stories. Challenger is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's other great literary creation after the truly iconic Sherlock Holmes. Professor Challenger is the main character in five Doyle stories, three novels and two short stories written from 1912 to 1929. Easily the most famous is the first titled The Lost World, which has been adapted to film and television several times mostly because it does a bang up job of pitting measly humans against dinosaurs and other assorted primitive creatures.

The Lost World written and published in 1912 introduces to Professor Challenger and some other memorable characters. Narrated from the perspective of young and energetic newspaperman Edward T. Malone, the tale sets itself up to be a series of dispatches from Malone about an expedition led by Challenger and two other men, Professor Summerlee and Lord John Roxton. This stalwart band travel to South America to follow up on clues Challenger had discovered on a previous expedition which indicate, at least to Challenger, that dinosaurs may well survived deep in the unexplored territory. Summerlee, an aged academic  is brutally skeptical and goes to disprove Challenger's claims. Roxton, a dashing adventurer of no small reputation goes along to prove Challenger's claims and to seek some thrills.

It's unlikely few don't know this story already, so I won't belabor those details. Suffice it to say this is at least the third time I've read this saga, the first time in decades, and I enjoyed it immensely. Doyle is able, through the sardonic voice of Malone present highly memorable characters, not the least of which is the incendiary Challenger who is overcome with his own genius, but is not squeamish about proving himself right. But this reading suggested to me that the titular "Lost World" might be more than a hidden land of prehistoric survivals, and may well speak to the life not lived by so many folks as they satisfy themselves with the humdrum of daily existence. Malone goes adventuring to impress a girl only to find the object of his love less interested than expected. His lessons are meant to be our lessons I suspect.

The Poison Belt is the next Challenger novel, presented first in 1913, this is a much shorter and extraordinarily droll tale in which the Earth is suddenly overcome by some poison in the very fabric of space. The life all over the entire planet seemingly dies and doomsday is upon it. Challenger and the whole gang from the previous novel extend their lives by using oxygen in a sealed room at Challenger's estate as the world solemnly dies around them. Some of the passages are hilarious as they demonstrate to an over-the-top degree the famous British reserve. His comments on what it might take to forestall a golfer are quite funny.  Perhaps my favorite scene is this conversation between Challenger and his decidedly loyal butler and chauffeur Austin.

"Presently Austin laid the cigarettes upon the table and was about to withdraw.
"Austin!" said his master.
"Yes, sir?"
"I thank you for your faithful service." A smile stole over the servant's gnarled face.
"I've done my duty, sir."
"I'm expecting the end of the world to-day, Austin."
"Yes, sir. What time, sir?"
"I can't say, Austin. Before evening."
"Very good, sir." The taciturn Austin saluted and withdrew."

Later after the world has been passed through the belt and the group has surprisingly survived, they explore the dead world  by motorcar, even going to London and parts between. Again the story is told from Malone's perspective and though less broad than the first tale, nonetheless offers many great scenes which make strong comment on the nature of then modern society.

The Land of Mists written and published in 1926 is the one Challenger story I've never read before. And sadly it's not one I'd recommend to others. It's an episodic, overlong and sometimes tedious narrative bent on proving that Spiritualism is a legitimate philosophy and goes to great lengths to demonstrate that those who profess belief in such psychic phenomenon are repressed and abused by the larger society. The story is not told this time from perspective of Malone and that hurts it immediately as the narrative voice lacks punch. The story deals less with Challenger and more with Malone and Challenger's daughter Enid who investigate various spiritualist individuals and gatherings moving from skepticism to belief as they go. The story then shifts and momentarily gets quite good and downright exciting as Lord John Roxton turns up and he and Malone go ghost-busting in a certified haunted house. But then all too quickly the narrative goes quiet again and eventually Challenger himself, who is hardly in the story at all really, must confront the deaths of his comrade Professor Summerlee and his own beloved wife who was such a charming part of the earlier adventures. As far as I can make out, the "Land of Mists" referred to is our world and the lack of clarity those who disbelieve in Spiritualism suffer from. This is not a great novel alas, though easily the longest in the collection.

"The Disintegration Machine" from 1929 is a wonderful hoot of a short story, again told from Malone's perspective. In this one Challenger and Malone confront a mad doctor named Theodore Nemor who demonstrates the all-too dangerous success of his machine on both Malone and Challenger before the latter has a turn.

"When the World Screamed" from 1928 closes out this charming collection by telling how Challenger using vast resources inherited from an African rubber baron schemes to dig deep into the skin of the Earth and make his own personal introduction to an Earth Challenger insists is much like an Echidna, a living thing through and through with a tough skin protecting it. This story is told by Peerless Jones, an expert in artesian well digging. Malone is on hand to share in this hair-raising romp.

These tales combine to paint a picture of Professor George Edward Challenger, a scientist who powered by his intellect and his ego sees no limit to the explorations of humanity. There is a bracing hubris to Challenger which is easy to celebrate safely within the confines of such compelling fiction. Doyle's other great character is well worth the effort (for the most part) and I heartily recommend all save one of these classic adventures.

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