The Wild World of Professor Challenger

Originally published by Wordsworth Editions…

On the evening of June 2, 1922, at an American Society of Magicians dinner at the Hotel McAlpine, New York, after the whiskey and cigars, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there as a guest of Harry Houdini, was given leave to set up a screen and projector. The famous author proceeded to astound his hosts with film of apparently living dinosaurs. These were special effects rushes compiled by the stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien from the ongoing Hollywood adaptation of Doyle’s novel The Lost World. The footage was so impressive that some of the viewers left convinced it had been real. When the film was released three years later, with a prologue in which Doyle himself introduced the picture, audiences had never seen anything like it. The movie was an international hit and a sensation. Not until King Kong climbed the Empire State Building with Fay Wray screaming in his hairy hand did anything even approach the impact of The Lost World, starring Wallace Beery as Doyle’s short-tempered academic adventurer, Professor George Edward Challenger…

Although Doyle had ambivalent feelings, at best, towards his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, he made no secret of his affection for his irascible scientist, ‘G.E.C.’, a man with so many honours and letters after his name that they ‘overtax the capacity’ of his calling card. Alongside the Great Detective and the largely forgotten Napoleonic Hussar, Brigadier Etienne Gerard, Professor Challenger is Doyle’s only recurring protagonist. He appears in three novels, beginning with Doyle’s best-known work outside the Holmes’ canon, The Lost World (1912), and two short stories. The last of these, ‘The Disintegration Machine’, appeared in 1929, the year before Doyle died, indicating that he remained attached to the character to the end, unlike Sherlock Holmes who, he wrote as early as 1891, ‘takes my mind from better things.’ And just as the Holmes’ stories revolutionised the genre of detective fiction, the Challenger series makes a significant contribution to the development of science fiction after Jules Verne and the early novels of Doyle’s contemporary, H.G. Wells. The Lost World quickly established a genre archetype that gives us literally hundreds of books and movies, from the original King Kong to the Jurassic World franchise. 

The five Challenger stories by Doyle are all very different, and written from three different perspectives, but what unites them all is the sheer force of Challenger’s personality. He is a man who must be right at all costs (and frequently is), does not suffer fools gladly, and who alternately inspires absolute loyalty and utter contempt among those who know him. When Peerless Jones, the narrator of ‘When the World Screamed’ (1928), is first approached by Challenger for his expertise in Artesian boring, his initial response is: ‘It was clear to me that I was dealing with a lunatic.’ In The Lost World, the scientific community views Challenger as a charlatan at the beginning of the story, while Edward Malone, the Irish journalist destined to become his Dr. Watson, is told by his editor that Challenger is ‘just a homicidal megalomaniac with a turn for science.’ Even the professor’s wife warns Malone in advance of meeting him that ‘he is a perfectly impossible person.’ And when, on the Amazonian expedition, Challenger reflects that ‘he never cared to walk on the Thames Embankment and look up the river, as it was always sad to see one’s own eventual goal,’ his long-time professional rival Professor Summerlee dryly replies ‘that he understood that Millbank Prison had been pulled down.’ As Malone explained to his readers: ‘He is convinced, of course, that he is destined for Westminster Abbey.’

Revisiting the Challenger stories, one can see the appeal for his creator. Both men are large and physically powerful (though Challenger is broad and compact while Doyle was tall), and both are possessed of equally strong opinions. These are supported by the enormous self-confidence of the upper middle class Edwardian British male, and the absolute certainty in the rightness of their cause in the face of all opposition – and opposition there was, in fact as well as fiction. Neither Challenger nor Doyle had much time for critics, and the author has a lot of fun having his hero hurl journalists down flights of stairs, bop them on the head, and in one story position them next to an experimental excavation that showers them with a ‘vile treacly substance’. There’s a lot of Doyle in Professor Challenger, and both are visionaries and dreamers.

The Lost World is the Challenger story that everyone knows. Even if you’ve never read the original novel, chances are you’ve seen at least one of the film or TV adaptations, or maybe caught one of the radio plays or even read the comics. And if not, you’ll almost certainly have seen one of the movies that’s inspired by it. The common feature is a recognisable formula derived from Doyle’s adventure, in which a team of explorers comprising rival scientists, at least one man of action and a journalist documenting the expedition, discover a ‘lost world’ of prehistoric creatures and primitive humans. (Sometimes the world is discovered by accident after a shipwreck or a plane crash.) The group becomes marooned, must overcome a series of dinosaur-related obstacles, finally escaping and by accident or design bringing back a live specimen that then runs amuck in a major city before being captured, destroyed or otherwise subdued. (In the third act, the hero usually gets the girl, but there was none of that in Doyle’s robustly masculine novel.) This is essentially the plot, for example, of King Kong (1933, 1976, 2005), Lost Continent (1951), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Land Unknown (1957), Gorgo (1961), Destroy All Monsters (1968), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), The Land That Time Forgot (1974), At The Earth’s Core (1976), Stargate (1994), The Lost World: Jurassic Park II (1997), the UK television series Primeval (2007-2011), Kong: Skull Island (2017), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), and many more beside – enough, in fact, to probably fill a decent-sized film encyclopaedia.

When Doyle published, the idea of a lost prehistoric world was not new. Jules Verne had imagined dinosaurs surviving in a subterranean environment in Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864 and the discovery of a tribe of ape-like men or ‘missing links’ in The Village in the Treetops (1901), but it is Doyle’s scenario that has stuck in the public imagination. He was also following the ‘lost race’ or ‘lost civilisation’ stories of Edward Bulwer Lytton (The Coming Race), Rudyard Kipling (‘The Man Who Would Be King’), and, most of all, H. Rider Haggard, who pioneered the modern genre with novels such as King Solomon’s Mines, She, and The People of the Mist. The nineteenth century represented the height of European Imperialism, and these late Victorian adventures stories were at once a celebration of the popular view of British courage and manifest destiny, and an expression of anxiety about the otherness of the outer reaches of the Empire and the possibility of corruption by it. (This can be seen in Kipling’s gothic Indian tales and in the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Speckled Band’.) There were also more realistic Modernist depictions of the harm wrought by Westerners in lands they had no right to occupy and did not understand emerging, most notably Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Doyle was an active campaigner against the atrocities committed in the Belgium Congo (where Conrad’s novel is set), writing the nonfiction book The Crime of the Congo in 1909. His Lost World characters Malone and Lord John Roxton are in part based on the journalist E. D. Morel and the diplomat Roger Casement, leaders of the Congo Reform Association. (In 1911, Casement started a similar campaign against modern slavery and human rights abuses in Peru, for which he was knighted. A prominent Irish Republican, the British executed him for High Treason after the Easter Uprising.) And in this period, the remnants of lost civilisations were being discovered and plundered for the museums of Europe, while missionaries and adventurers like John Hanning Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, and Richard Francis Burton became national heroes. Challenger is partly based on the British Explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, who ultimately disappeared in the Amazon jungle in 1925 while searching for a lost city. (Like Sherlock Holmes, Challenger’s more academic side, as well as his beard and his ego, was inspired by another of Doyle’s Edinburgh University professors, William Rutherford.) Blend these influences with the growth of modern palaeontology, the remarkable legacy of Richard Owen and the foundation of the Natural History Museum – not to mention the discovery of fossilised iguanodon footprints in a quarry near Doyle’s home in Sussex in 1909 – and you get The Lost World…

In Doyle’s novel, the desire to impress his fiancée (who yearns for a ‘man of action’), leads the journalist Edward Malone to blag his way into the home of the notorious Professor Challenger – lately returned from a controversial South American expedition. Challenger rumbles him and an altercation ensues, spilling out onto the street in front of a passing policeman. Unlike the other journalists Challenger has assaulted, Malone declines to press charges and, indeed, takes full responsibility for the incident. Begrudgingly impressed, Challenger takes him into his confidence. Having discovered the remains of an American explorer up country, including an intriguing sketchbook, Challenger had made it to a mysterious Amazonian plateau, which he was not able to ascend, although he bagged a pterodactyl with his rifle. Unfortunately, most of the evidence was lost in an accident on the river, and no one believes the dinosaur wing he managed to save or his one surviving photograph are authentic, hence his animosity towards reporters, who are portraying him as a liar and a crank. Later that evening, at a fractious public meeting at the Zoological Institute, Professor Summerlee proposes a new expedition to confirm or more probably debunk the claims, and Malone impetuously volunteers to cover it for his newspaper. The adventurer Lord John Roxton also joins the team. He knows the Amazon well, having fought slaver warlords there, and nothing about the blank areas on the map would surprise him. He wouldn’t be averse to having a dinosaur head on his trophy wall either. Although they argue all the way, Summerlee is forced to admit that Challenger was right, and he was wrong. The point is now moot, however, as the party is trapped on the prehistoric plateau, being hunted by an Allosaurus and a tribe of murderous ape-men… The day is saved in the end, naturally, and Challenger is vindicated, returning to London with a baby pterodactyl which quickly gets away from him.

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