By Dustin Grinnell
images from Project Gutenberg’s edition of The Lost World (1912) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Lost World (1912) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a fantasy-adventure novel filled with danger, mystery and intrigue. The story follows a team of explorers as they travel to South America to investigate an undiscovered region of jungle that’s rumored to contain prehistoric life. The novel begins with the protagonist, Edward Malone, a young reporter trying to appeal to a woman named Gladys. She rebuffs Malone and says, “He would be a harder, sterner man, not so ready to adapt himself to a silly girl’s whim. But above all he must be a man who could do, who could act—a man who would look Death in the face and have no fear of him—a man of great deeds and glories he had won, for they would be reflected upon me.” Hoping to prove his worth, Malone sets out to “find a quest which would be worthy of my Gladys.” In subsequent chapters, Malone meets the book’s second protagonist, Professor George Edward Challenger, for a newspaper assignment. At a scientific conference, Malone volunteers to join the expedition that Challenger will lead to South America.
According to literary agent Donald Maass, a protagonist is defined as the subject of a story, whereas a hero is someone with extraordinary qualities. In his book, The Breakout Novelist, Maass writes:
Think about people you deeply admire, who stir in you awe, respect, humility, and high esteem. Are these regular people, no different than anyone else? They may be everyday folks like friends or family, true enough, but you see in them what is exceptional, strong, beautiful, and grace.
I will argue that the two main protagonists in The Lost World, Edward Malone and Professor Challenger, fit Maass’ description of “extraordinary” heroes. (Note that, while these protagonists’ journeys are largely centered around their masculinity, it’s not necessary for an extraordinary hero to be male or female. By using these exagerrated characters as a case study, we are able to easily identify traits common to any protagonist that fits this trope.)
Maass argues authors can construct such characters in three ways: having these characters display an “aura of greatness,” show them being “cut down to size,” and have them “show us what they’re made of.” In The Lost World, we see examples of all three with both protagonists.
First quality of extraordinary heroes: An aura of greatness
According to Donald Maass, the first quality of an extraordinary hero is greatness, or not leaving the world unchanged. “An aura of greatness comes first not from who a given character may be, but from the profound impact that character has,” writes Maass.
Malone is young and hasn’t had an impact on the world, but the reader senses his will with maturity. A junior reporter for a newspaper, Malone is ambitious and seeks out bold assignments to make a name for himself. “Often in my wildest dreams have I thought that I might live to be a war correspondent,” the narrator says from Malone’s point of view. During the expedition, Malone writes letters to his newspaper editor chronicling his experiences. This form of immersive, “Gonzo” journalism has an aura of greatness. It’s hard enough to survive such a perilous expedition, let alone try to capture it vividly on paper. Malone’s accounts will undoubtedly shock the world and one day skyrocket the young professional into literary fame. He may even develop these articles into a travel memoir. We get the sense that we’re spending time with a young Paul Theroux or John Krakauer before they made their names.
Professor Challenger, a prominent zoologist, has already had an outsized impact in his scientific field, but his “aura of greatness” starts with his physical size. Through Malone’s point of view, Challenger is an imposing figure, larger than life. At first sight, he took Malone’s breath away. “He’s one of those men whom nobody can ignore.” He had a “venomous head,” thinks Malone, “the face and beard which I would associate with an Assyrian bull.” His eyes were “very critical, very clear, and very masterful.” He had a “bellowing, roaring, rumbling voice.” Even the character’s name “Challenger” suggests vitality and spiritedness (the exact definition being: “a person who engages in a contest”).
One can hardly radiate an aura of greatness without charisma. Challenger charms everyone he meets, especially woman—in a particularly over-the-top way. Malone says, “He had an enormously massive genial nature, which was almost as overpowering as his violence. His smile of benevolence was a wonderful thing, when his cheeks would suddenly bunch into two red apples, between his half-closed eyes and his great black beard.” Soon after a spirited argument with his wife, Challenger was kissing her passionately. Near the end of the story, after the surviving members of the team had assimilated with Indians, Challenger “seemed to posses an extraordinary fascination for the Indian women.” He had “a train of wide-eyed Indian girls behind him, clad in their slender drapery of bark cloth.”
As with most visionaries, Challenger isn’t afraid of the unknown. Instead, he seeks out novel experiences. “Never look rearwards, but always to our glorious goal,” he tells Malone. Early in the book, after reading about a man who had visited this lost world, Challenger says, “Something terrible lay that way. It was my business to find out what it was.”
This exploratory spirit comes from having a curious mind. Challenger shows Malone the sketches of what appear to be dinosaurs by a man who had supposedly stumbled upon the lost world. Challenger tries to convince Malone that the artist had drawn them from real life. Malone is deeply skeptical, but curious enough to join the expedition. Similarly, Challenger could have ignored the artist’s sketches, dismissing them as fiction, as everyone else had already done. Instead, he admits to “wanting to probe deeper into the matter.”
Second quality of extraordinary heroes: Cutting them down to size
According to Maass, heroes who are noble and true can become cardboard in the eyes of readers. “These lead characters cannot hold our interest over the long haul of a novel if they are one-dimensional.”
Both Malone and Challenger are multi-dimensional. They are complex. They have light and dark sides. Their strengths are also their weaknesses. They are human. Maass calls this “cutting heroes down to size.”
Malone’s courage could easily be considered foolhardy. He will do anything to win Gladys’ heart, even if that means putting himself in a life-threatening situation. During the expedition, he displays what appears to be bravery, but really it is pride by his own admission. This pride becomes an asset, however, as it conquers Malone’s fear when he leaves camp late at night alone to explore a lake. He hopes to make a discovery that will prove his worth among his accomplished travel companions. Malone soon realizes how dangerous it is to trek through the dense jungle at night. He immediately wants to turn back. “I may have said somewhere in this chronicle that I am too imaginative to be a really courageous man, but that I have an overpowering fear of seeming afraid. This was the power which now carried me onwards. I simply could not swing back with nothing done. Even if my comrades should not of missed me, and should never know of my weakness, there would still remain some intolerable self shame in my own soul.” Luckily, his decision to explore during the night pays off. In the distance, he sees campfires in faraway caves, a sign of human life. It’s a great discovery, news he can share with the others. Malone tells his companions about a flourishing ecosystem around the lake.
For all of Professor Challenger’s “greatness,” the zoologist is hot-tempered and hostile, downright intolerable at times. The title of chapter two is “a perfectly impossible person,” referring to Challenger. According to his wife, Challenger is argumentative and has been violent in the past. Malone narrates, “He’s as clever as they make ’em—a full-charged battery of force and vitality, but a quarrelsome, ill-conditioned faddist, and unscrupulous at that.” After discovering that Malone has met him under false pretenses (Malone hide the fact that he was a journalist), Challenger gives Malone a black eye. Challenger is self-aware (another “great” quality): “By nature I am, I admit, somewhat fiery, and under provocation I am inclined to be violent.”
In addition, for all of Challenger’s confidence and self-efficacy, he has an enormous ego. Near the end of the book, after nearly dying from an attack by the indigenous ape-like species, Challenger says his death would have “left an appreciable gap in modern zoological history.” At the start of the team’s expedition, he says, “You need no chart of direction now, since you will have the inestimable advantage of my own guidance. The most elaborate charts would, as you will readily admit, be a poor substitute for my own intelligence and advice.” With such unwavering faith in himself, he is skeptical of other’s “advice.” Ignoring his wife’s advice to be prudent, he says, “I should be a better man if I did what you advise, but I shouldn’t be quite George Edward Challenger.” While perhaps annoying, it can take a man of such self-belief to push the human race forward. This explorer-scientist operates at the edge of human understanding and has great disdain for people without imagination or vision. “Every great discoverer has been met with the same incredulity — the same sure brand of a generation of fools. When great facts are laid before you, you have not the intuition, the imagination which would help you to understand them. You can only throw mud at the men who risked their lives to open new fields to science. You persecute the prophets!”
Third quality of extraordinary heroes: They show us what they’re made of
In The Breakout Novelist, Maass writes, “Novels are unique among art forms in their intimacy. They can take us inside a character’s heart and mind right away. Indeed, that is where your readers want to be. Go there immediately. And when you do, show us what your hero is made of. If you accomplish that, the job of winning us over is done.”
The Lost World’s two main protagonists show us what they’re made of. They’re adventurous, charismatic and bold, but they are also foolhardy, egotistical, and sometimes intolerable. That said, they have the courage to leave the safety of their ordinary worlds. They embrace uncertainty. They are unfailingly idealistic. When they fall down, they get up. For these reasons, they rise to the level of greatness in reader’s eyes. They are extraordinary heroes, as Maass defines a hero.
At the end of the novel, Malone saves the day. He helps rescue his companions who were held captive by ape-men, and leads the team to freedom by figuring out how to read the map of the cave systems. Surprising, he doesn’t get the girl. Gladys has married a dull—albeit safe, wealthy man—in his absence! While heartbroken, Malone knows she was the catalyst to a grand adventure. He was part of a significant discovery and he gets to tell the world about it. A great lesson for any writer, Malone learns the virtue of direct experience, or as Bertrand Russell wrote in his book, The Conquest of Happiness, “To all the talented young men who wander about feeling that there is nothing in the world for them to do, I should say: ‘Give up trying to write, and, instead, try not to write. Go out into the world; become a pirate, a king in Borneo, a laborer in Soviet Russia; give yourself an existence in which the satisfaction of elementary physical needs will occupy all your energies… I believe that after some years of such an existence, the ex-intellectual will find that in spite of his efforts he can no longer refrain from writing, and when this time comes his writing will not seem to him futile.”
Having answered the call to adventure, battled enemies and overcome trials, Malone renters society with stories to tell. He’s a stronger, wiser man. As the saying goes, “smooth sees do not make skilled sailors.” Malone’s “greatness” is best demonstrated by this transformation. Says Malone, “Our eyes have seen great wonders and our souls are chastened by what we have endured. Each is in his own way a better and deeper man.”
Dustin Grinnell is a writer based in Boston. His nonfiction has appeared in Outside Online, New Scientist, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Salon, YourTango and Narratively, among others. He is also the author of the sci-fi/adventure novels, The Genius Dilemma and Without Limits. See more at dustingrinnell.com.