Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dian of the Lost Land

Dian of the Lost Land is a 1935 novel by Edison Marshall (1894-1967), an American writer whose adventure tales achieved considerable popularity during his lifetime. Three of his novels were filmed, the best-known movie adaptation being The Vikings in 1958.

Dian of the Lost Land follows the usual template for lost world adventures. Adam Weissman is a young American doctor specialising in obscure tropical diseases. He has even had a disease named after him. His studies of rare diseases have brought him to Australia. Having gone on board the ship Penguin to treat a sailor suffering from Coral Fever he is shanghaied by Belgrade, an Eastern European anthropologist (anthropology was still taken seriously as a science in those far-off days). Belgrade is on a voyage of discovery to a lost world in the Antarctic and he needs Wiessman to keep the sick sailor alive long enough to guide him to his objective.

The ailing sailor, a man named Hull, had been the sole survivor of an earlier expedition. Some years after the expedition members vanished without trace Belgrade found Hull in South America and heard his extraordinary story. Belgrade is a dedicated scientist, dedicated to the point of obsession, and Hull’s stories of a hidden world in the Antarctic teeming with unknown species and at lest one and possibly two unknown unknown human societies have inflamed Belgrade’s scientific imagination and his ambitions. The scientist who brings back the knowledge of this lost world will win fame, honour and riches.

Belgrade is initially set up as the villain, a man blinded by ambition who sees people merely as tools or as subjects for scientific investigation. We will however later find out that there’s a good deal more to him.

The lost world is hidden behind mountains and armed by volcanic activity. It’s far from being an idyllic land of forests. It’s rather like the Arctic tundra but it can support a variety of animal life, including a smaller cousin of the musk-ox of the Arctic. And mammoths.

The people of this land turn out to be more or less identical to the people of the Cro-Magnon culture of the European paleolithic period. These Antarctic dwellers have remained unchanged for tens of thousands years, both anatomically and culturally, with one exception - they have learnt to smelt bronze.

Their ruler, Dian, is a priestess-queen although she is also seen as a kind of living goddess. She also happens to be the daughter of one of the members of the earlier expedition that was lost. She is beautiful, but also wise and intelligent, and of course she and Adam are destined to fall in love.

There is another human civilisation in this bleak tundra-like land, but they are humans of a very different sort.

Adam fears that when word gets out about this lost paradise it will be overrun by traders lured by the furs and ivory in which the land abounds. He wants to keep the discovery a secret from the world, which leads to a major clash with Belgrade. Adam will have other crises to deal with as well, including a full-scale war.

The Antarctic Cro-Magnons practise a kind of primitive eugenics and as a result they are a tall, handsome and exceptionally healthy race. Eugenics were all the rage when the book was written but the term had not yet acquired its later sinister connotations. Adam’s approval of the lost race’s policies should not therefore be misinterpreted. Almost everyone, on both the political left and right, was a eugenics enthusiast at the time. 

Marshall was clearly a scientific enthusiast and he has given quite a lot of thought not only to primitive cultures but also to the evolution of culture and more particularly the evolution of language. Both his heroes are scientists but they have very different agendas. They also have very different personalities. Belgrade is a man of the intellect. Adam is more a man of emotion and of action. Belgrade cares about the lost race insofar as they are of scientific interest, while Adam is emotionally drawn to them. The author explains this as being due to the fact that Belgrade is a Slav while Adam is or Nordic stock. Again it’s important to remember that such ideas were common currency of the times and had no sinister implications. Belgrade will find that his approach is limited and will modify his views as the story progresses - yes this book has character development!

While Marshall is obviously interested in exploring the theme of differing approaches to science and the possible conflict between science and morality, and while he is also interested in the anthropological and linguistic angles, adventure fans need not fear that he neglects action and adventure. Or romance. In fact he integrates all these ingredients fairly effectively.

Dian of the Lost Land is a fine example of the lost world adventure genre and a thoroughly enjoyable read. It lacks the stunning flights of the imagination that characterise the best world tales (such as those of A. Merritt) but it’s still worth reading if you enjoy the genre. Recommended.

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