In this exciting novel, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduces the towering, blustering, bearded, great professor, George Edward Challenger. Challenger has returned to London with news of his expedition to a plateau in the Brazilian Amazon, where he claims to have found living dinosaurs. This claim creates great tumult in the audience of one of his lectures, and he says with disdain that “‘Every great discoverer has been met with the same incredulity…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 have risked their lives to open new fields to science. You persecute the prophets! Galileo! Darwin, and I.” While this sounds rather grandiose to put Challenger in a league with these scientific minds, it is true that throughout history, genius scientists have been doubted, misunderstood, and sometimes even punished for their discoveries and theories. But in this case, Challenger does even have claim to greatness, as the story shows he actually has found living dinosaurs.
The narrator, Malone, a reporter, accompanies Challenger on an expedition to test the validity of his claims, along with Professor Summerlee and Lord John Roxton, an adventurer. Roxton describes the immensity of the unknown wilderness of the Amazon, saying “‘You and I could be as far away from each other as Scotland is from Constantinople, and yet each of us be in the same great Brazilian forest. Man has just made a track here and a scrape there in the maze.’” It is really hard to say for certain what might exist in the forest, as it is so large and so much remains unexplored. This reminded me of my own experience studying dolphins in the Peruvian Amazon as an undergraduate. When I was out on the boats in the river, it really was awe-inspiring to be surrounded by so much wilderness, the strange calls and sounds of birds and wildlife coming from all directions for miles around. Doyle’s novel reminded me at many times of my experiences there.
Sure enough, when the travelers reach the Amazon and find Challenger’s plateau, they find real living dinosaurs. They have a series of exciting adventures, nearly escaping being killed by the huge animals. They also enable a group of Indians to defeat their rival ape-men, helping lead to a step forward in evolution wherein the humans establish themselves as the masters of the land. By the time they have finished their expedition, they look back and think of the plateau as “a land where we had dared much, suffered much, and learned much—OUR land, as we shall ever fondly call it.” It would be hard to forget the amazing experiences they have had, the suffering and hardships they have faced, and the scientific discoveries they have made.
The whole story is set off by bookends of a romance between Malone and Gladys, a young woman he likes. In the beginning, when Malone asks Gladys what she is looking for in a partner, she says she would like someone who makes his own chances, who pursues great adventure and in so doing glorifies the woman who loves him. Malone goes off and ironically does just that, having an awesome adventure in the Amazon where he fights huge beasts and wins, and survives against incredible odds, coming home having proven to the world that long-thought extinct dinosaurs actually still exist. But when he sees Gladys at the end of the story, she has married another man. Malone asks the man, incredulous, “‘How did you do it? Have you searched for hidden treasure, or discovered a pole, or done time on a pirate, or flown the Channel, or what? Where is the glamour of romance? How did you get it?’” The man reveals he is simply a solicitor’s clerk. Malone leaves them, crestfallen, but he decides to accompany Roxton on another trip to the Amazon. Malone began his journey as an adventurer with the end of love in mind, but he now continues the journey for love of the adventure, the journey, itself. Perhaps that is the best lesson, that adventure is its own reward.