Wednesday 1 August 2018

100 Years of "The Land That Time Forgot": Dinosauria Caspakensis

It must have been a little after three o'clock in the afternoon that it happened - the afternoon of June 3rd, 1916. It seems incredible that all that I have passed through - all those weird and terrifying experiences - should have been encompassed within so short a span as three brief months. Rather might I have experienced a cosmic cycle, with all its changes and evolutions for that which I have seen with my own eyes in this brief interval of time - things that no other mortal eye had seen before, glimpses of a world past, a world dead, a world so long dead that even in the lowest Cambrian stratum no trace of it remains. Fused with the melting inner crust, it has passed forever beyond the ken of man other than in that lost pocket of the earth whither fate has borne me and where my doom is sealed. I am here and here must remain.
 - Chapter 1, "The Land That Time Forgot"

There are several significant anniversaries of particular importance to me. Obviously, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is out, as well as the much-anticipated 25th anniversary of Jurassic Park on 9th June. But there are some others:

  • 2018 is the 50th anniversary of Robert T. Bakker's "The Superiority of Dinosaurs," an augur for what would become the Dinosaur Renaissance
  • 30th August is the 100th anniversary of the death of Samuel Wendell Williston, the first palaeontologist to suggest birds developed flight cursorially, and (with Benjamin Franklin Mudge) co-discoverer of Allosaurus and Diplodocus, my favourite dinosaur
  • 17th November is the 100th anniversary of the premiere of The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, Willis O'Brien's first dinosaur film, and the first film to combine live-action human actors with stop-motion dinosaur effects
  • 2018 is the 150th anniversary of the first ever mounted dinosaur skeleton

And, of course, there is Edgar Rice Burrough's "The Land That Time Forgot."

This is it. 100 years of the story from which this blog, itself almost nine years old, takes its name.

"The Land That Time Forgot" first appeared in the August 1918 edition of The Blue Book Magazine, the home of many of Edgar Rice Burrough's creations: it was closely followed by "The People That Time Forgot" and "Out of Time's Abyss," a series that became known as the Caspak trilogy.


Caspak language, "from the beginning" 

For several minutes no one spoke; I think they must each have been as overcome by awe as was I. All about us was a flora and fauna as strange and wonderful to us as might have been those upon a distant planet had we suddenly been miraculously transported through ether to an unknown world. Even the grass upon the nearer bank was unearthly--lush and high it grew, and each blade bore upon its tip a brilliant flower-- violet or yellow or carmine or blue--making as gorgeous a sward as human imagination might conceive. But the life! It teemed. The tall, fernlike trees were alive with monkeys, snakes, and lizards. Huge insects hummed and buzzed hither and thither. Mighty forms could be seen moving upon the ground in the thick forest, while the bosom of the river wriggled with living things, and above flapped the wings of gigantic creatures such as we are taught have been extinct throughout countless ages.
 - Chapter 4

The worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs have been analysed and interpreted countless ways: from literary analysis of themes and inspirations, to more speculative "in-universe" scholarship attempting to explain the mysteries within the stories. Caspak presents a very unusual variation on the dinosaur fiction genre exemplified by Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" and others. With the Lidenbrock Sea and Maple White Land, the explanation for how these creatures could exist was essentially due to their isolation - deep in the earth, an elevated plateau - where the conditions which led to the evolution of the rest of Earth did not take effect. The presence of animals from different periods of history could be explained as isolated populations which somehow found their way into these lost worlds, much like the protagonists of the stories.

Caspak was different: here, the collection of different epochs of animal life is intrinsic to the island's entire ecosystem. All the stages of Earth's prehistory - Paleozoic to Mesozoic, Cambrian through to Triassic & Jurassic - are represented, and form the basis of a delicate balance which could be thrown into chaos in a moment:

From the great inland lake behind us came the hissing and the screaming of countless saurians. Above us we heard the flap of giant wings, while from the shore rose the multitudinous voices of a tropical jungle - of a warm, damp atmosphere such as must have enveloped the entire earth during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. But here were intermingled the voices of later eras - the scream of the panther, the roar of the lion, the baying of wolves and a thunderous growling which we could attribute to nothing earthly but which one day we were to connect with the most fearsome of ancient creatures.

The natural history of Caspak and its anomalous fauna is thus a great deal of fun for speculative evolutionary enthusiasts, as is the language, sociology, anthropology, and demography of the many hominid species. The ERBzine alone is fully of excellent studies and articles on the story (including Woodrow Edgar Nichols Jr's magnificent 26-part odyssey ERB'S Embryonic Journey: The Trimesters of Caspak, which I thoroughly recommend) so it's difficult to know where I could be much use.

So, I'll stick with what I love most about the story - the dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures!

A Veritable Mesozoic Nightmare

Thomas Hawkins' Ichthyosauri & Plesiosauri,
The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons: Extinct Monsters of the Ancient Earth
... our attention was once more directed toward the river, for around us there had sprung up a perfect bedlam of screams and hisses and a seething cauldron of hideous reptiles, devoid of fear and filled only with hunger and with rage. They clambered, squirmed and wriggled to the deck, forcing us steadily backward, though we emptied our pistols into them. There were all sorts and conditions of horrible things--huge, hideous, grotesque, monstrous--a veritable Mesozoic nightmare. 
 - Chapter 4

This passage, depicting part of the first encounter the crew of U-33 experience of Caspak, is steeped in the earliest mythology of dinosaur fiction: a great, writhing mass of teeth and claws and scales, biting and clawing insatiably. Such apocalyptic imagery was all the rage in the early days of popular palaeontology, and undoubtedly informed Jules Verne and other authors who imbued their adventures with sea serpents with a sound basis in science. Edgar Rice Burroughs was righting centuries after the discovery and popularity of the "Great Sea-Dragons," but the discovery of creatures which ruled the land as they ruled the seas only fed the growing public appetite for such creatures of Earth's distant past.

Plesiosaurus and its cousin Ichthyosaurus had been cast as eternal nemeses since Journey to the Centre of the Earth:

At last have mortal eyes gazed upon two reptiles of the great primitive ocean! I see the flaming red eyes of the Ichthyosaurus, each as big, or bigger than a man's head. Nature in its infinite wisdom had gifted this wondrous marine animal with an optical apparatus of extreme power, capable of resisting the pressure of the heavy layers of water which rolled over him in the depths of the ocean where he usually fed. It has by some authors truly been called the whale of the saurian race, for it is as big and quick in its motions as our king of the seas. This one measures not less than a hundred feet in length, and I can form some idea of his girth when I see him lift his prodigious tail out of the waters. His jaw is of awful size and strength, and according to the best-informed naturalists, it does not contain less than a hundred and eighty-two teeth. 
The other was the mighty Plesiosaurus, a serpent with a cylindrical trunk, with a short stumpy tail, with fins like a bank of oars in a Roman galley. 
Its whole body covered by a carapace or shell, and its neck, as flexible as that of a swan, rose more than thirty feet above the waves, a tower of animated flesh! 
These animals attacked one another with inconceivable fury. Such a combat was never seen before by mortal eyes, and to us who did see it, it appeared more like the phantasmagoric creation of a dream than anything else. They raised mountains of water, which dashed in spray over the raft, already tossed to and fro by the waves. Twenty times we seemed on the point of being upset and hurled headlong into the waves. Hideous hisses appeared to shake the gloomy granite roof of that mighty cavern—hisses which carried terror to our hearts. The awful combatants held each other in a tight embrace. I could not make out one from the other. Still the combat could not last forever; and woe unto us, whichsoever became the victor.
 - Chapter 30, "Terrific Saurian Combat," Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Griffith and Farran translation, 1871)

Likewise, the vision of writhing swarms of reptilian life can be found in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World":

There was nothing which we could see upon the shore which seemed to me so wonderful as the great sheet of water before us. Our numbers and our noise had frightened all living creatures away, and save for a few pterodactyls, which soared round high above our heads while they waited for the carrion, all was still around the camp. But it was different out upon the rose-tinted waters of the central lake. It boiled and heaved with strange life. Great slate-colored backs and high serrated dorsal fins shot up with a fringe of silver, and then rolled down into the depths again. The sand-banks far out were spotted with uncouth crawling forms, huge turtles, strange saurians, and one great flat creature like a writhing, palpitating mat of black greasy leather, which flopped its way slowly to the lake. Here and there high serpent heads projected out of the water, cutting swiftly through it with a little collar of foam in front, and a long swirling wake behind, rising and falling in graceful, swan-like undulations as they went. It was not until one of these creatures wriggled on to a sand-bank within a few hundred yards of us, and exposed a barrel-shaped body and huge flippers behind the long serpent neck, that Challenger, and Summerlee, who had joined us, broke out into their duet of wonder and admiration.
 - Chapter XVI, "Those Were The Real Conquests," The Lost World

The almost mythological tones imbued upon these creatures is a relic of the very foundations of paleontology. While the field of dinosaur science is young, the discovery of fossils is as old as humanity - only then, remains which we would now classify as dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, or other prehistoric creatures, were called giants, dragons, griffins, and monsters. The very first fossil hunters may well have thought they came across the skull of one of the "great sea monsters" of Genesis, or Leviathan itself, just as the creator of this vase could have based the Monster of Troy on the skull of a Samotherium:

כא  וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הַתַּנִּינִם הַגְּדֹלִים; וְאֵת כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ הַחַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת אֲשֶׁר שָׁרְצוּ הַמַּיִם לְמִינֵהֶם, וְאֵת כָּל-עוֹף כָּנָף לְמִינֵהוּ, וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-טוֹב.
And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that creepeth, wherewith the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind; and God saw that it was good. - Gen. 21
Each of the creatures in "The Land That Time Forgot" has a link and a relevance to how humanity saw dinosaurs, and through them, humanity's place in a world where every discovery seemed to change it forever. I'll be looking at the dinosaurs of Caspak in a series, comparing them to contemporaneous depictions, the scientific consensus of the time, and the modern palaeontological interpretation. Far from simply dismissing them as anachronisms fit only for the wastebasket taxon of history, there is value in what we now know to be mistakes and inaccuracies, as surely as there is value in new discoveries. Sometimes, to know where you are, you have to look back at where you came from.

Prehistoric life in popular culture has always been as connected to mythology, religion, and folklore as it has been to science, and this is reflected in the literature of the time. Burrough's dinosaurs, be they the dwellers of Caspak, the denizens of Pal-ul-don, the inhabitants of Pellucidar, or the xenosaurs of Amtor and Barsoom, offer an insight into man's understanding, reverence  - and dread - for dinosaurs.

The creatures were approaching perilously close before I dropped through the hatchway and slammed down the cover. Then I went into the tower and ordered full speed ahead, hoping to distance the fearsome things; but it was useless. Not only could any of them easily outdistance the U-33, but the further upstream we progressed the greater the number of our besiegers, until fearful of navigating a strange river at high speed, I gave orders to reduce and moved slowly and majestically through the plunging, hissing mass. I was mighty glad that our entrance into the interior of Caprona had been inside a submarine rather than in any other form of vessel. I could readily understand how it might have been that Caprona had been invaded in the past by venturesome navigators without word of it ever reaching the outside world, for I can assure you that only by submarine could man pass up that great sluggish river, alive.

No comments:

Post a Comment