Were one to bump into a Bengal tiger in the ravine behind the Bimini Baths, one could not be more surprised than was I to see a perfectly good quart thermos bottle turning and twisting in the surf of Cape Farewell at the southern extremity of Greenland. I rescued it, but was soaked above the knees doing it; and then I sat down in the sand and opened it, and in the long twilight read the manuscript, neatly written and tightly folded, which was its contents. You have read the opening paragraph, and if you are an imaginative idiot like myself, you will want to read the rest of it; so I shall give it to you here, omitting quotation marks – which are difficult of remembrance.
Hohoho, am I being challenged Mr. Burroughs? I guess I should have listened to the guy, because I ended up reading the whole book in one sitting. It all starts with an unnamed man finding a message in a bottle describing misadventures on a journey across the Atlantic. Immediately the story switches to the author of the manuscript and we forget the existence of the man who is supposedly reading it to us. The story begins in WWI when an American Bowen J. Tyler happens to be on a ship that is attacked by a German U-boat. The ship sinks and Tyler miraculously survives along with his loyal dog and Lys, the young woman he rescues from the sea. The three of them are picked up by a British boat, but luck is not on their side and they are soon again attacked by the same enemy. This time the British manage to capture the U-boat and its crew, but their craft is sunk, so they decide to sail home on the U-33.
Not surprisingly, all the ships they encounter on the way take them for Germans and flee before they can ask for provision and fuel. Finally, they decide to cross the ocean and take course for America. At the same time strange things happen on board of the U-boat, as someone constantly sabotages the navigating equipment. By the time the traitor is discovered and a small mutiny is suppressed, our heroes find themselves in the unfamiliar Antarctic waters. Threatened by thirst and hunger, the crew is forced to dock to a mysterious island that is not charted on any maps. Isolated and remote, it turned out to offer sanctuary to strange prehistoric lizards, lavish flora, and ape-like creatures. The crew must now survive carnivorous animals, aggressive aboriginals, and unknown dangers of the jungle, all while trying to get together enough provision and fuel to get back to civilization.
Burroughs has a very crazy idea about science according to modern common knowledge. But at the time the book was written he had all the artistic license he wanted to invent the most fantastic facts. To give you a better perspective, consider the scene where the crew is attacked by an Allosaurus while trying to hunt. Tyler and his men aim straight for the beast’s heart, shoot, but the dinosaur manages to chase them for a good distance before suddenly collapsing and dying. Burroughs’ explanation? The Allosaurus’s neurological system is so primitive, that even after being fatally shot, his body continues to function for many minutes until his tiny brain finally catches up with the idea that it’s time to die. I burst laughing out loud when I read it! Another example being the Plesiosaurus attacking the U-boat and sticking its head inside, and continuing to bite and trying to catch a prey until the crew hacks its head off. Um, you’d think after the first hit to the head with an axe, the animal would get a clew and retreat! But I find a lot of the older books and movies dealing with prehistoric animals are guilty of portraying the creatures as almost indestructible. A hero can unload a full clip into the attacking beast, yet it will continue to run after him like no tomorrow. My blog have seen such seemingly bullet-proof animals when I was talking about the The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I guess it’s a trend with turn of the century literature.
Another trend is the love story. Is it me or all late 19th, early 20th century literature portrays falling in love like a math formula? The characters meet for the first time under some mysterious circumstances. He admires her lady-like manners, mentions that she might not be of most beauty, but is charmed by her kind and gentle features. She is seemingly cold to him (bonus points if she was promised to another but the engagement fell through). Through the course of the entire book they maintain a mutual respect and safe distance. Then something terrible happens, and the hero must save the girl from imminent danger. Once the adventure is over, their feelings burst out on the surface, and it turns out they are both madly in love with each other, even though he probably doesn’t even know her favorite color, and she is clueless about his past. Ah, the mysteries of love! The highlight of the book for me was when Tyler had to fight a savage apeman with his bare hands to be able to claim Lys as his own! Could you get any more sexist than that, Mr. Burroughs?
The last thing I wanted to mention is the improbable evolution theory suggested by the author. Basically, according to Burroughs, the island is divided among different tribes of apemen at different stages of development. The crew first encounters creatures that are no more than monkeys wielding stones and sticks. Eventually, Tyler gets to know a more advanced tribe with its members having stone hatchets and primitive language. Surprisingly enough, upon capturing one of them, Lys manages to learn the language after few weeks and teach it to Tyler. I mean, come on, it’s not like you have the same view of the world to be able to figure out direct translations… But everything is possible in a science fiction novel! Later on the characters wonder into the village inhibited by apemen of even higher development stage with spears as their weapons. There they learn that throughout their life the creatures evolve from mere monkeys into humanoids and must migrate into the tribe that corresponds with their level of intelligence. Ultimately, all creatures manage to evolve to the point of being able to live in the legendary tribe far away whose inhabitants apparently resemble Tyler and Lys. Though the heroes never reach the elusive village, I hope Burroughs talks about it a little more in the following book. Essentially, the author suggests here that evolution is possible on personal level and happens in one’s lifespan, which of course reads as complete nonsense to the modern reader, but must have been a thrill to the contemporaries of Burroughs. So this is how I decided to read the book: with an open mind and a humorous outlook. Turned out I very much enjoyed The Land That Time Forgot, and hope to read the next installment soon enough.