A Meditation on Lost Race Literature
with special reference to
the works of H. Rider Haggard

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

   

The basis of the past popularity of Lost Race novels was H. Rider Haggard, whose excellence hundreds of lesser talents recognized as worthy of imitation. Of course, Haggard didn't invent the idea of lost races, which was abroad from antiquity, in cultural myths about submerged former inhabitants of conquered regions, in utopians & Swiftian satires of distant island cultures, in the continuous & widespread expectation that Amazons & similar exotic societies thrived beyond the limits of the known world (Columbus then the Conquistadores watched soberly for Amazons described in romances of Amadis the Gaul; & the very state of California is named for a queen of one of these imputed nations, a woman no less thrilling than Haggard's immortal She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed), & in speculations on the whereabouts of Israel's lost tribes.

An actual wanderer & mystic, David Reubeni, journeying among 15th century Jewry, claimed for his origin one of the lost tribes which dwelt in an isolated region of Arabia entirely circled about by the raging River Sambatyon. The river's flow changed direction once every thousand years. At the time of directional change the river was momentarily still, & it was at just such a moment Reubeni waded across to the outer world, only to find he could never return. The actual homeland of this famous charlatan was never known (he was perhaps half Falasha, of the then unknown & long-isolated Ethiopian Jewry who had mystic tendencies, who were practically a real-life Lost Race, & whose population was only recently transported en masse to Israel). What is intriguing about Reubeni's epic claims, & the claims of similar messianic frauds, is that so many found him credible, the lost race motif having always been taken for real.

The lost races of the Hollow Earth find early counterparts in the Sumerian myth of the Descent of Inanna into a world with an Ayesha-like ruler, Ereskigal; in Nordic tales of the kingdom of the dwarves beneath volcanoes with advanced metallurgical technologies; & Jewish myths of Cain who, after he was swallowed by the earth for murdering Abel, discovered, conquered, & enlightened an underground race. Haggard gave the ancient Lost Race theme its modern, popular form, & he even appreciated the Jewish underpinning, tying Solomon to his mythic vision. I would tell anyone: if you don't already collect Haggard, you should begin. He holds up perfectly; his works remain key examples of imaginative genius & tragedy. He's so good that his imitators have been collected merely for the influence, though most imitators tend toward happy endings & miss Haggard's point of tragic beauty.

Lost Races held such scientific credibility that jungle-hidden cities in Cambodia were once believed, by Eurocentric writers, to have been built by a people descended of Alexander the Great. The Modoc Indians of the Pacific Northwest, because of their fine features & some tortuously arranged language parallels, were regarded by Victorian ethnologists to be the remnant of a lost Roman legion. Even before that absurd theory gained favor, the Modocs had been named for a Welsh God because Lewis & Clark, on their westward expedition, had been convinced they would encounter a millenia-isolated Welsh outpost. The Mayans, Toltecs, & Incas were popularly believed to constitute the last flourishing of Atlantean races.

When Haggard wrote his stories, many clung to the pre-Darwinian, Deist belief that every part of creation required every other part to continue ticking, therefore nothing ever becomes extinct (if it did, creation would cease to function, like a watch missing a gear). That creation persisted was of itself proof that prehistoric valleys thrived somewhere, with former races of man & beast living as they had in past epochs. Such locations were sincerely sought during the great era of Victorian exploration. The source of the Nile was not yet known; the interior of South America was a blank on the maps; malaria was an invisible barrier that made the interior of Central America inaccessible; the North & South Poles were as yet unseen & certain to have volcanic hotspring valleys of green paradises; new Pacific islands (surely inhabited by descendants of Phoenician explorers if not Lemurians) awaited discovery; the Gobi desert & the Himalayas were but marginally explored. Victorian discoveries of ecologically distinct high plateau environments in the New World inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World & a plethora of prehistoric survival tales, including Neanderthal & CroMagnon peoples. There were simply scores of places where Lost Races must linger. If the novels were read as escapist fantasies, there was nevertheless a tension of credibility for Victorians that in the 20th Century was whittled away by cartographers.

Even at that, there could never be a complete end to uncharted locations for lost races. There remained the Hollow Earth & domed Atlantis under the sea. There were dimensional worlds-within-worlds originating in Kaballah's ideas of sephirotic universes & the Five [or Seven] Earths each inhabited by separate types of humanity, which in fantasy fiction became alternative universes with focal points of connection to our world at sacred sites like Mount Shasta (sacred to the Modocs) or Everest (visible from Shangri-la). There are New Age occult crackpots who still believe in such things quite devoutly, but you might be surprised by current "scientific" speculations of archeologists still eager to believe the Lost Race argument. Biblical Archeology not long ago recapped evidence from professional archeological journals that North American Mound Builders were Jews — the Lost Tribe factor still at work in the minds of scientists — when all they have to go on is an iron-age blade recovered from one of these mounds with scratches on it, very unconvincingly compared to a proto-Hebrew script.

Through the '60s/70s, an amazing fraud was perpetuated, convincing a gullible National Geographic Society that a Stone Age tribe flourished in a Philippine jungle, marriages arranged with similar, unmet primitive groups awaiting interviews deeper in the rain forest. To recall the television special on this tribe decades afterward, one can only wonder how so many were duped. The naked, cultureless "gentle Tassidy," just like Lost in Space aliens, presented no language barrier. They had no Stone Age skills or objects, no burial rites, no tribal myths, all hastily explained away as the result of recent contacts with civilization, the Society having arrived minutes too late to record that evidence; or by the premise that a true Stone Age people naturally possessed no cultural developments of any kind. A famous book about the Tassidy is still to be had in used book shops' anthropology sections. But accounts of how the fraud was maintained until the death of President Marcos, when the "tribe" put on their clothes & returned to their former Philippino lives, never became a bestselling premise & is only apt to be uncovered by effort. Embarrassed National Geographic editors dropped the matter quietly, knowing the public desired belief, & not wishing to admit themselves such credulous gudgeons, no doubt, in more matters than this one.

For the most part, even before our era of world-spying satellites, it became increasingly evident that explorers were not going to find descendants of Prester John or Roman legions deep in China, nor any advanced theosophic adepts in mountain-kingdoms more inaccessible than Forbidden Llasa, no mesa of cave men & dawn horses in Honduras, no Northwest Passage to a mammoth-haunted Arctic's isolated Viking colony, no Pharoaic estates in the interior of darkest Africa, no thriving Aztec cities with Atlantean technologies hidden by Peruvian jungle vines & mountain mist. By the 1920s, the Lost Race theme began slowly to die out as adult literature in book form, though it puttered along another thirty years in pulp magazines at the hands of decadent nostalgists & in juvenile series books about Golden Cities visited by white feral lads, stumbled upon by scout troops camping out in the Yucatan, or young inventors in rocket-powered dirigibles blown off course to some remnant of Atlantis.

At the end of the millenium we've had a movie about an Indian tribe cut off from the modern world in the Rockies, a revisit of Haggard's Solomonic Mines & cannibal apes in a Michael Crichton book & film, even a hack hireling's Lost Horizon sequel entitled Return to Shangri-la. So the theme survives, though not as broadly explored as formerly. Yet with a handful of exceptions, most of those among my chums who are avidly pursuing lost race novels are Seniors who remember when they (or at least their parents who assisted in formulating life-long tastes) regarded these books as contemporary, lending an immediate nostalgic power not as easily felt by young collectors.

It would be sad if the fondness for vintage lost race novels became mislaid by younger generations of fantasy lovers. To insure these books are forever cherished, it is essential that those of us aware of Haggard's greatness express this vehemently to new readers — for it is alongside Haggard that the merits of all other lost race novels will always be measured, & only for as long as Haggard is read will his imitators retain comparative interest.




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