Friday, July 30, 2010


So, one of the interesting side-notes I came across when preparing my Haggard & Tolkien paper was the information in John Garth's TOLKIEN & THE GREAT WAR that in 1912 Tolkien gave the King Edward's School library, where he'd graduated just a year before, a copy of THE LOST EXPLORERS by Alexander Macdonald [1906]*

This got my curiosity up, and after doing a little poking about on amazon, bookfinder, and abebooks, I managed to find a copy on the last of these (from The Book Moose, in Lincoln New Hampshire) -- in good condition, for a v. reasonable price.

Naturally, I read it in hopes of finding some hint that it'd influenced Tolkien in some way. And I have to say I drew pretty much a complete blank. Since my mind is full of Tolkien, I can suggest a few parallels and echoes here and there, but none of them are compelling and only one is strong enough that I'd think it worth drawing attention to. In general I'd have to conclude that this is a book Tolkien read and liked and wasn't influenced by. Which of course is the case with most of the things Tolkien wd have read in his lifetime, only the barest fraction of which we can identify with confidence; it's salutary to have a reminder of that once in a while.

So, it's good to know what kind of book Tolkien enjoyed,** but I won't be doing an essay on "Alexander Macdonald: A Lost Source" anytime soon.

That said, here's a quick precis of the book, followed by a listing of occasional Tolkienesque bits.

Two sixteen year old English kids decide to give up their poorly paid clerkships before they get too deeply into a rut and a lifetime of wage-slaving and take up with an explorer just back from Australia, where he lost his entire party in an Aborigine ambush. They join forces and head out to the Outback with him, where they engage in gold-mining for a hundred pages or so to earn capital for their expedition. The best thing about this part are the names of their five partners in the enterprise, all "bushmen" (outbackers) with years of experience: Nuggety Dick, Emu Bill, Dead Broke Dan, Never Never Dave, and The Shadow (no relation). The weirdest thing about this part is the evaporating gold they find, which sublimates away when exposed to air (one of our two lads finds a chemical treatment that restores the gold to its original purity. Yeah, right.

Once they've defeated the local bully (not once but three times, in three different ways), a villain who I imagined as looking a lot like Eric Campbell (the 'heavy' in a dozen of Chaplin's early shorts, most notably 'EASY STREET' [1916], they head out into the Never Never (as they call the Outback). Much detail about desert travel with camels follows, along with several encounters with the Aborigines that are painfully, teeth-grindingly racist through and through. The very worst bit, I think, comes when one of our heroes is tricked into falling into a natural cistern by a native he's chasing; once rescued his comrades not only take all the water for themselves and their camels but glory in the fact that the local Aborigine community must have hoarded this water supply for months if not years and that they'll be unable to continue living there now that it's gone. Ugh.

Eventually they reach the 'Mystic Mountain' where the previous expedition was wiped out, a sheer unclimbable peak that towers some eight hundred feet high, which is presented as a vast height they can't figure out how to get over or around. Maybe western Australia is pretty flat, or maybe I've just become a mountain snob since moving from (v. flat) SW Arkansas and (even flatter) SE Wisconsin, but I'm suspecting that Mr. Macdonald must have been a Lowlander Scot, not a Highlander.

And here's where, belatedly, the story becomes almost interesting. While most of the explorers are asleep their camp is attacked in the night by natives, who have a secret tunnel going through the mountain that, from the outside, merely looks like a crack in the rock; after the natives retreat back through it it closes with a snap. This sounds a bit like the ambush on Thorin & Co in the mountain-cave high in the Misty Mountains, but while interesting I don't think the parallel's strong enough to build much on. And, just because we haven't had any weirdness in a while, the explorer's leader decides to blow a hole in the mountain wall so our heroes can slip into the hidden tunnel without the natives being any the wiser -- we're actually told several times they'll never notice a new tunnel blasted into the side of their own.

It all ends happily, of course; the members of the previous expedition turn out to all be alive as captive guests of the tribe beyond the mountain, and despite the sad death of one of our plucky gang a little earlier, all the rest escape safely, carrying with them a small fortune in gold and a much larger one in diamonds and rubies. Finally, in a nice closing touch, when they stumble out of the desert two months later they don't recognize their gold camp anymore, since it's now a sizable town (named after one of our two teen heroes). Plus, one of the missing explorers turns out to be the long-lost uncle of one of the lads. Happy endings all round, and none too soon (at 378 pages, this isn't a quick read).

As for possible Tolkien echoes, these are disappointingly few. At one point the Shadow uses what from the description must be a bullroarer to frighten off natives, but he doesn't call it a "bull-roarer" but a ghingi (this being the name of the monster it sounds like). There's one scene where the explorer feels remorse when he realizes he's introduced wanderlust into the two likely lads which made me think of Uncle Bilbo and the youngsters he inadvertently encouraged to be adventurous -- but Tolkien never actually wrote that scene, though the original Trotter story came close. At one point they capture a native and I thought the book might be about to go into a taming-of-Smeagol scene, but instead they feed him a huge amount of salt so that he'll be so desperate he can't help but reveal his tribe's well/natural cistern (that is, they torture him a bit in what's intended to be comical fashion. again, ugh). Other slight echoes aren't specific enough -- their saying farewell, King Thorin fashion, to their dying comrade after a battle; the reflection adventures are "All not sunshine and romance and pleasurable excitement" (cf. Bilbo's sad reflections early on in The Hobbit), or the drama of the Aborigines passing by the plucky hero in the dark in the tunnel, allowing him to slip past into daylight on the other side of the mountain (cf. Bilbo's escape from Gollum), or finally the surprise of coming home and finding yourself presumed dead and everything greatly changed in the months you've been away. All these seem too generic to make much of. The lone linguistic note is a brief mention of one of the lost explorers actually being able to talk to the tribe beyond the mountain in their "monosyllabic language" (which, even knowing as little about Aborigine culture as I do, seems wildly unlikely).

So, in the end I don't think this book had much if any influence -- on Tolkien or anyone else. WHich, in a way, is more a relief than a disappointment. Because I have to admit I didn't enjoy THE LOST EXPLORERS at all. While it's certainly better than S. R. Crockett's THE BLACK DOUGLAS, Macdonald was no Haggard; his 'boys' book" doesn't transcend mere adventure into something worth reading even by those not part of his original target audience -- both in age group and time-and-place. The pervasive casual racism towards the Aborigines is particularly disturbing to any modern reader -- or perhaps the back-to-back doses of so many Haggards plus Conan Doyle plus this has rubbed me raw on that point. The colorful names (e.g., Never Never Dave and Dead Broke Dan) are a hoot, but that's really not enough to carry a reader through. Ah well; some lost explorers are just as well staying lost.


current audiobooks: EXODUS and GOD IS NOT GREAT
current reading: "The Invention of Tradition" and YSABEL.

*no relation to George MacDonald, apparently.

**I'm assuming here that since he owned the book he read it, and since he donated it to his old school he'd liked it, before having outgrown it by the time he was in college. Neither of these is actually provable, but they seem reasonable enough.

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