Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Jack London and The Lost Road

So, I've just finished reading a book I came across on one of the downstairs bookcases while we were staying at Trout Lake (nr Mt Adams, just north of the Columbia River gorge) last week, and which our hostess* v. kindly loaned to me: Jack London's BEFORE ADAM [1907]. It turned out not to be much of a book -- there's a reason that most of what London wrote goes unread these days, aside from a few classics -- but was interesting in several ways.

First off, as a early man/primitive man story, it reminded me both of a story about cavemen by H. G. Wells (the title of which I've forgotten) I came across years ago when leafing through bound volumes of THE IDLER in the Marquette Archives in search of Sidney Sime artwork (one of the ones I found I'd love to have a reproduction of: "The Brother of Ali Baba Lost in the Woods" -- but unfortunately in the years since I've lost the reference)** and THE INHERITORS by Wm Golding -- wh. I've not read and know only through a presentation on it I attended at one of the first WisCons I went to (hence, in the early 80s, since I moved to Milwaukee in August 1981 and first attended WisCon the following February).

London's story is much closer to Golding's in its bleak depiction of one race of early men being systematically exterminated by another, and I wd not be surprised if it were a source. In Golding's case, it's the Neanderthals (who are the point of view characters) being wiped out by Cro-Magnon (i.e., our ancestors). In London's he depicts a time when there were three distinct races of humans living in close proximity:*** The Tree People (who still retain a lot of arboreal features), The Folk ('missing links', who include the narrator), and The Fire People (who are more advanced, with bows and language).

What interested me are two features that v. much remind me of Tolkien's THE LOST ROAD.
First, the narrator is a modern-day man haunted by vivid dreams of a previous life in which he was Big Tooth, one of The Folk. This seems v. like the Errols in LOST ROAD and for that matter Ramer and Arry in THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS. One thing that had puzzled me in Tolkien's time-travel stories was his insistence at one point (I forget where) that the modern day characters were not re-incarnations of their Numenorean selves but inherited memories of those events through being descendents of those distant ancestors.

That didn't make any kind of sense to me -- either they were re-incarnated or they weren't -- but London's book makes much the same claim. His modern-day narrator is not the same person come to life again in a new body, but a descendent of the person who felt and thought and acted long ago. A Lysenko-ist, London believes that memories can be inherited genetically. Thus, for example, he argues that the dream of falling some people have, but always waking up before hitting the ground, is because those people are descended from hominids who fell from trees or other high places but caught themselves before hitting the ground. London claims that no one has the dream of hitting the ground, because those individuals died in the fall and hence had no descendents to passed on the traumatic memory to. Which is no more absurd, I suppose, than the modern claims some make that people are afraid of snakes because of little furry mammals being hunted by the dinosaurs (people are afraid of snakes because they're taught to be afraid of snakes. duh.).

Now, this seems v. like what Tolkien must have been getting at. The Errol father-and-son pair are not literally the two Numenoreans re-incarnated, the way elves can re-incarnate (with the same soul and personality), but ancestors of the modern-day Englishmen who under the right circumstances can re-awaken those inherited memories and re-experience events in their ancestors' lives. Which of course ties in to 'the past alive in the present' (to give one of Jared Lobdell's catchphrases from ENGLAND & ALWAYS a new application) in the NCP, where past events can erupt explosively in the present. In the abstract, described like that, it sounds much more like a David Lindsay novel than anything we associate with Tolkien. Which is perhaps just a good reminder that Tolkien's not as predictable as we sometimes think.

--John R.

*better known as Marjorie Burns, author of PERILOUS REALMS. Thanks again, Bijee.

**this was back when I was working on my Dunsany dissertation, a section of which is devoted to the wholly remarkable Dunsany-Sime partnership.

***the accompanying introduction (by McKiernan) and afterword (by Eisley) to the edition I read were careful to point out that London was quite wrong in depicting multiple hominids alive at the same time -- which, amusingly enough, is itself quite wrong, as recent discoveries such as the Flores hobbit reveals.


gef the talking mongoose said...

*sigh* It figures I'd stumble across this blog only a couple of days after proclaiming my general lack of interest in the fantasy genre (as opposed to sf &, more markedly over the last couple of decades, horror) in a comicbookresources.com Classics thread ...

Forgive me, old SAU classmate & fellow Rocket Drive-In ticket-taker, for I have sinned.

I trust you're well ...

Dan Bailey

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Dan! Long time no see. Are you still in the Magnolia area?
As I remember it, it was at your suggestion that I first read Lovecraft. Then, when I said I didn't think much of it, aside from one story called "The Strange High House in the Mist" (still my favorite Lovecraft story even today), you asked which book I'd read. And when I replied THE TOMB AND OTHERS (a book I still have on my shelves), you said that it was a collection of Lovecraft's worst pieces, the left-overs after several other collections had assembled all the worthwhile pieces -- or something like that. And I did eventually read more: first DAGON at Fayetteville, then the other two omnibus collections during the Wisconsin years, and finally the ghost-writing (HORROR IN THE MUSEUM) shortly after moving out to Seattle.

As you've prob. seen from my blog, I still don't have that high a regard for Lovecraft as a writer (always excepting STRANGE HIGH HOUSE and the DREAM-QUEST). But I think as a source of ideas he's proved just as important as you said. And Lovecraft led me on to discover Smith (Clark Ashton), and CALL OF CTHLUHU (my second-favorite roleplaying game), so it's all good.

Good to hear from you. Keep in touch.

--John R.

Murilegus rex said...

Ever read H. Rider Haggard's Allan and the Ice-gods? London's story sounds quite similar to it, up to the fact that Haggard's novel (Iirc) as well features three species of early humans.