The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Lost Race Story
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Lost Race stories can be defined as stories in which travelers from the modern world discover lost, forgotten, or hidden races, cities, cultures and civilizations in hidden or remote valleys or undersea or underground areas on or beneath the Earth.
Like most genres and subgenres, the Lost Race Story has a beginning which most critics and scholars agree upon, but which is half-fanciful and mostly used because starting points are useful things to have, and because it’s easier to write about genres with discrete starting and end points than it is to write about genres which cohered from diverse, amorphous elements. In the case of the Lost Race Story, the generally agreed-upon starting point—for the modern version of the Lost Race Story, at any rate—is the 1885 publication of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon's Mines and the 1887 publication of Haggard’s follow-up, Allan Quatermain (see The Allan Quatermain Adventures). The critical argument goes that these two novels created the blueprint for the hundreds of writers who followed Haggard to imitate and make use of in their own writing.
This is true--as far as it goes. Haggard was indisputably the main influence on those authors, and King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain—and She or that matter—cast a very long shadow on the literal thousands of Lost Race narratives published from the late-1880s to the late 1940s, when the genre finally petered out. But like any genre the Lost Race Story dates back much farther than 1885, and is the product of more than just one author’s imagination.
One doesn’t have to go very far back beyond 1885 to discover versions of the Lost Race Story. Nineteenth-century writers of historical romances used Lost Race themes and motifs, even creating works similar to Haggard’s, including Lady Mary Fox’s Account of an Expedition to the Interior of New Holland (1837), Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), and Elton R. Smilie’s The Mantitlians; or, A Record of Recent Scientific Explorations in the Andean La Plata, S. A. (1877). But the Lost Race Story is, as David Pringle writes, “a motif-cluster, which descends from Travellers’ Tales and Fantastic Voyages of the 18th century and before.”1 The Traveller’s Tale—a fictional voyage of discovery—can be said to date to Homer’s Odyssey (eighth century B.C.E.), if not long before, while the Fantastic Voyage, arguably less fantastic (traditionally, at least) than the Traveller’s Tale, has similarly Classical origins. If there seems, nonetheless, to be a distance between, for example, the Travels (1298) of Marco Polo and King Solomon’s Mines, it is one of degree rather than of kind.
So Haggard, though deserving credit for popularizing the Lost Race Story, should not be called the inventor of it. His Lost Race novels certainly caught the imagination of the public in a way that his nineteenth-century predecessors did not, and his Lost Race novels were better-written than their predecessors, and written with a knowledge of the lands described, which was not the case with his predecessors’ work.
The popularity of the Haggardian Lost Race Story is not difficult to trace. He wrote at a time when the number of unknown, unexplored territories was rapidly diminishing. Travel writing was increasingly common, and even female explorers (see: The Adventuress) were venturing into remote areas and describing them for the English-reading audience. The lure of a rollicking story about a new discovery in a distant and inaccessible area was an obvious one for readers. Too, Haggard and his immediate successors wrote during the era when archaeological discoveries, from the 1870 excavation of Troy to the opening of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt in 1881, were thrilling newspaper and magazine readers while also uncovering lost and forgotten cultures.
In the hothouse world of fiction in the 1880s it did not take long for variants of the Haggardian Lost Race Story to develop. The most popular of these variations on the Haggardian theme was the Ruritanian romance, after Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894). The Ruritanian romance combines the historical novel—often but not always the historical romance—with the Lost Race Story, is about an outsider, traditionally American or British but only human in science fictional or fantasy versions of the story, who travels to a small, fictional kingdom, usually European but occasionally Asian. The kingdom is a nostalgic throwback to earlier times, complete with a feudal system, royalty, and sword-wielding, duel-interested nobility. The outsider falls in love with a member of the country’s royalty and becomes that country’s ruler, marries that country’s ruler, or helps decide the rulership of that country. There were predecessors to The Prisoner of Zenda, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Otto (1885) and Archibald Gunter’s Mr. Barnes of New York (1887), but it was Hope’s work, with George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark (1901), which created the late nineteenth and early twentieth century craze for the Ruritanian romance.
For the readers of the nineteenth century the Lost Race Story was simply a great good time and enjoyable diversion. Modern readers and critics, however, do not see the genre so innocently:
The form of romance that characterizes lost-race fiction is not the Romanticism of Friederich Schiller or William Wordsworth, but rather that of the neomedieval “romance revival” of the late nineteenth century. In this context, the ancient forms of quest romance and the marvelous journey inevitably referred to contemporary colonial and imperial situations. Lost race fiction shares this romantic reference to colonialism with a larger and far better studied class of narratives, best referred to simply as tales of adventure, a genre that Martin Green, in Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire, calls the “energizing myth of English imperialism” (3). Although some historians of science fiction have been eager to emphasize the relation of science fiction to classic and Enlightenment-era imaginary voyages like those of Lucian and Swift, while downplaying or sometimes outright denying the affinity of science fiction to the work of H. Rider Haggard and his legion of imitators, the lingering presence of the conventions of colonial imperial adventure fiction has a lot to do with the “xenophobia and colonialism” that Bleiler finds an overwhelming presence in pulp science fiction during the Gernsback era (Gernsback Years xv), elements of which certainly persist in late-twentieth-century mass-market products such as the Star Wars saga.2
while many English social critics and imperial romancers (including lost race authors like Haggard and Doyle) were convinced that England was in a state of imperial decline and regression [see: Fin-de-Siècle Unease], [Lost Race authors] provided young male readers with narratives of imperial permanence. This sense of permanence was achieved through various myths of origin that emphasized a racial similarity between the British race and a “lost” Other, and also through social critiques of “lost” societies that reinforced the superiority of British culture.3
For Further Research
John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University, 2008.
Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Lost Race Guide, Web Archive, accessed Feb. 11, 2019, http://web.archive.org/web/20050318094737/http://www.violetbooks.com/lostrace-check-guide.html
Scott Trafton, Egypt Land: Race and Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania. Durham: Duke University, 2004.
1 David Pringle, “Lost Races,” in John Clute and John Grant, eds., The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 594.
2 Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, 40-41.
3 Carter F. Hanson, “Lost Among White Others: Late-Victorian Lost Race Novels for Boys,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 23, no. 4 (Jan. 2002): 497.