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Atlantis, We Meet Again!

The Forgotten Atlantis by firedudewraithThe mythical lost continent of Atlantis is a staple of the fantasy genre, from the science romances of Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle to the swords and sorcery of the early pulps, through Tolkien’s epic prose and into the popular culture of today, including Disney, Marvel and DC comics, and more.

The story of Atlantis has its origin in the writings of the Ancient Greek philosopher and teacher Plato, specifically his Tinnaeus and Critias, thought to have been written sometime about 360 B.C.E. Dr. Iain Stewart presents it for the BBC in a clear and concise two-paragraph synopsis.

“According to Plato, Atlantis was a great island (larger than Libya and Asia combined) in the Atlantic Ocean, but its control extended beyond the ‘Pillars of Heracles’ into the Mediterranean as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia (Italy). Its powerful and remarkable dynasty of kings arose directly from Poseidon, god of sea and of earthquakes, though this divine and heroic lineage gradually became diluted by mixing with mortal stock.

The resulting degeneration of this noble civilisation led it into a war with its former ally, Athens, and culminated in its cataclysmic destruction, which Plato dates as 9,000 years previously. Of the destruction itself, Plato simply notes, ‘Some time later there were earthquakes and floods of extraordinary violence, and in a single dreadful day and night all your life [ie, Athenian] fighting men were swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis was similarly swallowed up by the sea and vanished.’”

Atlantis by aerobicsalmonThe vast majority of serious scholars agree that the story of Atlantis was not presented as a re-telling of a historical event, but rather an invention of Plato’s in order to convey a lesson. However, this has not deterred writers from utilizing the destroyed civilization in their fantasy worlds. Jules Verne’s underwater explorers encounter its ruins in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, writes of an adventure in Atlantis in The Maracot Deep (1929).

As L. Sprague de Camp has noted, the pulp magazines of the 1930s were fertile ground for stories of heroic fantasy, “…and many memorable sword-and-sorcery narratives were written.” Among these, he includes the writings of Robert E. Howard, Clark Aston Smith and Henry Kuttner, all of whom used Atlantis mythos, either the period before its destruction as a setting for their stories, or as a part of the history that formed the worlds in which their protagonists exist. De Camp also notes that the market for fantasy fiction went into decline following World War II, and he credits the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954) with helping to breathe new life into the genre. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that Atlantis returns to make an appearance in the works of Tolkien as the island kingdom of Numenor, also known after its destruction and sinking as “Atalante.”

Lyonesse by thegryphSome portrayals of the post-Cataclysm Atlanteans are those of peoples who escaped the sinking of the island and are subsequently wanderers without a homeland. In other stories, they represent last surviving colonies of a land that no longer exists. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is some several thousand years removed heir to Atlantis; Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan encounters what is left of a decaying Atlantean outpost in the city of Opar; and Tolkien’s Aragorn is a member of the line of those few men who stayed moral and upright when the majority of the population of the island fell from grace and subsequently brought about its destruction.

Other portrayals of contemporary (and sunken) Atlantis describe it as still being inhabited. When Doyle’s Professor Maracot finds Atlantis, it is peopled by humans who protect themselves from the water by way of advanced technology. In other storylines, however, it is not technology that allows the descendants of Atlantis to thrive, but biology; they have become water-breathers, either merpeople (such as the residents of Tritonis in DC Comics) or bi-pedal humans who can live underwater (such as DC’s Aquaman and Marvel Comics’ Namor (although it may be that Marvel’s Atlanteans are simply water-breathing squatters, rather than true descendants of the island’s pre-destruction citizens)).

Disney's Atlantis (screen shot)Even Disney has explored the Atlantis story, with an animated film in 2001 that features an all-star cast, including Leonard Nimoy. The story (on which Joss Whedon has a writing credit) acknowledges the Platonic origins of the concept. The plot, however, seems to combine elements of a “hollow-earth theory” with the Atlantean mythology, in which the original island city – and its original inhabitants from some 11,000 years ago – now exist in some sort of enormous cavern at the center of the earth, reminiscent of ERB’s Pellucidar.

And one interesting juxtaposition of genre popular culture and mainstream popular culture is the reference to the lost continent that could be noted at the 69th annual World Science Fiction Convention (2011). The convention took place at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Reno, Nevada. In a city famous for hotel/casinos, there is only one that is actually adjacent to the convention center, and is, in fact, connected to the convention center via a covered skywalk; this resort is named the “Atlantis.”

Atlantis by everliteOf course, the references to Atlantis, both in popular culture and as the subject of historical speculation, are far too numerous to be fully documented in this space. But if Plato could have looked into the future and seen the impact that his parable would have on the world, would he think that his intended lesson had been learned? Or would he feel that, in the same way that the Atlanteans had gone into decline, that his teachings “… began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then … grew visibly debased”?

Title image by firedudewraith.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Alec says:

    “The vast majority of serious scholars agree that the story of Atlantis was not presented as a re-telling of a historical event, but rather an invention of Plato’s in order to convey a lesson. ”

    Which is why, when critics say that the Colonials should have founded Atlantis at the end of Battlestar Galactica, I cringe.

  2. It’s certainly true that Plato was primarily concerned with teaching a moral lesson, but I don’t think Atlantis should be completely dismissed. There are similar legends with similar names (eg Astalan) west of the Atlantic, and there is geological evidence of major disruption in the mid-Atlantic around the right time. Most of the details probably came from either the Thera eruption or Plato’s imagination, but I suspect he was recycling a vague tradition of a destroyed island in the ocean from further back.

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