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Entry updated 25 January 2021. Tagged: Theme.


The legend of Atlantis, an advanced civilization on a continent (or large Island) in the middle of the Atlantic which was overwhelmed by some geological cataclysm, has its earliest extant source in Plato's dialogues Timaeus and Critias (circa 350 BCE). The legend can be seen as a parable of the Fall of Man, and writers who have since embroidered the story have generally shown less interest in the cataclysm itself than in the attributes of the prelapsarian Atlanteans, who have often been given moral and scientific powers surpassing those of mere modern humans. Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (bound in with Sylva Sylvarum 1626; 1627 chap) portrays Atlantean survivors as the founders of a scientific utopia in North America. However, it was not until Ignatius Donnelly published his Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) that the lost continent became a great popular myth. Donnelly's monomaniacal work contained much impressive learning and professed to be nonfiction. Unlike Plato and Bacon, who had treated Atlantis as an exemplary parable, Donnelly was convinced that the continent had existed and had been the source of all civilization. In fact, Donnelly's was a mythopoeic book of considerable power, arguably ancestral to all the Pseudoscience texts of the twentieth century, and the inspiration for many works of fiction.

Atlantis had already been used in sf by Jules Verne. His Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870; trans 1873) contains a brief but effective scene in which Captain Nemo and the narrator explore the tumbled ruins of an Atlantean city. Some of the fiction inspired by the theories of the Theosophists (see Theosophy) and spiritualists was less restrained – e.g., A Dweller on Two Planets (1894) by Phylos the Thibetan (Frederick Spencer Oliver), in which the hero "remembers" his previous incarnation as a ruler of Atlantis. Other writers used Atlantis more as a setting for rousing adventure, one of the best examples being The Lost Continent (1900) by C J Cutcliffe Hyne, a first-person narrative "framed" by the discovery of an ancient manuscript in the Canaries. David M Parry's The Scarlet Empire (1906), on the other hand, is set in the present (it depicts Atlantis preserved under a huge watertight dome, an image which has since become a comic-strip cliché) and intended as a Satire of socialism. (Other stories about a surviving Atlantis are listed in Under the Sea.)

One of the most successful of all Atlantean romances, filmed four times (see Die Herrin von Atlantis), was Pierre Benoit's L'Atlantide (1919; trans as Atlantida 1920; vt The Queen of Atlantis) which concerns the present-day discovery of Atlantis in the Sahara. Benoit was accused of plagiarizing H Rider Haggard's The Yellow God (1908) for many of the details of his story. In fact, the latter was not an Atlantean romance, and nor was Haggard's When the World Shook (1919), set in Polynesia, although it has been so described. Arthur Conan Doyle produced one Atlantis story, "The Maracot Deep", to be found in The Maracot Deep (coll 1929), which is marred as sf by a large admixture of spiritualism. Stanton A Coblentz's The Sunken World (Summer 1928 Amazing Stories Quarterly; rev 1949) has much in common with Parry's The Scarlet Empire: it involves the contemporary discovery of a domed undersea City, and the purpose of the story is largely satirical. Dennis Wheatley's They Found Atlantis (1936) contains more of the same, but without the satire.

The heyday of Atlantean fiction was 1885-1930. Often a subgenre of the Lost-World story, sometimes of the Utopian story, sometimes both, it was perhaps most often the vehicle for occultist speculation about spiritual powers, and therefore only marginally sf. Atlantis rises and falls twice in Ira C Fuller's anonymously published The Mysteries of the Formation of the Earth, the Rising and Sinking of Continents, the Introduction of Man and His Destiny Revealed, in God's Own Way and Time (1899).

Incidental use of the Atlantis motif by S P Meek and many others became common in US Magazine sf. Even E E Smith's Far-Future Lensman Space Opera sequence devotes a chapter of back-story to "The Fall of Atlantis" in the novel version of Triplanetary (January-April 1934 Amazing; rev to fit the series 1948). Many stories are set in other mythical lands cognate with Atlantis – Mu, Lemuria, Hyperborea, Ultima Thule, etc. Fantasy writers who have used such settings include Lin Carter, Avram Davidson, L Sprague de Camp, Robert E Howard, Henry Kuttner and Clark Ashton Smith. Two sf/historical novels, Stonehenge (1972) by Harry Harrison and Leon Stover and The Dancer from Atlantis (1971) by Poul Anderson, fit Atlantis into the Mycenean Greek world.

Several UK writers continued the pursuit of Atlantis. Francis Ashton's The Breaking of the Seals (1946) and its follow-up, Alas, That Great City (1948), are old-fashioned romances in which the heroes are cast backwards in time by mystical means. In Pelham Groom's The Purple Twilight (1948), Martians destroy Atlantis in self-defence, later almost destroying themselves by nuclear War. John Cowper Powys's Atlantis (1954) is an eccentric philosophical novel in which the aged Odysseus visits the drowned Atlantis en route from Ithaca to the USA.

However, for post-World War Two readers Atlantis seems to have lost its spell-binding quality, and the later twentieth-century films in which it has appeared, such as Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1960) and Warlords of Atlantis (1978), have had little to recommend them – though more than the dire television series The Man from Atlantis (1977-1978), which features a hero with webbed hands. An Atlantean series by Jane Gaskell, colourful and inventive, but written in a highly emotive prose, is the Cija sequence: The Serpent (1963; vt 2vols The Serpent 1975 and The Dragon 1975), Atlan (1965), The City (1966) and Some Summer Lands (1977). These form the autobiography of a princess of Atlantis, contain a considerable amount of sexual fantasy, and are closer to popular romance than to sf proper. Taylor Caldwell's The Romance of Atlantis (1975; published version written with Jess Stearn), is based, she claimed, on childhood dreams of her previous incarnation as an Atlantean empress. A very symbolic Atlantis arises again from the waves in Ursula K Le Guin's The New Atlantis (in The New Atlantis, anth 1975, ed Robert Silverberg; 1989 chap dos) as a Dystopian USA begins to sink.

Where Le Guin's story gave new metaphoric life to Atlantis, most of the sunken continent's few appearances in the 1980s were romantic melodramas whose view of Atlantis was on the whole traditional. One of these was Marion Zimmer Bradley's Atlantis Chronicles: Web of Light (1982) and Web of Darkness (1984), both assembled as Web of Darkness (omni 1985; vt The Fall of Atlantis 1987). These fantasies about Atlantean conflicts between forces of light and darkness had their origin in a long, unpublished romance Bradley wrote as a teenager, and indeed their subject matter seems more appropriate to the 1940s than the 1980s. David A Gemmell's lively Post-Holocaust Sipstrassi series of science-fantasy novels features stones of healing and/or destruction whose source is Atlantis; Atlantis itself plays a prominent role (through gateways between past and future) in the fourth of the series, The Last Guardian (1989) – a complex plan to save its destruction through changing history comes to nothing, though it does produce Noah.

In the twenty-first century, Disney offered an animated film treatment somewhat in the Verne tradition with Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). The Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) spinoff series Stargate: Atlantis (2004-2009) recklessly reimagined Atlantis as a mobile Space Habitat or World Ship once stationed on Earth but long since moved far off in space. Rather similarly, "Camlantis" in Stephen Hunt's The Kingdom Beyond the Waves (2008) is a lost aerial City. Many years earlier, halfway through the twentieth century, Isaac Asimov postulated another aerial Atlantis whose destruction provides the excuse for a feeble pun (see Feghoots) in "Shah Guido G" (November 1951 Marvel Science Fiction).

Several relevant stories are collected in Isaac Asimov's Magical Worlds of Fantasy #9: Atlantis (anth 1987) edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh. A good nonfiction work on the subject is Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science and Literature (1954; rev 1970) by L Sprague de Camp. Henry M Eichner's Atlantean Chronicles (1971) is a bibliography with level-headed annotations. Other rational books on the subject are few and far between, but The End of Atlantis (1969) by J V Luce and The Search for Lost Worlds (1975) by James Wellard are useful and entertaining. H R Stahel's Atlantis Illustrated (graph 1982) is an entirely hypothetical reconstruction of Atlantis based remotely on Plato's description. Colin Wilson's From Atlantis to the Sphinx: Recovering the Lost Wisdom of the Ancient World (1996) locates its titular "lost wisdom" in cultures like Atlantis, before issues of fertility (and male control over reproduction) began to shape human civilizations. [DP/PN/DRL]

see also: Elements; Paranoia; Sweden.

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