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Lofting, Hugh

Entry updated 6 May 2024. Tagged: Artist, Author.

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(1886-1947) UK civil engineer and author, mostly in the USA from 1912, though he joined the Irish Guards in 1916, was severely wounded in 1917 and invalided out. It was during his period in the trenches that – like some other central creators of twentieth century fantasy including J R R Tolkien with first-hand experience of World War One – he began to create a fantasy universe, at least in part to sidestep a world that had gone catastrophically wrong; Lofting's response was to draft early versions of tales that shaped the first volumes in the Doctor Dolittle series, which is set back into the middle of the nineteenth century and features the unworldly, deeply humane physician/naturalist John Dolittle, who learns the language of the animals from his parrot Polynesia. His wise innocence, his almost epiphanic eagerness to learn new things (and the preternatural eyesight that allows him to see them first), along with a mysterious, grave sang-froid: all struck a new note in 1920, as shown in his publisher's jacket copy for his first book [see Picture Gallery under links below], where he is described as both little and old (he is neither), and his Linguistic feats go unmentioned.

Most of the Dolittle books appeared in close array – beginning with The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of his Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts: Never Before Printed (1920) and ending with Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1928). They are followed by two later, less joyful tales, Doctor Dolittle's Return (1933), in which the Doctor finally and reluctantly returns to Earth from the Moon, and Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake (1948), by which point Lofting's earlier racism (see Race in SF) and unthinking Imperialism had significantly faded. From the first, each volume was heavily illustrated by Lofting himself, in a style whose simplicity is deceptive; he was in fact an illustrator of genius. His delicate spidery line, his Oriental horizon-effects, and his use of chiaroscuro all come together in images of a profound, prelapsarian openness, and can usefully be studied in conjunction with Rudyard Kipling's illustrations for his Just So Stories (coll 1902), with Tolkien's for The Hobbit (1937), and with the illustrations by Arthur Ransome for his nonfantastic Swallows and Amazons sequence.

The Doctor Dolittle sequence is not easily described in traditional sf terms, as it consists of a number of interlinked Talking Animal stories, which read at points like Beast Fables (though the animals John Dolittle talks to are not clothed, and cannot communicate with other humans, excepting Noah) [for Talking Animals and Beast Fable see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. But no matter how fantastical the events depicted, the doctor's response is unfailingly scientific: he is a practising Scientist who treats the world as open to investigation, to "the lure of scientific discovery", most vividly in the linked Scientific RomancesDoctor Dolittle's Garden (1927), Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1928) and Doctor Dolittle's Return (1933) – that bring the entire sequence to a thematic climax. A giant moth, described with anatomical precision, arrives on Earth to bring the Doctor back to the Moon, where his medical assistance is required; the trip through airless space (huge hollow flowers provide oxygen) is vividly depicted; the inhabitants of the Moon, which had been separated from the home planet in ancient times, are hugely enlarged descendants of Earth creatures. The Doctor is deeply enthralled by this new world, his experience of the Sense of Wonder fully conveyed [again see Picture Gallery under links below] through a rare full-colour illustration (in Doctor Dolittle in the Moon) entitled "The roundness of this world was much more easily felt"; and on his return to Earth, as the series effectively ends, he is last seen at his desk researching into the secret of the Moon-dwellers' apparent Immortality, "in order to bring back peace to Mankind."

In Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake (portion first appeared 8 July-23 September 1923 New York Herald Tribune; 1948), which is a coda to the main sequence, the Doctor, discouraged in his long search for longevity, is persuaded to make a return voyage to a vast Secret Lake in the heart of Africa, where Mudface the Turtle – old long before a sudden switching of the Earth's poles causes the Flood that breaks Gondwanaland into the present-day continents – has been trapped by an earthquake. Once rescued, Mudface recounts the history of life before and during the Deluge (he has mixed feelings about the stiff-necked Noah), and of saving two young humans, whose reconquering of the world will (he knows) be a mixed blessing. Mudface's essentially melancholy narrative, initially serialized in 1923, arguably illuminates Lofting's reticent response to his own early experiences; the frame story, written during World War Two, further articulates his sustained pessimism as regards Homo sapiens.

The sequence has been insensitively adapted for film as Doctor Dolittle: The Movie Musical (1967), and as Dr Dolittle (1998) and Dr Dolittle 2 (2001). [JC]

see also: Children's SF.

Hugh John Lofting

born Maidenhead, Berkshire: 14 January 1886

died Topanga, California: 26 September 1947



Doctor Dolittle

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