No character created by an author is fully autobiographical. So it is no surprise to learn that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was in very few ways like his Great Detective–not a thin cold Englishman whose only interest is crime and how to solve it, but a big jolly Scot with an interest in sports and an unquenchable enthusiasm for adventure.
Doyle was not, emotionally or characteristically, Holmes. Yet he did create a character that was not only his favorite, but had more than a few similarities to the author.
This is a picture of Professor George Edward Challenger, the noted scientist and explorer. A man noted for his loud and sometimes controversial opinions, his bluff manliness, his courage and his unapologetic patriotism.
And under that big beard is Doyle. This photo was included along with several other papers in the first Professor Challenger story, “The Lost World,” which Doyle described to his mother as “more a boy’s book than any I have done.” This is echoed in the epigram in the book’s forward:
“I have wrought my simple plan
If it give an hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man
And the man who’s half a boy.”
And indeed, Professor Challenger is very much a “boy’s book” sort of hero–bold, brilliant, physically intimidating and openly emotional. In “The Lost World,” the redoubtable Professor travels to a mysterious South American plateau on which dinosaurs and primitive ape men still survive, while in “The Poison Belt” he plans for how to survive a coming apocalypse caused by the earth passing through an interstellar gas cloud. In later adventures, he drills miles below the surface of the earth to discover that the planet is a living organism, and in his final adventure attempts his most profound journey as he investigates the possibility of contacting the spirit realm.
While Holmes was based on Doyle’s Professors from the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Joseph Bell, Challenger’s appearance and mannerisms was based on Professor William Rutherford from the same school, a man known for his amiable rages. He was also inspired by the explorer Percy Fawcett, a good friend of Doyle’s who was later to disappear into the jungles of South America in search of a hidden city. (His story is recounted in the recent book and film The Lost City of Z.) Honoring his friend at a 1910 luncheon, he wryly aired a grievance. “There had been a time when the world was full of blank spaces, and in which a man of imagination might be able to give free scope to his fancy, But owing to the ill-directed energy of our guest and other gentlemen of similar tendencies these spaces are being rapidly filled up; and the question is where the romance writer is to turn.”
Where Doyle turned was to a fictional plateau in South America filled with prehistoric creatures, inspired in part by dinosaurs discovered, quite literally, in Doyle’s own backyard; the ever-curious author visited several sites near his residence where tracks and fossils had recently been uncovered. It’s an interesting detail that Challenger, like his perpetually curious author, may supposedly have a degree in Zoology, but his various adventures had him expostulating on geology, chemistry, anthropology and a whole range of other scientific subjects.
According to actor Larry Albert, who plays Challenger in our production of “The Disintegration Machine,” the Professor is an easier character to grasp than Holmes. “Challenger is so direct and in his own clear appreciation of his genius that those around him know exactly where they stand,” he says. “He is bigger than life and yet at the same time so clearly down to earth. His mind, as with Holmes, never stops, yet unlike Holmes he is capable of common human attachments and emotions. His seem to be always on public view, the opposite of the self-contained Baker Street sleuth.”
As to why Doyle preferred his scientific explorer to his Great Detective, Albert believes “Doyle liked him better for the simple reason he was so open in all his views and dealings. Even when “conning” the scientist of the disintegration machine he plays the man’s ego without resorting to the sort of complicated subterfuge Holmes would employ.”
Perhaps another reason that Challenger appealed to Doyle is that he was in some ways a wish fulfillment of the scientist proving the existence of the marvelous, looking not to solve mysteries, but revel in them. As the writer’s own beliefs moved more towards Spiritualism and the unseen realms (including his lamentable gullibility regarding such obvious hoaxes as the Cottingley Fairies photos), he moved farther away from the character of the Great Detective and more towards the Great Explorer–at least in his own imagination. In fact, Challenger’s last appearance in “The Land of Mist” has the good Professor facing his most profound exploration, into the realm of the dead, as the man of science investigates Spiritualism. That he comes away a convert is perhaps the ultimate wish-fullfillment of his creator, who was himself at heart a “boy who’s half a man/And the man who’s half a boy.”