BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXVII: HISTORY OF ATLANTIS
From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think there ever was a continent in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Europe and east of the Americas, that was the home of an advanced civilization that was then destroyed in a cataclysm but not before seeding both east and west with their superior awesomeness. I think the Egyptians created their own culture, as did the Maya, and people may or may not have travelled across the oceans before the times we know of for sure, and so on.
So then, why read Lewis Spence’s History of Atlantis, a book that claims to “prove” that Atlantis did indeed exist and absolutely did influence numerous ancient cultures?
Why? Because I like stories and I don’t particularly give a shit if they’re true, even if their authors are convinced of their own veracity.
But it actually goes a little deeper than that. As an author, editor, and fan of fantasy and fantasy worldbuilding, how can I not be fascinated with the mythical, legendary, and oh so very fanciful Atlantis? And reading this book triggered all sorts of characters and thoughts about fantasy and worldbuilding ideas… The pull on me to stop everything I was doing and start designing my own fantasy Atlantis setting was almost irresistible. I couldn’t help but start linking things in my mind—these are the clerics, here are the rangers, there are druid aplenty for sure… The king is a giant, might be a god, maybe a titan… oh, wow, just a million ideas per page.
But a bit of background on the book. I have no idea where I ran across the copy that’s been dutifully waiting to be read on my bookshelves, crowded with similar mysterious objects, but it’s a fairly recent (1995) reprint from Senate. The book itself was written and first published in 1927, so first we have to be forgiving of the almost one hundred years of rapidly accelerating scientific and technological advancement that renders an awful lot of his “scientific” suppositions entirely moot, though in maybe just as many cases we can say that the jury is still out. Lewis Spence was a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, and a respected scholar. The book does feel like a serious examination of the subject—he doesn’t come across as some kind of “crackpot.” Still, Mr. Spence discards the burden of scientific proof pretty much immediately and makes a case that not just the existence of Atlantis but specific aspects of life there can be proven by circumstantial evidence—if you allow significant leeway on the definition of “evidence.” From the second paragraph of the book:
Such an account, I am the first to admit, must have as many lacunae as it has facts, and must rely in large measure upon analogy and often upon pure surmise.
He then covers the easy stuff, like the fact that both the Egyptians and the Maya constructed pyramids as proof that they came from or were at least influenced by, a common ancestor. The fact that a pyramid is the easiest tall building to make when you’re limited to stacking stone blocks on top of each other sounds like the more logical explanation to me, but Occam’s razor is really the first principle Spence sets aside. Almost all of his “evidence” can be dismissed with the notion that the Maya and the Egyptians were humans, and humans have a certain way of doing things that cross cultures—including cultures that spent thousands of years in isolation. And then, of course, we all do have a common ancestor, but they came from Africa, not Atlantis.
So then, yeah, throw all that away. Don’t feel you have to be convinced that Atlantis was real, or that any of the specific assumptions about daily life there, their religious views and practices, their art and architecture, is actual history instead of supposition based on cobbling together bits and pieces of otherwise unconnected information in service to the twin angels of hope and imagination. Instead, let your imagination run wild, just like mine did, and bathe in this great work of public domain fantasy worldbuilding, cast as history.
You will not regret it, and I guarantee, ideas will flow like water through the grand circular canals of lost Atlantis!
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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.