The Magic of Atlantis

Lin Carter

It was the influential Athenian philosopher Aristoldes - nicknamed "Plato" because of his broad, forehead - who first told the world the legend of the Lost Continent of Atlantis. His original story appeared in the form of two dialogues, called the Timaeus and the Critias after their principal speakers. The dialogae is an extinct literary form, popular enough in the hands of Plato, but since abandoned: a sort of essay written in the form of a conversation.

In these dialogues, Plato has his characters tell of a wealthy and powerful maritime civilization of prehistoric antiquity which, inhabited a great island in the Atlantic Ocean; the Atlanteans "fell from grace," you might say, and the Gods destroyed them, their island and their entire civilization in "a great cataclysm before the beginnings of-history. Quit a yarn, you must admit!

Now Plato was born about 429 B.C. and he died in 347. His importance in the history of ideas has been incalculable. Himself the pupil of Socrates, he became in time the teacher of Aristotle. The influence of these three men, among the greatest of human intellects, upon the development of Western civilization has been truly immense; not even the ideas of Jesus and Moses outweighed Platonic and Aristotelian thought. Among our many debts to these great minds of ancient Greece we owe the concept of categorization of information, the basis of all physical science; in addition, Plato's thinking on metaphysics, ethics and morals have left their stamp on two thousand years of philosophy.

No one is quite certain just where Plato got the idea for his dream of Lost Atlantis. He himself recorded that the great Athenian lawgiver, Solon, was told the story by Egyptian priests and that his notes were passed down to Plato's own time. This explanation is perhaps a bit too romantic to be taken seriously, although history does in fact record the evidence of independent authorities to substantiate it. It has been conjectured by some that Plato heard of the mysterious disappearance of the rich and famous Hispanic metropolis of Tartessos — the "Tarshish" of the Old Testament — which was swallowed by the sea. Most recently, new evidence has come to light which suggests that the sudden collapse of the maritime empire of Minoan Crete, due to a volcanic explosion of cataclysmic magnitude, may be the key to Atlantis. Excavations on the small volcanic island of Thera just north of Crete are now uncovering surprisingly exact corroborative documentation of the old Platonic legend.

But no one can say for certain; nor does it matter very much. What matters is that Plato gave a golden myth to man's literature, and in so doing enriched his dreams. Thousands of books, articles and stories have been written about Atlantis since Plato's lifetime, and the end of the dream is not yet in sight.

Few of the many writers who took up the Atlantis story have been able to resist touching it up with newly invented details of their own. One of the most important of these was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a shrewd, dynamic Russian adventuress with an improbably gaudy background. The estranged wife of a Russian general and the former mistress of a Slovenian singer, an English businessman, a Russian baron and a Philadelphia merchant, she supported herself (between liaisons) in a colorful variety of professions, including bareback rider for a circus, professional pianist, and Spiritualist medium. She later invented an even more remarkable past, passing herself off, in L. Sprague de Camp's amusing phrase, as "a persecuted virgin who traveled the wide world in search of occult wisdom." To which I might add: finding none in her travels, she became a famous authority on occult matters by simply making the information up.

Madame Blavatsky is really quite an important personage in the history of fantasy; In the course of two interminable and all but unreadable tomes of spurious occult lore — Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine -- she codified fugitive and unattached morsels of legend, theory and nonsense into a systematic prehistory of the world. Early on, according to her gaudy cosmogony, there was a polar civilization she calls Hyperborea, borrowing the name of the never-never land of the Greek poets; then came a powerful South Pacific continental empire called Lemuria, followed in turn by Atlantis itself. This system, percolating down through sensational popularizations "and Sunday supplement articles, was adopted lock, stock and barrel by writers for the fantasy pulp magazines, who are thus greatly in her debt. H. P. Lovecraft wrote stories about the polar land of Lomar, Clark Ashton, Smith about Hyperborea itself, and quite recently Avram Davidson has set a new novel in yet another Arctic wonderland called Ultima Thule. Lemuria — or "Mu," as some writers call it — was used by the immortal A. Merritt for The Moon Pool, by Ralph Milne Farley for The Golden City, and I have used it myself as the setting of some six novels about the adventures of a wandering barbarian warrior-hero named Thongor of Valkarth.

But Atlantis has proved the most popular of all: Robert E. Howard and Henry Kuttner, in this country, have used it for their prehistoric fantasies, as well as such English writers' JaneGaskell and C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne. And ever so many other writers have written stories about colonies of Lost Atlantis lingering on into modern times, and what happens when European explorers or adventurers find their way to such lost cities — among these are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Stanton A. Coblentz.

Plato spun a powerfully attractive yarn, and the magic of his legend of Atlantis has proved a deathless lure to fantasy writers for more than two thousand years.

One of Madame Blavatsky's more original ideas was that Atlantis did not vanish overnight in a single cataclysmic catastrophe, but broke apart over ages through successive volcanic eruptions. One of her many disciples, the Theosophical writer W. Scott-Elliot, boiled down the Blavatskian version rather succinctly in his book The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria (1896). His account goes thus:

The destruction of Atlantis was accomplished by a series of catastrophes varying in character from great cataclysms in which whole territories and populations perished, to comparatively unimportant landslips such as occur on our own coasts today. When the destruction was once inaugurated by the first great catastrophe there was no intermission of the minor landslips which continued slowly but steadily to eat away the continent. Four of the great catastrophes stand out above the rest in magnitude. The first took place in the Miocene age, about 800,000 years ago. The second, which was of minor importance, occurred about 200,000 years ago. The third—about 80,000 years ago—was a very great one. It destroyed all that remained of the Atlantean continent, with the exception of the island to which Plato gave the name of Poseidonis, which in its turn was submerged in the fourth and final great catastrophe of 9,564 B.C.

Scott-Elliot, of course, is dead wrong in assigning the credit for this notion to Plato. I have studied the two dialogues in question in their original Greek, and the name "Poseidonis" simply does not appear in either of them. Plato speaks only of Atlantis, and thus the notion of a final fragment of the Atlantean continent called Poseidonis seems to have originated with Madame Blavatsky herself.

The idea attracted the attention of Clark Ashton Smith, who set a brief cycle of short fantasies on Poseidonis — "the last isle of floundering Atlantis," as he terms it in "A Voyage to Sfariomoe." Smith wrote only five tales about Atlantis in all, but a listing of the series on the eleventh page of his "Black Book," as his notebook is known among Smithian scholars, indicates that a sixth and a seventh tale were originally planned. We know nothing of these tales, and a search of the unused story-titles and plot-outlines found among Smith's papers after his death fails to reveal anything specifically Atlantian. My selection of the tales, therefore, puts together in one place the entirety of Smith's Atlantean cycle — to which I have added his Atlantis poems, just for the sake of completeness.

Of all the many writers who contributed to the Golden Age of Farnsworth Wright's magazine Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith stands out as a clearly superior talent. To my own taste, he is far and away a better writer than his good friends and correspondents, Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. Howard's stories have excitement and gusto and driving narrative force, but Howard was clumsy with coined names and his tales are grim and humorless. Lovecraft had great imaginative gifts, bu the was unable to create viable characters or write credible dialogue, and completely unable to create women.

Their Californian colleague, however, shared few of their emotionally crippling hang-ups and could write rings around them both. — Smith mastered a bedizened lapidary style that savors of Vathe and Salammbo; he wrote with a lazy, mocking, sardonic humor that I find delicious; his tales are ornamented with exotic words and coined names as magical and evocative as the best of Dunsany's. He seems to me not only the best of the Weird Tales writers, but one of the greatest fantasy geniuses of all literature, ranking not far beneath Eddisoa and Dunsany.

What is most incredible of all is that his entire fantasy reputation rests on slightly more than one hundred short stories, almost all of which he wrote between 1929 and 1935. In that brief span of only six years he created a series of master works that are among the most precious jewels of weird fantasy we possess. He was an astonishing man, a brilliant artist, a complex bundle of contradictions we have scarcely begun to unravel. And a writer who added new richness and luster to the legend of Atlantis, whose dark and virile magic continues to enthrall the imagination.

Editorial Consultant: The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series
Hollis, Long island. New York

From: Poseidonis (Tales of Atlantis). Ballantine Books 1973

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