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Classic adventure -one of the earliest and best Biggles
on 11 October 2008
Back in the 1920's a whole rash of adventure stories about British explorers looking for hidden cities in the South American jungle had been written for young boys in Britain. What Rider Haggard had done for Africa with "King Solomon's Mines" and "She" T.C.Bridges and his comrades in the boys' magazines now did for the Amazon jungle and Brazil. The real lost expedition of Colonel Percy Fawcett, when he disappeared on the Tapirape River added further fuel to the flames of juvenile writing in this area. W.E.Johns, therefore, was a latecomer to this genre when he began in the mid 1930's his epic adventure of "The Cruise of the Condor". However, read any of these "lost city" stories today and you will discover that this book is "simply the best".
All the best adventure stories contain a journey; all the best fictional journeys turn into an ordeal. The heroes must always be seen as being involved in a quest; the villains must be money-grubbing treasure seekers. The introduction of Dickpa, Biggles' uncle, is central to the success of this book. His thirst for knowledge about the ancient Inca civilisation outweighs the desire of Biggles, Algy and Smyth to make a little money. Most of all what comes across about each of them is the spirit of adventure and defiance that carries them through to the end. It should be remembered that later in life Biggles is against the idea of gold -hunting. In this story he is still a very young man.
Nature in all its forms seems to be against them. W.E.Johns' descriptions of the sights and sounds of birds, beasts and insects is unrivalled for the way in which he can conjure up an economical yet horrific picture of snakes, ants, eagles, piranha fish, and jaguars. The rugged nature of the land with its sculpted mountains, its impenetrable jungles, its cataract-filled rivers with their maze-like tributaries, is matched by the ferocity of the forest-dwelling savages and their even more ruthless and brutal white adversaries. Then there is the cataclysmic weather - terrific thunderstorms and soup-like fogs. Eventually, for Biggles, Brazil is where "the mutts go to." The grim humour and the never-say-die determination carry the comrades through some amazing adventures. You keep wondering "What else can happen ?" and then something does and you are plunged into the next stage of the adventure.
Add to the above some thrilling aeroplane incidents and you have the recipe for one of the most gripping of the Biggles stories. Other writers may have attempted this type of story but none have come close to the success of W.E.Johns.