The Lost Traveller Essay - Critical Essays

Ruthven Todd


Todd’s The Lost Traveller was first published in 1943. Limited paper supplies resulted in its shortness and in its small press run. Perhaps the best example of the surreal novel in English literature, this novel is brilliantly written. Some of its scenes—particularly those in which Christopher Aukland tries to communicate with a variety of other characters—are contrived with considerable skill.

Although various scenes and characterization are effective, ultimately the larger narrative is disappointing. Readers have little to grasp as dreamlike images wash over them. In his preface, Todd writes that the structure of the novel came from his “tend[ency] to view life as . . . an illogical dream. The symbols which people seemed to accept as realities were basically no more concrete than those I found in dreams.” The illogicality of the work suggests Todd’s fascination with literary surrealism.

Heavily influenced by visual artists such as Joan Miró, Salvador Dali, and especially filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Todd’s literary works are part of the art movement’s mid-century effort to shatter the smug rationality of contemporary life by showing that laws, societies, professions, and relationships assumed to be concrete and solid are in actuality mere conventions. There is not necessarily any more rationalism in contemporary laws than in the admittedly bizarre laws of Omar’s city. Where surrealism breaks with, say, horror or fantasy—two “schools” with the same goal—is in its abandonment of the literary laws of rational plot construction or characterization.

These literary “laws,” devoutly accepted by most of the literary community, are merely conventions as well. The events of the bizarre plot are connected by metaphor rather than by sequence. One event, such as the passage through the desert, is repeated and varied slightly: the zeppelin flight, the walk to the prison camp, and the ocean voyage. Various scenes are connected by repeated images, such as bird imagery: the vulture in the desert, the pigeons in the town square, and the Great Awk. Thus, the surreal ending, in which superstitious fishermen fear that the Great Awk they have captured is a shape-shifting witch, is literally true and unifies the book. Christopher Aukland does magically shape-shift, and the bird imagery in the final pages of the work brings to a close the repeated pattern.