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Literature / Atlan

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Cija—Princess of Atlantis—fights for her life in a savage world of lust and violence[.]

—the blurb on the Paperback Library edition of Atlan

Atlan (also known as The Atlan Saga, originally published in the 1960s through the 1970s) is a series of British fantasy novels written by Jane Gaskell. The books take place in a prehistoric civilization—"before the continents had changed," state some of the back cover descriptions. Gaskell's intent seems to have been to combine every prehistoric myth into one lengthy narrative. The primary thesis of the novels is that they tell the story of how the human race really came to be. For instance, Gaskell explains in the introduction to the first novel that the legendary Mesoamerican country Aztlan is synonymous with the lost continent of Atlantis (hence the title of the series), among other alternative historical tidbits.


Princess Cija (pronounced "key-a"), the heroine, begins as a naive seventeen-year-old kept sheltered in her royal tower. Her mother, known only as the Dictatress, has maintained her daughter's ignorance because of a prophecy that Cija would destroy the kingdom if she ever left her tower. As a result, Cija believes that the male half of the human race has gone extinct, that female humans reproduce through laying eggs, and that there is no land war going on around her. When the half-man, half-reptile General Zerd invades Cija's home country, the Dictatress offers him her daughter in marriage after instructing her to kill him. Zerd takes Cija prisoner, and there begin some intercontinental adventures that change the princess irrevocably....

Flawed and obscure though it is, Atlan is notable for its originality. It's also probably the only series that can be accurately described as a Gothic Jungle Opera, influenced as it is by Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, the works of Rider Haggard, the Tarzan series, old Gothic novels, and obsolete anthropological studies. If nothing else, this series probably represents the dying days of the pre-The Lord of the Rings-influenced fantasy genre, which would never revisit the "elder Earth" theme in quite the same way. Tanith Lee has cited this series as an influence on her work (see The Storm Lord), and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun takes some rather obvious cues from Jane Gaskell's magnum opus.


In order, the books are:

  1. The Serpent
  2. The Dragon
  3. Atlan
  4. The City
  5. Some Summer Lands

The Serpent and The Dragon were originally published as one novel before they were Divided for Publication.

These novels provide examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Most of the mothers Cija encounters insult their children to their faces at the very least. She herself is the only wholly loving mother in the entire series, and even then, sometimes her best intentions fail.
  • Action Girl: Cija has her moments in The Serpent and The Dragon, such as aiding a camp of soldiers in defending themselves from an ambush.
  • Action Survivor: Cija and Seka spend most of the series clinging desperately to their lives. Seka is all the more remarkable for being a small child.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Not literally every man in the series is a rapist, but Cija's suspicions of the men she meets on her travels are often well-founded. In fact, most of the men in the series are sexually abusive—not because they're male, but because the nature of Cija's adventures tends to confront her with bandits, mercenaries, and other brutal, immoral men. Gaskell usually spares the reader the details, however.
  • Anachronism Stew: One might think that this series takes place in the Mesozoic era, given the descriptions of people riding dinosaurs. However, this impossible coexistence is merely one of several preposterous elements in the series. All evidence indicates that the events of the series predate life on Earth as we know it. note 
    • At one point in Atlan, a character uses the word "lesbian," even though the novel is set several million years before the existence of the isle of Lesbos. Similarly, the first book contains the words "homosexual" and "sublimating." These linguistic anachronisms may be excused by the author's note in The Serpent, which explains that the manuscript has been "translated" into "the language of our day."
  • Atlantis: Obviously.
  • Awesome Underwater World: Cija travels to Atlan through a glass undersea tunnel and sees all kinds of attention-grabbing fauna there.
  • Aztec Mythology: A major influence on the series, as was Theosophy.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: A surprising amount of sex between humans and animals is referred to, though not shown, throughout the series. More oddly, most of the characters who mention it don't seem to consider it exceptionally perverted, as unusual as they may find it.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: General Zerd. His daughter Seka is three-fourths human. Cija's daughter Despair is half-ape.
  • Human Sacrifice: The temple where Cija's father lives and schemes practices human sacrifice regularly and posts the victims' heads on stakes outside.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Changeless, whom Cija thinks are first.
  • Hungry Jungle: The jungle is full of monsters, bandits, and murderers—and most of the series takes place in it.
  • Infant Immortality: Possibly averted in Atlan, in which Cija's son Nal wanders off in the middle of an earthquake.
  • Interspecies Romance: Zerd was born by a reptile mother to a human father. Zerd's marriage to Cija also counts, despite the lack of actual romance in their relationship.
    • In The City, Cija returns to her old tower and finds that apes have overrun it. Shortly thereafter, she becomes a bull ape's paramour. He goes so far as to impregnate her, which she strangely welcomes. In fact, she loves him more than any of the actual men she meets.
    • When Cija finds her father in a temple, she notices that he has married an alligator.
  • Jungle Opera: The Serpent, The Dragon, and The City in particular, but all the books take place at least partly in a jungle.
  • Just Before the End: See Foregone Conclusion. In this case, however, the end is a new beginning.
  • Lost World: The setting as a whole qualifies (being lost temporally in the same way as Middle-Earth, not just physically), but the titular island of Atlan (short for Atlantis) merits this term especially, being shielded by a force field and accessible only via an underwater tunnel.
  • Mad Scientist: The creepy old man who secretly lives in Zerd's Atlan castle is one—and he doesn't just appear to be murderously insane, either.
  • Male-to-Female Universal Adaptor
  • Mars Needs Women: Cija's aforementioned non- and semi-human lovers count, but there are equal-opportunity instances as well.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Is Cija actually related to the nebulous deities of her country's pantheon, or is she just full of herself? Her inadequacy may seem to suggest the latter, but the interspecies reproduction throughout the series implies that the laws of nature in this prehistory are not what they are now. (That said, witchcraft is a crime in Atlan.)
  • Misplaced Wildlife: Gaskell's introduction to The Serpent states explicitly that the flightless birds ridden by the Northern Army are Diatryma...which lived in North America, not South America. See also Stock Dinosaurs below.
  • New Weird: A very early example, looking forward to the aforementioned Book of the New Sun and backward to Mervyn Peake, Clark Ashton Smith, and, to a lesser extent, H. P. Lovecraft (with possibly some non-weird Burroughsian influence).
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Cija sics her carnivorous riding bird on a man who sexually abused a young girl. The bird succeeds in killing the man, but at a terrible price....
  • No Woman's Land: One of the countries Cija and Seka visit in Some Summer Lands has shades of cultural misogyny. Girls and women are not counted in population records, and mothers refer to all their children, regardless of their sex, with masculine pronouns—feminine pronouns themselves are considered insults. Of course, the world abounds with violent men no matter where Cija goes.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The Dictatress urges Cija to use this tactic on her enemies. Problematically, Cija is genuinely stupid at first.
  • One-Gender Race: As a child, Cija was taught that the human race consisted entirely of women who reproduced by laying eggs. Learning that the storybook creatures called men actually exist surprises her.
  • Physical God: Cija believes that she is directly related to divinity and insists on referring to herself as a goddess.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: The first book is supposedly a translation of Cija's diary, which must have survived an apocalypse millions of years ago.
  • Sex Slave: After running from Zerd's castle, Cija gets kidnapped and sold into slavery at a brothel, but she escapes before being forced into any more sex acts.
  • Silent Snarker: Cija's daughter Seka is mute. She also narrates Some Summer Lands in a far more perceptive and sarcastic manner than her mother could manage.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Toward the cynical end—the series has a despairing tone all throughout.
  • Stock Dinosaurs: The dinosaurs (excepting the giant reptiles that are not dinosaurs despite being labeled as such) identified in the series are the T. rex and some kind of sauropod. However, the trope is averted with the Northern Army's mounts, which are specified as Diatryma but should probably be Phorusrhacidae.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Cija travels in drag in the second half of The Serpent.
  • Temple of Doom: In The City, Cija and the two children she befriends get lost in an underground labyrinth, where they are pursued by men who intend to feed them to alligators. More literally, Cija's father heads a temple in which he plots the downfall of the Dictatress, Cija's mother and the kingdom's secular ruler.


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