Dinotopia: A fantastical blast from the past

By Joseph Nichols, Guest Writer

As midterm season approaches, it can be easy to get sucked into the monotony of classes and homework. Desperate for a break, we often turn to the latest movie or show on Netflix, yearning to keep up with the trends. 

However, I recommend to you something a little different — dive into the past and discover an artistic masterpiece of a book you probably don’t know, but you’ll wish you would have read years ago: Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time.

In 1990, painter and anthropologist James Gurney was tasked by National Geographic magazine to paint imagined depictions of lost and ruined cities from antiquity. 

James Gurney’s 1992 book Dinotopia uses 150 original oil paintings to illustrate his story of a world in which dinosaurs cohabitate with humans.

Imagining how these cities would have looked and putting paint to canvas spawned a curiosity in Gurney that led to the creation of two independent paintings: “Dinosaur Parade” and “Waterfall City.” These paintings inspired him to spend the next two years creating 150 oil paintings and an accompanying storyline that would become his debut novel Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time in 1992. 

Dinotopia auto-fictionalizes the real-life Gurney stumbling across a peculiar 19th century diary written by scientist Arthur Denison, who washes ashore on an island with his son Will after a shipwreck. 

They quickly discover that this island has served as a refuge for dinosaurs for millions of years, as well as a home for hundreds of humans who have washed up ashore, just like Arthur and Will.  

The social environment on the island of Dinotopia is charming; humans and dinosaurs have been able to coexist for tens of thousands of years with every new member from the outside world bringing with them new cultures, blending into the idyllic world that Will and Arthur explore together. 

Gurney opts for an adventure more closely resembling Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea rather than Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, with Gurney taking joy in the various escapades of the father-son duo.  Readers are able to lose themselves in the adventures of Arthur and Will  who journey through the countryside of Dinotopia, experiencing a rich world of different cultures and customs on the island.  

His style — so distinctive and interesting that it is discussed in illustration classes, including those at Xavier — is present in the enchanting original paintings lovingly created by Gurney that adorn each page.

Gurney’s fantastical worldbuilding challenges his readers to remember a more imaginative and magical time in their lives. Because of this, Dinotopia has incredible appeal both to children and adults. Due to the great amount of paintings, the entire book takes under two hours for the average reader, yet its brevity is filled with such a substantial amount of beauty, making it easy to lose track of time and spend countless hours in Dinotopia. 

Picking up Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time as well as its two sequels, The World Beneath and Journey to Chandara, and spending a few hours reading through all three books could prove to be just what you need to help decompress with midterms quickly approaching. I have spent many a slow Saturday afternoon in all stages of my life becoming enchanted time and time again in Gurney’s trilogy, and I cannot recommend the series enough. I encourage you to give Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time a few minutes and allow yourself to become enchanted by its alluring artwork, as well as the various ways of life Will and Arthur experience throughout their travels around the island of Dinotopia. It very well could be the greatest book you’ve never heard of.