Hollow Earth theory doesn’t have much currency these days. There are a few conspiracy theorists, sure, but few really believe in realms unknown beneath our feet. And yet, the idea of the Hollow Earth has undeniable appeal. Ever since Sir Edmund Halley of comet fame came up with the model of nested earths the idea has appeared in all manner of fiction. The earliest was Ludwig Holberg’s A Journey to the World Underground (1741), a Swiftian-style satire about a man who plunges through a set of caverns into the Hollow Earth. It’s not very well known these days because, while the satire may have been Swiftian, the writing was not. Of more interest are the early scientific romances that used the idea. Again, most of this material is long forgotten, but there sure was a lot of it. Through much of the 19th century the Hollow Earth theory was still a possible proposition, leading to works like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). Even after the theory had been disproved by scientists, the Hollow Earth lived on in pulp fiction well into the 1930s.
Not surprisingly, most fiction of this sort was produced in America. I say not surprisingly, because the man who ultimately popularized the idea that the interior of the Earth could be reached through holes in the north and south poles, John Cleves Symmes, Jr. (1779-1829), was an American. He even attempted to finance an expedition to the pole in order to gain access to the realms beneath. While the idea for the scientific expedition did go before congress in 1822 and 1823, Symmes couldn’t get enough support or funding for the project. Yet Symmes’s Hollow Earth model ended up gaining popularity in America later on, no doubt helped along by its recurrence in various adventure tales. The United States, in the late nineteenth century, was eyeing a colonial Empire like those of Britain and France, yet much of the known world was already taken. American dreams of Empire could find fulfilment in the unexplored continents beneath our feet, if we could only find a way of getting there. It was the lost race motif of other pulp stories writ large—an entire lost world, ripe for conquest and colonization.
The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892) by William Richard Bradshaw is a perfect example of this sort of thinking, where a superior American mind wins the heart of a nation’s blue-haired goddess and ends up becoming Emperor of a land with robotic ostrich cavalry and clockwork-winged airmen. Other works instead focused on the primitiveness of the land below, such as Edgar Rice’s Burroughs Pellucidar series, and its readiness to fall before the superior intellect and technology of modern western man.
Yet there was also a utopian streak running through Hollow Earth literature, not just tales of aggressive Imperialism against subterranean peoples. A running motif through a few Hollow Earth works involves the interior world containing the (literal) Garden of Eden, a place uncorrupted by the follies of the world above, populated by the closest descendants of Adam, while we of the surface world are vagrant exiles.
One of the earliest American entries into Hollow Earth Literature, and possibly written by Symmes himself, was the pseudonymous Captain Adam Seaborne’s Symzonia (1820)—a detailed account of a private scientific expedition to the south pole that ends up inside the hollow Earth.* There live tall, almost angelic beings possessed of airships and other wondrous things as well as long lifespans. They are understandably appalled by Adam Seaborne and his crew, and the more they learn about earth above, the more disgusted they are. In Symzonia the great revelation is that we are descended from the evil men expelled through the north pole, sent to endure the harshness of the world above instead of enjoying the idyllic conditions of the world below.
Perhaps my favourite Hollow Earth novel, Charles Willing Beale’s The Secret of the Earth (1899), also follows this route. A pair of brothers fly through the northern entrance in an airship and discover the world from which all myths came, encountering, among other things, a roc. The Secret of the Earth was more sophisticated than most pulp stories of this sort, however, as there are hints of advanced societies in the southern portions of this world, and a lingering sadness over what will happen now that this lost land has been discovered.
The most influential Hollow Earth novel, Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), takes a different tact: the vril-ya who dwell in cities in gigantic underground caverns are indeed superior to us—taller, winged, immortal, and able to use magic—but the narrator closes with a warning, that in discovering this land and these peoples he has alerted them of our existence, and they will come to conquer us. British Imperial anxieties found expression through Britain’s worst writer.**
Yet despite the large output of Hollow Earth-themed scientific romance for a good while, the idea soon dwindled from the book racks. The association with colonial adventure narratives certainly hurts the appeal in our postcolonial times. The close ties with the lost race motif, as well, raises unfortunate connotations.
I’ve been interested in the Hollow Earth as a literary idea for a long while. You can imagine my delight when I found out there was a university course about that exact same subject, which I of course took in my undergrad (and where I discovered nearly all the books above). And, for a good while, I’ve wanted to write something in that vein. To date, I haven’t come up with anything suitable, mostly because the idea of unexplored interior Earths interests me, but writing another uncritical pulp adventure narrative doesn’t. Until then, I’m still haunted by images of the vast worlds imagined beneath our feet, and I hope that in time, I, too, will visit them.
*Some have claimed that Symzonia is a satire of Symmes’s theory. the text, however, seems far to earnest for that. The actual author of the work remains a mystery.
**The Coming Race is one of the few Lytton novels that’s actually quite readable, and was extraordinarily popular back in the day. Now, the only real leftover from its place in popular consciousness is Bovril, which was named after vril, the energy used by the Vril-ya to work their magic.