Introducing: Under the Auroras, or, Cresten, Queen of the Toltus
First published in 1888 by William Jenkins Shaw as Under the Auroras, A Marvelous Tale of the Interior World, in the reprint four years later this early hollow earth novel was rechristened Cresten, Queen of the Toltus after its eponymous heroine, pictured in a sketch on the title page. There is a small, but significant quote given beneath the title on the first page: ‘On science is the tale so firmly grounded,/Twixt real and fanciful the mind’s confounded’. It’s being hinted that the story to follow should be thought of as scientific in nature, even if presented in a fictional form. Science fiction, if you will, before science fiction.
The Preface is similar to those of others, distancing the author from responsibility for any reader incredulity – ‘The whole responsibility for this story is thrown upon the shoulders of the narrator, who hath departed this life, and is, therefore, out of harm’s way’ – while also trying to build veracity; ‘I have no doubt that, had this narration not been made to me, I should have gone to my grave without having learned how man and all other animals originated’ (p. 3). As to who is playing the role of the amanuensis, we never learn; he (a ‘he’ given the illustration in the first chapter) is the interrogator and scribe, briefing readers on what to expect in the coming pages: ‘where the white race comes from; when the Deluge occurred, and what caused it; why men lived to count their years by hundreds anterior to the Deluge; when and why the ice-belt was once farther south on the exterior globe; when and how the mountain ranges were up-lifted’ (pp. 3-4) and so on. What this unnamed secondary narrator wants to communicate in this introduction is his ‘gratitude’ (p. 4) for the knowledge shared with him by our primary narrator, Amos Jackson.
Mr. Jackson arrives just as the secondary narrator is reading through an article, ‘Captain Hall’s Last Trip’, about the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall, who died in 1871 on the Polaris Expedition in a failed attempt to reach the Pole, setting the scene with breadcrumbs from the real world. Arriving in Patagonia, Southern Argentina, Amos Jackson’s first words to his scrivener are ‘Unfortunately, sir, I can speak only English, Norwegian and one or two other languages which no one save myself, on this exterior globe, understands’ (p. 6). Interestingly, the strangeness of this statement draws no comment from the secondary narrator, who goes on to insist that “I certainly am not of the opinion that you are now insane” (p. 7) when Jackson complains that others who have heard his story think him a lunatic. Jackson also exacts a promise from this editor to pass his tale onto the public, as he is a dying man and wishes that his discoveries not die with him. In this case, we can see parallels with Etidorhpa, I-Am-The-Man taking the role of our primary narrator, and the amanuensis as Llewelyn Drury, the scribe and the interrogator of the narrative, the reader’s avatar within the plot. He never disappears entirely from the novel, as many others who introduce the story are apt to, providing a closing of the frame for us in the end by reporting Jackson’s death.
As the character of Jackson, he introduces himself as a native of Chicago, though he left 25 years before, a scientific investigator who partners with another scientist, John Harding. Sharing the opinion that the earth is hollow, and giving a rundown on assumed air currents to the readers (pp. 8-9), they construct a metal and rubber air balloon to take them to the opening in the Arctic Pole. The standard relation of a northern journey, moving from ice fields to warmer climes, the malfunctioning of the compass needle, the crossing of the verge, are the same as found in every other terra cava narrative. There are also similar features in the representation of the environment and cultural imperialism.
The inclusion of an electrically charged atmosphere that leaves one ‘filled with a lightness of spirit and increased energy of both mind and body’ (p. 13) is part of the standard terra cava world building, along with ‘an atmosphere so luminous that the whole firmament was the color of pale gold’ (p. 13). It isn’t enough for material gold to be present; this new world must be cast in the encompassing likeness of precious metal. He later reflects that they are ‘two insects in the bottom of a huge golden-bowl’ (p. 17), continuing the impression of a rich world awaiting exploitation. Jackson attributes this source of heat and light with an analogy to cyclones: ‘I will no theorize on the phenomenon, but simply refer you to the flame that you have seen arched over the vortex of a cyclone. Here it was not condensed into destructive force, but grand in its proportion, mild and beneficent’ (p. 13). This is apparently part of the effect of the electromagnetic and air currents Jackson and Harding studied.
Landing in the wilderness, Jackson makes a study of the plants under a microscope, observing ‘the minute pores, through which they continually… exhaled oxygen’ and concludes ‘that the vegetation…took no rest’ (p. 16). It is this ‘find’ to which he attributes the apparent exhilaration of the atmosphere. When confronted with danger, Jackson admits, in retrospect, that he was more daring-do because he was ‘drunk’ on the atmosphere (p. 19). He declares this inner world ‘A fairy landscape’ and a ‘paradise’ (p. 17) in which he would happily spend the rest of his life, all on his first few hours there.
Parallels with outer-world features and phenomena are noted in abundance: trees as enormous as California Sequoias (p. 17) and hairy elephants like those preserved in ‘Siberian snows’ (p. 18) which can only be a reference to woolly mammoths. Like Jules Verne and a score of other hollow earth narratives, the more ancient a thing, the larger it is, and all being preserved in the interior of the world.
The material richness of the inner world beyond its golden glow is soon made clear in Jackson’s first encounter with the mass of inhabitants, with a band dressed in ‘glossy fabric’ and metal bangles (p. 28), while hundreds of beautiful female acolytes emerge clothed in gold and diamonds (p. 30). The dishes upon which the visitors’ first meal is served are made of solid gold (p. 37). Sumptuous interiors to the quartz palace of Cresten, Queen of the Light, burnished with nuggets of gold and various gemstones (p. 32) gild the lilies of this civilisation. This is a land waiting for its treasures to be harvested by adventurers from the outside. That the inhabitants of this opulent city are evil only makes the prospect of harvesting these riches more justified.
Racial insinuations are ever-present; the first view of the residents of the interior reveal ‘a face whose complexion, by contrast, would render the fairest American girl I ever saw quite unattractive in that regard. It was a face of such wonderful transparency and freshness, as surpassed all my former conceptions’ (p. 21) – and this is Jackson’s view of a man. However, the primitiveness of the man is betrayed by his golden-brown hirsute covering and loincloth. Jackson’s ethnocentric perceptions continue when he assumes his new companion, Tet-tse, to possess a nature-worshiping religion (p. 24) and refers to him as ‘a very intelligent animal’ (p. 25). At least in the taming of the woolly elephants, he decides that Tet-tse’s people are not ‘savages’ (p. 26). The relation of the natives as products of nature, completely provided for by their surroundings without the need for labour, is not dissimilar to contemporary perceptions of Pre-Columbian American Indians.
Linguistics, per usual, is part of fleshing out the lost race. Jackson’s experience with Norwegian farmhand as a child leads him to believe that the language he hears spoken in this land as one that ‘may have been spoken in Norway 1,000 or 2,000 years ago’ (p. 31). Interestingly, though, it is Cresten’s acquisition of English only 2 days that forces Harding to declare ‘she’s a witch’ (p. 41) with evil intentions. As a woman, as intelligent woman, an empowered woman, Cresten is a threat to the 19th Century male ego.