A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Scholars of the Terra Cava

In the nineteenth century, one would be hard pressed to find a scholarly article on the hollow earth, such things left to the amateur natural philosopher, spiritualist, and dreamer; the twentieth century – benefiting from the perspective of a known world distinctly lacking access to the terra cava – gave rise to the literary and historical scholar writing about the products of hollow earth theory. Different scholars have differing ideas about the meaning of the underground in literature. The historian Rosalind Williams proposes that ‘narratives about underground worlds have provided a prophetic view into our environmental future. Subterranean surroundings, whether real or imaginary, furnish a model of an artificial environment from which nature has been effectively banished.’[1] Few individuals have attempted to analyse the hollow earth, and many of the works are either incredibly broad or non-academic: Walter Kafton-Minkel did one of the first surveys in 1989 with Subterranean Worlds: 100,000 Years of Dragons, Dwarfs, the Dead, Lost Races & UFOs from Inside the Earth; Everett F. Bleiler’s science fiction catalogue, Science Fiction: The Early Years (1990), provides a more extensive summary of the known terra cava fictions and includes a few words about his thoughts on the story; Peter Fitting published an anthology with excerpts from several works, Subterranean Worlds: A Critical Anthology (2004); and David Standish wrote the decidedly non-academic survey, Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastic Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface in 2006, only briefly summarising a few of the many terra cava narratives from the fin de siècle. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011) in its latest edition (available only online) also provides some information about hollow earth novels, but not extensive analysis, and some entries are incomplete or erroneous; such as ‘Orcutt, Emma Louise’, which identifies the inhabitants as all living underground in ‘Susepnded Animation’; the underground portions of the world are petrified remains of the dead, and the surface population very much alive.[2] The enrty for ‘Moore, M. Louise’ identifies the land visitied in Al-Modad as Al-Modad, which is actually the name of the protragonist.[3] In 2012 an edited collection of essays about the hollow earth, Between Science and Fiction: The Hollow Earth as Concept and Conceit, was published in Berlin, but this focuses almost entirely on European terra cava narratives, less in number compared to their American counterparts. No one has conducted a thorough examination of the dozens of hollow earth writings published in the United States in the nineteenth century and what they reveal about American culture, religion, and politics at that time.

Consider the following, from a newspaper ninety years after Symmes’s announcement, from a society formed to prove the earth is hollow:

‘It is time for action – not a time for mere talking. But the earth is hollow and our investigations will soon prove it. The poles so long sought are but phantoms. There are openings at the northern and southern extremities. In the interior of the earth are vast continents, oceans, mountains and rivers. Vegetables and animal life is evident in this new world, and it is possibly peopled by races yet unknown to the dwellers upon the earth’s exterior.’[4]

Though there are no scientific papers supporting Symmes’s theory, this newspaper article is an example of popular science in the United States influencing public thought and cultural products. Support for Symmes’s model of the earth isn’t to be found in searches of scientific journals, but in newspapers, independently published tracts by non-scientists, and fictional narratives.

Symzona, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, The Goddess of Atvatabar and more, when they appear in an academic analysis, are often referred to in terms that remove the story from realist connotations and examine them in satiric terms. While many of them employ some form of social commentary or political view meant to reflect back on the reader, that does not automatically make them parodies. Parodies tend to emerge later in a genre’s existence, after its tropes have been established. The pre-nineteenth century terra cava narratives were immersed in social satire, and this is where so many literary theorists misstep in their assessment of nineteenth century terra cava; just because the most well-known hollow earth books before this period were written in the vein of Swift and Voltaire does not mean that those which came later were intended to be interpreted in the same way; American authors tended to take a different narrative approach. Because the idea of a hollow or porous world being inhabited appears to be a ridiculous premise in the twenty-first century, it is easier to paint these novels with the wide brush of parody rather than to enter into the mind-set of contemporary writers and readers who viewed portions of the world as still unknown, and holding the possibility of rich surprises.

[1] Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), p. 4.

[2] John Clute, ‘Orcutt, Emma Louise’, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/orcutt_emma_louise&gt; Accessed 10/11/2014.

[3] John Clute, ‘Moore, M Louise’, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/moore_m_louise>  Accessed 10/11/2014.

[4] Anon., ‘Going to Look for a Big Hole at the Top of the World’, Marion Daily Mirror, Vol. XVI, No. 229 (25 April 1908), p. 9.


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