A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Sketches of the Impossible: Illustrating the Hollow Earth

(From a paper presented at the C19 conference at Penn State, March 19, 2016.)

Subterranean world. Hollow Earth. The Underground. Or my phrase to evoke all of the above, terra cava.

These words precipitate different mental images for different people, but before the nineteenth century, you would have found an almost universal response in the form of Hell, Hades, Dante’s Inferno. Certainly artistic renderings would reinforce this religious/mythic view.

Athanasius Kircher started to shift this paradigm in the seventeenth century, reinforced by Edmond Halley’s – erroneous – mathematical calculations that the earth must be a series of concentric spheres due to a miscalculation of planetary density. The Royal Society did not revisit the topic, though, and it remained one of the more obscure theories of natural philosophy until an unheard of retired American infantry captain sent out this short pamphlet: “To all the world, I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within, containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the Poles…”

John Cleves Symmes Jr, a self-educated trader on the frontiers of St Louis, declared to all the world (that being mostly newspapers and universities in American and Britain) that the earth was hollow and habitable within and just waiting for brave Americans to plant the stars and stripes on entirely new continents. Because Symmes and his theory are relegated to the footnotes of history, it’s easy to dismiss as a minor philosophical fad. But we have the newspapers and magazine articles, novels and serials, to prove otherwise. What Symmes started far outlives his own death in 1829, and a significant part of that success stems from the imagery employed to covey what words could not. Why is this imagery important? Peter Mendelsund, in What We See When We Read, points out that “Visibility can be confused with credibility. Some books seem as though they are presenting us with imagery, but they are actually presenting us with fictional facts… These books predicate their plausibility, and for the reader, their conceivability, on an accretion of details and lore.” (p. 235) This theory of the hollow earth would continue to gain followers, ‘facts’ and stories for decades to come.

Symmes toured the US for years, giving lectures to large audiences with the visual aid of his own globe, showing the world open at the north and south poles. Even before Symmes began his tour, though, one of the first American science fiction novels was in circulation, Symzonia, presenting a map, a cross-section of the earth demonstrating the polar openings and reach of the sun. This is not a dark world lit with the fires of damnation, but one that shines just as brightly as our own. This one map is revolutionary, and will be duplicated in various forms for the next century. We don’t know who Adam Seaborn was, perhaps Symmes himself, more likely not (especially considering the misspelling of Symmes’s name in the title). But we see two worlds here, the second within the first, also open at its Poles, but this world is never explored in the text. The idea of multiple interior worlds was also dropped in favour of a single, hollow sphere by the second-half of the nineteenth century, when hollow earth writing enjoyed a publishing boom.

Unfortunately, Poe did not leave us any images of Arthur Gordon Pym’s Antarctic voyage to a polar opening at the bottom of the world, his narrative falling between Symmes and this later period of popular literary exploration. We have to skip ahead to the most well-known of all terra cava narratives, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. An enduring part of its legacy are the 52 engravings by Edouard Riou, bringing to life the geology and paleantology of Verne’s text, each picture an economy of a thousand words or so. Though not American in origin, it was well known in the US and those images went on to influence the artists illustrating later American terra cava narratives.

This is most clearly seen in an equally lavishly illustrated American text by John Uri Lloyd, Etidorhpa (and if you are wondering about the strange title, that is ‘Aphrodite’ spelt backwards). J Augustus Knapp, Lloyd’s artist, brings the giant mushroom forest from Riou’s engravings into play, dimly lit caverns, large crystalline structures, and scenes of exotic reptiles. Though thematically their narratives could not have been further apart (Lloyd’s novel is a trippy journey through the mind instead of geology), Knapp’s illustrations help to connect readers with a more familiar story. And this is a story deeply in need of familiar space and place; in a 1976 reprint, Neal Wilgus accused Lloyd of using marijuana, ergot and opium to conjure his tale. No one has accused Knapp of anything except good artistry in his interpretation of Lloyd’s prose, and perhaps borrowing a little heavily from Riou.

Etidorhpa goes even further than Journey, though, in its illustrative education, using half-page and text cuts to further illustrate events and scientific principles. Lloyd inserts himself into his own fiction, claiming to have received the manuscript from a fellow named Llewelyn Drewry, and includes a facsimile of a letter purported written by I-Am-The-Man-Who-Did-It, the primary narrator. All of this to build upon the veracity of his narrative, and before you get too far into thinking how ridiculous it would be for anyone to perceive Etidorhpa as anything other than a fiction, there were many Spiritualists who did embrace the novel at face value. Lloyd even includes a cross-sectional map of the world to trace the journey, and a map of Kentucky, purporting to show the entrance to this underground spiritual realm, as well as experimental ‘proofs’ for the physical functions of this subterranean world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have William Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892), where Cyrus Durand Chapman provided sumptuous landscapes and spectacular battles, with further contributions from RW Rattray, Leonard Davis and Allen Dogget. Bradshaw’s own prose describes a kingdom with “the enchanted charm of Hindoo (sic) and Greek architecture, together with the thrilling ecstasy of Gothic shrines” in a capital city called Egyplosis. We’re of course seeing here the Western appropriation of the colonized, the irony of this being that the protagonist – an American adventurer and entrepreneur name Lexington White – does go on to conquer and colonize Atvatabar.  Readers are shown what Nathaniel Robert Walker described as “Babylon Electrified” in his article of the same title, exploring oriental and industrial hybridity. Many of the hollow earth narratives from this period employed the same styling, but none were illustrated as thoroughly as Atvatabar. This is a world of ‘spiritual batteries’ and fantastic technology; they can fly, but carry their goddess around on a sedan, and are no match for the daring-do of new King, Lexington White.

The work of Lloyd and Bradshaw is not typical however. Most of the terra cava narratives were limited runs from small presses or self-published for a small group of subscribers (which is actually how Etidorhpa got its start; Lloyd was able to work with Knapp because they were neighbours). If a writer could afford to put just one image into his or her (and yes, there were a few hers) story, a map was the first choice. But rather than travels lines dashed across the surface of a globe, we get cross-cut section of journeys through the earth. Part of the verisimilitude of any travel story is the potential to recreate it. Rather than obfuscate points of origin and entry, these are detailed, promising the allure of an adventure. Like Symzonia, sometimes these maps are the only illustrations we get. I like what Peter Mendelsund said about maps in his study: “Our maps of fictional settings, like our maps of real settings, perform a function. A map that guides us to a wedding reception is not a picture […] but rather, it is a set of guidelines.” (p 232). The guidelines, in this instance, are a reformation of the reader’s thinking about the earth’s structure.

What lends these maps and images the weight of semi-truth is the quality of the unknown. The Earth’s Poles were not reached until the first decade of the twentieth century. And even now it is hard to convince some people that they are there. (The sequel to NAZIS-in-space movie Iron Sky is going to be set beneath Antarctica, a popular theory for the hiding place of the remnants of the Third Reich). Other points of entry are to be found in caves and mountain crevasses. Variations on Symmes’s original theory are found, like this one from The Goddess of Atvatabar, which has a small internal sun rather than refracted light from the outside. This one, from Cresten; Queen of the Toltus, takes a more traditional view.

Symmes’s work was well known enough to not require extensive explanation or illustration. The significance of both of these is that the idea of concentric spheres has been eliminated, and the popular imagination has settled on a single hollow globe with water and lands held to the obverse side, gravity laying somewhere in the middle of the crust. These illustrations in fictions are hardly different from those that appeared in ‘non-fiction’ newspaper and magazine articles; if you see something from a purportedly neutral source, giving simply a report, this plays into Medelsund’s ‘fictional facts’; you’re not sure if the article is right or not, but it might be, and the images mesh with what you’ve seen from other sources; it is a circular proof, but only until explorers can definitively prove one way or another. (Cue Admiral Peary in 1909.)

I would like to take a moment to point out the antithesis of my discussion thus far, and that is the use of illustrations that in no way concern themselves with the setting of a terra cava novel and could by employed in almost any adventure story of the age. These concern themselves instead with characters, with the heroic white males and beautiful native females; they are mirrors for the reader instead of vistas. These could just as easily come from a Rider Haggard or Boy’s Own story. Adventure, intrigue, romance, yes, but specific indicators that this is a hollow earth narrative; not so much. I don’t think it is coincidental that the most remembered terra cava narratives, and the ones that went through multiple printings, were also those most lavishly illustrated with images of the fabulous. To quote Adam Sonstegard’s work Artistic Liberties, “Artists who merely leave characters on the canvas as they have them in print have not done their job; the character must be ‘bettered’ in the exchange.” (p. 11) And the hollow earth topos is a significant character.

An anomaly in this fantastic imagery is the decided non-fantastic. George McKesson uses photographs from around Cripple Creek in Colorado in Under Pike’s Peak, taking his influence from the local geology and mining operations. And GW Bell pictures of colonial authorities and native Māori and postcards of New Zealand in Mr Oseba’s Last Discovery. As American consul to New Zealand, Bell was attempting to sell the many benefits of the country, deemed by the inhabitants of the interior world to be the best place on the surface of the earth.

There are no sketches, no fantastical illustrations; and let’s be honest, if one of these men has in fact produced a photograph of a subterranean civilization, we would be having an entirely different conversation. I was perplexed by this until coming across this small display at the Columbus Museum of Art:


“Travel albums became popular in the late nineteenth century, when the tourism industry emerged. During this time, a growing number of photographers documented historic monuments and popular sites, as well as scenes of daily life, hoping to sell them a souvenirs.”

McKesson and Bell weren’t just telling us another hollow earth story; they were annotating – extensively – their travels. Mundane geography becomes fantastic geography just beneath the surface. These photographs don’t elicit the same response as the more imaginative sketches or weird flora and fauna, but in that sense it grounds the narrative in reality, perhaps a little too firmly. Neither book enjoyed great success.

Science in the nineteenth century was about exploring and explaining the unseen. Travel literature inspired the landlocked by showing them what they would never see in person. The individual scrap book became the mass-produced speculative novel. The discovery of iced-in, non-porous Poles, and geologists settling on the liquid magma structure of the earth, put an end to the boom in hollow earth literature, but its imagery can still be found in aspects of popular culture.



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