A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the tag “lost race”

Nineteenth Century Anglophone Literary Worlds: The American Terra Cava versus the British Terra Amissa

In terms of the nineteenth century novel that went in search of terra incognita in a world whose maps were rapidly losing their blank spaces, an interesting distinction presents itself between the American and the British plot; while many American authors took up the pen in favour of a hollow world, British authors preferred the idea of a lost world. The differences extend far beyond geography, though, and are deeply reflective of cultural perception.

The British Empire, covering one-fifth of the world’s landmass, was unchallenged for supremacy, and this is reflected in the literature. Despite having the best maps in the world, plucky adventurers and lost sailors always seemed to find a hidden island or jungle plateau that revealed a heretofore unknown bounty of plant and animal life, along with primitive, hostile natives. Why? Because that is what centuries of British travel literature told readers to expect when they arrive in an uncharted territory. In keeping with post-Darwinian perceptions of racial hierarchy the Anglo-Saxon man was the pinnacle of evolution, and in literature proved this repeatedly by besting the primitive races he found in the corners of Africa and the Amazon.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World bequeathed its name to this subgenre of literature, following a plucky young journalist to a unexplored plateau in the Amazon jungle, home of primitive, ape-like natives and a few surviving dinosaurs. Rider Haggard was one of the most successful craftsmen of the undiscovered country, from the primitive Amahaggar of She (1887) in Africa to the ancient Mesoamericans hidden in the mountains in Heart of the World (1895). These discovered pockets of primitive life (be it in the form of Ice Age fauna or troglodytes) usually experience a small apocalypse at the end of the narrative (floods, earthquakes, and volcanos are perennial favourites) explaining why they have not been incorporate into the British Empire. But even though these literary British adventurers were not always enriched materially by their experience, they did prove their masculine, British superiority by surviving.

The rapidly expanding American Empire of the nineteenth century took a completely different view of their place in the world. Americans feared running of space, exhausting their frontiers. A hollow world provided them with new continents, not just islands and mesas. And what writers found more often than not in these new worlds below ground were civilisations that far outstripped America’s. Only when America’s economic and technological capabilities began to outstrip Europe’s did their literary explorers did the primitive begin to appear in America’s hollow realms.

In 1820 Symzona appeared in the U.S., transporting readers through an Antarctic opening into a hollow world populated by a race of pure white utopianists. Less than one hundred years later Edgar Rice Burroughs sent his American adventurers into Pellucidar, a hollow world that resembled Doyle’s, filled with primitive races and saurian beasts, ready to be reformed by American ingenuity. The intervening years saw terra cava narratives meant to instruct Americans in spiritual, technological, and political improvement. Lane’s Mizora (1880) directed surface dwellers to better educate their children and liberate women; Welcome’s From Earth’s Center (1894) demonstrated the superiority of the single-tax economic theory in bringing about universal prosperity; Adams’s Nequa (1900) was a technotopia of sexual equality. American progressives saw room for improvement (lots of improvement) in nearly every aspect of their lives, and the creation of advanced civilisations inside the earth provided a didactic outlet for such yearning. America was not yet to the level of Great Britain, but with such reforms as those suggested in these narratives, they might easily surpass them.

The few British forays into nineteenth century hollow worlds starkly contrast with their American counterparts. None of them embrace the Symmes theory, but a Vernian semi-porous earth. Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race features an advanced civilisation, but one that does not encourage the improvements of humanity; the Vril-ya are a threat, and set to supplant the surface dwellers. Bulwer-Lytton’s use of an America protagonist expresses the British fear of being displaced by an ascendant American continent. Cutcliffe Hyne’s Beneath Your Very Boots (1889) also features an advanced civilisation residing in caverns beneath the British Isles, but they are not a separate race. Rather, the Nrada are descendant of the original inhabitants of the Britain who moved below ground to escape the worries of the world and form a more perfect society. Fawcett’s Swallowed by an Earthquake (1894) more closely follows its Lost World predecessors, following the adventures of two British students on holiday in Italy who are swallowed by an earthquake and encounter a primitive civilisation that is subsequently destroyed by further seismic activity.

The elimination of the Earth’s blank spaces and the discovery that there was no hollow earth pushed storytellers out into the stars, to find whatever advanced or primitive race they saw fit.

“Swallowed by an Earthquake”

What makes E.D. Fawcett’s “Swallowed by an Earthquake” interesting in the realm of hollow earth literature is that it is *not* by an American, which leads to several aspects of it being different from the traditional Symmes-based tale, while at the same time embracing many of the same tropes of the British lost world novel.

Beginning with a quartet of travelers in Italy, Charlie (our narrator), his friend Jack, his uncle Professor Morton (a prominent scientist), and family friend Dr. Ruggieri (Director of the Vesuvius Observatory and the only non-Brit), al of whom, by page 15, are dropped into a chasm by an earthquake that swallows the entire Italian village they were visiting. In the midst of this the author offers a footnote about geology from no less an eminent source that Alexander Humboldt: ‘Where an earth-wave proceeds in a regular course along a coast, or at the foot of and parallel to the direction of a mountain-chain, interruptions at certain points have sometimes been remarked and continue for centuries. The undulations passes onward in the depth below, but is never felt a those points on the surface. The Peruvians say of these upper strata that they form a bridge’ (Humboldt) (p. 12-3). Science is still to be confirmed even in the course of adventurous storytelling.

What follows from here is a series of very familiar Nineteenth century tropes.

1) We have the imitation of Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth in the casting of a young protagonist and his scientist-Uncle exploring the underground.

2) Like Journey this is not a Symmesian hollow world with holes-at-the-Poles, but a series of large caverns, the semi-porous earth.

3) This is a journey backwards in evolutionary time, replete with long (and excoriating) details about the plant and animals of the ‘Carboniferous Age’:

It was clearly nothing other than a forest of the Carboniferous Period that shot up from the march. Gigantic jointed reeds of the height and bulk of elms fringed the streams, club-mosses over forty feet high, colossal ‘horse-tails,’ tree ferns, with might palm-like fronds, towering conifers, cast a black gloom over masses of rotting trunks, and vegetation steaming up through the undergrowth. One recognized at a glance the strangely ‘eyes’ trunk of Sigillaria oculata, the graceful Lepidodendron, the clusters of knotted Calamites, and various kinds of coniferous trees and arborescent ferns familiar to geologists… Some snails, spiders, large May-flies, and a large scorpion caught our eye, but there were no other signs of animal life on land… We had been transported into the reality, of which geologists know only the echoes! (p. 52-3)

4) Dinosaurs. Lots of them.

5) Savages. And this is an important distinction from most American hollow earth stories, which usually find an advanced race inside the earth. Here, instead, the author takes the opportunity to regale readers with a multitude of racist statements about non-white races.

Now, there are also several parts that take on unique features, perhaps drawn from other hollow earth stories, or simply Fawcett’s imagination.

1) Because there are no holes-in-the-poles to let in light, the interior of the earth is illuminated by a variant on the aurora borealis: ‘We were evidently confronted with a brilliant subterranean phase of what is popularly known as the ‘northern light,’ the aurora borealis of geographers…
owing, no doubt, to some magnetic conditions peculiar to this recess, the glow here was unexampled, being no mean substitute for sunshine itself, and revealing a noble picture’ (p. 51)

2) This was not a naturally occurring underground realm: ‘Probably by some frightful cataclysm which hurled a huge fragment of the archaic surface of the earth into a cavity over which the crust closed immediately.’ (p. 58)

3) Whereas other hollow earth novels only imply their imperial ambitions, usually in terms of trade, Fawcett’s characters are a little more blatant: ‘Look ahead, Charlie: our savage co-heirs of this underworld at last!… Now’s the opportunity for founding our empire. I shall take the raft right into the first creek I see on that island, and we will then step out of cover and beard the
primæval savage – a terribly superstitious fellow at any time. Cheek, revolvers, and our strange coming and looks will possibly win us divine honours in an hour or two.’ (p. 77)

It is this empire-building ambition that allows for the bulk of the narrative from here, with Charlie and company interacting with the natives, while at the same time rescuing a pair of sisters of their father who were also swallowed by the earthquake. (I will go ahead and ruin the ending here: Yes, Charlie and Jack each marry one of the sisters. How could it be anything but thus?)

Escaping from the savages, Charlie and Company continue to raft down the river that stretches through this entire underground world, looking for a way to return to the surface. Instead, they are saved by a subsequent second earthquake, one which opens a fissure near the coast, and at the same time destroys the underground civilization.

Besides the Professor and the Doctor returning to the world to win scientific acclaim, Charlie and Jack also stole the diamonds that belonged to the natives, making them rich men as they set about starting their families. Because exploration is never disinterested, and there must be reward, both in reputation and in riches, for undertaking such a venture (whether it was intentional or otherwise).


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