Whoever Modern Mrs. Darcy is, she keeps me honest. This is my third year of doing her reading challenge, and in an effort not to go out and buy all the books I want, I try to select from among my own pre-existing collection tomes I’ve never read. One of the categories this year was a classic you’ve been meaning to read. I spied on my shelf a copy of Jules Verne’s Master of the World that I bought before my high school years but had never actually consumed. I think I was a bit put off by 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Don’t get me wrong—that’s a great book, but it’s dense and long and very detailed. And I was probably too young when I read it. Master of the World, like 20,000 Leagues, was part of Verne’s magnum opus Voyages extraordinaires, a set of fifty-some novels recounting, well, extraordinary voyages.
What makes Master of the World topical to this blog is the Devil. I’d better explain that. The story surrounds a somewhat naive detective trying to solve the mystery of a great, inaccessible, hollow mountain in North Carolina. While investigating this mountain (prior to the age of heavier-than-air flight) he learns of an automobile that is terrorizing the United States by driving 200 miles per hour. The credulous colonials seriously think that perhaps the Devil is driving this car. While that may be but passing fancy, it’s an image that replays itself throughout the book. Anyone who recklessly drives so fast—and the car can transform into a boat, submarine, and airplane as well—must be diabolical. The Devil’s amusements seem pretty tame, and the driver isn’t supernatural after all, once he’s discovered.
Robur the Conquerer is Master of the World, in his own opinion. At the climax he flies his marvelous machine into a hurricane, proclaiming his mastery like a good mad scientist. The machine, called The Terror, is destroyed and Robur is presumably killed in the storm. When our narrator returns home after several weeks missing (he was kidnapped by Robur and thus learned a bit more about the driver’s madness), his housekeeper has the last word. She declares that although Robur was not the Devil he was worthy of being so. The Devil has become a lot more nasty since Verne’s day, apparently. Why, our own government makes Robur the Conquerer look like an amateur demagogue. Either we’ve become terribly more accepting of everyday evil, or the dark lord has grown even worse over the century. I, for one know which one to believe.
Quirky ideas stimulate the intellect. I’ve always had a fondness for the outré, those ideas slightly beyond the pale of normalcy. Sometimes taken dead seriously by intelligent people, these ideas have cultural staying power. David Standish’s Hollow Earth is a cheeky tribute to those who’ve taken the idea of the underworld to literal and literary depths. Ideas that the world might be hollow have been around for some time. Not everyone, it seems, was convinced by Copernicus and Galileo. Standish traces the more modern exemplars of those who have, with stone-faced sincerity, declared that the earth is hollow. Of course, some, such as Edgar Allan Poe, were hoaxers, but they were building on those who appear to have seriously believed it. The character after whom the mythical polar entrances to the world inside is named is John Cleves Symmes. An otherwise rational fellow, it seems, Symmes decided that the earth was like a globe and that a world much like the outside awaited those intrepid enough to get to the inside. There would be light, plants, oceans—a veritable paradise found within the earth. This strange idea survived Symmes and even the exploration of the poles could not dissuade those who believed large caverns, fed by warm, arctic oceans, awaited those who would patiently explore.
Standish notes the womb-like ideals of many of these thinkers, twisting fictional accounts together with the more deluded factual kind. In popular, and not so popular, fiction the hollow earth had a particular resonance. Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs were among its most ardent fans, using the literal underworld as a setting of strange realms. Others used the hollow planet as the location of a kind of utopia, unspoiled by humanity. Unspoiled, that is, until people arrive on the scene and do what they inevitably do to paradises. It’s in the news every day. Even Alice in Wonderland gets a nod here, as she does fall an awfully long way down that rabbit hole. Fiction writers have made a boon of this bogus idea.
The most interesting, to me, character in this story is Cyrus Reed Teed. A denizen of the Burnt Over District in New York, Teed restyled himself Koresh (yes, there were others) and made the hollow earth one of the doctrines of his new religion. Distantly related to Joseph Smith, his new faith was not as successful as that of his cousin, but nevertheless, Koresh did manage to gain a following of a few hundred and establish a compound to himself where he influenced local politics to his wishes. The story has a sad ending, however, as local ruffians (including the sheriff, like in a bad western) roughed him up so badly that as an older gentleman he died perhaps as a result of his injuries. His movement fell apart and the world grew solid once again. The world really has no place for dreamers, and yes, at such times it seems to be made of very unyielding stuff indeed.
Posted in Books, Literature, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Alice in Wonderland, Burnt Over District, Cyrus Reed Teed, David Standish, Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hollow Earth, John Cleves Symmes, Jules Verne