Hollow Earth

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

David Standish demonstrates the whimsical approach he uses throughout Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface in the opening part of his introduction:What do Sir Edmond Halley, Cotton Mather, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, L. Frank Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Adolph Hitler, Admiral Byrd, flying saucers, Superman, Mount Shasta, and Pat Boone all have in common?

The answer is that each has had some connection to the idea of a hollow Earth, either seriously or peripherally. Mather (1663-1728), best known as the arch-Puritan involved in the Salem witch trials of 1692, mentioned the concept in his The Christian Philosopher (1721) where it may have caught the eye of a more prominent hollow-earth popularizer. Hitler (1889-1945) is said to have been interested enough in the idea to send a small expedition to a Baltic island to test out the theory, although Standish admits this is based on the slimmest of data and probably falls more into the folklore category. Admiral Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957) explored both the North and South Poles without finding any of the fabled openings to the earth’s interior, but hollow>earth enthusiasts with a conspiracy theory mindset used a few of his innocently made comments to claim that he just might believe there was more at those poles than he actually saw. A writer named Raymond W. Bernard, about whom little is known except that he died in 1965, even published a book purporting to tell of Byrd’s hollow-earth adventures: The Hollow Earth: The Greatest Geographical Discovery in History Made by Admiral Richard E. Byrd in the Mysterious Land Beyond the Polesthe True Origin of the Flying Saucers (1964). Mount Shasta, in California, has been cited as one of the alleged entries into the inner world. Pat Boone costarred in the Twentieth Century-Fox film Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), which is loosely based on Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). These are just the fringe characters or places involved in Standish’s hollow-earth history.

Just as practically every civilization has placed its own stamp or series of constellations on the heavens, many also have their own hollow-earth beliefs, not the least of which is the early Christian belief in hell. The scientific history, though, begins with Sir Edmond Halley, best known for his successful tracking of the comet named for him. It seems that Halley also theorized a hollow earth to explain some magnetic discrepancies in the shifting of the North Pole. In fact, he presented papers on the idea three times in 1691 to the London Royal Society, theorizing three concentric spheres beneath Earth’s surface rotating independentlyand perhaps even supporting life of some sort. Here was the concept that would be adapted by future science-fiction and fantasy writers.

In 1818, a veteran of the War of 1812, Captain John Cleves Symmes began distributing circulars he had written that declared Earth’s interior was hollow and habitable and contained solid concentric spheres one within another, with entrances at both poles. He proposed exploring the poles for those entrances if he could get financing. Standish speculates that Symmes may have gotten the concept from a mention in the earlier writings of Cotton Mather. In any case, these theoretical openings were to become known in hollow-earth parlance as “Symmes holes.” Nobody ever found one, and Symmes never had his opportunity for a polar expedition. Instead he wrote a novel under the name Captain Adam Seaborn titled Symzonia: Voyage of Discovery (1820) about a utopian underground civilization.

One of Symmes’s converts was J. N. Reynolds, who also pushed for a South Pole exploratory voyage to uncover a Symmes hole. He finally got one in 1829 for Antarctica, but it did not remain long and concluded that whatever Symmes hole existed must be...

(The entire section is 1641 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

The New Yorker 82, no. 28 (September 11, 2006): 80.

Popular Science 269, no. 2 (August, 2006): 87.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 20 (May 15, 2006): 61.

Science News 170, no. 7 (August 12, 2006): 111.

The Village Voice 51, no. 27 (July 5, 2006): c42.

The Wall Street Journal 248, no. 24 (July 29, 2006): P8.