Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core and Pellucidar

Regardless of what you think of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writing, he himself was no slacker! Burroughs wrote well over fifty novels in his lifetime, including 26 featuring Tarzan, and used incredibly imaginative, now iconic, settings as backdrops. I’ve briefly discussed his classic ‘Barsoom’ (John Carter of Mars) series in a previous post. This week I finished the first two books of another series, ‘Pellucidar‘:

“At the Earth’s Core” (1914) and “Pellucidar” (1923) concern the adventures of David Innes and his friend, scientist Abner Perry, as they explore a prehistoric world that lies within a hollow Earth. I give a description of the story and some observations below the fold.

The story begins when Innes and Perry decide to take Perry’s new invention, the “Iron Mole”, for a test drive below the surface of the Earth. Due to design imperfections, they find the machine impossible to turn around, and end up on a crash course towards the center of the Earth where they expect to meet certain doom in the molten core. Instead, the machine bursts through the five-hundred mile thick shell of the Earth into an inner world residing on the inside of the sphere, complete with an eternal sun at the center of the Earth!

Burroughs seems to have been very savvy at employing popular scientific and pseudo-scientific theories as settings for exotic adventures. For instance, his ‘Barsoom’ series involved life on Mars, inspired by the belief in Martian canals, his ‘Moon’ series grew from speculations of life on the Moon, his ‘Caspak’ (Land That Time Forgot) series was inspired by earlier novels of ‘lost worlds’ inhabited by dinosaurs, and of course his ‘Tarzan’ series was inspired by numerous accounts of feral children.

His ‘Pellucidar’ series is similarly based on pseudo-scientific speculation. The speculation in question apparently began with no less prominent a scientist than Edmond Halley, who suggested in 1692 that the Earth consisted of concentric spherical shells with atmosphere between each shell. The Aurora Borealis, in Halley’s mind, arose from gas escaping from openings at the poles. Considering the state of science in the 1600s, Halley can be forgiven for his incorrect theory, but similar speculation was taken up by many others. In 1818, John Cleves Symmes, Jr. postulated a hollow Earth with an 800-mile thick crust and 1400 mile-diameter openings at each of the poles. It is not clear where Symmes’ detailed knowledge of this inner Earth came from. He, and others who followed him, proposed expeditions to the poles in search of these openings, and the idea still captivated people in the early 20th century. Hell, if you search the internet, you can actually find ‘hollow earth’ proponents still, though I refuse to link to them!

The reality is, of course, that the Earth is made up of a number of solid and molten liquid layers, and has a solid core consisting primarily of iron. This structure has been mapped out quite well by the ingenious method of using seismic waves produced by earthquakes to probe the planet’s interior.

Burroughs created his own fictional inner world with colorful details that the crackpots couldn’t imagine. Pellucidar is perpetually lit by a central Sun, with no darkness anywhere on the surface except in the “Land of Awful Shadow”, a part of the land shadowed by a ‘stationary’ moon orbiting the Sun. The moon is close enough to see that there are seas and vegetation present, but the presence of higher forms of life is uncertain, at least in the first two novels. The land itself is very Earth-like, with forests, mountains, islands and oceans:

(Image via Wikipedia, showing the map from the first edition of the first novel.)

‘Gravity’ is apparently due to centrifugal force, which is mentioned briefly by Perry, though it is clear from Burrough’s description that he is unaware of the subtleties of the theory. To quote Perry,

“The earth was once a nebulous mass. It cooled, and as it cooled it shrank. At length a thin crust of solid matter formed upon its outer surface– a sort of shell; but within it was partially molten matter and highly expanded gases. As it continued to cool, what happened? Centrifugal force hurled the particles of the nebulous centre toward the crust as rapidly as they approached a solid state. You have seen the same principle practically applied in the modern cream separator. Presently there was only a small super-heated core of gaseous matter remaining within a huge vacant interior left by the contraction of the cooling gases. The equal attraction of the solid crust from all directions maintained this luminous core in the exact centre of the hollow globe.”

This is inaccurate on an elementary level in two ways: 1. The Earth’s centrifugal force is not nearly strong enough to maintain Earth-like gravity on the interior of the planet. 2. In the interior of a spherical shell of mass, there is no net gravitational force. The Sun, therefore, would not be held stably in the center of the sphere. These are normally points I wouldn’t care much about while reading, but since this is a physics blog, I should at least mention them!

Burroughs introduces an interesting idea with respect to time in Pellucidar: because there is no day and night on Pellucidar, there is no concept of time, either. A person might journey seemingly for weeks in the wilderness, but return home to find that he has been gone for what seemed to his friends like only hours. This concept seems very much kin to the concept of time dilation in Einstein’s special theory of relativity, in which an observer notes that another person, moving relative to him, has a clock moving slower than his own. As special relativity was first reported by Einstein in 1905, and “At the Earth’s Core” was published in 1914, it is not unreasonable to think that Burroughs might have been inspired by Einstein’s work.

Anyway, let’s describe the stories themselves! Innes and Perry set out to explore, and quickly find that Pellucidar is a savage world, filled with strange and prehistoric beasts. Humanity is not the dominant species on the world, and is stuck in the tribal stage of society. The dominant race are the Mahars, an amphibian/reptilian species that use humanity as slaves and as cattle. Performing the dirty work for the Mahars are a race of brutish, apelike creatures called the Sagoths, and Innes and Perry are captured by the Sagoths and brought to Phutra, city of the Mahars, as slaves.

If you’ve read other Burroughs stories, like the “Barsoom” series, you know more or less what follows. There are many daring escapes, narrow scrapes, and battles of wits. Innes quickly falls in love with a beautiful princess of Pellucidar, and most of his adventures involve his attempts to find and rescue her, both from the evil Mahars and later from humans who have sided with them. Along the way, Innes picks up a monstrous animal sidekick. The end of the first book ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, which is surprising, considering the next book didn’t appear for nearly ten years!

“At the Earth’s Core” and “Pellucidar” differ in the relative status of the heroes in the two adventures. In the first novel, Innes and Perry are quickly stripped of the few tools of modern civilization that they brought with them, and are forced to survive much as Stone Age primitives. At the end of the first book, Innes has returned to the outer world for supplies, and is betrayed in the process, but the second book finds him back in Pellucidar, this time with guns, survival gear, and renewed ambition to make himself first Emperor of Pellucidar!

This is where the novels are a bit jarring to modern readers. This book, of course, comes when it was still fashionable for countries to dream of empire: the British would not give up India until 1947. In the novels, though, Innes and Perry quickly decide, upon arrival in Pellucidar, that the human tribes must be united into an Empire and, at the same time, the Mahars must be exterminated. Both of these attitudes – empire and genocide – seem quite horrific by today’s standards. Consider this early exchange, when David explains his plan for escape, which requires the killing of several Mahars.

“It would be murder, David,” he cried.

“Murder, to kill a reptilian monster?” I asked in astonishment.

“Here they are not monsters, David,” he replied. “Here they are the dominant race – we are the ‘monsters’ – the lower orders.”

“Yes, David,” he concluded, “it would entail murder to carry out your plan.”

“Very well then, Perry.” I replied. “I shall become a murderer.”

Soon after, Perry is on board with the plan. The two of them become enraptured with their dreams of empire:

“Why, Perry,” I exclaimed, “you and I may reclaim a whole world! Together we can lead the races of men out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of advancement and civilization. At one step we may carry them from the Age of Stone to the twentieth century. It’s marvellous — absolutely marvellous just to think about it.”

“David,” said the old man, “I believe that God sent us here for just that purpose — it shall be my life work to teach them His word — to lead them into the light of His mercy while we are training their hearts and hands in the ways of culture and civilization.”

“You are right, Perry,” I said, “and while you are teaching them to pray I’ll be teaching them to fight, and between us we’ll make a race of men that will be an honour to us both.”

Through numerous (metaphorically) drunken steps, they set out to do just that. Though I didn’t find in the end that their overt willingness to train people to wage massive war and teach them new ways to kill destroyed the story, some of the speeches of this sort I found a little chilling. Was this intentional on Burroughs’ part? By the end of the second book, there seems to be at least a bit of a change in tone. David says:

“We butchered some eight thousand warriors with the twentieth century gifts we brought. Why, they wouldn’t have killed that many warriors in the entire duration of a dozen of their wars with their own weapons! No, Perry; we’ve got to give them something better than scientific methods of killing one another.”

“Ah, Perry! That is the day I look forward to! When you and I can build sewing machines instead of battleships, harvesters of crops instead of harvesters of men, ploughshares and telephones, schools and colleges, printing presses and paper! When our merchant marine shall ply the great Pellucidarian seas, and cargoes of silks and typewriters and books shall forge their ways where only hideous saurians have held sway since time began!”

Okay, the last part about ‘hideous saurians’ sounds a little unenlightened again, but it’s progress!

Overall, the first two books of Burroughs’ Pellucidar series are charming and everything one would expect from Burroughs: adventure, romance, fierce combat and daring escapes. These are not the best of Burroughs’ work, but are wonderfully creative and fun to read.

It’s worth noting, for those who haven’t looked, that most if not all of Burroughs’ work has been released in a nice matching bookshelf format by Leonaur Books. I’ll be catching up on more of it as time goes on.

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5 Responses to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core and Pellucidar

  1. von Horst says:

    I enjoyed reading about my favorite fantasy world, Pellucidar. You can read more about it here: http://www.bouncepage.com/Pellucidar/pellucidar.html

    the world’s biggest Pellucidar fan,
    von Horst

  2. Bill Hillman says:

    Learn more about the novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs:
    The Illustrated ERB Bibliography
    http://www.ERBzine.com/chaser

    See the Official Pellucidar site at:
    http://www.pellucidar.org

    Visit our John Carter of Mars site:
    http://www.johncarterofmars.ca

  3. Wonderful article. I was a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs as a kid (and recently rewrote At the Earth’s Core as The Hollow World for Kindle), and never had more fun doing anything, ever. It’s nice to see a physicist tackle the subject with such obvious love and passion (and intelligent criticism while still feeling that love and passion!). Fun article. Thanks for taking the time.

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