Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Vril and the Veins of the Earth

I have had the joy to have read Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth.

I have recently finished the Edward Bulwer-Lytton Victorian Science fiction novel The Coming Race - the origin of the Vril.

This bears some further explanation, both as to what the Vril are and the wider significance of this little and  - whilst perfectly serviceable - not outstanding work.

Either nip over to Wikipedia, or read on. I am working from the 2007 Hesperus edition. (The text may also be found over at Project Gutenberg; it is not a long read).

A man - a mining engineer of wealthy extraction - goes deep into the bowels of the earth, in search of something a friend saw. His rope snaps and he falls, and is rescued by an unheard of civilisation. These are the Vril.

At this point I am going to crib from the introduction from my edition, by Matthew Sweet (as heard on BBC Radio).

'From the evidence of their language, the visitor concludes that the Vril-ya are of Aryan descent. Physically, they resemble Native Americans. Their civilisation offers a life of serene indolence for adults and frantic industry for children. Junior Vril-ya serve in the army, staff the shops and fend off the underworld's native population of carnivorous lizards. Vril-ya parents, however, loll about in well-appointed villas eating fruit and listening to the twittering of caged birds. Crime, adultery and literature have all died away in this civilisation. Feminism*, vegetarianism and choral music flourish. Artificial sunlight beams down, fearsome weapons keep the barbarians of the lower regions at bay, machines perform menial tasks. And the power that motivates this society - the mastery of Vril - is a genetic inheritance: thick bunches of nerves in the hands allow the Vril-ya to control its flow, to channel its power in acts of creation or destruction, and to fly through the vast recesses of their world on mechanical wings.'

[*Of course, a Victorian, male-authored feminism. As any set of political beliefs of another age, likely to be frustrating or bewildering; Cf. Christine de Pizan.]

The trouble is, people took the whole business rather seriously. Some people asserted (and, as Sweet says in his Introduction, some folk still assert) that this was a real thing. Bulwar-Lytton denied it: this did not stop folk from trying to create or summon up the powers of the Vril into men. Arthur Lovell was one such man. These notions may not have taken off, but the term Vril persisted, into the fiction (either explicit fictions, or the lunatic fringe) of Nazi esotericism. Vril persisted in one other notable place - the meaty spread Bovril [Bovine+Vril; energy from beef!].

This has very little bearing on the topic at hand, but it is a marvellous image. Whatever
we might say about advertisements in our own time, I wonder if anything of this nature would be produced today.

I should like to point out how bloody silly this all is. But this has not stopped similar things happening: witness the Jedi census phenomenon. Apparently digging into Taoist works (or any of the other real world inspirations) wasn't enough: there had to be laser swords as well.

A little harsh, you might say. A different kettle of fish to the Vril, you might say. True enough. To continue to take Star Wars as an example, imagine a world, some century and a half from the present day. The Jedi path was embraced by the fringes of a totalitarian ideology, even if it barely ever got enough serious adherents together to rent a Village Hall, let alone form a temple. The films themselves have been long neglected by the majority of the viewing public. One mainstream remnant of it is the popularity of 'The Force' anti-bacterial spray (the nozzle of the canister it comes is meant to be faintly reminiscent of a lightsabre).

Yes, this is a baffling picture. Yes, it may even be a funny one.


"That's all very well, old chap, but what does any of this have to do with Veins of the Earth?"

First of all, The Coming Race is part of the Underdark canon, if canon is the right term here.

There's an Appendix N for Veins of the Earth here, but while I would acknowledge the importance of all those books to Patrick Stuart, there is a wider body of literature to examine. The Coming Race, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Shadow People, The Silver Chair. Some of it dovetails quite well with Veins (think of Axel in Journey to the Centre of the Earth dying of thirst in a lightless passage). All grist for the mill.

The Vril-ya themselves, however, are perhaps not the best fit for the twisted, specialised societies of Veins. Even if one does not see them as representing a utopia, they have a stability, plenty and sanity quite unlike other inhabitants of the Veins.

Further, the sheer power of the Vril (even if one happens to have brought a few beefy mages down below with you) is rather difficult to contend with. No, one doesn't have to fight everything in the Veins. Yes, one might end up doing so. (The Vril-ya might well shoot first when confronting the average band of murderhobos).

Of course, the history of The Coming Race itself may be a source of inspiration. The business of Vril energy and crackpot schemers or despots lends itself to the dErO. The placidity and indolent perfection of the Vril-ya might recall the AElf-Adal in repose.

Bovril 250g.jpg
Was the spread brown? Was it?
Where have you hidden the spread?"
Putting the Vril-ya as is straight into Veins would be troublesome, as stated. Of course, the twist in the tale would be entirely in OSR tradition. A Utopia can always be fuel for a Dystopia; The Coming Race's (not uncontested) treatment of democracy does not even make this terribly hard. Doubly so when it emerges from such an unfashionable century as the Nineteenth.*

To quote Sweet's introduction again, consider that 'serene indolence for adults and frantic industry for children.' It certainly could be construed as something like a prettier version of the Knotsmen.

The Vril itself will always produce questions, when considered by the RPG-driven mind. From where does this power derive? How many points must one expand to wield it? Who gives it to you? The answers may not be comforting ones. ("It was [Beelzebub, Nyarlathotep, Tiamut, &c.] all along!")

Of course, the Veins have enough room to make something like the Vril-ya proper appear - but only, one suspects, briefly or in small numbers. There could be no going back to them; only the jurney forward: perhaps to reach the surface - or to perish.

*Though I cannot quite conceive how one makes a very concrete dystopia out of Morris's News from Nowhere.

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