The novel centres on a young, independent, unnamed, wealthy traveller (the narrator), who visits a friend, a mining engineer. They explore a natural chasm in a mine which has been exposed by an exploratory shaft. The narrator reaches the bottom of the chasm safely, but the rope breaks and his friend is killed. The narrator finds his way into a subterranean world occupied by beings who seem to resemble angels. He befriends the first being he meets, who guides him around a city that is reminiscent of ancient Egyptian architecture. The explorer meets his host's wife, two sons and daughter who learn to speak English by way of a makeshift dictionary during which the narrator unconsciously teaches them the language. His guide comes towards him, and he and his daughter, Zee, explain who they are and how they function.
The hero discovers that these beings, who call themselves Vril-ya, have great telepathic and other parapsychological abilities, such as being able to transmit information, get rid of pain, and put others to sleep. The narrator is offended by the idea that the Vril-ya are better adapted to learn about him than he is to learn about them. Nevertheless, the guide (who turns out to be a magistrate) and his son Ta behave kindly towards him.
The narrator soon discovers that the Vril-ya are descendants of an antediluvian civilization called the Ana, who live in networks of caverns linked by tunnels. Originally surface dwellers, they fled underground thousands of years ago to escape a massive flood and gained greater power by facing and dominating the harsh conditions of the Earth. The place where the narrator descended houses 12,000 families, one of the largest groups. Their society is a technologically-supported Utopia, chief among their tools being an "all-permeating fluid" called "Vril", a latent source of energy that the spiritually elevated hosts are able to master through training of their will, to a degree that depends on their hereditary constitution. This mastery gives them access to an extraordinary force that can be controlled at will. It is this fluid that the Vril-ya employ to communicate with the narrator. The powers of the Vril include the ability to heal, change, and destroy beings and things; the destructive powers in particular are immense, allowing a few young Vril-ya children to destroy entire cities if necessary.
Men (called An, pronounced "Arn") and women (called Gy, pronounced "Gee") have equal rights. The women are stronger and larger than the men. The women are also the pursuing party in romantic relationships. They marry for just three years, after which the men choose whether to remain married, or be single. The female may then pursue a new husband. However, they seldom make the choice to remarry.
Their religion posits the existence of a superior being but does not dwell on his nature. The Vril-ya believe in the permanence of life, which according to them is not destroyed but merely changes form.
The narrator adopts the attire of his hosts and begins also to adopt their customs. Zee falls in love with him and tells her father, who orders Taë to kill him with his staff. Eventually both Taë and Zee conspire against such a command, and Zee leads the narrator through the same chasm which he first descended. Returning to the surface, he warns that in time the Vril-ya will run out of habitable space underground and will claim the surface of the Earth, destroying mankind in the process, if necessary.
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
Bulwer-Lytton's literary career began in 1820 with the publication of a book of poems and spanned much of the 19th century. He wrote in a variety of genres, including historical fiction, mystery, roma...More about Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
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