Cover of an 1871 edition.
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
The Coming Race is an 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, reprinted as Vril, the Power of the Coming Race. Among its readers have been those who have believed that its account of a superior subterranean master race and the energy-form called "Vril" is accurate, to the extent that some theosophists, notably Helena Blavatsky, William Scott-Elliot, and Rudolf Steiner, accepted the book as being (at least in part) based on occult truth. A popular book, The Morning of the Magicians (1960) suggested that a secret Vril Society existed in pre-Nazi Berlin. However, there is no historical evidence for the existence of such a society.
The Coming Race was originally published anonymously in late 1871 but Bulwer-Lytton was known to be the author. Samuel Butler's Erewhon was also published anonymously, in March 1872, and Butler suspected that its initial success was due to it being taken by many as a sequel by Bulwer-Lytton to The Coming Race. When it was revealed in the 25 May 1872 edition of the Athenaeum that Butler was the author, sales dropped by 90 percent because he was unknown at the time.
The novel centres on a young, independently wealthy traveller (the narrator), who accidentally finds his way into a subterranean world occupied by beings who seem to resemble angels and call themselves Vril-ya.
The hero soon discovers that the Vril-ya are descendants of an antediluvian civilisation who live in networks of subterranean caverns linked by tunnels. It is a technologically supported Utopia, chief among their tools being the "all-permeating fluid" called "Vril", a latent source of energy which its spiritually elevated hosts are able to master through training of their will, to a degree which depends upon their hereditary constitution, giving them access to an extraordinary force that can be controlled at will. The powers of the will include the ability to heal, change, and destroy beings and things; the destructive powers in particular are awesomely powerful, allowing a few young Vril-ya children to wipe out entire cities if necessary. It is also suggested that the Vril-ya are fully telepathic.
The narrator states that in time, the Vril-ya will run out of habitable spaces underground and start claiming the surface of the Earth, destroying mankind in the process if necessary.
The uses of Vril in the novel amongst the Vril-ya vary from an agent of destruction to a healing substance. According to Zee, the daughter of the narrator's host, Vril can be changed into the mightiest agency over all types of matter, both animate and inanimate. It can destroy like lightning or replenish life, heal, or cure. It is used to rend ways through solid matter. Its light is said to be steadier, softer and healthier than that from any flammable material. It can also be used as a power source for animating mechanisms. Vril can be harnessed by use of the Vril staff or mental concentration.
A Vril staff is an object in the shape of a wand or a staff which is used as a channel for Vril. The narrator describes it as hollow with 'stops', 'keys', or 'springs' in which Vril can be altered, modified or directed to either destroy or heal. The staff is about the size of a walking stick but can be lengthened or shortened according to the user's preferences. The appearance and function of the Vril staff differs according to gender, age, etc. Some staves are more potent for destruction, others for healing. The staves of children are said to be much simpler than those of sages; in those of wives and mothers the destructive part is removed while the healing aspects are emphasised.
The book was quite popular in the late 19th century, and for a time the word "Vril" came to be associated with "life-giving elixirs". The best known use of "Vril" in this context is in the name of Bovril (a blend word of Bovine and Vril). From 5 to 7 March 1891, there was even a "Vril-ya Bazaar" held at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Recent research has shown that Bulwer-Lytton has developed his ideas about "Vril" against the background of his long occupation with occult natural forces that were widely discussed at that time, especially in relation to animal magnetism or, later, spiritualism. In his earlier novels Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1862), Bulwer-Lytton had discussed electricity and other "material agents" as the possible natural causes for occult phenomena. In The Coming Race, those ideas are continued in the context of a satirical critique of modern philosophical, scientific, and political currents. In a letter to his friend John Forster, Bulwer-Lytton explained his motives:
I did not mean Vril for mesmerism, but for electricity, developed into uses as yet only dimly guessed, and including whatever there may be genuine in mesmerism, which I hold to be a mere branch current of the one great fluid pervading all nature. I am by no means, however, wedded to Vril, if you can suggest anything else to carry out this meaning namely, that the coming race, though akin to us, has nevertheless acquired by hereditary transmission, etc., certain distinctions which make it a different species, and contains powers which we could not attain to through a slow growth of time ; so that this race would not amalgamate with, but destroy us. [...]
Now, as some bodies are charged with electricity like the torpedo or electric eel, and never can communicate that power to other bodies, so I suppose the existence of a race charged with that electricity and having acquired the art to concentre and direct it in a word, to be conductors of its lightnings. If you can suggest any other idea of carrying out that idea of a destroying race, I should be glad. Probably even the notion of Vril might be more cleared from mysticism or mesmerism by being simply defined to be electricity and conducted by those staves or rods, omitting all about mesmeric passes, etc.
Bulwer-Lytton has been regarded as an "initiate" or "adept" by esotericists, especially because of his Rosicrucian novel Zanoni (1842). However, there is no historical evidence that suggests that Bulwer-Lytton can be seen as an occultist, or that he has been the member of any kind of esoteric association. Instead, it has been shown that Bulwer-Lytton has been "esotericized" since the 1870s. In 1870, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia appointed Bulwer-Lytton as her "Grand Patron." Although Bulwer-Lytton complained about this by letter in 1872, the claim has never been revoked. Other claims, such as his membership in a German masonic lodge Zur aufgehenden Morgenröthe, have been proven wrong.
Those claims, as well as the recurrent esoteric topics in Bulwer-Lytton's works, convinced some commentators that the fictionalised Vril was based on a real magical force. Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, endorsed this view in her book Isis Unveiled (1877) and again in The Secret Doctrine (1888). In Blavatsky, the Vril power and its attainment by a superhuman elite are worked into a mystical doctrine of race. However, the character of the subterranean people was transformed. Instead of potential conquerors, they were benevolent (if mysterious) spiritual guides. Blavatsky's recurrent homage to Bulwer-Lytton and the Vril force has exerted a lasting influence on other esoteric authors.
When the theosophist William Scott-Elliot describes life in Atlantis in The Story of Atlantis & The Lost Lemuria (first ed.), 1896, the aircraft of the Atlanteans are propelled by Vril-force. Obviously he did not regard that description as fiction, and his books are still published by the Theosophical Society. Scott-Elliot's description of Atlantean aircraft has been identified as an early inspiration for authors who have related the Vril force to UFOs after World War II.
George Bernard Shaw read the book and was attracted to the idea of Vril, according to Michael Holroyd's biography of him.
French writer Jules Lermina included a vril-powered flying machine in his L'Effrayante Aventure [Panic in Paris] (novel) (in French), 1910.
A stage adaptation of the book was written by journalist David Christie Murray and magician Nevil Maskelyne. The production premiered at Saint George's Hall in London on 2 January 1905. Both Nevil Maskelyne and his father John Nevil Maskelyne collaborated on the special effects for the play. The play did not meet with success and closed after a run of eight weeks.
Willy Ley was a German rocket engineer who had emigrated to the United States in 1937. In 1947, he published an article entitled "Pseudoscience in Naziland" in the science fiction magazine Astounding Science Fiction. He wrote that the high popularity of irrational convictions in Germany at that time explained how National Socialism could have fallen on such fertile ground. Among various pseudo-scientific groups he mentions one that looked for the Vril: "The next group was literally founded upon a novel. That group which I think called itself Wahrheitsgesellschaft—Society for Truth—and which was more or less localised in Berlin, devoted its spare time looking for Vril."
The existence of a Vril-Society was alleged in 1960 by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels. In their book The Morning of the Magicians, they claimed that the Vril-Society was a secret community of occultists in pre-Nazi Berlin that was a sort of inner circle of the Thule Society. They also thought that it was in close contact with the English group known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Vril information takes up about a tenth of the volume, the remainder of which details other esoteric speculations, but the authors fail to clearly explain whether this section is fact or fiction. Historians have shown that there has been no actual historical foundation for the claims of Pauwels and Bergier, and that the article of Willy Ley has only been a vague inspiration for their own ideas. Nevertheless, Pauwels and Bergier have influenced a whole new literary genre dealing with the alleged occult influences on National Socialism which have often been related to the fictional Vril Society.
The book of Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels was published in German with the title: Aufbruch ins dritte Jahrtausend: von der Zukunft der phantastischen Vernunft (literally Departure into the Third Millennium: The Future of the Fantastic Reason) in 1969.
In his book Black Sun, Professor Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke refers to the research of the German author Peter Bahn. Bahn writes in his 1996 essay, "Das Geheimnis der Vril-Energie" ("The Secret of Vril Energy"), of his discovery of an obscure esoteric group calling itself the "Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft", which revealed itself in a rare 1930 publication Vril. Die Kosmische Urkraft (Vril, the cosmic elementary power) written by a member of this Berlin-based group, under the pseudonym "Johannes Täufer" (German: "John [the] Baptist"). Published by the influential astrological publisher, Otto Wilhelm Barth (whom Bahn believes was "Täufer"), the 60-page pamphlet says little of the group other than that it was founded in 1925 to study the uses of Vril energy. The German historian Julian Strube has argued that the historical existence of the "Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft" can be regarded as irrelevant to the post-war invention of the Vril Society, as Pauwels and Bergier have developed their ideas without any knowledge of that actual association. Strube has also shown that the Vril force has been irrelevant to the other members of the "Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft," who were supporters of the theories of the Austrian inventor Karl Schappeller (1875–1947).
After World War II, a group referred to by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke as the Vienna Circle has elaborated an esoteric neo-Nazism that contributed to the circulation of the Vril topos in a new context. In their writings, the Vril has been associated with Nazi UFOs and the Black Sun concept. As Julian Strube has shown, a younger generation related to the Tempelhofgesellschaft has continued the work of the Vienna Circle, and exerts a continuous influence on the most common notions of Vril. Those notions are not only popular in neo-Nazi circles, but also in movies or computer games, such as Iron Sky or Wolfenstein.
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