Midhgardhur: The Fantasy World of Colin Anders Brodd

Monday, May 15, 2017

At the Earth's Core Revisited - Appendix N Revisited, Part 5

At The Earth's Core Revisited 

Appendix N Revisited, Part 5

     Hello, and welcome to the fifth installment of my "Appendix N Revisited" project! As I mentioned previously, in the course of this project, I want to revisit the classics of fantasy fiction, weird fiction, and science fiction that made up "Appendix N" to the original Dungeon Master's Guide by Gary Gygax, both to explore their influence on my Hobby (RPGs) and my own writing and conception of fantasy fiction. The fifth installment focuses on Edgar Rice Burroughs and his "Pellucidar" series, starting with the first book, At the Earth's Core. If you have never read the book and wish to avoid spoilers, you should stop reading at this point, as I shall be discussing the book in some detail.

     Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) is probably best remembered today as the creator of "Tarzan," and to fans of Appendix N as the creator of "Barsoom," an early space-operatic version of Mars. All of these belong to Appendix N as well, but an often-overlooked series by Burroughs deals with a "Hollow Earth" scenario, a world called "Pellucidar." Now, I have to admit, when I was younger, I didn't like "Hollow Earth" scenarios. I thought it was silly when I read references to it in old pulp fiction. I thought it was silly when BECMI Dungeons & Dragons introduced a "Hollow World" boxed-set setting (but I bought it anyway, or rather asked for and received it as a gift from my parents, because despite the silliness it had some great stuff in it!). I didn't know then how much a formative part of D&D such ideas had been, how even E.R. Burroughs had written a series based upon it! The "Pellucidar" series, begun in 1914, was his third great series, after "Barsoom" and "Tarzan," and even crosses over with "Tarzan" at one point, I believe. As unscientific as a "Hollow Earth" seems to us now, it was considered a serious possibility in the past, and Burroughs does his best to keep us firmly grounded in scientific possibilities in this book.

Ease of Availability

     Multiple versions of this book and this series can be found in a variety of formats quite easily. I read a Kindle version (with the cover shown above), and listened to an Audible audiobook version as well. The work of Edgar Rice Burroughs never seems to go completely out of style and availability! 

Summary and Commentary - SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!

     Like many Appenix N stories, At the Earth's Core is fundamentally a "man out of his place and time"-type story, though it comes to us through the medium of our un-named narrator, who is apparently a wealthy industrialist of the early 20th century.The narrator relates going on a safari of sorts into the Sahara Desert, and there encountering the primary protagonist, David Innes. David is the Connecticut-born heir to a large mining concern, and he is shocked to discover that he has been gone from our world for ten years! As we shall see, there is a strange theme of time being nonexistent or extremely fluid throughout the story. Anyway, the actual story of At the Earth's Core is related by David Innes in flashback to our un-named narrator there in the Sahara Desert, and the story does not return to them until the very end of the book.

     David relates how he was preparing to take over his father's mining business, and tried to learn every aspect of that business. He came into contact with a pious genius who worked for his father, Abner Perry, who invented a prospecting vehicle they call an "Iron Mole" - a machine that would dig through earth and rock and thus allow its passengers to travel through the Earth itself. When David and Perry test out the prospector, however, it malfunctions, going deeper and deeper into the Earth - they are unable to turn it or change course! They are convinced that they are going to die in the depths of the Earth, but to their surprise, they emerge into the open air! At first, they think that their instruments deceived them, that they did not go straight down into the Earth, but on some other course that brought them back to the surface. But they soon realize that the sun never moves, it is eternally noon where they are, and that there is no horizon, but the world sloping up and up and up into the distance, and Perry comes to the conclusion that if they are not ON the Earth, they must be IN it! They are in a Hollow Earth world, with its own internal sun, a world they come to learn in called Pellucidar.

     One nice thing about At the Earth's Core is that Burroughs put a lot of thought into his world-building, but he reveals it slowly, so we are not simply inundated with all the "facts" about Pellucidar. But the world is revealed slowly, unfolding as Perry and David make observations about the world, or as the facts are revealed to them by natives of that world (who are not always reliable - for example, most of the human inhabitants of Pellucidar are unaware of the shape of their world, and reject the notion that they could be inside another world).

     David and Perry are exploring around the Iron Mole, which has deposited them near a beach of one of the shallow seas of the inner world, when they are attacked by a giant creature they first think of as bear-like, but later revise to being sloth-like. It comes roaring out of the forest at them, and they flee and climb a tree, where the monster can almost reach them - and then it begins to bend the tree down! They think they're doomed, but soon realize it is eating the foliage. It may have had no interest in them beyond defending its territory! They come to learn the creature is called a dyryth in Pellucidar, and roughly corresponds to the megatherium which went extinct in the outer world around 10,000 years before. We begin to learn something of the nature of Pellucidar - animals long extinct on the outer world still flourish here, sometimes in slightly different forms, and the natives of Pellucidar have given these creatures names (like "dyryth" for "megatherium"), although Perry is usually able to identify the corresponding creature from the outer world's paleontology (Perry is that sort of archetypal "scientist" in early 20th century literature who seems to be versed in "science" universally, not a particular science, though in this case studying the earlier epochs of the earth and the fossil record does seem a reasonable hobby for someone involved in mining and digging through the earth).

     David & Perry are just getting over the "attack" of the dyryth when they are attacked again, this time by wolf-like creatures (which Perry identifies as hyaenodons) and ape-men who are vaguely human-like, but have tails. The ape-men rescue David, but he loses track of Perry, and they strip him of his clothing, finding it amusing. David and Perry are reunited at the village of the ape-men, where they see that they have a very primitive sort of civilization, including domestication of the hyaenodons for hunting and goat-like creatures for milk. They are placed in a rude amphitheater to fight a hyaenodon for the amusement of the ape-men, and David is able to keep it off with thrown rocks, but then the ape-men's village is raided by gorilla-like creatures (called Sagoths) who bear weapons and shields, and seem to have their own language. David and Perry are captured and chained with other human-seeming prisoners and forced to march across the plain.

     Burroughs does not initially reveal much about the humans of Pellucidar. They are described as having exceptionally perfect physiques and features, and a "monosyllabic language" (one cannot blame Burroughs, as many people in the early 20th century assumed that was the nature of "primitive" languages). They are not quite like the humans of the outer world, though - for example, it is later revealed that they have a sort of "homing instinct" to find their way about Pellucidar. I suppose it is ultimately to Burrough's credit that in a story so involved with different "races," racism plays very little part, though it is present somewhat (when our un-named narrator meets David in the Sahara, David tells him that he has been waiting to find a "white man"to whom he can talk, and the ape-men are described as being very like "Negroes" with tails). Regardless, it seems to be generally accepted in this book that the humans of Pellucidar are almost identical with the humans of our world. These humans do wear clothing - women wear robes of spotted hide like leopard skin, men wear loincloths of shaggy hide, and both wear skin sandals. They communicate with the Sagoths in a sort of crude pidgin language.

     David goes on to describe some of the human prisoners - Ghak the Hairy One, and Hooja the Sly One, but most important to our story, Dian the Beautiful, and exceptionally lovely woman of the tribe of Amoz, who was captured by the Sagoths while fleeing a man of her people known as Jubal the Ugly One. She is the one who explains that the Sagoths serve the true masters of Pellucidar, a race called the Mahars, and that the Sagoths are taking the prisoners to the city of Phutra. Dian the Beautiful instructs David and Perry about the geography and"prehistoric" fauna of Pellucidar on the long march to Phutra. As they pass a shallow sea, for example, she explains about azdyryths (which seem to be ichthyosaurs) and tandorazes (which are some sort of plesiosaurs).

     Trouble arises when the man known as Hooja the Sly One tries to force his attentions on Dian the Beautiful. David intervenes to rescue her, knocking Hooja down, but then David somehow offends Dian, and cannot figure out what he has done wrong. No one will explain what offense he has given, seeming to assume that he should know what he has done. The budding romance between David and Dian seems doomed.

     Worse, when the Sagoth's slave caravan passes through some lightless natural caverns under some mountains on the way to Phutra, some prisoners escape in the darkness. When the caravan emerges into the light at last, it is revealed that Hooja, Dian, and four other prisoners are missing! The Sagoths are enraged by the escape, and slay some of their remaining prisoners, but they have no way of recapturing the escaped prisoners at the moment! So Dian is gone, and with her any hope of romance for David!

     Soon after that, Ghak the Hairy One finally explains what David had done wrong to offend Dian. He seemed surprised that David was so heartbroken at the loss of Dian, since David didn't want her. Didn't want her? Yes, Ghak explained that when he had knocked down Hooja, David had had an opportunity, with two socially acceptable choices. If he had lifted up Dian's hand in his, he would have been claiming her as his mate. If he had lifted up her hand and dropped it, he would have been giving up all claim to her, releasing her from any obligation to him. But by doing neither - neither claiming her as his own, nor releasing her from obligation - he had inadvertently declared that Dian was his slave. Dian had thought that David was holding her in contempt, and all the other humans of Pellucidar had assumed that was deliberate! Note that this kind of cultural faux-pas is a common feature in Appendix N literature, and in the Old School games derived from Appendix N. Modern games have "Diplomacy" skills and such where the players can just roll dice to avoid this sort of thing, so it only happens if they fail a roll or something, but Old School Appendix N gaming allowed players the chance to learn these kinds of things the hard way!

     The Sagoths note Perry's habit of continually praying aloud, and David tells them that he is a holy man communicating with powerful invisible spirits. After that, the Sagoths treat them with some respect.

     Finally, the slave caravan arrives at the great city of Phutra, the capital of the Mahars. The entrance is marked by "two lofty towers of granite, which guarded a flight of steps leading to the buried city." Sagoths were on guard here, as well as at a hundred or more similar towers scattered over the plains. Here, in Phutra, David and Perry finally see the Mahars - they are avian reptiles, between six and eight feet in length, resembling a larger version of the rhamphorhynchus of the outer world's Jurassic period. The Mahars are clearly intelligent, and able to communicate with each other by a method of mental projection and perception in other dimensions (Perry later explains that this process is not "telepathy"), and since they have no sense of hearing at all, communicate with their servants by signs. On a recent visit to the Arizona Museum of Natural History, I sought out some fossils of this creature for this blog:

     Phutra, according to David, "is laid out underground with a regularity that indicates remarkable engineering skill . . . hewn from solid limestone strata," with light provided by tubes, lenses, and reflectors. The Sagoths take David, Perry, and Ghak to a large public building where they are presented to a Mahar, who assigns them to work cleaning and re-arranging shelves of books in the archives of the Mahars. Perry eventually deciphers the written language of the Mahars and begins to read the books as well as dusting them (an element of the story I found rather less than realistic, without any key into the language, but this did not detract overmuch from my enjoyment of the book). The humans are left to their work largely unsupervised, since escape from Phutra is deemed impossible.

     In their free time, David & Perry started collecting scraps of iron and making equipment - fashioning some swords and the like. Perry came up with the idea of making bows and arrows - a technology apparently completely unknown in Pellucidar! They also acquired some shields stolen from the Sagoths. They don't really seem to have a definite plan, but they certainly intend to eventually escape. Ghak is in on their escape plan, and reveals the homing instinct that the humans of Pellucidar possess. Perry finds some maps of Pellucidar, and notes to David that the general configuration of land & water masses from the outer world is reversed in Pellucidar, so that the inner world has about 75% land and 25% water, resulting in the paradox of more landmass in the inner world than the outer world - a larger world in a smaller one!

     Perry has also worked out from his study of the Mahar's records that the Mahars do not realize that humans reason and communicate. They keep humans as cattle, to feed upon, not deeming them intelligent beings. Perry also discovers that while males once dominated the race, Mahar science discovered a way to fertilize eggs by chemical means, and so the males were wiped out - all Mahars are female. The key to the artificial reproduction of the Mahars is referred to as the Great Secret, the manuscript kept in a vault in Phutra. If the humans could steal or destroy the Great Secret, the Mahars would be doomed as a species! It is curious to note that while earlier Perry had balked at killing Mahars, since they are a thinking species and killing them would be murder, he seems to contemplate this genocide with no concerns!

     The Sagoths round up the slaves and herd them into an arena to witness the punishment of two recaptured slaves, a man and a woman (who David is afraid might be Dian the Beautiful, but turns out not to be). Sagoths guard the arena, and several Mahars attend the event, including their queen. There is a Mahar band that performs "music" without sound (since Mahars cannot hear) consisting of some sort of rhythmical body movements or dance before the main event. Then the prisoners are given spears and left to face a thag (an aurochs-like Bos creature) and a tarag, a giant tiger-like creature (apparently a sort of smilodon). In the great battle royal that ensues, the thag is accidentally driven into the stands, causing the humans and Sagoths to fight for escape. David becomes separated from Perry and Ghak, but he seizes the opportunity to escape from Phutra in the confusion.

     David soon regrets his escape, since Perry is still bound in Phutra. He wanders the wilderness of Pellucidar, feeding off animals in the shallow seas. He finds a crude boat - a hollowed-out log and paddle; he then sees a copper-colored man running toward him with a spear. He tries to escape by boat, but is attacked by some sort of sea serpent, and David ends up saving the "aborigine," whose name is Ja of the Mezops (island-dwelling people). It turns out that the Mezops have a sort of truce with the Mahars - they supply the Mahars with fish, and the Mahars provide goods the Mezops can't produce themselves. David accompanies Ja to a village of the Mezops, where they dwell in spherical homes of woven twigs covered in mud about 15 to 20 feet off the ground in the trees. They have cultivated fields guarded by warriors.

      Ja takes David to an ancient temple of the Mahars, where the creatures come, accompanied by the thipdars they use as bloodhounds (apparently pterodactyls). Here, far from the prying eyes of their other servants, they consume human beings (a practice they claim not to indulge in, as far as the Sagoths and other servants are concerned). David accidentally falls down into the tank where they feed and becomes separated from Ja, but he manages to escape again.

     After this adventure, David tries to return to Phutra to rejoin Perry and Ghak, but he becomes lost for what seems to him to be a very long time. He ends up fighting a labyrinthodon, and is rejoined by Ja, who helps him win the battle. After this, Ja invites David to come live among the Mezops. but David explains the duty that he owes to Perry and Ghak and his hopes to find Dian again, so he intends to return to Phutra, if he can find it again. Ja helps direct him back to Phutra, and this time he finds the place rather quickly and easily.

     Arriving back in Phutra, he is swiftly taken by the Sagoth guards, to whom he claims to be returning to the safety and benign captivity of Phutra and its Mahar mistresses, rather than face the dangers of the wilderness, having departed from the city by mistake in the panic when the thag caused chaos. He is questioned extensively by the Sagoths and a Mahar, then returned to work while the Mahars considered his fate. He is reunited with Perry - who has not noticed his absence! To Perry, it seems only hours since the incident in the arena, while to David, it seems many days or even weeks. That time anomaly again! Burroughs does not attempt to explain it directly, but seems to be positing that time is relative and an artifact of our measurement of it - since there is only eternal noontime in Pellucidar, there is no passage of time but that created by the arbitrary decision to eat and sleep at intervals. Burroughs has Perry speculate briefly - "there is no such thing as time - surely there can be no time here within Pellucidar, where there are no means for measuring or recording time." Indeed, in the archives of the Mahars, Perry has found that their language contains but one tense - the Present! So while Perry had not eaten or slept since the incident, to him, no time had passed. To David, who had traveled much, eaten and slept many times, it seemed days or weeks. Weird!

     David is again taken and questioned by Mahars with a Sagoth interpreter. He is sentenced to the experimental pits, where the Mahars perform horrific experiments on human prisoners, for having dared to insult the intelligence of the Mahars with his tale. He is taken away and chained up where he witnessed a vivisection of a human by Mahar scientists. While they are distracted, he is able to acquire a dropped surgical tool and use it to pick the lock on his chains in order to escape. He makes his way back to Perry and Ghak, and they decide it is time to make their escape with the weapons they have gathered, bearing bundles of hides and skins to disguise their equipment, identities, and intentions.

     They manage to make their way through the city without attracting much attention, keeping concealed their swords and the bows & arrows they have crafted. They are forced to confront and kill four Mahars, and find the hiding place of the Great Secret - the book containing the only copy of the secret formula that allows the all-female race of Mahars to reproduce! They skin the Mahars and wear their hides as horrible disguises, and are joined by Hooja the Sly One (about whom David continues to harbor misgivings). Once they escape Phutra, they discard the Mahar skins and flee as far as possible, towards Ghak the Hairy One's homeland of Sari, pursued by Sagoths who have finally realized that some prisoners have escaped.

     As they get closer to Sari, David & Ghak are slowed by helping Perry. They send Hooja ahead to summon aid. But Hooja betrays them, sneaking off in search of a place to hide rather than summoning the soldiers of Sari. While Ghak takes Perry to safety, David tries out the bow & arrows. The use of the unfamiliar weapon allowed him to kill a Sagoth and drive back the others, allowing David to flee in search of safety. He finds what he hopes is a defensible spot by a cave, but it turns out to be the lair of a ryth, a cave bear of huge size and nasty temperament. The ryth turns upon the Sagoths and pursues them.

     David tries to resume his journey to Sari, but discovers that he has once again become lost. He finds a cave, in which he hides the Great Secret of the Mahars. Soon thereafter he sees a woman being attacked by a "dragon" - a thipdar, "the cruel bloodhound of the Mahars. The long-exitinct pterodactyl of the outer world" . . . he sees that the woman is Dian the Beautiful ("Plot Convenience Theater proudly presents . . .")! He fights the thipdar with his bow and arrow and saves the woman with whom he has fallen in love.

     Her response? "I hate you!" She was once more fleeing Jubal the Ugly One, and ran into trouble, but she still "hates" David for declaring her to be his slave (unintentionally). David tries to make right his earlier botched manumission of her, lifting her hand up in his, but she is not impressed because he is doing this where there are no witnesses to see - he could later claim he had not done this!

     Things get worse when they soon run into Jubal the Ugly One himself - a seven foot tall brute of a man, whose nickname derives from the fact that nearly half the flesh of his face has been ripped off by some wild beast in a hunting mishap with one of Pellucidar's terrible predators, and his face has healed very badly. Jubal sees David with Dian the Beautiful and is filled with rage. David and Jubal fight a duel over her. Jubal may be a monster of a man, with a terrible advantage in physical strength (the kind old AD&D invented 18/00 strength to encompass!), but David has the technological advantage of bow and arrow and sword. At last, David slays Jubal, and after much back-and-forth, Dian confesses her love for David. She says that she could not reveal her true feelings until she knew where he stood, but now she knew. David protests that he had told her that he loved her before, and she replied that while the tongue can be made to lie, what is said through actions, deeds like killing Jubal, must be real. "Love speaks in acts."

     "After a time" they decide to set out for Sari, to meet up with Perry and continue their plan to emancipate the human race of Pellucidar from its inhuman Mahar rulers, beginning with an alliance between Dian's Amozites and Ghak's Sarians. They are delayed when David suffers a snakebite, but this gives him the idea of using venom to poison their weapons, another tactic mostly unknown in Pellucidar. Resuming their journey, they encounter Thorians riding lidis (a lidi is apparently a diplodocus, found only in Thoria near the Land of Awful Shadow where the Dead World orbits - there is some speculation on this, but it seems that the inner sun of Pellucidar has its own moon orbiting it, but the orbit coincides with the Earth's rotation, so the shadow - the Awful Shadow - always falls on the same area of Pellucidar!). The lidi-riders turn out to be Dian's brother, Dacor the Strong One, and his new bride from among the Thorians.

     And so David and Perry, with the help of Ghak and Dian, set up an alliance of humans, teach them the making of bows & arrows (with poison!), and begin to prepare for war with the Mahars and their Sagoth troops. David and Perry continually imagine what they could do with gunpowder weapons and other modern technology in Pellucidar!

     The Mahars do not find out about the alliance until it is already huge and powerful. The alliance manages to take some Sagoth prisoners from a slave caravan on its way to Phutra - they learn that the Mahars became frantic with rage when they discovered that humans had stolen the Great Secret (although the Mahars made certain that the Sagoths did not realize the nature of what was stolen!). The Mahars offered fabulous rewards for the capture of David and Perry unharmed (so that they could lead the Mahars to the Great Secret).

     Perry had failed in his attempts to make gunpowder and construct rifles, and they acknowledge that they need more scientific information and technology. They decide David should return to the surface world in the Iron Mole for that information and supplies. Dian wants to accompany David. But as David and Dian plan to depart, a massive campaign against the Sarians begins. The enemy forces are near to the location of the Iron Mole. A great battle is fought and won, about 100 human slaves liberated (including Hooja the Sly One, who claims he was captured, though David & Ghak suspected treachery - that Hooja had offered to lead the Mahars to the Great Secret, believing that Perry must have it in Sari). More problematic are the captured Mahars, who so terrify the humans that none will approach them unless the Mahars are covered up under hides to avert the evil eye.

     They return to the Iron Mole prospector and prepare to go. Hooja escorts Dian the Beautiful aboard, smothered up under a cave lion's hide so that she can pass the Mahar prisoners and avoid their gaze. The Iron Mole sets off for the surface, and only then does David notice that Dian is still under the cave lion hide. He unveils her to discover that Hooja placed a Mahar aboard in her place!

     The prospector comes out in the Sahara desert, due to the odd angle it entered the Earth's crust from the core. David is stuck there for months awaiting a "white man" - he could not leave the Iron Mole or it would be covered by the shifting sands of the desert, and lost to him forever. So he is overjoyed when at last the un-named narrator comes upon him. They spend some time together; David shows him the Iron Mole and the corpse of the Mahar. The narrator abandons his safari and returns to the coast, thence to London to purchase "a great quantity of stuff which [David] had wanted to take back to Pellucidar with him. There were books, rifles, revolvers, ammunition, cameras, chemicals, telephones, telegraph instruments, wire, tools, and more books." The narrator brings all this to Algeria, and sends it on by caravan along with a letter to David in the Sahara, but he himself is called away to urgent business in America. The narrator receives word by letter of David's progress in his plans to return to Pellucidar. Just as he is almost ready, he relates that he is worried that his position is about to be attacked by hostile Arabs. He has plans to lay a telegraph cable with the Iron Mole to Pellucidar, in order to be able to have communications between the inner and outer worlds.

     When the narrator is finally able to visit the Sahara again, he is unable to locate the prospector, not the rocky cairn marking the end of the telegraph line. Did David make it back to Pellucidar?

     "I wonder."

     Many people have noted the huge influence Burroughs had on RPGs, including the original FRPG, Dungeons & Dragons. The Hollow Earth idea was not explored too much early on (though the Mystara setting eventually had its Hollow World setting boxed set which used a lot of ideas from Burroughs), the Lost World idea of a place where prehistoric creatures still dwell was explored much more thoroughly. Many have noted that module X1 - The Isle of Dread - seems to owe much to Pellucidar, with its primitive tribes and dinosaurs. It's not just the trappings, but the approach that is similar - a vast area to explore and possibly conquer, a savage sandbox setting - that is where Burroughs influences this style of Dungeons & Dragons.

     The idea of vast worlds waiting underneath our feet might have also influenced "Underdark" adventures going back to Descent Into The Depths of the Earth, but the eternal darkness of underground caves seems a stark contrast to the eternal sunshine of Pellucidar. On the other hand, the "Center of Aereth," the land of Agharta found in the DCC RPG #91 Journey to the Center of Aereth, has an inner sun, like Pellucidar, though it alternates between eight-hour periods of smoky light and darkness. It would be hard to believe that At the Earth's Core didn't inspire at least some of Agharta! The "strange world" aspect of the setting also calls to mind the Purple Planet setting for DCC RPG.

     I hope you enjoyed my thoughts about At the Earth's Core. Please join me again for future installments of Appendix N Revisited, on or around the Ides of each month! 

Until next time . . . Happy Reading! Skál!
~ Colin Anders Brodd
Villa Picena, Phoenix, Arizona
Ides of May, 2017

Next up for Appendix N Revisited: Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria by Lin Carter!

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