Pursuit of the Almight Vril

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

I recently mentioned the once-popular novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who coined the now-cliché opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night…” and the phrases the great unwashed, pursuit of the almighty dollar, and the pen is mightier than the sword.

I also recently mentioned a series of supervillain origin stories re-done in the style of Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Oddly, those two stories are linked. You see, the origin of Brainiac gives his true, alien name as Vril Dox, which sounds like a typical made-up sci-fi name — and it is, but Vril is also the name of the mysterious energy wielded by the superhuman subterranean master race in Bulwer-Litton’s The Coming Race, the proto-science-fiction novel that gave us the phrase pursuit of the almighty dollar, in its opening paragraph:

I am a native of _____, in the United States of America. My ancestors migrated from England in the reign of Charles II.; and my grandfather was not undistinguished in the War of Independence. My family, therefore, enjoyed a somewhat high social position in right of birth; and being also opulent, they were considered disqualified for the public service. My father once ran for Congress, but was signally defeated by his tailor. After that event he interfered little in politics, and lived much in his library. I was the eldest of three sons, and sent at the age of sixteen to the old country, partly to complete my literary education, partly to commence my commercial training in a mercantile firm at Liverpool. My father died shortly after I was twenty-one; and being left well off, and having a taste for travel and adventure, I resigned, for a time, all pursuit of the almighty dollar, and became a desultory wanderer over the face of the earth.

The book was quite popular, and not only did pursuit of the almighty dollar enter the public lexicon, but so did vril — as a name for health tonics and similar elixirs, such as Bovril (bovine vril).

But it gets much, much weirder:

Some readers believe the book is non-fiction, and “Vril” has become associated with theories about Nazi-piloted Flugscheiben (“Flight Discs”), Vril-powered KSK (Kraftstrahlkanone, “force-ray cannon” — transmission rods that produce potent energy rays), Jesuit “spiritual exercises”, and Atlanteans to name a few.

The concept of Vril was given new impetus by the French author Louis Jacolliot (1837–1890), who at one time was the French Consul in Calcutta. In Les Fils de Dieu (1873) and in Les Traditions indo-européennes (1876), Jacolliot claims that he encountered Vril among the Jains in Mysore and Gujarat.

The writings of these two authors, and Bulwer-Lytton’s occult background, 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 Jacolliot and 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.

When the theosophist William Scott-Elliot describes life in Atlantis in The Story of Atlantis & The Lost Lemuria (first published 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.

George Bernard Shaw read the book and was attracted to the idea of Vril, according to Michael Holroyd’s biography of him.

Theosophy was a kind of proto-New Age movement, looking to unite humanity and unleash latent (psychic) powers.

Rudolph Steiner, a prominent Theosophist, went on to develop an educational philosophy implemented at his Steiner Schools, which are now better known as Waldorf Schools. They tend not to play up their Theosophical roots.

Fans of old-school swords & sorcery fiction can’t help but notice Theosophy’s many mentions of Hyperborea, Lemuria, Atlantis, and reincarnated men evolving through various races from age to age.

If people were taking these ideas seriously in the early 20th century, perhaps that explains why Fascism, National Socialism, and International Communism didn’t seem especially crazy.


  1. Longarch says:

    I have read serious, allegedly factual accounts that Bulwer-Lytton demonstrated minor telekinesis, strong enough to pick up paper envelopes he had accidentally dropped on the floor.

    If I ever run across the original text I will try to repost it here — but even if I could find it, I doubt that professional scholars would put much stock in a hearsay account.

    Dedicated historians have written weighty book on related subjects:


  2. Grasspunk says:

    This is amazing.

    How many modern works of fiction have an impact like this? The closest thing I can come up with is Star Wars, where people declare their religion as Jedi and seem to have some belief in the Force. Maybe in 100 years some historian will have forgotten that it was a joke and declare that people actually believed that Star Wars was a true story from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

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