Jess Nevins continues his look at early fantastical works over on Beyond Victoriana, with an overview on the book that kickstarted the interest in Agartha:

Agartha was created by “Saint Yves d’Alveydre” and appeared in Mission de l’Inde en Europe, Mission de l’Europe en Asie (Mission to India from Europe, Mission to Europe from Asia, 1885). Joseph Alexandre Saint-Yves, Marquis d’Alveydre (1824-1909) was a French thinker and mystic, similar to (if less influential than) Eliphas Lévi. Agartha is an ancient underground kingdom in Tibet.

D’Alveydre and Mission to India From Europe was extremely influential upon the development of occultism in the late 19th century. Helena Blavatsky took several concepts from Mission to India From Europe for her teachings. The idea of the underground Tibetan city populated by enlightened “Masters,” the concept of “root races…destined to be supplanted by the next superior race,” and the idea of Atlantis as a superior civilization which had existed before the rise of Pharaonic Egypt were taken, in part or in whole, by Blavatsky from D’Alveydre.

However, the idea of Agartha was present before D’Alveydre’s work. The French philosopher and theologian Ernest Renan placed “Asgaard” [sic], the city of the gods in Norse mythology, in Central Asia in his Dialogues et Fragments Philosophiques (1871). In 1873 the French writer Louis Jacolliot, in his Le Fils de Dieu, described how he met a group of Hindu Brahmins in central Asia who told him the story of “Asgartha,” the 15,000 year-old city which was the source of Aryan civilization. Jacolliot expanded on Asgartha in a book later in the decade. In 1876 the English spiritualist (and one of the founders of the Theosophical Society) Emma Hardinge Britten wrote Ghostworld, or Researches into the Mysteries of the Occultism in which she expanded on Jacolliot’s idea of Asgartha, although the city was not mentioned by name. D’Alveydre drew heavily on Renan, Jacolliot, and especially Britten in his work.

The book is now available in English, as Kingdom of Agarttha: A Journey into the Hollow Earth. The Fortean Times has a lengthy review of this edition and good overview of its author, concluding:

this is indeed a grand book about ancient civilisations, cosmic destiny, lost continents, great wisdom and vast spans of time. Its “vivid and elegant” prose removes it from the plodd­ing structures of ‘usual’ visionary literature, and for “weirdness of imagination”, writes Godwin, “it rivals the fiction of Lovecraft or Borges”. There is much more here – the degree to which d’Alveydre plagiarised and was plagiarised; what Scharipf might have thought about his latest initiate spilling ancient secrets to the uninitiated; and how, having published this book, d’Alveydre recovered and destroyed all but two copies (the most complete version being translated for this edition in 1981) – but whether this book falls into the genre of ‘invented books’ is best left for interested readers to discover for themselves.

These “invented books” are common in this period, existing somewhere on the spectrum between “visionary novel” (like Swedenborg’s work) and fiction present as fact (the latter being a popular literary conceit used famously by Poe, Lovecraft and beyond - Merritt’s “The Moon Pool" was presented as fact and caused quite a sensation at the time). A Dweller on Two Planets was similarly influential and focused a lot of attention on Mount Shasta, although L. Sprague de Camp dismisses it “a tiresome occult novel” in his book Lost Continents.

Books on the topic are a little thin on the ground, unfortunately. Those I have include:

  • The Lost World of Agharti: The Mystery of Vril Power - probably the most relevant to this post, although it is written from a believer’s perspective and drags in all sorts of material, so it ends up a little… messy.
  • Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface - a thorough investigation, as the lengthy subtitle suggests, and an excellent guide, which is also an enjoyable read. It puts everything in context (which helps explain the origin of Hollow Earth theories, which, like Lemuria and Atlantis arose as hypotheses to explain observed facts and were eventually discarded thanks to plate tectonics) and looks at both fiction and non-fiction, which can be important when it is sometimes unclear which category some of the books fall into.
  • Lost Continents and the Hollow Earth: “I Remember Lemuria” and “The Shaver Mystery” - combines much needed, at the time, reprints of Richard Shaver's Hollow Earth classics (themselves occupying that grey area between “fact” and fiction - although Shaver's work is often dismissed as the ramblings of a paranoid schizophrenic, he was influenced by writers like Merritt and tried to improve his work, the text of which was then heavily reworked and expanded by Raymond Palmer) with the addition of David Hatcher Childress' background material. However, the two stories are available as eBooks now and there is no index at the back, which rather degrades its usefulness, but could be worth digging out still.

A large version of the image by Max Fyfield was found here.

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