Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Whence R'lyeh?-Part Two

A couple of years ago, I played a little word game in which I derived the name of an imaginary place, R'lyeh, from that of a real place, Brooklyn. H.P. Lovecraft was familiar with both places: He created one and lived in the other. My word game was just that--a game. But for some time now, I have considered the idea that the name R'lyeh came from a certain other source. I may or may not be the first to propose a connection between the two.

R'lyeh is the name of the sunken city in which Cthulhu lies dreaming until the stars are right and he can awaken to reclaim the earth. In "The Call of Cthulhu" (written 1926, published 1928), R'lyeh is heaved up from the ocean floor by a powerful earthquake. Worldwide disturbances ensue before the city sinks again, presumably taking its lone inhabitant with it. For the moment we are safe.

Various people have proposed various sources of inspiration for "The Call of Cthulhu." Wikipedia lists some of them:

  • "The Kraken" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1830)
  • "The Horla" by Guy de Maupassant (1887)
  • "The Novel of the Black Seal" by Arthur Machen (1895)
  • The Story of Atlantis (1896) and The Lost Lemuria (1904) by William Scott-Elliott
  • The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and "A Shop in Go-By Street" (1919) by Lord Dunsany
  • The Moon Pool by A. Merritt (1919)

Note that almost all are works of the Victorian Era or by writers of the Victorian Era. Note also that all are works of fiction or verse except for William Scott-Elliott's books, which are pseudo-historical, or, more precisely, Theosophical. Thereby hangs a tale.

Although Theosophy is supposed to have predated the Victorian Era, it is most closely identified with Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), a Russian occultist and one of the founders of The Theosophical Society. (1) In turn, Madame Blavatsky is identified with her ideas about previous races and civilizations and about the sunken continents Atlantis and Lemuria. Theosophist William Scott-Elliot mapped those continents in his role as the cartographer and historian of places that never were. Even under Scott-Elliott's scheme, the sunken city R'lyeh would have been in a part of the Pacific Ocean distant from Lemuria.

H.P. Lovecraft knew of Theosophy and referred to its believers in the second paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu":
Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism. But it is not from them that there came the single glimpse of forbidden eons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it.
Richard S. Shaver (1907-1975) and Raymond A. Palmer (1910-1977), the originators of the so-called "Shaver Mystery," were almost certainly inspired by Theosophy as well. (2) Like Theosophy, The Shaver Mystery is a secret history of the earth and its races of men. And like Theosophy, The Shaver Mystery was inspired by a previous source.

In 1956, a guest interviewer on the Long John Nebel radio show asked Raymond A. Palmer if Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel The Coming Race (1871) was a possible precursor to Shaver's stories of evil, subterranean Deros and beneficial Teros. Palmer admitted that the novel was in fact one precursor, but that The Coming Race is actually further evidence in favor of The Shaver Mystery and not merely a work of fiction. It's a curious and rather deft move to take a possible swipe and turn into a buttress for your own claims. But that's what Palmer--no fool to be sure--did.

If Shaver and Palmer swiped ideas from The Coming Race, they weren't the first to do so. In Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), Madame Blavatsky herself claimed that Bulwer-Lytton's fictional subterranean race and their occult source of energy are essentially real. Through the works of nineteenth century Theosophists, Bulwer-Lytton's ideas were transmitted to the twentieth century, so far in fact that they were supposed to have been studied by Nazi occultists. We know that in part because of Willy Ley's article, "Pseudoscience in Naziland," which appeared in the May 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The Shaver Mystery was in full swing by then in the pages of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures. Those two magazines were of course the main rivals to Astounding. They were also edited by Ray Palmer. Within a very short time, Raymond A. Palmer and John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding, would embrace their own versions of pseudoscience (or pseudo-religion), for by the time "Pseudoscience in Naziland" was published, L. Ron Hubbard was already slouching towards Dianetics, and Kenneth Arnold was only a month away from seeing the first flying saucers.

As I have suggested, The Coming Race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton is a novel about a subterranean super-race in control of a powerful source of occult energy. And as I have pointed out, those ideas found their way into the beliefs of the Theosophists and other occultists. They also found their way into the pseudo-religions, pseudo-history, and pseudoscience of the twentieth century. Richard Shaver and Raymond Palmer knew about them. So did John W. Campbell and almost certainly L. Ron Hubbard. And of course they found their way into pulp fiction, more particularly, into "The Call of Cthulhu." The Coming Race by the way was reprinted under a more elaborate title, Vril, the Power of the Coming Race, for Vril was the name Bulwer-Lytton gave his imaginary source of energy. (3) The masters of that energy--Bulwer-Lytton's subterranean super-race--were called Vril-ya, a word echoed in the name of great Cthulhu's island city.

* * *

Before preparing this article, I had never read "The Kraken" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Now that I have read it, it's hard for me to believe that Lovecraft never read the poem or was not inspired by it in his writing of "The Call of Cthulhu." You can judge for yourself. Credit goes to Robert M. Price for making the connection.

The Kraken
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber'd and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

(1) The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875. Incidentally, Helena Petrovna Bavatsky shared her first two initials with Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
(2) As were Talbot Mundy, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith.
(3) According to William Scott-Elliott, Vril was also used to power aircraft in ancient Lemuria. In the twentieth century, believers in UFOs proposed something similar as the driving force behind flying saucers.

"Lemuria at its greatest extent," a map by or for William Scott-Elliott and The Theosophical Society. R'lyeh would have been in what is now the South Pacific, well south of Lemuria (orange on the map). 

P.S. (Apr. 24, 2014): In my first paragraph above, I wondered whether I am first to make the connection between Vril-Ya and R'lyeh. It turns out I am not. Here is a link to an Internet conversation from 2008:

Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley


  1. What a trip. I happen to be reading Bulwer-Lytton's book and listening to Lovecraft's story at the same time right now (The past few days). I thought for sure the Orator says Vril-ya in The Call of Chtulhu. I did a quick google search and found this. Thanks for your input. I'd say it's a very likely connection.

    1. Thanks, Unknown,

      Your experience suggests that perhaps Lovecraft wanted the name of Cthulhu's island to echo or invoke that of Bulwer-Lytton's coming race.


  2. Actually, the working name for the city, as given in HPL's letter to one of his aunts, was "L'yeh". The absence of the "r" makes the Bulwer-Lytton connection even more unlikely.

    1. Magister,

      Thank you for the addition to the discussion. Is there any indication as to where the name "L'yeh" came from or why Lovecraft changed it?

      I still wouldn't rule out the possibility that Lovecraft was influenced by Bulwer-Lytton, for "L'yeh" is like "L-ya" without the "Vri." That still doesn't make for a strong connection. It's very possible, as you indicate, that there wasn't one.

      As I wrote before, a person can play games with words and letters and come up with all kinds of things. I just noticed that the name Vril-ya could have come from Bulwer-Lytton's own name:

      "wr" from "Bulwer"
      "ly" from "Lytton"
      Thus "Wrly"
      Transform "w" to "v"
      Throw in a couple of vowels and an apostrophe, and you have Vril-ya.

      Games like that can be fun, but they usually don't mean anything. We like to think that things are ordered and explicable. Very often, they're random and meaningless. "R'lyeh" could very well be an example of the latter.

      Thanks for writing.


    2. Correction: Not an apostrophe but a dash.