After All: Of ‘Vril’, Bovril and the ‘Vril’-powered ‘Kril’ya’
Image credit: Christine Bohling, Vitali Vitaliev
Vitali discovers a fascinating literary techno-Utopia and Britain’s first science-fiction novel right on the IET’s doorstep.
At my travel writing seminars I often tell the students that they do not have to go to the ends of the Earth to make a discovery. Real treasures are often within easy reach, so instead of staring up at the sky in search of them, look down at the grass (or at the snow) under your feet. But look properly!
Some of you, my dear readers, might take the above passage as a lame excuse for a tired traveller’s habitual start-of-the-year laziness, when it is so tempting to stay in a warm and cosy house rather than venture to some dark and frozen far-away fields. And you may be right! Continuing my quest for Britain’s technological, literary, and other Utopias, I want to introduce you to the one which originated – literally – on our doorstep, just a couple of miles away from the IET’s (and E&T’s) state-of-the art Stevenage headquarters, now known as Futures Place.
I am talking about one of my favourite books, ‘The Coming Race’, first published in 1870 and regarded by many as Britain’s first ever science-fiction novel, and its author, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1804-1873). The 19th century’s most prolific and famous novelist – even more famous (at that time) than his friend Charles Dickens – he lived in the palatial Knebworth House, less than three miles south of Stevenage, and is now most remembered for the worst ever opening sentence of his other novel ‘Paul Clifford’: ‘It was a dark and stormy night...’
Another unintended invention of Bulwer-Lytton was Bovril – a popular (in Britain) thick and salty meat extract, used widely by sportsmen and explorers to keep their spirits up. To be more precise, it was not the extract itself that Bulwer-Lytton had inadvertently invented but its name, stemming from ‘Vril’ – a fictitious energy form from ‘The Coming Race’, his most successful novel and, to my mind, the best literary Utopia to ever come out of Britain after the original Thomas More one.
The book, to which Bulwer-Lytton, a successful politician and an MP, himself referred as “satirical Utopia”, is written in a disarmingly simple and surprisingly modern language and is all but unputdownable. It is the story of two explorers – one of them a mining engineer, who perishes accidentally at the beginning of their journey – discovering an underground Utopian land, populated by a superior winged race. The Vril-ya people are propelled by the magic energy (‘Vril’), based on the then newly discovered force of electromagnetism, that feeds their wings and makes them fly. The wings themselves constitute a technological innovation: a personal Vril-powered jetpack of sorts.
First published in 1871, ‘The Coming Race’ draws upon Darwinist ideas of the future, dominated by women and characterised by technological progress. It was almost certainly inspired by the writer’s visit to New Lanark – Robert Owen’s Utopian industrial community in southern Scotland. But whereas Owen saw technology as the main tool of human liberation, Bulwer-Lytton believed in the power of the collective character and the leading role of moral qualities in social transformation.
Here’s a typical description of “some great factory” in the Utopian underground world: “There was a huge engine in the wall which was in full play, with wheels and cylinders resembling our own steam-engines, except that it was richly ornamented with precious stones and metals, and appeared to emanate a pale phosphorescent atmosphere of shifting light...”
While reading ‘The Coming Race’, I made a discovery – a small, yet significant, detail, which, to my knowledge, none of the Bulwer-Lytton biographers had managed to spot – which shows Bulwer-Lytton’s interest in Russian philosophy, particularly in the works of Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891). She was a Utopian author as well as one of the founders and the leading theoretician of theosophy, a social theory based mostly on her own works – a mixture of Eastern religions with Western occultism. Although there are no official records of Blavatsky ever visiting Knebworth, I have little doubt that she did. Having spent most of her life in London, she could not have avoided Bulwer-Lytton, whom she herself calls “one of our own” in a letter.
Bulwer-Lytton must have had a hard time trying to find a name for that magic elixir of life – the very base of his Utopia that propelled his angelic winged creatures. When describing the plot to Blavatsky, he could have asked her: “What’s the Russian for ‘wings’?”, to which she could have answered: “Kril’ya!”
He must have liked the sound of that word and derived the name of the magic energy and the subterranean advanced beings from it.
A thorough search in other languages shows that the word ‘wings’ sounds like ‘kril’ya’ only in Russian, Ukrainain (‘krila’), Czech and Slovak (‘kridla’), and several other Slavonic languages, of which Russian was by far the best known and the most accessible (possibly via Blavatsky?) to Bulwer-Lytton!
So popular was ‘The Coming Race’ that the word ‘vril’ later evolved into a popular British trademark – Bovril.
In March 1891, a special event was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London to celebrate ‘The Coming Race’. The three-day extravaganza was called ‘The Vril-Ya Bazaar and Fete’. Although its main aim was raising funds for the West End Hospital and the London School for Massage and Electricity, it went down in history as the world’s first science-fiction conference.
The entertainments at the event included magic shows, a fortune-telling dog and ‘scientific’ discussions of the magical powers of Vril and the Vril’ya. It was probably for the better that the often-unconscious attempts to recreate Bulwer-Lytton’s Utopia in reality were limited to the ‘Vril’Ya Bazaar’ and haven’t spilled out into the streets of Britain’s cities and towns, like they did in some other countries.
‘Ignore the people’s moral qualities at your peril!’
Such was the warning that ‘The Coming Race’ – the mother of all post-Thomas-More British literary Utopias – prophetically gave to the future Soviet and later Russian social experiments. As demonstrated yet again by the brutal fratricidal war Russia has unleashed against Ukraine, that warning – tragically – has fallen on deaf ears.
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