At the end of April, I sought something new to read; something different from the genres and books I usually reach for. While perusing the e-books I downloaded from Early Bird Book’s daily deals, I found a copy of Jules Verne’s novel and decided to venture into science fiction, a genre I hardly read.
I began reading immediately and I could tell that it’s a wonderful and entertaining tale, but the language of the translation was clunky and laborious to read. As such, the story became a drag and I loathed picking it up. Luckily, I went to the bookstore soon after starting the story and there I found a Barnes & Noble Classics copy of the story. Michael Dirda’s advice from his Classics for Pleasure book flitted through my mind: It’s better to read multiple translations of a work* (memory foggy but I believe I read that in his book). So I decided to compare the translation of the e-book to the Barnes & Noble Classics copy. The B&N copy was fluid and so easy to read that I got swept up in the story without noticing though I was re-reading the beginning. It was not a question. I would buy it.
The story is narrated by Axel, nephew of Otto Lidenbrock, a short-tempered, eccentric German professor of mineralogy. Axel tells us that one day in May 1863 his uncle ran home with an old book by Snorre Turleson, a famous Icelandic author. His uncle, a bibliophile, was glad about his find but became even more excited when an old parchment tucked within fell out. It had runes scribbled across it that, once deciphered, contained instructions of how to journey to the center of the earth through a volcano in Iceland.
Prof. Lidenbrock becomes obsessed with the expedition and drags Axel along with him against his will. Axel wants to remain in Germany, near his dear Graüben, the ward of his uncle. But Graüben urges him on. The pair travels to Iceland, where they secure tools and a taciturn guide for their journey. As they traverse the Icelandic terrain, the land becomes more desolate and sparse the closer they get to the volcano with lepers suddenly appearing out of the foggy atmosphere. Axel, who’s been anxious about venturing to the center of the earth, unsuccessfully tries to dissuade his uncle multiple times as they draw closer to the entrance. Though Axel considers turning back, he plunges into the depths of the earth with his uncle where they make several remarkable discoveries.
“Once science has spoken, one should remain silent.”
My thoughts: (spoilers)
They are many. I loved everything about this book. The characters: sarcastic Axel, eccentric Lidenbrock, silent Hans. The adventure, which begins because of Prof. Lidenbrock’s obsession with repeating Turleson’s descent and which carries them through Europe and across seas to Iceland, where they begin their descent and find an interplanetary world that seems untouched by evolution, or at the brink of it. Then there’re the descriptions, like the Icelandic landscape, that paint such a vivid picture in my mind that it’s easy to visualize what the characters see and realize that Iceland is made to resemble the fields of Asphodel in Hades.
The dialogue, too, is skillfully conducted because though Lidenbrock and Axel are scientists and often go off on technical spiels, I never felt lost or overburdened by such details. Actually, I was entertained by them since they are often presented as an outburst from the excitable Prof. Lidenbrock or as a sudden discovery by both Axel and Lidenbrock. The dialogue helps to break up the technical details and the antics of the characters and their joy at the discovery or realization of some scientific fact makes reading such technicalities entertaining. References to Vernes’ contemporaries in the sciences and arts are also sprinkled throughout. He makes references to various texts and thought leaders of his time and to those of the past as well.
The characters also play well off each other. Axel and Prof. Lidenbrock are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Axel is young, untried, and overly cautious but tends towards flights of fancies, while Prof. Lidenbrock is much older, experienced, knowledgeable, and has a temper that shuns patience and sometimes, it seems, sense. By working together, they accomplish much because though Prof. Lidenbrock is a man of high knowledge and facts, it’s Axel’s tendency toward fantasy that help to solve some of the puzzles they encounter. I found it interesting that it’s Prof. Lidenbrock and not Axel who’s more likely to disregard caution and plow ahead on faith alone. Usually the younger character is the headstrong one. Still, when one considers their temperaments, this no longer seems surprising since it’s Prof. Lidenbrock’s excitable nature that pushes him on and fuels his obsession and Axel’s worries that hinder him.
Between the two is thrown Hans, who balances the group and acts as a foil of both personalities. He is a man of duty and hardly says a thing, even as they suffer from thirst or the heat of lava as they are thrown out the bowels of the earth. He takes things in their stride and it seems impossible to rouse him to do anything other than what he intends. He is not talkative as the professor is or easily upset. And though cautious, he doesn’t allow caution to prevent him from his tasks or what he intends. He simply works at his own time and at his own pace.
“Whoever shuts himself up between four walls soon loses the power to bring words and ideas together.”
Journey to the Center of the Earth is a quest narrative so by the end the characters have changed somewhat, except maybe Hans. It seems that as the characters descend into the volcano, certain parts of them are stripped away until all that’s left is who that man truly is. This is seen more keenly in Axel, who is so out of his element that he suffers the most. He suffers the worst from thirst and the chapter where he’s alone and lost in the dark was especially poignant because Axel was brought to the end of himself, of his strength and sanity, before he’s reunited with his uncle and Hans. That, I believe, is the beginning of his transformation.
At the end of the journey, he is a better man, one who’s able to ask his uncle for Grauben’s hand in marriage (go after what he wants). His uncle too has changed though not as much and Hans seem to have remained himself. I’ll also note here that despite his trust in science, when Axel was lost and in despair, it was Providence that calmed him. Does that mean that faith is more a part of our base selves than the evolved mind? By that point, Axel was so far gone that he could barely form a thought much less an idea. All that was left, it seems, was faith.
“Neither you nor anybody else knows with any certainty what’s going on in the interior of this globe, since not the twelve thousandth part of its radius is known.”
As you can see, it’s the characters that pulled me along this quest but the discoveries made are just as interesting. You can’t help wondering just what will be at the center of the earth. Will it be as Axel thinks, lava and molten metal, a highly uncomfortable atmosphere for humans; or will it be as his uncle believes—hollow? The fact that they found a prehistoric world blew my mind. I didn’t know what to expect but it certainly wasn’t that! There’re dinosaurs, extinct trees, and even prehistoric men. I think such a discovery blends nicely fantasy and science. The fantasy is that they seem to have gone back in time to see their prehistoric ancestor and the world as it was before it evolved again. The science is in all they observed on their journey and the measurements and coordinates they recorded. I like how the two are melded together that despite Axel’s doubts, I believe that they found a hollow center with prehistoric foliage and animals and men roaming about.
It’s also interesting that they, well more Prof. Lidenbrock, attached their names to the places they encountered. I use “encountered” here because I wonder if a place already exists with people living there, does it count as a discovery? It’s said that Christopher Columnbus discovered the Americas but he didn’t. People were already living there. He simply found a route to it. Prof. Lidenbrock was copying someone else’s directions so he didn’t discover this underground world, not really, so does that give him the right to impose himself on the place by naming its features after himself, his nephew, and his ward? What’s up with men’s affinity to attach their names things and thus possess them? Why is that a form of accomplishment? Would Graüben have done the same if she was invited on the quest? Anyways, I’ve prattled on long enough.
Great story. The copy I read from was translated by Frederick Amadeus Malleson, and revised with introduction and notes by Ursula K. Heise. As I mentioned before, this translation was easy to read. It’s well-written and they stuck true to the original source (so it’s stated after the introduction). The introduction is also worth the read to get some insight into how the discoveries of Verne’s day informed his story. I also appreciated the background they provided on the author. Apparently, this was the first of Verne’s stories to be first published in book form rather than in a series. But I digress.
I highly recommend this book. The story is great, the characters are entertaining, the dialogue is quick and witty, and the plot is fast-paced. One would think that a book about delving into the earth would be boring with nothing to see but rock and nothing to do but walk and suffer but there’s so much more to discover in this book. There are a few illustrations in the B&N Classic copy I purchased but one of these days when I have enough money to spend on myself, I hope to get a beautiful copy from the Folio Society, if they publish a copy by then.
Well, this review is long enough.
If you’ve read this novel, please share your thoughts on it below. And if you have any sci-fi recommendations, please share them as well.
Happy reading! 🙂
P.S.: The movies suck!
Quotes from the book:
“As a general rule one scholar greets another with coolness.”
“Creation had made obvious progress since the previous day.”
“Science, my boy, is built on errors, but errors which it’s good to commit because they gradually lead to the truth.”
“The point is not to explain facts, but to benefit from them!”
“As long as the heart beats, as long as the flesh pulsates, I can’t admit that any creature endowed with willpower needs to be overwhelmed by despair.”
Other thoughts on the novel
- Jules Verne Explores the Human Sub-Conscious (falconmovies.wordpress.com)
- Steampunk Book Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) (forwhomthegearturns.com)
- Voyage au Centre de la Terre by Jules Verne (and Crossing Something Off My Bucket List) (magsteronni.wordpress.com)