The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Journey to the Center of the Earth (original: Voyage au centre de la terre) was written by Jules Verne. The French Verne (1828-1905) is, with H.G. Wells, the man responsible for modern science fiction. In some ways his work was surprisingly accurate in its predictions, and his prose can still be read with pleasure.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is about Professor Otto Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel and their journey beneath the surface of the Earth. Lidenbrock is paging through a centuries-old manuscript of “the Heims Kringla of Snorro Turleson [sic]” when a piece of paper slips out of the book. The paper has coded runic writing on it, and after some days’ work Axel and the Professor succeed in decoding it. The information on the paper leads Axel and the Professor to conclude that Arne Saknussem, a sixteenth century Icelandic alchemist, made a trip to “the centre of the Earth.” Lidenbrock, fascinated, immediately vows to follow Saknussem’s footsteps. So he and Axel pack their bags, Axel most unwillingly, and leave for Iceland. Once there they hire Hans, a native guide, and make their way to the extinct volcano Sneffels, which is where Saknussem found an entrance into the Earth’s innards. They follow Saknussem’s footsteps and embark on a long trek through the Earth. They travel through and down hundreds of miles of tunnels large and small, across caverns toothy with stalactites and stalagmites, and eventually on to the “Lidenbrock Sea,” a vast underground ocean at least as big as the Mediterranean. The Sea is inhabited by dozens of extinct species of fish, including an icthyosaurus and a plesiosaurus, who fight each other in front of Axel, Lidenbrock, and Hans. The trio do not make it all the way across the Sea, however, for an enormous storm blows them back the way they come. Eventually they return to the surface of the Earth via a ride up an exploding volcano.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is a fast-moving, entertaining novel, and while it does not stand in the first rank of imaginative novels it is a perfect companion for a gray, dreary afternoon. As he did in Around The World In Eighty Days, Verne grounds his story in a mass of realistic detail, so that the small matters, from the trip to Iceland to the trio’s survival underground, are believable to the reader. This verisimilitude allows the reader to swallow the more improbable aspects of the book, including the earth’s core not being molten lava and the subterranean presence of various species of dinosaurs and a twelve-feet-tall, mastodon-herding humanoid. Verne is not particularly concerned with the interior life of his characters, although the characterization of Lidenbrock and Axel are certainly adequate for his purposes.
When Verne wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth–it was only his third novel–he had only begun to articulate in fiction the two dominant themes of his work, what Tim Farrant calls “the twin threads of fancy and practicality....two currents in Verne’s production–optimism, technology, the forward-looking on the one hand, and on the other a recurrent undertow of apprehension about mankind’s ability to handle its own inventions.”1 Verne had already written Five Weeks in a Balloon (original: Cinq semaines en balloon, 1863) and Paris in the Twentieth Century (original: Paris au XXe Siècle, written 1860-1863, published 1994), but had only just begun his voyages extraordinaires, and was still writing under the influences of Edgar Allan Poe, whose proto-science fiction would be an obvious lifelong influence on and inspiration for Verne, and of E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose work was in vogue in France in the early 1860s.
So the influence of both Poe and Hoffmann can be seen in Journey to the Center of the Earth: Poe, in the sheer science fictionness of it (although Verne, in 1864, wrote that he was more taken with the "eminently human, though endowed with an overexcited, supra-nervous sensibility"2 aspects of Poe’s characters than the technology of Poe’s stories) and its claustrophobic journey, and Hoffmann, in the character of Lidenbrock, the “mad scientist [as] a stuttering...imperious egomaniac.”3 Combining with these is Verne’s own trademark
frisson...a sense of moral clarity and even compassion...the safety of numbers...and a sense of coming very close to but never toppling over the edge of the known...Verne's engaging wonderment at the world's marvels in tales of this sort goes far to explain the success he was beginning, almost immediately, to achieve; and was conveyed with a childlike exuberance and clarity that gave evolving sf tropes and topoi like the fabulous Underground caves of this tale, an intensely memorable shape. His tripartite division of protagonists (one a Scientist, one an intensely active, athletic type, the third a more or less ordinary man representative of the reader's point of view) sorted out didactic duties and narrative pleasures remarkably well.4
Modern readers will find Journey to the Center of the Earth agreeable reading, if comparatively lightweight compared to the gloomier works of Verne’s later oeuvre.
Print: Jules Verne, Three Novels: Journey to the Center of the Earth / Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea / Round the World in Eighty Days, transl. Henry Frith. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2013.
1 Tim Farrant, “Introduction,” in Jules Verne, Three Novels: Journey to the Center of the Earth / Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea / Round the World in Eighty Days, transl. Henry Frith (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2013), xi-xii.
2 Farrant, “Introduction,” xii.
3 Farrant, “Introduction,” xiii.
4 John Clute, “Verne, Jules,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, accessed Jan. 28, 2019, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/verne_jules