Jules Verne: Journey to the Center of the Earth
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH
Verne, Jules. Journey to the Center of the Earth. 1864. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Here online is a good English translation of Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The somewhat cheesy 1871 English translation in which Liedenbrock and Axel are called Von Hartwigg and Harry is also available. But for many decades of English readers, this was their text: Journey to the Center of the Earth.
A summary and some commentary on the 1959 film appears in my dinosaur film site: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959).
A fairly crappy 1978 film version is not really worth much consideration, but:Where Time Began (1978).
The 1999 film is entertaining enough with its lizard people, but it’s not Verne: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1999).
A comic book version exists from 1957, and a Saturday morning cartoon series aired on ABC from 1967 to 1969.
Topics for Writing:
- The popular image or stereotype of the eccentric scientist, represented by Professor Otto Liedenbrock (or von Hardwigg, or Oliver Lindenbrook in the 1959 film).
- All this business about heresy and having to “suffer” for science.
- The usefulness of Axel (or Harry) as narrator.
- The self-conscious decision to go into the epistolary mode for part of the adventure.
- The earth itself as a kind of character or organism. For you scientists or mythologists, does Verne subscribe to the Gaea principle?
- The use of geology in characterization (e.g., Liedenbrock/Hardwigg as “volcanic,” Axel/Harry as an “inert mass,” the notion of them all as “living fossils,” etc.).
- The mythological dimension of the novel and its significance, either Classical (Orphic) or Christian (Dantean) underworld mythology.
- Verne’s geological science and Christian orthodoxy. For example, does he subscribe to the “argument from design”?
- Does Verne favor catastrophism or gradualism?
- In terms of evolutionary science, does Verne blur change with progress?
- The western cultural obsession with naming landmarks, including the graffiti.
- Trace the anthropocentric attitude in the novel.
- The significance of the “waking dream” that Axel/Harry has.
- The maturation of Axel as a character, from reluctant initiate through some kind of transformation. (Why is travel necessary?)
The Science Fiction Premise:
The novel works well as a so-called scientific romance, “a poetic elaboration of the prosaic facts of scientific geology” (Costello 81). This is the start of science fiction proper, and Verne offers a “romantic” adventure whose bedrock, as it were, is hard science taken seriously, indeed revelled in.
The “scientific” idea of the earth being hollow (evolving partly from the mythology of the “underworld,” which in turn evolved into Hell) was in circulation since Edmund Halley in the late 17th century and still is the subject of speculation. (Edgar Rice Burroughs also wrote an inner-earth series of books.) Here are various “Hollow Earth” web sites — some explanatory and skeptical, others rather loony.
“About.com” — index of sites and sources concerning “Hollow Earth” theory:
“The UnMuseum — The Hollow Earth” — excellent write-up of Halley through Verne and beyond:
“Zero Point Subrise: The Hollow Earth” — brief historical summary of Halley, Symmes, … Nazis:
“SpiritWeb: The Hollow Earth” — elaborate New Age site starting with Byrd but about an inner society:
World Top Secret: Our Earth Is Hollow! — book for sale by man from Tempe, AZ:
Verne creates a German eccentric who is compulsive, driven, fanatical, quirky, and who scoffs at popular theories. He has trouble with long words (2), whatever that’s supposed to signify. He is drawn to the arcane, as exemplified by his purchase of the Snorri Sturluson book (6-7). He is inconsiderate to inferiors, even tyrannical. Liedenbrock seems egotistical, but his conceitedness is actually a sort of scientifically-inflected selflessness.
If the English pun is operating, then Axel/Harry is the post around which all else rotates. Some consider him as not much more as a narrative tool, and as such he is sufficiently trustworthy and a representative of common sense. But he’s a pushover, intelligent but weak and immature. He is supposed to be amusing, and if that works for you then he functions as a romantic likable figure, if a bit stuffy. Those who are irked by him think of him as a whiney brat, caring for nothing but food (9, 24, 28), comfort, his girlfriend, and in that order too.
For more useful analysis, keep track of indications that Axel/Harry at first knows of nothing greater than the self, hence his self-indulgent inclinations. But he actually lacks a sense of self. He is hollow and unstable, not grounded or centered. He’s not even in control of his own mind (20/19).
Stolid, stoic, practical, and minimal. In the book he’s an eider-gatherer; in the 1959 film a duck fetishist.
There are no significant female characters in the book. Verne does take a moment to establish Grauben/Gretchen, though considered a “possession” of the Professor’s, as a “first-rate” mineralogist (15) but does not follow through with this. Instead, she remains on the earth’s surface, and automatically this places her among the superficial surface-dwellers. That she is not a man automatically precludes her from participation in the journey (29).
Popular Science Background:
The pop science context in which Verne wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth included notions of a hollow earth (see above) consisting of inner spheres nested within each other and open at the poles, ideas proposed by Edmund Halley originally (1692) and then closer to Verne’s own time by the American John Cleves Symmes of the U.S. Infantry, one of whose “admirers” in Congress revved up support for an expedition to the South Pole in 1838 (Costello 82). (E.g., 157. Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, also explores these ideas in fiction.) Additionally, “Verne met and interviewed Charles Sainte-Claire Deville, a geographer who had explored the volcanoes of Teneriffe and Stromboli” (Lynch 36), the latter of these, in Sicily, where the fictional adventurers emerge at the end of their expedition.
Verne was also influenced by a travel account of Iceland written in 1857 by Charles Edmond; thus Lidenbrock and Axel visit actual Icelandic people and scholars. “This gave rise to a legend that Verne had corresponded with Friderickson: this was not so, he had merely done his research well. Some of the names are slightly deformed, not to disguise them, but simply because Verne was often unable to read his own notes” (Costello 83).
Verne was writing this work at the same time that Darwin’s Origin of Species was being published in French translation. Instead of evolution, the primary debate of the day involved the antiquity of the world; the geological record vs. a literalist interpretation of Hebrew Scripture. James Hutton (1726-1797), known as the father of modern geology, was a Scottish naturalist who studied sedimentary rocks and erosion and proposed a much greater span of geologic time than a biblical orthodoxy allowed (many millions of years vs. the mere six thousand). But also, “Hutton was a theist who believed in a creator God, and he believed that the complexity and order in nature reflected the goodness of an all-powerful creator. This theological idea, called the argument from design, dominated a great deal of English intellectual life until the beginning of the twentieth century” (Peters 55), and is back now as “Intelligent Design.” The “argument from design” is registered frequently in the awe the characters experience and express in the novel. A “perfect order” is referred to, and characters do pray when they find themselves in dire straits. The fact that the earth always provides, at least to those of either intelligent scientific bent or honest basic instincts, may also suggest an ideal order. Under the earth, Axel/Harry notes, “nature has proceeded geometrically and worked in the human manner, as if she had compasses, squares, and plumb lines” (78). Basalt columns look “like fragments of an ancient temple” (79), and Axel remarks on the Gothic and Romanesque architecture of caverns. “The great architect of the universe” is even mentioned (165).
Geological interests bring about paleontological ones.
Because some highly detailed figured stones resembled no known organisms, the French scientist Georges Cuvier (1769-1838) proposed the idea of the extinction of species. He thought that there had been quiet periods in geologic history when different animals and plants flourished and that these periods ended in mass extinctions triggered by violent geologic changes. (Peters 40)
So began “catastrophism” — the insistence that “earth had been shaped by violent forces that operated only intermittently” (Peters 62). One still finds a predilection in science towards this level of drama, as opposed to “gradualism.” Verne straddles this issue too, it seems. One can find gradualist material, implicit in the mention of slow coal formation from massive amounts of foliage (114). Nevertheless, most the adventures of the book are catastrophic, perhaps required by the fictional nature. Axel is constantly worried about volcanic activity (e.g., 81), and catastrophes are supposed to have caused the fall of portions of the earth’s crust into the subterranean levels (161) so that battling monsters are here. Geysers, volcanoes, and mass extinctions all seem part of the excitement.
The twelve-foot anthropoid that Liedenbrock and Axel see overlooking a mastadon herd is perhaps a combination of latest anthropological discover and biblical gigantism. When Liedenbrock lectures on Quaternary man (202ff), “he refers to Boucher de Perthes, who in March 1863 had in fact discovered a human jaw at Moulin-Quignon, near Abbeville (northern France), which proved the existence of Quaternary men. Verne waited until the discovery was confirmed before including it in his 1864 novel” (Lynch 37), actually the new illustrated edition of 1867 (Costello 83). The latest discoveries suggested that man was over 100,000 years old, although we now have evidence of man being over three million years old. Neither the progressivism (now unfashionable) nor the anthropocentrism implicit in the book is especially irksome; probably the worst it gets is the adventurers’ tendency to name everything they see after themselves (e.g., 127, 156, 168, 186, 196, 215).
In addition to the geological vocabulary in which Verne seems to take delight in through Axel the same way that Chaucer animates the language of alchemy in The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, we also get the mathematics of cryptography (22f), a bit of Icelandic alphabetic history (12), a blurb on active volcanoes (31), subterranean thermal speculations (32f), Iceland travelogue material (85), and a few Icelandic words.
The novel begins with factoids (time, place, etc.) and we will continue to have to digest the vocabulary of geology, albeit presented in a reader-friendy manner. One way science is given literary significance is through the use of mythology. There is precedence for the blend of geology and mythology. The early widespread view that posited a sedimentary origin for fossil rocks
encouraged the growth of Neptunism, or the assumption that virtually all rocks formed in the ocean…. To make Neptunism square better with the Christian tradition, early geologists often assumed that most sedimentary rocks had formed during the worldwide flood of Noah’s day, on what is now land. (Peters 47)
When the volcanic nature of basalt became clear,
it seemed that there must indeed exist subterranean masses of molten material. That this assumption fit with the Christian notion of a hell located somewhere “downward” no doubt helped some geologists of the day accept the igneous view of basalts and granites. (Peters 53)
Additionally, the Hadean eon was named for Hades, the mythological Greek god of the underworld (4.6 billion to about 4 billion years ago).
Beyond the sprinkling of allusions to the materials of classical myth — the mentions of Virgil (14, 66) and his entrance to the underworld (103), the Oedipus riddle in conjunction with the Saknussemm cryptogram (18), centaurs (68), the colossus of Rhodes (71), Pluto, god of the underworld (92), the subterranean stream as a nymph (129-130), Theseus’ labyrinth (140), Ajax (199), etc. — science seems not only to incorporate these but to supersede mythology entirely.
Even more creative is Verne’s ability to personify geography (e.g., 84) and “geography” (to coin a verb) persons (e.g., 131).
Humans existed for millennia without science. During this time the world was generally regarded as the stage for supernatural forces. Myths and religious ideas explained the natural world…. Another ancient approach to thinking about the world was to assume that physical objects had many of the same characteristics as persons. (Peters 20)
Thus the stomach becomes a chasm (56), exhilaration “overflows” like lava (59), we learn that “geysir” means “fury” (185); the volcano allows the adventurers to catch their breath “when it stops to catch its own” (235). Lidenbrock’s explosive temper and “volcanic imagination” (23) threaten his spontaneously combusting. He has a “will harder than granite” (200). Axel “float[s]” (36), or functions like an “inert mass” 116); his psyche is unstable, as shown in his dreams (40f, 82). His fear of heights (46) is noted when at the top of a steeple all else seems stable, but he perceives himself as hurtling (47) [vs. the solid Lidenbrock’s being given to seasickness (50)]. Axel says his center of gravity shifted underground (95), that eventually he underwent a change towards serious-mindedness (138). A mythic journey to the underworld should indeed be read as an initiation (Thornton). Axel, as Grauben seems to understand, needs to take this trip to become a man (39).
Axel’s daydream (172f) is the one passage in the book that receives literary praise: “This lyric insert is exceptional in the works of Jules Verne. It is a moment when the narrative is suspended, when forward progress is interrupted” (Lynch 37). “Verne also reverses the motion of the camera of history by taking Axel’s vision from the nearest to the remotest past, without the usual Vernean trappings of instruments, machines, and maps” (Lynch 38).
The book is easy, fun, light, and enjoyable, focusing on pop science that captures the imagination. The pre-voyage material isn’t as slow as many similar adventure books, but some readers object to the geological name-dropping and the fact that we’re getting more or less the bric-a-brac of geology and not really an exploration of scientific modes of thought. Various peculiarities such as the anticlimactic final business about the compass qualify the success of the narrative ultimately, but heck, it’s a new genre.
Costello, Peter. Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction. London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1978.
Lynch, Lawrence. Jules Verne. NY: Twayne Pub., 1992. PQ 2469 Z5 L96
Peters, E.K. No Stone Unturned: Reasoning About Rocks and Fossils. NY: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1996.
Thornton, Lawrence. Introduction. Journey to the Center of the Earth. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. v-xvii.
Verne, Jules. A Journey to the Center of the Earth. The 1871 translation.NY: Signet Classics, 2003.
—. Journey to the Center of the Earth. 1864. Trans. Lowell Bair. NY: Bantam Books, 1991.