Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Journey to the Center of the Earth

A Journey to the Center of the Earth
© 1864 Jules Verne
291 pages


"Is the Master out of his mind?" she asked me.
I nodded.
"And he's taking you with him?"
I nodded again.
"Where?" she asked.
I pointed towards the center of the Earth.
"Into the cellar?" exclaimed the old servant.
"No," I said. "Further down than that."
p. 47
A forgotten piece of parchment in an ancient book leads an eccentric professor and his longsuffering and ever-perplexed nephew on a journey across the wastes of Iceland and into the bowels of a volcano, where they attempt to find a path to the very center of the Earth.  Young Axel really had no stomach for the adventure of a lifetime his uncle (Professor Otto von Lidenbrock) set them on; he would have much rather stayed home and wooed fair Grauben, whom he expected to marry. As incautious as Axel was, he couldnt't escape his uncle's passion: the man's zeal spurs them ever deeper into the earth where they discover an extraordinary underground sea populated by creatures which have been extinct on the surface for millions of years.

I have dim memories of reading this as a child, and most of them involve the 'lost world' that the Lidenbrocks stumble upon, wonderfully illustrated in the children's version I owned. Having been spoiled on the climax, I paid more attention to the journey. Verne published this in 1864, when geology was in its infancy. Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, which introduced the 19th century to the idea that the Earth is far older than most humans suspected, was only thirty years old at this point -- and the modern understanding of plate tectonics was a century away! As Axel and his uncle creep through the Earth's interior,  Axel's fear and trepediation are often erased by the wonder of what he's seeing buried in the rocks; eons pass with every footfall.  Although the book is badly dated by this point -- Lidenbrock's understanding of the natural world seems to have one foot in mythology, and the theory of 'central heat' which he takes pleasure in refuting  is no longer uncertain --  for Verne's original readers, this book would have an eye-opening voyage into natural history, and an introduction to the study of the Earth. The wonders of the  subterranean world are just icing on the cake.

While I'd expected an intriguing lecture-adventure (and wasn't disappointed), the characterazation of Axel and the professor took me by surprise. I don't recall finding either so entertaining in my youth: Axel in particular has  a tendency to be over dramatic when describing what will happen to them, going on for whole paragraphs in descriptive, scientifically-specific prose. He's a 19th-century C-3PO.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth doesn't rival Around the World in 80 Days or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for entertainment value, but it's still a fairly enjoyable look at what geology was like in its early days.

3 comments:

  1. Verne is definitely on my 'Must Read' list... once I finish off Jane Austen.

    So far I've only read Around the World in 80 days which I found very readable (much to my surprise).

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  2. "Around the World" remains my favorite Verne, as well. This was such an odd read...on the one hand, the professor is dividing the world into vast geological periods and talking excitedly about fossils, but then again he keeps referring to the biblical Flood and describes a man's ethnicity by mentioning one of Noah's three sons. (The "Japhethic race" would be Europeans..)

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  3. I read "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" last year, and absolutely loved it. I definitely want to read more Verne, especially seeing as the ebook versions are free.

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