Journey to the Center of the Earth

By Jules Verne

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

One of the oldest themes in storytelling deals with a trip to the
underworld—a plot of such universal appeal that it has even been
given a name:
katabasis literature, from the Greek word
signifying descent.  Readers are most familiar with the classic
European examples—Odysseus, Orpheus,
Aeneas, the
Inferno of Dante.  But the
subject can be found universally.  In my
book on
Healing Songs, I describe how
dozens of versions of the Orpheus myth
have been documented among Native
American tribes.  Similar accounts can
be found in Australia, Asia, Siberia—
indeed, virtually everywhere and any-
where stories have been told.  

Give credit to Jules Verne for taking this
ancient plot and finding a completely new
basis for it—namely the
scientific journey
into the underworld.   Some things stay the same here:  the
dangers of the trip, the tests and adventures along the way, and
the risk of never returning.   But a whole new positivist
atmosphere is present, for the first time, in Verne’s narrative.  In
his
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), the protagonists
are not suppliants or in thrall to the powers of the depths, but aim
to comprehend and categorize, to cast light on the darkness
within—in short, to stake out the previously unknown regions and
bring them into conceptual frameworks of the terrestrial world
above.  

Verne was still a fledgling author when he tackled this subject.  He
had published his first adventure novel the previous year,
Five
Weeks in a Balloon
, a work that received favorable reviews, but
did not sell enough to allow Verne to quite his day job.  That novel
had been initially rejected by a number of publishers who had
found it “too scientific,” yet it was not a true science fiction work
by any measure.  Even Verne later admitted that his primary
concern was not the technology:  “I wrote
Five Weeks in a
Balloon
, not as a story about ballooning, but as a story about
Africa.  I was always greatly interested in geography and travel.”  
He followed this up with another travel novel,
The Adventures of
Captain Hatteras
, which deals with an arctic expedition.  Then
Verne, trying to top these exciting travelogues, concocts the idea
of trip to a place where
no one has gone before.   Travel literature
now morphs into
conceptual fiction.  

Professor Otto Lidenbrock, a Hamburg geologist has found an old
manuscript in runic script with a coded message hidden in its
pages.  By deciphering its text, he learns of an access point to the
interior of the planet in a volcanic crater in Iceland.  Dragging his
reluctant nephew Axel along, and picking up a taciturn guide on
the way, our Professor embarks on a journey to the center of the
earth.  

Verne was forced to adopt a science fiction approach here, but
the science is dicey at best.  A real journey to the center of the
earth would result in a quick death for the travelers.   The
temperature at the core is estimated to be 7,000 degrees
Fahrenheit, a little bit cooler than the surface temperate of the
Sun (9,000 degrees Fahrenheit), but still requiring a strongly-
worded travel advisory warning.    Most experts in Verne’s days
would have asserted the impossibility of his story’s premise, and
though the novelist tries to dance around this issue, he never
really offers a credible explanation.  “I believe and will always
believe in core heat,” his narrator remarks in the final pages of the
book;  “but I admit that certain as yet ill-defined circumstances
can modify this law under the impact of natural phenomena.”  

But Verne’s genius lay in precisely this—forcing his story beyond
the limitations of conventional realism, and embracing the
imaginative possibilities of story-telling.   In the course of this
novel, he brings prehistoric creatures back to life, invents
underground oceans and summons up strange sources of
atmospheric light in the dark recesses of the earth.  He even hints,
in a passage later added to the book, at the existence of huge
human-type creatures living below ground.  The result is a
different breed of adventure story, one premised on the
ideologies of a technological age, but not restricted by its
limitations.

Now don’t assume that Verne completely discards the science
here   In truth, he shows his devotion to it most clearly in the
tangents and discursions of his novel.  Some of these stray far
from the story at hand.  Our author takes time to discuss the
source of eider down (“In the first days of summer, the female, a
kind of pretty duck…”), the nature of geological formations (“It is
known that basalt is a brownish rock of igneous origin…”), the
construction of early experiments in electric lighting (“A
Ruhmkorff device consists of a Bunsen battery operated by
means of potassium dichromate…”), and a host of other matters
with no direct bearing on the unfolding adventure.   But Verne’s
audience saw him as more than a storyteller.   He also delighted
them as a bold speculative thinker and close observer of the
natural world, and this attitude figures on almost every page of
Journey to the Center of the Earth.  

Verne established the formula for his greatest successes here.  
From this point on, his most successful books will retain his early
interest in travel literature, but never allow a slavish devotion to
realism to cramp his style.  A patina of science is usually
apparent, but when forced to make a choice between plausible
narratives and imaginatively charged scenarios, he wisely opts for
the latter.  This recipe proved to have staying power, not just for
Verne himself, but for the world of fiction in general.  In
combining the fanciful perspective of the fabulist with the
curiosity of the technologist and experimental researcher, he
created nothing short of a new tone for the novel, one that still
resonates with readers and inspires other authors more than a
century after his death.
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