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Book Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth

Book Name: Journey to the Center of the Earth
Author: Jules Verne
First Published: 1864

Jules Verne was a 19th century French novelist and poet and is often referred to as the “Father of Science Fiction”. He was born in 1828 in Nantes, France. He trained to be an attorney like his father before him, but Verne was more interested in becoming a writer. Once he graduated from his law studies in Paris, he embarked on a journey of writing several very unsuccessful plays. One day, he met editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel and allowed the editor to help him overcome his natural tendency to dive deep into the scientific and to focus more on the people of his stories. The combination of the two men was like dynamite and many classic science fiction and adventure stories were born from the result. Titles such as The Mysterious Island, Five Weeks in a Ballon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon were a direct result of their collaboration. Verne penned more than 70 novels in his lifetime and is the second most-translated author in the world, succeeded only by Agatha Christie.

“I seriously believed that my last hour was approaching, and yet, so strange is imagination, all I thought of was some childish hypothesis or other. In such circumstances, you do not choose your own thoughts. They overcome you.” – Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth starts in the year 1863 in the home of Professor Lidenbrock. Bear in mind, this makes this a contemporary science fiction tale of its day and not a historical one since the book published in the following year. The good professor has purchased an original runic manuscript written an Icelandic King. It contains a coded note written in runic script. His nephew Axel assists him in translating the message into Latin, but keeps the translation away from his uncle due to the fear of what his uncle might do with the information, but after two days he breaks his silence. The ancient note written by the Icelandic alchemist Arne Saknussemm claims to have discovered a passage to the center of the Earth via a cave in Iceland.

Being of adventurous spirit, Professor Lidenbrock wishes to repeat the journey of this ancient Icelander and leaves for Iceland forthwith. Axel joins him against his better judgment and complains the entire way, explaining his fears of descending into a volcano and trying to come up with reasonable theories why the journey should not take place. His uncle refuses to listen and the pair travel to Reykjavik, Iceland. There they hire a guide, one Hans Bjelke, and the three continue overland to the base of the great volcano.

There are three craters in the volcano. According to Saknussemm’s note, the passage to the center of the Earth is through the crater that feels the shadow of a nearby mountain peak at noon in the last days of June. Axel rejoices when the weather remains cloudy and no shadow can be detected. If the bad weather continues, their party can turn around and return home. However, on the second to last day the sun comes out and the shadow falls into the correct crater. Lidenbrock leads the way with Hans and Axel in tow, into the depths of the Earth.

The three adventurers have a series of mis-adventures, usually it is Axel who suffers the most. When they take a wrong turn and run out of water, Axel almost dies. He also wanders off and gets lost from the trio, only to be found due to an acoustic phenomenon that allows him to speak with his uncle from miles away. As the trio continue to descend, they discover a vast cavern with electrically charged gas at the ceiling and filled by a subterranean ocean. It is surrounded by a rocky coastline of petrified trees and giant mushrooms. The professor names the ocean after himself, as any Victorian explorer commonly did during these times. The men build a raft from the petrified trees and set out over “Lidenbrock Sea”. The water has ancient Ichtyosaurus and Plesiosurus and part of the coastline is full of living prehistoric animals and insects.

A lightning storm threatens their passage on the sea and shipwrecks the trio back onto the coast. There, Axel discovers an over-sized human skull. Later, Professor Lidenbrock claims to have seen a 12 foot tall human watching a herd of Mastodons. Axel and Lidenbrock have a lively argument about the human, not knowing if this was a true man or an man-like ape. The three decide it is better to stay away for their own safety and continue to follow the trail left by Saknussemm.

The trail ends at a rock-slide. Unable to dig through the granite, they use gun cotton to blast the passage in the hope that they can find their way to the center of the Earth. When the blast occurs, little do the adventurers realize that a vast bottomless pit is all that is behind the rockslide. The sea rushes in to fill the new gap and the trio is swept away at breakneck speed inside the volcanic chimney of water and magma. You’ll have to finish the book to find out the fate of our trio of intrepid explorers.

Journey to the Center of the Earth Book CoverThis classic Jules Verne novel sometimes gets a bad rap. Some find it tedious or long-winded due to Verne’s hard science approach and the fact that the science is based on centuries old ideas that are extremely out of date and no longer considered true. The Victorian ideas come across as sexist and imperialistic to modern sensibilities. Yet, this science fiction novel was ahead of its time and in many ways is as impressive today as it was when it was written. Verne has a timeless style to his writing that gains him fans even today.

Some care needs to be taken when finding a copy of the book to read. Remember, this book was originally written in French. All the English versions are translations and unfortunately some are better than others. In the 1960s certain translators took liberties with the story, changing it in subtle ways. The story is basically the same, but many details have been changed. You can if you got one of the lesser translations by the names of the characters. Axel becomes Harry. Professor Lindenbrock becomes Professor Von Hardwigg. Curiously, Hans remains Hans in all editions! However, do not fear, either as Axel or Harry, he still is in need of smelling salts to aid his fainting and hysteria.