BOOK REVIEW – JULES VERNE – JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH. 1864 Airmont Press 1965 edition.
Exciting, eccentric and at times preposterous, but never boring novel by the grandfather of science fiction.
Verne could write better novels, as Around The World In Eighty Days and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under The Sea prove. Journey is far less credible escapism. It begins when a cantankerous, stubborn Germany based professor, Lidenbrock, and his nephew, Axel, the narrator, find a coded message in an old book, suggesting that a 17th century alchemist and adventurer had found a route to the Earth’s Core beginning in an extinct Icelandic volcano. With virtually no preparation, the professor and more reluctant nephew set off to follow the same route.
The early part of the book, in which they travel to and around Iceland, is fascinating and quite realistically detailed. Verne gives a touching description of the leper colonies on the island. It seems astonishing that Verne wrote so much about travel when he never left France all his life.
As Axel has vertigo and no climbing experience the Professor makes him climb the steps of a high church steeple every day while the Professor finds a guide to lead them to the volcano. He hires an eider-duck hunter called Hans, without telling him the real nature of the expedition, though Hans stays loyal throughout the expedition, as long as he is paid every Sunday – absurdly he will even collect his wages during the time he is deep underground.
A trick of the light reveals the crater leading to the inner Earth, and the trio, after an initial short descent into an abyss by rope, into a surprisingly un-hot inner region, practically walk the whole first half of the journey. There is no potholing or caving involved.
They have taken very little water, assuming they would find plenty seeping through the rock walls – they almost die of thirst before Hans pickaxes his way through the rock to tap into an underground river.
Axel gets lost and panics in his claustrophobia in one of the scariest scenes, but his cries for help echo down whispering galleries enabling the other two men to find him. Axel discovers that in his absence they have already found a vast underground ocean and a forest of trees and tree-sized mushrooms. Hans builds a wooden raft, and after seeing live dinosaur reptiles and fish, they are struck by lightning in a fantastic unsurvivable storm before landing back where they started. They now also see an apelike caveman staring at them – he is twelve feet tall - they run away and find a cave marked as the route taken by the 17th century explorer they have been following in the footsteps of.
Unfortunately, the route is blocked by a rock fall so the trio use explosives on it – the blast works too well, and the sea bursts in to the chasm created, sweeping the three adventurers in and right through to a volcanic chimney where they see the walls melting and they notice their water boiling away to steam, but the lava doesn’t fry the men or burn their flimsy wooden raft at all - Nor are they killed by the rapid acceleration that spews them up to the surface through the crater of the erupting volcano Mount Stromboli in Sicily. That they survive this at all is blatantly ridiculous.
Strangely, Verne has them fail by 5,000 miles to get to the Earth’s Core itself – a fun read but a totally daft one at the same time. – The book helped to inspire many silly hollow earth theories after its publication, though some such theories may have inspired Verne too.
My copy of the book has a cover depicting five travellrs wearing fire protection suits in a tug boat on a sea of lava – Verne has no such scene in the book at all.
© Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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