Supposedly, Jules Verne is, in France, considered a “travel and adventure” writer, and is considered one of the great French authors, along with Zola, Hugo, and Dumas. Although I don’t consider him one of the greatest authors I’ve read, I have no doubt that Jules Verne is a great author, and well deserving of his “classic” status. The splendor of his writing may have been lost in translation.
His novels are amazingly inventive creations, a mix of science and fantasy. I am not generally interested in science fiction, but Jules Verne I can read and enjoy. Many name him the father of science fiction, and I definitely can see him as an influence on later writers. In general, I really like Jules Verne’s books because they feel like classics “light.” The stories are simply fun, and the prose is not challenging to read for the most part (although some of his book gets science heavy in parts). As for the science fiction aspects of some of his novels, they truly do make for a fun adventure!
A Journey to the Center of the Earth (originally published 1864 in French) was our book for this month’s book club, and we all enjoyed it, though few of us considered it a favorite classic. It has the additional challenge of having been translated in a few different ways, one of which Anglicized the names of the characters and places, essentially simplifying the adventure for younger readers.1 This made for an interesting discussion since half of us read the book with Professor Hardwigg and Harry (the rewritten version) and the rest of us (myself included) read a more accurate version with Lidenbrock and Axel.
At any rate, A Journey to the Center of the Earth is a fantasy for a geologist. After finding an ancient code in a medieval manuscript, famed geologist Professor Lidenbrock learns that there is a pathway to the center of the earth. This disagrees with contemporary scientists’ hypotheses that the center of the earth is boiling hot2 and instead provides a motive to see the ever-evolving flora and fauna of the underworld, because it is apparently alive with growth. With his godson Axel, a budding student with a lot more hesitation than the Professor, and a sturdy Icelandic guide named Hans, the Professor leads the group down into an extinct Icelandic Volcano, headed down to the center of the earth.
Although the group does see a number of amazing things — from evolutionary animals to prehistoric fauna (like giant mushrooms) — for me the enjoyment was simply in the adventure. Told from Axel’s view, the book provided the reader with enough hesitation and doubt for the reader to wonder how things would work out. The Professor would prove his scientific theories at all costs and Hans was a silent follower of the Professor’s commands. But Axel’s doubts, even in the midst of beautiful and amazing wonders, was human. It was something I could relate to as a reader, and I wondered how the adventure would resolve. How on earth would they get out of there alive?
There is, as I mentioned, lots of unrealistic fantastic elements to the adventure underground. However, the science is apparently mostly accurate: the geological strata they pass through, the evolutionary stages of the animals and bones they encounter, the scientific devices they rely on for their journey under the earth. In addition, the conflicts of self were realistic. Axel’s girlfriend, Grauben, tells him before he goes that he’ll leave a boy and return a man. Although it is a cliche thought and the entire concept of “adventure to find yourself” is also somewhat cliched, in this book it works for me. I can suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the unrealistic under-the-earth adventure. As I do so, I also appreciate the realism within the text. Jules Verne has somehow, through his story, convinced me that this amazing adventure under the world could possibly have taken place because of the well-placed realism.
In the end, I didn’t enjoy A Journey to the Center of the Earth as much as I enjoyed the other two Jules Verne novels I read, but I did enjoy it very much. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this one, as well at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days.
- One of these is, according to Wikipedia, the 1871 English language edition published by Griffith and Farran (named Journey to the Centre of the Earth at Project Gutenberg). It has also been republished by Signet classics. The changes? “It omits some chapters, and rewrites portions of and adds portions to others. … The 1877 translation by Ward, Lock, & Co., Ltd., translated by Frederick Amadeus Malleson, is more faithful, though it too has some slight rewrites (according to the Redactor at its Project Gutenberg page, where its title is translated as Journey to the Interior of the Earth).” ↩
- Obviously, 150 years down the line, we now have little doubt as to the nature of the center of the earth, but reading this book, one must suspend disbelief and pretend the center of the earth is as unknown as Mars or Pluto. ↩