Monday, June 10, 2013

Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jokull of Snaefell
Which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the Kalends of July
And you will attain the centre of the earth.
 I did it. Arne Saknussemm

I've been harsh on Verne before. Like, really harsh. For years I typified him as the antithesis of Wells: stuffy and scientific where Wells was fun and lyrical. Well, I'm here now to take it all back. Journey to the Centre of the Earth is one of the greatest adventure novels ever written.

And actually, I have no idea why it hasn't always sat in my head as a classic, as I was fascinated by the illustrated Ladybird version as a child. The images in this book were in a really weird style, but they've stuck with me for years. Despite not having read the book since the Jurassic, I still remembered vividly the mysterious message of Arne Saknussem, the Liedenbrock Sea, the plesiosaur vs icthyosaur battle, and the lonely caveman.
Here it is. Weird, eh?

More recently, I picked up a Wordsworth edition for just a few pounds in a favourite late-opening Charing Cross bookshop during an otherwise bleary-eyed night in central London. What strikes me, reading the book again, is the sense of awe and wonder it evokes. I've felt nothing like it since reading The Lost World years ago; it's enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. As usual with Verne, there's tonnes of infodumping, though on this occasion the inclusion of barrel-loads of barmy 19th-century geology and zoology is handled far more entertainingly than in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

I don't suppose I have to tell you anything about the plot, but here goes anyway: the eccentric German Professor Liedenbrock finds a book containing a note in code written by the historical Icelandic explorer Arne Saknussem. The note includes a description of how to get to the centre of the Earth by traveling through the Sneffels volcano in Iceland. This opening, of course, set the template for a thousand lesser adventures and thrillers ever since, but the original is still thrilling. Imagine...every single lame movie you've ever seen that opens with the hackneyed 'coded map to adventure' trope... this is where it all started (with apologies to Mr. Poe!).

After decoding the message, Liedenbrock immediately packs and departs for Iceland, despite the whines of his nephew Axel. Along the way, they pick up a 'stoic' Icelandic guide named Hans. Now in terms of characterisation, Verne does a little better here than he did in Leagues. Liedenbrock is one of your classic 'eccentric scientist' characters, though of course without the sinister edge of satire that Wells gave to the likes of Professor Cavor. Verne's work remains nigh-on free from satire of any kind, and though this bothered me previously, I find his gee-whiz optimism rather refreshing now. Liedenbrock is genuinely likeable; positive, knowledgeable and exciting where Axel is dour and cowardly. Axel's character arc from yellow-belly to adventurer is also enjoyable in its own simple way. Hans, however... I don't know what Verne was thinking with Hans. You've only got three characters in your book, Mr. Verne, and you chose to make one of them mute? At least we can be thankful he's a mute Icelandic guide and not an African one. Sometimes its blessings for small mercies with 19th-century fiction (Frycollin from Robur the Conqueror, anyone?). A running joke involves Hans silently demanding his payment at exactly the prescribed time each week, regardless of their circumstances. Ha.

Anyway, these three travel to the Sneffels volcano, which they find has got three 'chimneys' leading into it. They have to get there by a certain date (no I'm not fact-checking what date it was) so that the shadow of the cone will touch one of the entrances, letting them know which leads to the centre of the earth. It's a great touch, and Verne wrings out the tension by having the sky remain clouded until the last possible minute.
Remind you of anything?
I really love the use of a natural phenomenon (in this case, the movement of the sun) as a necessary part of finding the trail. It's been used hundreds of times since, most famously in Raiders of the Lost Arc of course, but this must be one of its earliest uses in fiction. It gives the impression that Saknussem must have been a very clever man indeed.

Our heroic trio descend into the chimney, and make their way through the world beneath the surface of the earth, using a delightful array of 19-century devices to light their way and provide directions. Liedenbrock keeps tabs on where they are with regards to the surface world; ie which country they're currently beneath. There's a truly horrific scene where Axel gets separated and lost for several days in the pitch-black tunnels. This scene always affected me; I'm not particularly claustrophobic, but it's difficult to think of a more awful place to be lost and alone in. Despite this, Axel becomes more and more excited about the prospect of the discoveries they're sure to make. The excitement is palpable; the feeling that they're doing something no-one has ever done before (except Saknussem, of course) is ome f the main attractions of the book.

Eventually they come to the great central idea of the novel: a cavern so vast that its walls and ceiling cannot be seen. This blew my mind as a kid and it's still an amazing idea. They emerge on a beach, a vast sea stretching out before them. Above their heads, clouds have formed, and some strange electrical phenomenon provides light, though it shines from no particular direction, and thus casts no shadows. They have come to the Liedenbrock Sea.
This is an amazing scene. I don't have any smart-ass remarks to make about it.
This scene is truly one of the great feats of imagination of 19th-century literature. As the explorers traverse the beach, they come upon that mainstay of bizarre alternate worlds: the giant mushroom. I don't know why, but ever since, the presence of giant mushrooms has been used by storytellers to indicate that characters have arrived somewhere weird and alien. They then build a raft to cross the sea, encountering the very first fictional prehistoric animals in all of literature in another of Journey's famous scenes.

The idea of prehistoric animals hadn't been around for very long when Verne wrote Journey. Prior to the 1820s and the discoveries of Mary Anning, the biblical account of the Earth's history was largely accepted without question, and fossils were explained away as being the remains of animals that had failed to make it to the arc. The idea that God would have created creatures only to doom them to extinction made no sense. The Earth, of course, was thought to be no more than several thousand years old. These ideas were still changing, and still contentious, when Verne chose to pit an icthyosaur against a plesiosaur in the Liedenbrock Sea. Probably afraid to offend sensitive readers (no doubt on the advice of his canny publisher, Hetzel), Verne talks about geological ages and the appearance and extinction of different species without making any specific mention to evolution. Clever man. Hetzel certainly knew his audience, and this wouldn't be the first time he made 'political' changes to Verne's work: in the Captain Nemo books, Nemo's was originally to be a Polish nobleman revenging himself upon the Russians. Hetzel removed this background because of France's alliance with Russia.

Our trio cannot at first distinguish exactly what kind of animals are fighting in the water. There seem to be many. They then realise that there are just two, though they are massive and seem to be made up of the parts of different animals. It's a great idea - without this scene, there might have been no Jurassic Park - but it's not my favourite scene in the book.

When they get to the other side of the sea, Liedenbrock finds a boneyard full of the remains of thousands of creatures, including an anatomically modern human. They seem to be on the verge of even greater discoveries; but from here on out, Verne exercises incredible restraint, giving us only tantilising hints of the wonders that this inner world has to offer. Having created a world which would appear to be abundant in prehistoric creatures, he has his characters now skirt around the very edge of it. Instead of filling the narrative with chases and danger, or encounters with dinosaurs, Verne settles for a single clash between prehistoric beasts and merely hints at the rest. Bones, fossils and one human corpse alone hint at the living relics that populate his inner earth. These fragments are as close as the characters come for the most part, leaving Verne's world with a tremendous sense of mystery still intact. Their vision from a distance of a lonely caveman tending to a group of mastadon is perhaps the ultimate act of restraint. If only Burroughs had such subtlety! From there, Liedenbrock and co make their way back to the surface (without technically having reached the centre of the Earth) via the most ludicrous invention in the book: their raft is propelled up through a volcano shaft by rising lava. They emerge in Italy.

It's characteristic of Verne that the final loose end to be tied is a scientific one and not a personal or emotion one. Liedenbrock and Axel figure out that their compass had been polarised by a magnetic storm while on the raft, thus fooling them into thinking that they had been heading north for much of their journey, instead of south.

Overall, Journey is a surprisingly short, taut and focused novel, showing Verne at the height of his powers. It gets the plot rolling from the very first sentence, and never lets up. Highly recommended.

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