Classic Review: A Journey to the Center of the Earth
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If there is a single author who rightly deserves to be considered the king of travel fiction, it’s Jules Verne.
He wrote several works that dealt with travel in some way: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea about Captain Nemo and his submarine; Five Weeks in a Balloon; Around the World in 80 Days, in which the hero Phileas Fogg travels by means of every type of vehicle available in the 19th c.; From the Earth to the Moon; the very strange Off on a Comet, in which some 40 people of different nationalities find themselves tooling around the solar system on a comet for 2 years, and the book I read this time around, A Journey to the Center of the Earth. Verne wrote so many novels in which travel was key that his series of books are called, as a group, Voyages Extraordinaires.
Verne is sometimes credited as being a guy ahead of his time, a man who could envision the future, and affect the shape that future took. People point to Captain Nemo’s submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or to Robur’s flying machine in Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World, but there was already talk of submarines before Nemo appeared, and of flying machines before Robur makes the scene. In fact, one can almost think of Nemo’s sub and Robur’s flying machine as something like a special railway car under the sea or in the air. Still, Verne does present, in an engaging style, stories about what would still have been fantastic, if not quite unheard of, ideas in his day.
In Journey, Verne not only blazes no new trails, but, for the sake of his story, he simply discounts the scientific wisdom of the day. Scientists then maintained (and scientists still maintain) that one cannot travel to the center of the earth, as the core of the planet is molten. Pish, posh, says Professor Lidenbrock, the intrepid explorer of the novel. Based on a single statement by a medieval Icelandic alchemist, Arne Saknussemm, in a coded message contained in a runic manuscript of Icelandic lore – “I have done it” (i.e. traveled to the center of the earth), Lidenbrock figures he can do likewise. It never occurs to the professor that Saknussemm may have been mistaken, or simply lied. And so, he and his nephew, Axel, set out on the journey.
Axel is the narrator of the novel, and though a youth of physical and mental ability (he breaks the code, by suggesting the message is backwards and meant to be in Latin), he is essentially a comfortable bourgeois gentleman, who has no desire to disturb the rhythms and routines of his life. Of course, he is worried, as well, that the Professor might get himself killed pursuing this dream of reaching the center of the earth, or worse, get himself and Axel killed. Axel tries to dissuade the professor, but he finds himself outnumbered as the professor’s goddaughter (Axel’s fiancée), Grauben, joins the professor in hounding Axel to go along. In effect, she uses the polite bourgeois equivalent of “man up!”
Often in the western canon, adventure is undertaken by a nobleman, and by someone eager for the adventure. Even in cases where there is some fear (e.g. Odysseus traveling to the end of the earth to see the dead, or Aeneas traveling underground to Hades), there is no hesitancy, for those figures are heroes. In choosing to have Axel narrate this adventure (instead of the more adventurous and hard-headed Prof. Lidenbrock), Verne is doing what Conan Doyle does with the Holmes stories – he’s telling the story from the point of view of an ordinary person (admittedly with above-average intelligence and powers of observation), and so makes it easier for us ordinary folk to come along.
And as we sit comfortably in an easy chair, a pug or two on our laps, we allow ourselves to follow the sensible Axel, as he follows his crazy uncle, and so we find ourselves off on an adventure.
And Verne, by having a reluctant hero, gets to show us someone who rises to the challenge, something that appeals to many readers. It’s no surprise that someone like the professor does what he does – he’s presumably a genius, and a bit loony. And so there we get no sense of growth or development, but Axel – we can well imagine him watching TV in his lazyboy, eating popcorn. And so, when we see Axel rise to the occasion, we can imagine ourselves doing likewise.
Journey has not aged as well as some of Verne’s work, largely because the science is so out of whack with scientific data and theory – today’s Lidenbrock would likely be one of the scientists denying global warming – but otherwise it is much like Verne’s other works, which often feature bourgeois gentlemen (sorry ladies! – Verne often has you on the side) thrust into adventure. And when the adventure is over, they return to their bourgeois existence, having grown, but still solidly bourgeois.
That’s why I see Verne’s rallying cry as “Bourgeoisie, allons-y!”