Fiction Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth



I recently finished Journey to the Center of the Earth, written by Jules Verne and translated by Frederick Paul Walter. This translation can be found in the omnibus Amazing JourneysWhen reading Verne outside of the French he wrote his works in, it is vital to have a good translation. One of my most commonly hit posts (and one of my earliest), Jules Verne Translations That Don't Stink, provides a good overview of what is available in Verne translations. It could probably use a refresh - many of the books I listed as being available as print-only are now available in e-book form and there is some new material available. It is still what I would consider a good resource.

The novel is about the narrator, Axel, and his uncle,  Professor Otto Lidenbrock, a scholar of geology, on, well, a journey to the center of the Earth. Lidenbrock finds a manuscript which leads him to believe there is a tunnel from an Icelandic volcano that provides a rapid path to the center of the Earth. Lidenbrock is very much an over-the-top character, one who insists on nearly immediately going on an expedition to see this, taking his nephew along. He forbids anyone in the household from eating until he translates and decodes his manuscript. As I read it, Lidenbrock was an interesting combination of amusing and frightening.

Accompanied by an Icelandic hunter, Hans, the small band's journey is one fraught with amazing sights, peril, and strange discoveries. Axel really doesn't want to be on the trip, though his fiancée (and ward of his uncle) pressures him to go. Axel is often hoping to turn around at every obstacle. He's convinced the center of the Earth is molten and temperatures will rapidly increase, a theory his uncle rejects. However, despite himself he is often fascinated by what he discovers, despite thinking (quite reasonably) that he will likely never see the surface again.

Plotwise, it's a fairly simple work. It is very much a travelogue, first on the surface taking the band from Germany to Iceland and then of the journeys under the Earth. Verne takes great joy in describing the underworld the band explores. He also makes us privy to many of the scientific debates between Axel (himself a student of geology) and his uncle.

The characterization of the characters is not what I would call realistic - nor do I believe it was Verne's intent that they be so. Lidenbrock is a manic adventurer, absolutely fearless in the adventure and heedless of the possibility that it may end in tragedy - going to the center of the Earth and back based on an ancient manuscript is absolutely a reasonable thing to do in his mind. Hans is taciturn and never panics or shows the smallest of emotions. Axel is our viewpoint character, very much aware of the insanity he has gotten himself into - and whenever a tragedy befalls one of the characters, it will be he who is the victim.

I'd not consider this Verne's best work - I've far from read his entire library in English, but I found books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to be a bit more enjoyable and believable. However, despite my occasional exasperation with the good professor, I greatly enjoyed my sojourn under the Earth.

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