Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Adventure classics -- A guide to the underworld

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

by Jules Verne


How on earth -- or within it -- does an idea that hasn’t received serious scientific consideration for centuries have so much life? I mean, of course, the idea Jules Verne exploited so ably in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the notion of our planet as a hollow sphere nurturing a hidden inner life.

It’s an idea with almost embarrassingly fertile psychological connotations, deeply rooted in myths of the underworld. Ostensibly, Verne’s inspiration was his acquaintance with Charles Sainte-Claire Deville, explorer of the Italian island of Stromboli. But in Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction, biographer Peter Costello suggests an influence in Verne‘s own experience, a visit with a friend to Scotland’s Hebrides Islands with its volcanic Fingal’s Cave.

“. . . the waves break at the gigantic arch which forms the opening to the cave,” Verne would write in a later novel. “This frame, black as ebony, throws all the foreground features into full relief. Further out still, the horizon between sea and sky stretches out in all its splendor. . . What an enchanted palace this Fingal’s Cave is.”

It was to that enchanted palace of a cave, more than to the dark lava tunnels of volcanoes that Verne would return when in 1863, as Costello writes,  “(he) set out to explore a realm of pure imagination, a poetic elaboration of the prosaic facts of scientific geology.”

The story begins with the discovery by the learned Professor Hardwigg and his orphaned nephew Harry (to use the names of the novel’s English translation) of a mysterious medieval manuscript. Deciphered, the text declares the writer to have descended to the interior of the earth through a volcanic tunnel in Iceland. Faster than poor Harry can say holy Stromboli, the professor whisks him off to Iceland to explore the possibility for himself.

Despite the unlikely premise, Verne’s detailed settings (he would shortly become a member of the Geographical Society of Paris) and the humorous byplay between the single-minded professor, pragmatic Harry, and their coolly phlegmatic guide keep the pages flying past.

Soon lost in the maze of tunnels under the extinct Icelandic volcano, Harry tumbles down Verne’s version of an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole, onto the shores of another world inside this world’s interior. Is this land, with its mushroom-like forests, strange central sea and prehistoric monsters the true center of the earth? Or does the center lie deeper still? The professors thinks so, but Verne declines comment.

I got dizzy trying to decide whether up should be down, but not dizzier than the explorers, who find themselves riding a passage back to the surface on the lava wave of erupting volcano. It spits them spits them out, not at their northern entry point, but on a fertile subtropical -- in fact, Stromboli.

(The island’s volcanoes have been active for most of recorded history.  Want to see videos of its 2012 eruption?  Check out

Unlikely though the prospect of an interior “lost world” now seems, Verne’s vision continues to inspire imitations well into the twenty-first century. Can we doubt that current interest in delving into the mysteries of the earth’s deepest places, even to the abyssal depths of the oceans, stems ultimately from Verne?

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics concludes a month of thrills and suspense with William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.)


  1. I haven't read this one, although I'm familiar with the story. Have you seen the recent news about the stories of ecologies deep in the ocean, Melissa? Slime moulds and the like. There is life deep below, just not the kind that Verne imagined.

    1. I agree -- the variety of creatures living around some of the deep-ocean vents, especially, is amazing.