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A Fragile Story that Drags Along
on April 3, 2015
Jules Verne had a knack for coming up with adventure stories that were fascinating enough to endure against the revelations of science and the passage of time. Some comments by the narrator read almost like caveats to assuage the doubter who might know better than to believe what is discovered on this unusual trek to the centre of the earth. A belief in central heat, for example, is asserted by the narrator in order to gain solidarity with the reader. The reader is then encouraged to be satisfied that “certain circumstances not yet sufficiently understood may tend to modify here and there the action of natural phenomena” (p. 187.) The prohibitive fact of central heat is not just mitigated by an appeal to the possibility of modified phenomena, but by the fact in the fiction that says the trekkers did not descend to earth’s actual centre (pp. 129, 186.) Stopping short of the centre is necessary, not only to avoid the science of central heat, but because the time and angle necessary for the trip make it impossible for men on foot to go there (p. 107.)
All of this hedging to ‘cover one’s tracks’ colors the story with at least a tinge of probability. This toilsome project, though, of welding links to form a chain that would take us, without doubt, down to earth’s virtual centre, is not kept up with care enough to satisfy. There are nagging inconsistencies. The tiny raft made by Hans for crossing over the underground sea seems to take on the qualities of a large, sturdy ship as she sails for a week and a half, or five hundred leagues (1800 miles) or more, through unimaginable trials and perils, which include monsters beneath and all around, and an electric storm above containing ‘great bales of cotton’ and ‘a vast reservoir of fearsome windy gusts’ (p. 145.) Verne seems to inject some astonishment of his own in order to come alongside and sympathize with our disbelief. “Who would dream of undertaking a voyage of five hundred leagues on a heap of rotten planks, with a ragged blanket for a sail, a stick for a mast and fierce winds in our teeth?” (p. 153.) What breaks the story beyond repair (the weakest link in the chain) is the part about the volcanic eruption that shoots the travelers, not only out from the bowels of the earth, but safely back upon land. This fiery volcano, moreover, just happens to shoot them out by somehow first coming up under the raft they are on. Then it pushes this raft up and out in such a neat way that it fits nicely between the walls of the tunnel as they travel upward! Not only is no one mortally burned in the explosive ejection, but as harrowing as this journey back up is, Axel, the main character, is able to feel the wall on the way! (p. 176.) That they are jutted upward in a ‘lateral gallery’ rather than by the main shaft (p. 180) is just not enough balm to heal the injury that the story suffers by this safe expulsion of three men from the centre of the earth.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, as implausible as it is, has a good stock of truth mixed in with its faults and fancy. Snaeffel is an actual mountain in Iceland, though the eruption of 1219 seems fabricated to provoke wonder. Saturn was indeed discovered by Galileo, but the part about him concealing the discovery might be invented to supply a parallel to the disguising of the route by Saknussemm. There is no gravity at earth’s centre, but it is improbable that the acoustics there could be so sharp as to impart hearing to the deaf. Sir Humphrey Davy is an historical figure, though Saknussemm is probably invented. Often Jules Verne is meticulous in his precision about a thing, as if to anticipate our looking into it. There indeed is a bird called the eider, for example, whose self-plucked down is robbed by the northern trader for its commercial value. It is not easy to determine what anecdotes that are used from history are embellished. I did not feel it necessary to resolve the question on every point. That could be an interesting subject for someone’s thesis, I suppose. The point is that the interweaving of fact and fiction lends believability to the far-fetched fantasy, and that nevertheless all is ruined by that convenient exit through the mouth of a burning volcano. We can suspend our disbelief when the implausible details are of the same weakness one with another. But the weak chain is broken by this one link that is more brittle than the rest. There is a precedent for water under the earth; therefore we can stretch that into a sea. There is a precedent for things that glow in the dark; therefore we can stretch that into natural light to illuminate a deep cavity. But what person can survive expulsion from a volcano? Realism steps into surrealism at this point. This is the problem. Harmony is broken. Genres crash.
The reference that helps most to convince us to go along for the incredulous ride to the centre of Verne’s earth is the one about Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which goes to a great depth (we won’t begrudge Verne for stretching this to 2500 feet) and contains an ‘unfathomable lake’ (p. 124.) Most likely this natural marvel is what fueled his imagination for the creation of his fantastic idea. The American wonder is even more remarkable than what Axel relates. It is perhaps as much as 1500 feet deep and for certain over 365 miles long, the world’s longest known cave.
I’m not for quitting a book because the pieces of science fiction that are made up are not all on the same level of improbability. But it makes me hesitate to read more from the same author, even if the present idea is intriguing and the style is less than flat.
The stylistic ingenuity is infrequent, but more than competent. Some characteristic must be made memorable to us for an author’s character to become authentic in our mind. The irascible nature of the professor is brought to life by comparing him to an inanimate object: “He was a well of scientific knowledge, but the pulley rather creaked when you wanted to draw anything out” (p. 10.) The timid nature of the nephew is manifested by a surprising reference to his opposite: “The soul of the Professor had passed into me. The spirit of discovery wholly possessed me” (p. 167.) The indomitable nature of Hans, the loyal Icelander, is conjured up by comparing him to a creature that never was (though Verne probably believed he existed): “His long hair blown by the storm…each lock of loose flowing hair is tipped with little luminous radiations…puts me in mind of pre-Adamite man” (p. 146.)
This piece of science fiction uses up a mixture of creationist and evolutionary principles (pp. 90, 91, 134.) Frederick Morris Warren (A History of the Novel Previous to the Seventeenth Century, 1895) would perhaps call it Pythagorean (p. 38.) There is little to commend the fantasy to the Christian (p. 112, 118.) And the name of God is let out in exclamatory fashion at least once (p. 18.)