A Journey to the Center of the Earth (AD Classic)
by Jules Verne
Translated by Frederick Amadeus Malleson (used as base translation);
Cover Artist: Caspar David Friedrich
Review by Gayle Surrette
AD Classic Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780980921038
Date: 27 June 2008 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
A classic in the genre, A Journey to the Center of the Earth has influenced many authors, scientists, and of course movie makers. I never actually read the original book, but have seen quite a few movies based on the book. The problem with seeing films based on a book you haven't read is that you begin to believe that you know the story, so why bother with the book.
The problem, of course, is you don't know the story, you only know those aspects of the story that are common to all the movies. So, reading A Journey to the Center of the Earth was, not surprisingly, an eye-opener. One of the common elements of the films is that there is a civilization in the center of the earth -- usually with at least one beautiful woman who someone in the party falls in love with and, depending on the film, leaves behind or brings to the surface. In many films there's also the calm, quiet, guide/servant person, and also a woman who is part of the party journeying to the center of the earth.
Guess what, that's not in the book. In the book, Professor Liedenbrock finds a journal written in runes. He brings it home and shows it to his nephew, Axel, who is also his assistant, and begins to translate a note that was tucked into the book. After much trial and error the note turns out to be written by Arne Saknussemm about five hundred years ago and tells how to enter a crater in Iceland that will lead to the center of the Earth.
Naturally, Liedenbrock immediately plans to go and follow in the footsteps of Saknussemm. Axel, a whiny wimp of a guy, keeps trying to talk his uncle out of the adventure. He wants to stay in Hamburg and marry Liedenbrock's ward a lovely girl named Gräuben. Unfortunately for Axel, Liedenbrock counters all his arguments and his lovely Gräuben throws her weight behind the plan and off they go to Iceland.
Since the book is told from Axel's point of view, his whining about his role in this journey and how he's going to be killed, maimed, or worse gets to be more than a bit wearing on the reader.
Along the way, they have a few adventures that show that a brilliant mind doesn't necessarily equate to an equal amount of common sense as Liedenbrock overpays for passage to Iceland. He's just so overjoyed with the spirit of adventure that he doesn't bargain, simply paying out whatever it takes to get where he wants to be in time to see the shadow hit the crater he should use to begin his journey.
In Iceland, they hire Hans, an eider hunter. There's a long digression about how eider down is gathered that's quite interesting though not at all germane to the plot. In fact, there are a number of scientific data dumps of information that, while entertaining for their antiquity and insight into science at the time of the book, bog down the plot.
In the end, our little band -- Liedenbrock, Axel, and Hans -- enter the crater and follow the tunnels down and down to a great underground ocean, having a few adventures and narrow escapes along the way. They build a raft and set sail on the ocean and travel for days seeing some amazing sights. The make landfall and think they ended up back where they embarked from, but learn that no, indeed they did travel the right way. Here they stretch their legs and from a great distance spot a herd of mastodons and catch a glimpse of a herder who appears to be a giant Neanderthal (maybe). This is the sum total of the books dealing with a civilization under the ground. Next they find a tunnel marked with an A.S. (in runic writing) carved into the rock. The tunnel is blocked so they use their primer cord to blow it up and end up getting sucked into a vortex of water, steam and boiling water, and finally lava, and pop out after traveling for days from Mr. Etna. Then it's home again, home again and happily ever after.
Quite different -- a tamer story than that of the movie versions -- far less action and far more ruminations on science, geology, and the nature of man. While the story is still one to hold my interest, the digressions and informational dumps bogged down the tale. But if you persevere you'll find that the story is worth reading. Since, unless you can read the original French, you'll always be reading a translation, the beauty of the prose will depend on the ability of the person who is doing the translation to approximate the flow used in the original.
I don't doubt that this is a fair translation of the original. I'm glad that I finally had the chance to read this classic. Now that I know what the original book contained, I can see that some of the movies have parts of the story while other just used the book as a suggestion. I'm glad I read A Journey to the Center of the Earth finally, and think that I might have to seek out more of the great classics of the genre.