Vintage Reads #1 – Journey to the Center of the Earth

A_Journey_to_the_Centre_of_the_Earth-1874This 1864 novel by Jules Verne is perhaps the first major work in what is now known as the ‘Lost World Genre’. This type of thing was a product of the imperialism of the nineteenth century and the global explorations that marked that period. Lost worlds were nothing new; Plato dreamed sunken Atlantis back in 360 BC and the Conquistadors were so fervently hopeful of a golden empire in North America to rival the riches of the Aztecs and the Incas that they readily believed any folktale given to them by the natives resulting in the legends of Cibola and Eldorado. But the excavations of Troy by Schliemann in 1871 and the explorations of Africa by David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley along with further discoveries in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings fired public imagination in the late nineteenth century and made interest in fictional escapades into the dark corners of the world a given.

Verne’s Journey is pure science fiction using the ‘hollow earth theory’ which hearkens back to an idea present in innumerable ancient mythologies of a cavernous ‘underworld’ beneath us. Various astronomers and scientists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries explored this idea, some even suggesting that there was an internal sun and possibly habitation in the hollow center of the earth. The next real proponent of the idea was John Cleves Symmes, Jr, who, in 1818, suggested that the earth had a shell less than 2000 km thick with openings at the north and south poles. There was even a rumor that President John Quincy Adams supported the approval of an expedition to a hole in the north pole but left office before it could be realized. Even in the nineteenth century the idea was ridiculed and as with many of Verne’s works, the novel is a little tongue in cheek. Verne didn’t actually believe the earth was hollow. He just knew it would make a great story.

The novel opens in Hamburg at the residence of Professor Lidenbrock – an eccentric mineralogist who has purchased a rare copy of Heimskringla (a history of the Norwegian kings who ruled Iceland) by the famed chronicler Snorri Sturluson. Found within this tome is an ancient runic document which the professor and his nephew, Axel (the protagonist), struggle to decipher.

406px-'Journey_to_the_Center_of_the_Earth'_by_Édouard_Riou_38

It turns out to be by the hand of Icelandic alchemist Arne Saknussemm and claims that ‘in the crater of the jökull of Snæfell’ one can descend into the center of the earth as Arne himself claims to have done. The excited professor leaps at the chance and, with his reluctant nephew in tow, prepares an expedition to Snæfellsjökull. With their ever calm guide, Hans, they descend mile after mile and enter a strange subterranean world lit by electrically charged gas, much like the Aurora Borealis. There they find a great ocean, a forest of gigantic mushrooms, dinosaurs and weird magnetic phenomena.

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