Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH
Verne, Jules. Journey to the Center of the Earth. 1864. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam
Here online is a good English translation of Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The somewhat cheesy 1871 English translation in which Liedenbrock and Axel are called Von
Hartwigg and Harry is also available. But for many decades of English readers, this was their
text: Journey to the Center of the Earth.
A summary and some commentary on the 1959 film appears in my dinosaur film site: Journey to
the Center of the Earth (1959).
A fairly crappy 1978 film version is not really worth much consideration, but: Where Time
The 1999 film is entertaining enough with its lizard people, but it's not Verne: Journey to the
Center of the Earth (1999).
A comic book version exists from 1957, and a Saturday morning cartoon series aired on ABC
from 1967 to 1969.
Topics for Writing:
The popular image or stereotype of the eccentric scientist, represented by
Professor Otto Liedenbrock (or von Hardwigg, or Oliver Lindenbrook in the
All this business about heresy and having to "suffer" for science.
The usefulness of Axel (or Harry) as narrator.
The self-conscious decision to go into the epistolary mode for part of the
The earth itself as a kind of character or organism. For you scientists or
mythologists, does Verne subscribe to the Gaea principle?
The use of geology in characterization (e.g., Liedenbrock/Hardwigg as
"volcanic," Axel/Harry as an "inert mass," the notion of them all as "living
The mythological dimension of the novel and its significance, either Classical
(Orphic) or Christian (Dantean) underworld mythology.
Verne's geological science and Christian orthodoxy. For example, does he
subscribe to the "argument from design"?
Does Verne favor catastrophism or gradualism?
In terms of evolutionary science, does Verne blur change with progress?
The western cultural obsession with naming landmarks, including the graffiti.
Trace the anthropocentric attitude in the novel.
The significance of the "waking dream" that Axel/Harry has.
The maturation of Axel as a character, from reluctant initiate through some
kind of transformation. (Why is travel necessary?)
The Science Fiction Premise:
The novel works well as a so-called scientific romance, "a poetic elaboration of the
prosaic facts of scientific geology" (Costello 81). This is the start of science fiction
proper, and Verne offers a "romantic" adventure whose bedrock, as it were, is hard
science taken seriously, indeed revelled in.
The "scientific" idea of the earth being hollow (evolving partly from the mythology of
the "underworld," which in turn evolved into Hell) was in circulation since Edmund
Halley in the late 17th century and still is the subject of speculation. (Edgar Rice
Burroughs also wrote an inner-earth series of books.) Here are various "Hollow Earth"
web sites -- some explanatory and skeptical, others rather loony.
"About.com" -- index of sites and sources concerning "Hollow Earth" theory:
"The UnMuseum -- The Hollow Earth" -- excellent write-up of Halley through Verne
"Zero Point Subrise: The Hollow Earth" -- brief historical summary of Halley,
Symmes, ... Nazis:
"SpiritWeb: The Hollow Earth" -- elaborate New Age site starting with Byrd but
about an inner society:
World Top Secret: Our Earth Is Hollow! -- book for sale by man from Tempe, AZ:
Verne creates a German eccentric who is compulsive, driven, fanatical, quirky, and
who scoffs at popular theories. He has trouble with long words (2), whatever that's
supposed to signify. He is drawn to the arcane, as exemplified by his purchase of the
Snorri Sturluson book (6-7). He is inconsiderate to inferiors, even tyrannical.
Liedenbrock seems egotistical, but his conceitedness is actually a sort of
If the English pun is operating, then Axel/Harry is the post around which all else
rotates. Some consider him as not much more as a narrative tool, and as such he is
sufficiently trustworthy and a representative of common sense. But he's a pushover,
intelligent but weak and immature. He is supposed to be amusing, and if that works
for you then he functions as a romantic likable figure, if a bit stuffy. Those who are
irked by him think of him as a whiney brat, caring for nothing but food (9, 24, 28),
comfort, his girlfriend, and in that order too.
For more useful analysis, keep track of indications that Axel/Harry at first knows of
nothing greater than the self, hence his self-indulgent inclinations. But he actually
lacks a sense of self. He is hollow and unstable, not grounded or centered. He's not
even in control of his own mind (20/19).
Stolid, stoic, practical, and minimal. In the book he's an eider-gatherer; in the 1959
film a duck fetishist.
There are no significant female characters in the book. Verne does take a moment to
establish Grauben/Gretchen, though considered a "possession" of the Professor's, as a
"first-rate" mineralogist (15) but does not follow through with this. Instead, she
remains on the earth's surface, and automatically this places her among the superficial
surface-dwellers. That she is not a man automatically precludes her from participation
in the journey (29).
Popular Science Background:
The pop science context in which Verne wrote Journey to the Center of the
Earth included notions of a hollow earth (see above) consisting of inner spheres
nested within each other and open at the poles, ideas proposed by Edmund Halley
originally (1692) and then closer to Verne's own time by the American John Cleves
Symmes of the U.S. Infantry, one of whose "admirers" in Congress revved up support
for an expedition to the South Pole in 1838 (Costello 82). (E.g., 157. Poe's novel, The
Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, also explores these ideas in fiction.) Additionally,
"Verne met and interviewed Charles Sainte-Claire Deville, a geographer who had
explored the volcanoes of Teneriffe and Stromboli" (Lynch 36), the latter of these, in
Sicily, where the fictional adventurers emerge at the end of their expedition.
Verne was also influenced by a travel account of Iceland written in 1857 by Charles
Edmond; thus Lidenbrock and Axel visit actual Icelandic people and scholars. "This
gave rise to a legend that Verne had corresponded with Friderickson: this was not so,
he had merely done his research well. Some of the names are slightly deformed, not to
disguise them, but simply because Verne was often unable to read his own notes"
Verne was writing this work at the same time that Darwin's Origin of Species was
being published in French translation. Instead of evolution, the primary debate of the
day involved the antiquity of the world; the geological record vs. a literalist
interpretation of Hebrew Scripture. James Hutton (1726-1797), known as the father of
modern geology, was a Scottish naturalist who studied sedimentary rocks and erosion
and proposed a much greater span of geologic time than a biblical orthodoxy allowed
(many millions of years vs. the mere six thousand). But also, "Hutton was a theist who
believed in a creator God, and he believed that the complexity and order in nature
reflected the goodness of an all-powerful creator. This theological idea, called
the argument from design, dominated a great deal of English intellectual life until the
beginning of the twentieth century" (Peters 55), and is back now as "Intelligent
Design." The "argument from design" is registered frequently in the awe the
characters experience and express in the novel. A "perfect order" is referred to, and
characters do pray when they find themselves in dire straits. The fact that the earth
always provides, at least to those of either intelligent scientific bent or honest basic
instincts, may also suggest an ideal order. Under the earth, Axel/Harry notes, "nature
has proceeded geometrically and worked in the human manner, as if she had
compasses, squares, and plumb lines" (78). Basalt columns look "like fragments of an
ancient temple" (79), and Axel remarks on the Gothic and Romanesque architecture of
caverns. "The great architect of the universe" is even mentioned (165).
Geological interests bring about paleontological ones.
Because some highly detailed figured stones resembled no known organisms, the
French scientist Georges Cuvier (1769-1838) proposed the idea of the extinction of
species. He thought that there had been quiet periods in geologic history when
different animals and plants flourished and that these periods ended in mass
extinctions triggered by violent geologic changes. (Peters 40)
So began "catastrophism" -- the insistence that "earth had been shaped by violent
forces that operated only intermittently" (Peters 62). One still finds a predilection in
science towards this level of drama, as opposed to "gradualism." Verne straddles this
issue too, it seems. One can find gradualist material, implicit in the mention of slow
coal formation from massive amounts of foliage (114). Nevertheless, most the
adventures of the book are catastrophic, perhaps required by the fictional nature. Axel
is constantly worried about volcanic activity (e.g., 81), and catastrophes are supposed
to have caused the fall of portions of the earth's crust into the subterranean levels
(161) so that battling monsters are here. Geysers, volcanoes, and mass extinctions all
seem part of the excitement.
The twelve-foot anthropoid that Liedenbrock and Axel see overlooking a mastadon
herd is perhaps a combination of latest anthropological discover and biblical
gigantism. When Liedenbrock lectures on Quaternary man (202ff), "he refers to
Boucher de Perthes, who in March 1863 had in fact discovered a human jaw at
Moulin-Quignon, near Abbeville (northern France), which proved the existence of
Quaternary men. Verne waited until the discovery was confirmed before including it
in his 1864 novel" (Lynch 37), actually the new illustrated edition of 1867 (Costello
83). The latest discoveries suggested that man was over 100,000 years old, although
we now have evidence of man being over three million years old. Neither the
progressivism (now unfashionable) nor the anthropocentrism implicit in the book is
especially irksome; probably the worst it gets is the adventurers' tendency to name
everything they see after themselves (e.g., 127, 156, 168, 186, 196, 215).
In addition to the geological vocabulary in which Verne seems to take delight in
through Axel the same way that Chaucer animates the language of alchemy in The
Canon's Yeoman's Tale, we also get the mathematics of cryptography (22f), a bit of
Icelandic alphabetic history (12), a blurb on active volcanoes (31), subterranean
thermal speculations (32f), Iceland travelogue material (85), and a few Icelandic
The novel begins with factoids (time, place, etc.) and we will continue to have to
digest the vocabulary of geology, albeit presented in a reader-friendy manner. One
way science is given literary significance is through the use of mythology. There is
precedence for the blend of geology and mythology. The early widespread view that
posited a sedimentary origin for fossil rocks
encouraged the growth of Neptunism, or the assumption that virtually all rocks
formed in the ocean.... To make Neptunism square better with the Christian tradition,
early geologists often assumed that most sedimentary rocks had formed during the
worldwide flood of Noah's day, on what is now land. (Peters 47)
When the volcanic nature of basalt became clear,
it seemed that there must indeed exist subterranean masses of molten material. That
this assumption fit with the Christian notion of a hell located somewhere "downward"
no doubt helped some geologists of the day accept the igneous view of basalts and
granites. (Peters 53)
Additionally, the Hadean eon was named for Hades, the mythological Greek god of
the underworld (4.6 billion to about 4 billion years ago).
Beyond the sprinkling of allusions to the materials of classical myth -- the mentions of
Virgil (14, 66) and his entrance to the underworld (103), the Oedipus riddle in
conjunction with the Saknussemm cryptogram (18), centaurs (68), the colossus of
Rhodes (71), Pluto, god of the underworld (92), the subterranean stream as a nymph
(129-130), Theseus' labyrinth (140), Ajax (199), etc. -- science seems not only to
incorporate these but to supersede mythology entirely.
Even more creative is Verne's ability to personify geography (e.g., 84) and
"geography" (to coin a verb) persons (e.g., 131).
Humans existed for millennia without science. During this time the world was
generally regarded as the stage for supernatural forces. Myths and religious ideas
explained the natural world.... Another ancient approach to thinking about the world
was to assume that physical objects had many of the same characteristics as persons.
Thus the stomach becomes a chasm (56), exhilaration "overflows" like lava (59), we
learn that "geysir" means "fury" (185); the volcano allows the adventurers to catch
their breath "when it stops to catch its own" (235). Lidenbrock's explosive temper and
"volcanic imagination" (23) threaten his spontaneously combusting. He has a "will
harder than granite" (200). Axel "float[s]" (36), or functions like an "inert mass" 116);
his psyche is unstable, as shown in his dreams (40f, 82). His fear of heights (46) is
noted when at the top of a steeple all else seems stable, but he perceives himself as
hurtling (47) [vs. the solid Lidenbrock's being given to seasickness (50)]. Axel says
his center of gravity shifted underground (95), that eventually he underwent a change
towards serious-mindedness (138). A mythic journey to the underworld should indeed
be read as an initiation (Thornton). Axel, as Grauben seems to understand, needs to
take this trip to become a man (39).
Axel's daydream (172f) is the one passage in the book that receives literary praise:
"This lyric insert is exceptional in the works of Jules Verne. It is a moment when the
narrative is suspended, when forward progress is interrupted" (Lynch 37). "Verne also
reverses the motion of the camera of history by taking Axel's vision from the nearest
to the remotest past, without the usual Vernean trappings of instruments, machines,
and maps" (Lynch 38).
The book is easy, fun, light, and enjoyable, focusing on pop science that captures the
imagination. The pre-voyage material isn't as slow as many similar adventure books,
but some readers object to the geological name-dropping and the fact that we're
getting more or less the bric-a-brac of geology and not really an exploration of
scientific modes of thought. Various peculiarities such as the anticlimactic final
business about the compass qualify the success of the narrative ultimately, but heck,
it's a new genre.
Costello, Peter. Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction. London: Hodder and
Lynch, Lawrence. Jules Verne. NY: Twayne Pub., 1992. PQ 2469 Z5 L96
Peters, E.K. No Stone Unturned: Reasoning About Rocks and Fossils. NY: W.H.
Freeman and Co., 1996.
Thornton, Lawrence. Introduction. Journey to the Center of the Earth. Trans. Lowell
Bair. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. v-xvii.
Verne, Jules. A Journey to the Center of the Earth. The 1871 translation. NY: Signet
---. Journey to the Center of the Earth. 1864. Trans. Lowell Bair. NY: Bantam Books,