Author: Jules Verne (1828 – 1905)
Translator: William Butcher
Publisher: Oxford University Press (2008 reissue)
Bought from: NoQ Store
Jules Verne was born in Nantes, Frances. He is one of the most influential writers from the early days of science fiction. He is widely known, along with H.G. Wells (1866–1946) and Hugo Gernsback (1884–1967), as one of the Fathers of Science Fiction.
The son and grandson of lawyers, Verne went to Paris to study law in 1847. He was in Paris during the 1848 Revolution (which would culminate with the election of Napoleon as President of the Second Republic at the end of the year).
Verne was more interested in the theatre and literature than legal practice. He had written a number of plays, essays, short stories and novels before he collaborated with the publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel on a sequence of 54 novels between 1863 to 1905 (with another 8 published posthumously) under the overarching title of Voyages Extraordinaires. The best known titles are Voyage au Centre de la Terre (1864), Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers (1870), and Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-vingts Jours (1873).
Two other titles are familiar to modern readers thanks to Hollywood. Firstly, De la Terre à la Lune (1865) was, together with H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (1901), the primary inspiration for Georges Méliès’ silent movie A Trip to the Moon (1902), famous for the iconic image of the human rocket embedded in the right eye of the Man in the Moon. Secondly, L’Île Mystérieuse (1874) — the title if little of the plot found its way into the movie Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012).
The other novels in the series are largely unknown today.
In France, Voyages Extraordinaires is noted for the meticulous research into astronomy, biology, ethnography, geography, geology, oceanography, palaeontology and physics. However, early publishers in England and the US chose to simplify and bowdlerise their translations to such an extent that Verne became known to the English-speaking world as a writer of children adventure fiction. Many of these translations which are now in the public domain continue to be read online and even reprinted by major publishers. More accurate, full-length English translations started appearing only in the 1970s.
What is the story about?
The novel has been adapted for the big and small screens and the plot is well–known.
Stirred by a mysterious 300-year old message encrypted in runic script, the German Professor Lidenbrock, his nephew Alex and their guide Hans set off on the eponymous adventure.
The late 18th century saw the emergence of a strand of subterranean fiction usually featuring the idea of a hollow earth. Verne may have been familiar with these works when he started writing Journey to the Centre of the Earth which has become the best-known example of this sub-genre.
Before Journey to the Centre of the Earth, stories about the underground were mostly either mythical (eg. Hades and Persephone, Orpheus, Aeneas) or religious (eg. Biblical accounts, Dante’s Inferno) in nature. Verne claimed this sub-genre for science fiction.
He was clearly also influenced by the great scientists of his time. Two of these are noteworthy. Firstly the French anatomist and palaeontologist Georges Cuvier (1769–1832). His studies of fossils led him to conclude that violent and sudden geological upheavals such as floods have caused mass extinctions of organisms in the past and the emergence of new species following these catastrophes. Cuvier was a leading figure of the geological school of thought called catastrophism. Secondly, the works of the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875). In his writings, including the three volumes of Principles of Geology (1930–33), Lyell popularised the idea that the earth was shaped not (as Cuvier claimed) by catastrophic events but gradual changes which took place over an extremely long period and which are still occurring today (uniformitarianism or gradualism). Lyell was a strong influence on Charles Darwin.
What about the book?
Part of the Oxford World Classics series, this volume comes with an introduction and explanatory notes by the translator William Butcher. The notes are particularly useful in setting out the scientific influences on Verne. William Butcher has also translated Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers or Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (1870) and Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-vingts Jours or Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) for Oxford University Press.
The story is a dissapointment as an adventure. The subterranean journey itself did not actually begin until Chapter 17, about 40% into the novella. Once inside the earth, the characters encountered prehistoric animals and even a 12–foot tall man shepherding a herd of mastodons (!). But frustratingly, there was little interaction between the characters and these wondrous creatures. Lidenbrock was interested only in reaching the centre of the earth per se. And in a cruel twist of fate, the characters never actually made it.