Professor Otto Lidenbrock’s great adventure begins by chance when a scrap of paper drops out of an ancient book he has just bought. The coded inscription reveals the existence of a passageway leading to the centre of the earth and that the entrance lies within the crater of an extinct volcano in Iceland.
The professor travels to Iceland accompanied by his nephew, Axel, a keen young geologist. Together with a Swiss guide, they descend into the bowels of the earth where an amazing prehistoric world awaits them.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, first published in 1864, is Jules Verne’s second novel. It is placed as the third book in the Extraordinary Voyages series, though it was added retroactively by the author. This series ultimately numbered 54 books. While far from the first example of subterranean fiction, a subgenre of adventure fiction, this book was highly influential and helped make the subgenre more popular. Verne is not an author I’m hugely familiar with, but I enjoy reading old science fiction and adventure stories when the mood strikes me, which is part of the reason why I first picked this up. The title evokes cheesy movies for me, whether adapting this book outright or just influenced by it, so I was interested to have a firsthand look at the source material.
It was surprising how much this story felt reined-in from being too fantastical. I had expectations of our characters descending into a veritable lost world full of primitive marvels, dangers, and adventure, but that was not quite the case. The way Verne approached this story leads me to believe he wanted it to seem as realistic as possible—for the scientific understanding at the time. Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel set out to follow a supposed path to the centre of the Earth and that is exactly what they do, the novel spending time on every step of their journey with a lot of the early phases taking place on the surface. While it may not be surprising for a longer tale to dwell on the details and take its time, this novel is less than 200 pages long. Once I passed the 100-page mark I realized that this novel was going to be a lot more journey than centre.
A lot of time is spent with our trio of explorers wandering along underground, including the captivatingly stoic and immovable Hans, their Swiss guide. While I enjoyed his humorously monolithic and practical presence throughout, I had mixed feelings about the Professor and Axel. The former’s eccentricities could be amusing and Axel’s more level-headed, hapless attitude toward being strung along by his uncle was amusingly sympathetic, but they were unfortunately one-note as protagonists and not particularly likeable. The Professor is stubborn and bullish to an overbearing degree, with only occasional bouts of sympathy for his nephew and what he’s putting him through. For his part, Axel spends much of his time complaining despite the fact he’s far past the point of no return and was in need of an adventurous change of heart that came too late. Nobody really has an arc during this journey. Axel does come close toward the end, like I mentioned, but things take an abrupt turn that prevent that from being meaningful.
The subterranean world itself is left a little disappointingly unexplored too. They do eventually come across a vast sea, lit by a luminescent sky, which I did enjoy. They began sailing across it on a raft and encounter a few prehistoric creatures and natural anomalies that make the story more exciting. A high note for myself was a battle witnessed between a plesiosaur and an ichthyosaur of colossal proportions. It is once they reach the other side and make some more startling discoveries that the story takes its abrupt turn. They glimpse these things only for a moment—a monochromatic forest, a herd of Mastodon, and a giant human minding them—before turning away and neglecting to even dwell on the implications of their discovery.
Much of the book leading up to this is simply them walking through a tunnel, discussing geology, commenting on how far they’ve gone, and facing more mundane challenges like finding the right path and thirst. With the latter issue in particular I felt like Verne was trying to have his cake and eat it too. Drinking water becomes a pressing concern, yet somehow they have enough food between the three of them to keep them happily fed for well over a month and then some. I have no problem accepting the more fantastical aspects of the story, but you can’t stress the small details crucial to survival on the one hand and completely ignore them on the other.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth is not a bad novel, and I still see reading value in it for its influence on the genre, but it was ultimately a little disappointing. I couldn’t connect much with the characters in a meaningful way, and while their descent was still intriguing it left a lot to be desired. The plot begins and ends with “We are exploring a place,” and never gets more complicated than that. Worth checking out as a classic, especially for how short it is, but don’t expect to be blown away by an old master of the craft.
My rating: 3 out of 5