Journey to the Center of the Earth is an adventure and science-fiction tale written in 1864 by Jules Verne. It tells the tale of three men—Dr. Otto Lidenbrock, his nephew Axel, and their guide Hans—who scramble down the volcanic tubes of a volcano in Iceland, their goal to reach the center of the Earth and then climb back to the surface.
How does Lidenbrock know that such a journey is possible? He finds an old book in a book store that shows him the way. Verne dedicates several chapters to the discovery of this book, which holds secrets within secrets.
Lidenbrock rushes home carrying a wonderful old book that might delight any scholar. It is called the Heimskringla, and tells an Icelandic saga. It is written in runes.
"Runes," he said, "were handwritten characters formerly used in Iceland and, according to the tradition, were invented by Odin himself. But look, irreverent boy, admire these forms which sprang from a god’s imagination."
At this moment, as Otto shows the book to his nephew Axel, an old slip of parchment accidentally falls out of the book. As Axel, the narrator of the tale, describes the paper:
It was five inches long and three inches wide, with horizontal lines of mumbo-jumbo-style characters written on it.
These mumbo jumbo characters turn out to be an encoded message, also written in runes. Lidenbrock is enormously excited by this puzzle and sets out to solve it.
The doctor is able to translate the Icelandic runes, which weirdly translate to an unintelligible jumble of letters.
At first, Lidenbrock thinks it could be a cipher, an encoded series of letters that, when placed upon a certain page of the book, would reveal a hidden message. Certainly it is some type of cryptogram, but after much study and discussion, the doctor and his nephew are unable to decode it.
They miss a series of meals in the doctor's household, and Otto becomes obsessed with solving the puzzle, ordering that no one in the household should eat until the mystery is solved. His housekeeper, Martha, worries they will all die of starvation, and Axel thinks,
I didn’t dare admit that with such an uncompromising individual as my uncle, this fate seemed nigh on certain.
While the doctor is out on an errand to find some materials that might help them solve the puzzle, Axel accidentally figures out the cryptogram. He realizes it is much easier to solve than they thought. He is horrified by what he reads and wonders if he should reveal the solution to his uncle. He feels certain that when Lidenbrock knows the truth,
He would only want to go there, I know him, nothing would stop him. He has a volcanic imagination and he would risk his life to do what no geologist has ever done before.
And after his uncle returns, Lidenbrock soon figures it out himself.
I hadn’t finished before the professor produced a shout, more than a shout, an actual roar! A revelation had just occurred in his brain. His face was transmogrified.
"Oh, clever old Saknussemm!" he bellowed. "So you wrote your message backwards?"
Once Lidenbrock realizes the message is written backwards, the cryptogram becomes clear. It is written in Icelandic, and once translated, reads:
Go down into the crater of Snaefells Yocul which the shadow of Scartaris caresses before the calends of July, O audacious traveller, and you will reach the centre of the Earth. I did it. Arne Saknussemm.
(A calends is the first day of the month in the Roman calendar.)
Lidenbrock is an adventurous soul, and once the note is translated, as his nephew predicted, he is energetically ready to travel to Iceland and do the deed. He and Axel depart immediately, and their journey begins.