Professor Lidenbrock, a polymathic teacher at the prestigious Johanneum College in Hamburg, purchases a copy of the Heimskringla (a record of Icelandic kings) at a secondhand bookstore. In this copy, he finds an encrypted runic manuscript and deciphers the cryptogram, which proves to be the work of a celebrated (fictitious) alchemist, Arne Saknussem. The decrypted text claims that the center of the earth might be reached by means of one of the several craters of the extinct volcano Snaefell in Iceland.
Lidenbrock suggests to his nephew Axel that they should mount an expedition to follow in Saknussem’s footsteps and journey to the center of the earth. Axel is initially horrified, but he is persuaded to risk the enterprise by a girl named Graüben, whose affection he craves and who judges that it will make a hero of him. Axel and his uncle then set sail for Reykjavik, eager to get there by the first of July, when the angle of the sun’s rays will indicate the correct crater.
After conferring with local scholars, Lidenbrock hires a taciturn guide, Hans Bjelke, and assembles an extensive collection of scientific instruments. The members of the party then make their way to Snaefell, where a sign specified by Saknussem’s manuscript informs them into which crater they must descend. As they do so, they make various geological observations, but the expedition seems doomed to failure when they run out of water. They are saved when they find a hot spring, the downward course of which they begin to follow.
Eventually, the expeditionaries reach a series of caves beneath the Atlantic Ocean, at a depth previously believed to be the lower limit of the earth’s crust; instead of encountering the molten rock of the mantle, however, the travelers follow the mazy series of galleries down to an interior sea illuminated by a wan light produced by some kind of natural electrical phenomenon. On the shore of this sea, they find a fungal forest and other vegetable relics of Earth’s Secondary Epoch. They improvise a raft and set sail upon the sea, witnessing a contest between a plesiosaur and an ichthyosaur in the water.
By mid-August, the three travelers calculate that they are somewhere beneath England. Their raft is wrecked by an electrical storm, and they find further relics of eras that are long past on the earth’s surface, including a giant humanoid skull. Soon afterward, they glimpse a living giant tending a herd of mastodons. The travelers repair their raft, but when they try to blast their way through a rocky obstruction they provoke a major seismic disturbance and are nearly killed. Instead of dying, however, they are borne hectically upward by a flood of water and eventually expelled from the Italian volcano Stromboli. From there, they make their way home.
Like the greater number of Verne’s works, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a novelistic description of scientific phenomena. This third of Verne’s works is geological and paleontological. The different geological strata of the earth, its minerals, the formation of the planet, and the different hypotheses concerning its core are reviewed. At the same time, the structure of the work calls upon the archetypal descent of the hero into the underworld.
Verne’s characters are conscious that their scientific goals echo those of humanity. Mister Fridriksson, their Icelandic host, who converses with the hero Harry in Latin, bids them farewell with “this verse that Virgil seems to have written for us: ’Et quacumque viam dederit fortuna, sequamur’” (“And whichsoever way thou goest, may fortune follow”). Verne knew that others had written of the descent into the underworld, usually as a pretext to criticize society on the surface of the planet, without any scientific pretensions. His motivation is otherwise: to explore...
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