Like other Verne novels, this does take God’s own time for the plot to get underway.
Five men and a dog escape from their incarceration as prisoners of war by Southern forces in the American Civil War. They commandeer a balloon and set off during a storm.
The storm takes them off across the sea, and having shed all possible ballast they finally come to land on a seemingly deserted island.
Much of the novel is the standard fare along ‘survival on desert island’ lines. Verne’s twist on this idea is to have along Captain Hardy, an engineer who can build a barometer from two quail eggs and the string from a sailor’s vest. (He doesn’t actually do this, but given sufficient encouragement I am certain he could).
Along with the Captain’s free ‘Negro’ servant Neb, there is Pencroft, a sailor and carpenter, Gideon, a reporter, and Herbert, a teenager who seems to have spent his entire life studying vegetables.
The castaways quickly transform their environment into a functioning farming/manufacturing society, eventually smelting iron, casting pottery and making glass.
The group is extended by the addition of the dog, Top and a tame ourangoutang named Jup. Later, a castaway is rescued from a neighbouring island; a character from an earlier Verne novel.
During their stay they occasionally receive unexpected help from a mysterious source but it is not until the finale that we discover who their benefactor may be.
It’s basically an extended masterclass on applied science, demonstrated by the fact that Verne goes into pages of mind-numbing descriptions of:-
a) the construction of the forge/basketlift/windmill and
b) the scientific processes behind the concept and
c) what the mechanism actually does, which is handy to know.
What will appal many readers today is that Verne clearly shows the relationship between humanity and the natural world at the time.
No sooner are the group of survivors set up with a base of operations and some home-made weaponry than they embark on a rampage of wholesale slaughter against the island’s wildlife. No doubt people of the mid-nineteenth century saw the world as an endlessly self-replenishing breadbasket and one which should be plundered at will.
On a more positive note, Verne gives a very positive portrayal of Neb, which other than Othello, is one of the first appearances of a black person as a major character in Western literature. I feel Verne does him good service, despite not giving him a great deal of dialogue.
This has the dubious distinction of being the first novel I ever read on a Kindle, which is somewhat ironic, since Verne I am sure would have loved the idea of his work being shared on a device which could be read electronically. In a sense it is also fitting, since ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ or Journey to The Interior of The Earth (depending on which translator you end up with) is itself, like Arnie Saknussem’s message, digitally appearing nearly one hundred and fifty years after its publication, and once translated will show us the way to the Centre of The Earth.
In a nutshell, Prof. Liedenbrook shows his nephew Axel a book he has just bought, some five hundred years old, from which slips a document, written in a runic cipher. This is a note from lost explorer Arne Saknussem who has discovered a route to the Centre of The Earth. The Professor, inflamed, immediately begins packing for a trip to Iceland, and it is automatically assumed that Axel will go too.
Axel, to the author’s credit, seems not to be composed of the stuff of which heroes are normally made, and frets a great deal as to what may befall him once they are below ground.
It is indeed an extended bout of fretting since it is a goodly while before our duo reach Iceland (the entry point to the Underworld) and then another good fraction of the novel disappears before they finally abandon daylight.
It is not a wasted journey, since Verne acquaints us with the scenery and customs of a Denmark and Iceland perhaps long lost now. On the way, we acquire a guide, the redoubtable eiderdown hunter, Hans, who brings a monosyllabic Scandinavian sense of brooding masculinity to the proceedings.
To the modern reader, the journey to the volcano of Snaeffels is perhaps a little slow, but once we are underground, it is sheer joy.
Verne, eschewing any romantic religious notions, is rigorously scientific, for the most part via the observations of Professor Liedenbrok although one has to remember this was the science of the mid 19th century. Verne proposes some interesting evolutionary developments with regard to flora and fauna below ground.
It is interesting to note that Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ was published only five years before this (although it is also true that ideas surrounding evolutionary processes had been around for some time) and fascinating to see how quickly such innovative thinking spreads out into the public domain.