One of the oldest themes in storytelling deals with a trip to the underworld — a plot of such universal appeal that it has even been given a name: katabasis literature, from the Greek word signifying descent. Readers are most familiar with the classic European examples — Odysseus, Orpheus, Aeneas, the Inferno of Dante. But the subject can be found universally. In my book on Healing Songs, I describe how dozens of versions of the Orpheus myth have been documented among Native American tribes. Similar accounts can be found in Australia, Asia, Siberia — indeed, virtually everywhere and anywhere stories have been told.
Give credit to Jules Verne for taking this ancient plot and finding a completely new basis for it — namely the scientific journey into the underworld. Some things stay the same here: the dangers of the trip, the tests and adventures along the way, and the risk of never returning. But a whole new positivist atmosphere is present, for the first time, in Verne’s narrative. In his Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), the protagonists are not suppliants or in thrall to the powers of the depths, but aim to comprehend and categorize, to cast light on the darkness within — in short, to stake out the previously unknown regions and bring them into conceptual frameworks of the terrestrial world above.
Verne was still a fledgling author when he tackled this subject. He had published his first adventure novel the previous year, Five Weeks in a Balloon, a work that received favorable reviews, but did not sell enough to allow Verne to quit his day job. That novel had been initially rejected by a number of publishers who had found it “too scientific,” yet it was not a true science fiction work by any measure. Even Verne later admitted that his primary concern was not the technology: “I wrote Five Weeks in a Balloon, not as a story about ballooning, but as a story about Africa. I was always greatly interested in geography and travel.”
He followed this up with another travel novel, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, which deals with an arctic expedition. Then Verne, trying to top these exciting travelogues, concocts the idea of trip to a place where no one has gone to before. Travel literature now morphs into conceptual fiction.
Professor Otto Lidenbrock, a Hamburg geologist has found an old manuscript in runic script with a coded message hidden in its pages. By deciphering its text, he learns of an access point to the interior of the planet in a volcanic crater in Iceland. Dragging his reluctant nephew Axel along, and picking up a taciturn guide on the way, our Professor embarks on a journey to the center of the earth.
Verne was forced to adopt a science fiction approach here, but the science is dicey at best. A real journey to the center of the earth would result in a quick death for the travelers. The temperature at the core is estimated to be 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, a little bit cooler than the surface temperate of the Sun (9,000 degrees Fahrenheit), but still requiring a strongly-worded travel advisory warning. Most experts in Verne’s days would have asserted the impossibility of his story’s premise, and though the novelist tries to dance around this issue, he never really offers a credible explanation. “I believe and will always believe in core heat,” his narrator remarks in the final pages of the book; “but I admit that certain as yet ill-defined circumstances can modify this law under the impact of natural phenomena.”
But Verne’s genius lay in precisely this — forcing his story beyond the limitations of conventional realism, and embracing the imaginative possibilities of story-telling. In the course of his Journey, he brings prehistoric creatures back to life, invents underground oceans and summons up strange sources of atmospheric light in the dark recesses of the earth. He even hints, in a passage later added to the novel, at the existence of huge humane-type creatures living below ground.
Now don’t assume that Verne completely discards the science here. In truth, he shows his devotion to it most clearly in the tangents and discursions of his novel. Some of these stray far from the story at hand. Our author takes time to discuss the source of eider down (“In the first days of summer, the female, a kind of pretty duck…”), the nature of geological formations (“It is known that basalt is a brownish rock of igneous origin…”), the construction of early experiments in electric lighting (“A Ruhmkorff device consists of a Bunsen battery operated by means of potassium dichromate…”), and a host of other matters with no direct bearing on the unfolding adventure. But Verne’s audience saw him as more than a storyteller. He also delighted them as a bold speculative thinker and close observer of the natural world, and this attitude figures on almost every page of Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Verne established the formula for his greatest successes here. From this point on, his most successful books will retain his early interest in travel literature, but never allow a slavish devotion to realism to cramp his style. A patina of science is usually apparent, but when forced to make a choice between plausible narratives and imaginatively charged scenarios, he wisely opts for the latter. This recipe proved to have staying power, not just for Verne himself, but for the world of fiction in general. In combining the fanciful perspective of the fabulist with the curiosity of the technologist and experimental researcher, he created nothing short of a new tone for the novel, one that still resonates with readers and inspires other authors more than a century after his death.