Journey to the centre of the earth
Jules Verne was the most famous science fiction and adventure novelist in France in the 19th century. He wrote more than 60 novels in his lifetime and is hailed as the “Father of Science Fiction.” His masterpiece, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, is a legendary, action-packed science fiction novel that draws readers into a fantasy world that transcends time and space.
In the mid-to-late 19th century, there was an outstanding science fiction writer in France who created many wonderful journeys. With his gift for writing and great intellect, he used prose to create grand adventures to unknown worlds. No one could have expected it at the time, but many of his wild ideas such as neon lights, submarines, moon flights and space travel would one day all become reality. More than a century later, his works are still influencing generations of readers. This writer was none other than the French science fiction writer Jules Verne, a man about whom French academician Hubert Lyautey once said: “modern science is simply a process of working out in practice what Jules Verne had envisioned in words.”
Verne was the most famous science fiction and adventure novelist in France during the 19th century. He wrote more than 60 novels in his lifetime and is hailed as the “Father of Science Fiction.” His masterpiece, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, is a legendary, action-packed science fiction novel which draws readers into a fantasy world that transcends time and space.
Jules Verne was a novelist, playwright and poet. Born into a middle-class family in Nantes in 1828, his father was an attorney with a strong interest in literature and
science. Verne nursed a strong desire to go to sea ever since his childhood when he saw merchant vessels shuttling up and down the Loire River, arousing his yearning for the ocean, freedom and adventure. In an 1890 essay titled “Memories of Childhood and Youth,” he recalled skipping class one day to board a three-mast ship by himself after the guard had gone to a nearby pub to drink. He explored the ship from top to bottom, even turning the rudder and later venturing out onto a larger ship, only to be severely reprimanded by his father.
After an unruly and free childhood, Verne took his father’s advice and went to Paris to study law. During his time there, he had the pleasure of meeting Alexandre Dumas and his son Alexandre Dumas fils, with whom he began creating a play. In 1848, Verne started frequenting the literary salons in Paris, where he discovered that literature was more attractive to him than law. The following year, Verne graduated with a licence en droit and wrote a large number of manuscripts for plays. His first published play The Broken Straws premiered in 1850, but failed to make a mark. One year later, Verne’s first two short stories, “A Drama in Mexico” and “A Voyage in a Balloon” were published in the magazine Musée des familles ( The Family Museum).
From 1851, Verne began researching topics such as geography and history. Every day he would rise at 5 a.m. to read, take notes, write and revise works either at home or in the library. In 1856, he travelled to Amiens to attend a friend’s wedding and fell in love with the bride’s sister, Honorine de Viane Morel, a widow with two young children. In 1857, Jules and Honorine were married in a simple wedding ceremony in Paris.
From 1863, Verne began publishing science fiction adventure novels as part of the “Extraordinary Journeys” series, including the trilogy of Captain Grant’s Children, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. That year, his first full-length novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon was officially released, making him an instant literary celebrity. From then on, Verne devoted himself entirely to writing. In 1872, he published “Dr. Ox’s Experiment” in The Family Museum and was elected as an academician of Académie d’amiens (Academy of Amiens). In the same year, he was also recognised by the Institut de France for his “Extraordinary Journeys” series and published Around the World in Eighty Days. In 1874, his works The Mysterious Island and The Survivors of the Chancellor appeared, and the play Around the World in Eighty Days debuted.
In 1893, Verne said in an interview: “I have thus far amassed many thousands of notes on all subjects, and to date, have at least twenty thousand unused notes at home which can be turned to advantage in my work. Some of these notes were taken after conversations with people. I love to hear people talk, provided they talk on subjects with which they are acquainted.”
Jules Verne wrote 62 novels, 18 novellas, dozens of plays and other works over half a century. His main works included full-length adventure novels such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Fur Country. Verne’s writing had a profound impact on the development and popularisation of the new literary style of science fiction. He was also a “teacher” of many inventors, who created such detailed descriptions of scientific fantasy that many academic groups needed weeks to calculate even the numbers listed in his book. Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) considered Verne to be an outstanding writer because of his “academic attainments and rich imagination” and his ability to “predict trends and create fantasies based on science to express human feelings.”
The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once said that Verne’s works were real eyeopeners; his ideas were novel and plots fascinating. The modern Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin also holds Verne in high esteem, having said: “Verne’s big, rough and clumsy machines are symbols of the modern technological world’s childhood and shine with pure and childish beauty.”
Verne showed great respect for science and nature. His protagonists were all decent and confident people, brave in the face of adversity and continuously venturing into the unknown. The evolution of plot and use of literary elements in his novels all featured a strong sense of heroism and romanticism.
Science fiction already existed as a genre a long time before Verne, but he undoubtedly surpassed his predecessors in terms of imagination and use of scientific language. Within the limits of science and technology, Verne proposed various new concepts. As his fantasies tallied with the development of science, almost all became reality in the 20th century. For example, in order to write the story of a spaceship flying to the moon, he made a careful study of scientific and technical considerations including aerodynamics, flight speeds, weightlessness and propulsion.
Verne wove complex and interesting stories in the framework of his scientific imagination, creating a strong romantic sense with a thrilling plot, strange coincidences and extraordinary natural wonders. Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a Verne classic. At that time, European colonists were in the midst of establishing their respective colonial empires. In a short period of time, these explorers charted the source of the Nile, the Sahara Desert, the African continent, and the North and South poles; and archaeology and geology developed to unprecedented
levels. It was in at this time that Journey to the Centre of the Earth came into being.
In 1863, Verne moved to the rue La Fontaine in the Auteuil district of Paris. When creating The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, he began to explore another idea of pure fantasy—a journey deep into the earth. The idea came from a geographer friend called Charles Sainte-claire Deville whom he met in 1863. Deville had visited numerous volcanoes and would often talk elegantly on the subject, fascinating everyone with his descriptions of spectacular eruptions. Having studied and visited volcanoes for many years and as an expert on the geology and landforms of the volcanic regions in Italy, Deville explained the principles of volcanic eruption to Verne.
Verne conceived the idea for a new story of “travelling to the centre of the earth” based on his conversations with Deville. Whilst listening to one story from Deville, Verne happened to come across an article in a reference book. The essay presented a strange theory by American lecturer John Cleves Symmes Jr. suggesting that “the earth is hollow and open at the poles.” Verne was inspired to write Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It was first published in 1864, becoming popular all over the world and receiving favourable responses from readers. Verne was thus regarded as a founder of the new category of “hard science fiction” and was hailed as the “Father of Science Fiction.”
The novel tells of German professor Otto Lidenbrock, his nephew Axel and their guide Hans who travel underground for three months to carry out a scientific exploration. Verne subtly infused the novel with his scientific knowledge, weaving it into the plot whilst showing his readers a magical underground world.
The story begins on May 24, 1863, with Professor Lidenbrock, a geologist in Hamburg, stumbling upon a coded parchment letter in an old book written by an Icelandic alchemist. After several days of attempting to decipher the runes, he discovers that a man named Arne Saknussemm once travelled to the centre of the earth via a volcanic crater in Iceland. The professor is overwhelmed with excitement and decides to make the journey too. Three days later, he heads to Iceland along with his nephew Axel, and carrying provisions, food and weapons. On arrival, he hires a guide by the name of Hans Bjelke.
The three travellers follow the footsteps of their predecessors and descend to the bottom of Snaefell volcano after much difficulty. They proceed along the lava channels, where they discover a deep subterranean ocean, surrounded by a coastline covered in giant plants. They see several prehistoric creatures in the ocean and the bones of ancient humans. On finding their way forward is blocked by a cave-in, they blast open the rocks but are swept deeper underground as the sea rushes into the large open gap. The fierce vibrations from the explosion trigger a volcanic eruption, ejecting the group out of the underground world.
After three months of travel, during which time they have been lost, suffered from lack of water and encountered fierce storms, the group discover they have been ejected onto the surface from a sidevent of a stratovolcano. As they regain their senses, they discover they have been ejected from Stromboli, a volcanic island located in southern Italy.
A Popular Masterpiece
Journey to the Centre of the Earth records the hardships of the men’s journey and the wonders of the underground world in a succinct manner. Based on the scientific achievements and knowledge at that time, Verne exercised his imagination to
tell the story with interesting descriptions. The novel features a series of twists and turns, as well as warm feelings, which take readers into a fantastical, dreamlike underground world.
Professor Lidenbrock is an intelligent man with rich scientific knowledge who can also use tools like hammers and drills with ease, but lacks patience. He is a determined and courageous man with an iron will, who will never give up no matter what danger he encounters, staying calm in the face of both water shortages and storms. Axel is both the professor’s nephew and his assistant who shows a sincere passion for geology. Hans serves as the two men’s guide during their journey to the centre of the earth and is both sober and prudent. These three men, quite different in personalities and skills, go on an exciting adventure together.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a typical work lying between reality and imagination which introduces a journey to the earth’s core in the form of a travelogue. The trip not only involves a physical journey from the ground to the centre of the earth, but also a journey through time as the group moves through periods of history. His protagonists do not blindly believe in dogma. Verne is a “scientific optimist” with profound scientific knowledge. Instead they advocate that science is composed of errors, but errors that need to be made, since they lead step by step towards the truth. In terms of plot and literary elements, Verne was deeply influenced by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, British writer Daniel Defoe and Swiss writer Johann Rudolf Wyss. He made full use of Poe’s romantic, realistic and scientific imagination, and refined the elements of danger characterised by the protagonists’ thrilling experiences, fights of resistance and final triumphs.
Verne and his works first became known in China in the early 20th century. In 1902 after the Hundred Days’ Reform, reformist Liang Qichao (1873–1929) founded the magazine New Novels in Yokohama while he was in exile in Japan. In the magazine, which advocated a “revolution in fiction,” Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was classified as science fiction. At that time, Lu Xun who had returned to China after studying in Japan, subscribed to New Novels. He insisted that science could help China develop, but found scientific theories too difficult for common people to understand. However, he thought that if science was disseminated through novels, it could achieve twice the result with half the effort. Therefore, in 1903, the 23-year- old Lu Xun began to translate From the Earth to the Moon. In 1906, he then translated Journey to the Centre of the Earth from Japanese into Chinese and introduced it to China, catalysing the nascent Chinese science fiction. According to the Catalogue of Late Qing Fiction by Japanese scholar Tarumoto Teruo, by 1915, there were already approximately twenty translated versions of Verne’s works in China.
In his later years, Lu Xun recalled his purpose of translating scientific fiction novels during his time studying abroad, saying: “I liked science fiction because I loved science. However, I fancied myself as being clever and refused to translate directly when I was young. Now I regret it when I think back.” However, his passion for science was not enough to explain his love for science fiction. As Lu Xun said: “I rendered the book in plain language in the hope that readers could grasp the meaning easily without having to trouble themselves in understanding the content. That way, they could glimpse the wisdom of science and abandon superstitions, thereby becoming enlightened and civilised.”
In 1959, the China Youth Publishing Group published the Selected Works of Jules Verne including Journey to the Centre of the Earth translated by Yang Xianyi and Wen Shiqing. In 1997, the Complete Works of Jules Verne’s Science Fiction Adventures was released by Qinghai People’s Publishing House, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth as its first volume, translated by Zhang Rong, Luo Shunjiang and Li Yuanhua. In 2006, Guangming Daily Publishing House published Chen Xiaoqing’s translation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which is the most commonly read version nowadays.
According to the latest statistics published by UNESCO, Jules Verne is the second most-translated author in the world, appearing just behind the British detective novelist Agatha Christie. The data show that there are a total of 5,000 different translations of Verne’s works around the world. In France, 2005 was celebrated as the Jules Verne Centennial to mark the 100th anniversary of the author’s death.
In 1959, American director Henry Levin directed the film adaptation Journey to the Centre of the Earth which impressed audiences with its amazing special effects and scenes. In 1976, the film was remade in Spain, and in 2008, American director Eric Brevig also directed the film to great success. After debuting in America, the movie was also released in cinemas across mainland China, receiving positive responses from Chinese movie-goers.
Verne’s work is filled with rough oceans, giant mushrooms, breathtaking rivers of lava and characters who must fight prehistoric marine creatures. He used science to turn the barren underground world into one filled with life. For 154 years, Verne’s novels have taken readers into fantastic worlds that exist outside of time and space, allowing them to appreciate one magnificent underground scene after another.
A poster for Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1977 film)
A scene and a poster from 2008‘s Journey to the Centre of the Earth