Monday, 4 June 2012

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

One day I'm going to learn to be less anxious when approaching a classic. Particularly a French classic. I didn't really know what to expect from Jules Verne. But I was slightly concerned. I should have known better. I was reading a master. 

Right from the start Jules Verne had me entranced by the story. I was initially surprised that it was peopled by German characters. But he uses it to poke some gentle fun their way. 

This pardonable infirmity of my uncle's was well known in the town and unfair advantage was taken of it; the students waited for the dangerous passages when he lost his temper and then burst out laughing, which is not in good taste, even in Germany.

Our narrator is Axel, the nephew of Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who lectures in mineralogy at the Johannaeum in Hamburg. Axel and his uncle live with the Professor's god daughter, Grauben, who is also engaged to Axel, and their servant Martha, who can knock out rather amazing meals at short notice. "Parsley soup, a ham omelette seasoned with sorrel, veal with prune sauce, and for dessert, sugared prawns, the whole accompanied by an excellent Moselle wine." Sugared prawns! Really? For dessert? I think this passage serves to show us the extraordinarily comfortable and somewhat extravagant life that Axel and the Professor lead in Hamburg. Sugared prawns indeed. 

The discovery of a small piece of old parchment hidden within the pages of an ancient Icelandic text excites the Professor no end. There is a mysterious message written in runes on the parchment, and leads our dynamic duo on a journey to Iceland, and from there of course to the centre of the earth. The journey from Germany to Iceland was no simple undertaking in the 19th century. There are wonderful descriptive passages of Copenhagen and Reykjavik, including the Stock Exchange in Copenhagen which has a spire made from the twisted tails of four bronze dragons. 

Picture source

I was particularly fascinated by their depictions of their Icelandic guide Hans, who is a hunter. Except he isn't really a hunter, he gathers eiderdown from nests. In one of those d'oh moments that pepper my life I realised that I'd never considered the term eiderdown. Turns out an eider is a large seaduck common in parts of the Northern Hemisphere. They're very attractive birds. Jules Verne tells us that the plumage of the eider "constitutes the chief wealth of the island", and he gives a fascinating account of 19th century eiderdown collection methods. 

Picture source

In early summer the female, a sort of pretty duck, goes and builds her nest among the rocks of the fjords with which the coast is fringed. After building this nest she lines it with fine feathers which she plucks from her belly. Then the hunter, or rather the trader, arrives and takes the nest, and the female starts her work all over again. This goes on as long as she has any down left. When she has stripped herself bare, the male takes his turn to pluck himself. But as his feathers are hard and coarse and have no commercial value, the hunter does not bother to take his nest. The female accordingly lays her eggs, the young hatch out, and the next year the harvesting of the eiderdown begins again. 

Quite sustainable I suppose, although somewhat stressful or annoying for the poor ducks, not sure how the modern methods compare. Soon the action becomes subterranean and the major part of the story begins. The language is wonderful, but of necessity it is rather geologic, although Jules Verne knew way more names for rocks than I thought possible. It was rather interesting to see Verne express concerns about the finite nature of fossil fuels in a book published in 1864! 

I enjoyed the more fantastic elements of the story too. Their journey underground was quite compelling for me, with lots of drama along the way, although Axel does turn out to be quite the fainter. And I totally loved that Professor Lidenbrock doesn't pack any water at all, just gin!  Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a cracking adventure tale at heart, I can see why it's been so enduringly popular over nearly 150 years. 


The Daemon said...

You've inspired me to give it a go. I agree totally with your concerns regarding the classics. I always feel very intimidated and worried I will find them boring. Having said that I just read Beowulf and was on a plane and very mad when we landed and I didn't get to finish it. Although perhaps it boils down to the translation as well - will try to get the same version of Journey as you.
Story telling classics are thus named for a reason I suppose.

Louise said...

I think the translation can make a huge difference. Of course it would be great to be able to read in all the native languages but it's never going to happen. Even English and French will remain a pipe dream. Let me know what you think of it if you try it- or perhaps another French classic? The Three Musketeers was even more amazing- it is very, very thick though.

Susan said...

Now I want to read this. Maybe I can pitch it to the family as our next family read-a-long book. We're working our way through Lord of the Rings and might need a break between books!