“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” – a science fiction novel with a compelling, action-packed storyline, complete with broader themes too – was a fond childhood favourite, yet the same cannot be said about Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. This story started with promise, and in fact the plot moved along very quickly to the start of the actual expedition, though from that point on the narrative was mostly bland and monotonous, and with little to no character development too (even with a small cast of just three main characters). Too much emphasis, furthermore, was placed on the geologic or scientific expositions with the slightest of connections to the actual adventure, which therefore at times felt unnecessary or contrived.
This journey is narrated by Axel, the nephew of German Professor Otto Lidenbrock. And they are later accompanied by an Icelandic guide, Hans Bjelke. Axel’s chapters read like an expedition diary (some parts of the book, nearing the end, are also in the explicit format of a diary), and in this vein the reader moves from one key development to another: Deciphering a coded note, reaching the mountain of Snæfell in Iceland, preparing for the descent, and ultimately looking forward to the trio’s arrival at the titular destination, or the end of the journey. Between these developments the narrative movement were laborious, and at times it felt like Professor Lidenbrock was making plans up as they went along. Despite descriptions of the volcanic tubes and chambers and the prehistoric flora and fauna, technical descriptions of how they might have prepared for the trip – suits, breathing apparatuses, and other implements or necessities, for instance – were scant or non-existent.
Consistent with the narrative style, most of the accidents and encounters along the way centre around Axel. The cowardly Axel – contrasted with his obsessed, single-minded uncle – went through progressive stages throughout “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, from initial reluctance, to somewhat acceptance, to persistent apprehension and fear, to resignation, and finally to a strange commitment to the end-goal. This tension between the younger and older Lidenbrock, nevertheless, did give rise to some moments of humour (with quips like “I ought by this time to have been quite accustomed to my uncle’s ways; yet there was always something fresh about him to astonish me”), even if the ebb and flow of their relationship and how they reconciled their differences were never properly addressed. Consistently in the background of this relationship was the stolid and brave, albeit reserved, Bjelke, who barely features beyond the functional tasks.
And finally, the haphazard and deeply unsatisfactory conclusion provided no reprieve. For a book with a visionary concept of a subterranean expedition and a somewhat promising introduction, it is – unfortunately – full of what-could-have-beens.