One of my clearest memories of being in the exciting world of Year 3 was struggling to read aloud Jules Verne’s 1864 science-fiction classic, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, after picking it up off my family’s bookshelf at home, lured by the picture of a dinosaur on the front.
My exasperated teacher suggested I pick another book as I stumbled over tongue-twisting words such as ‘recalcitrant’ and ‘molybdenites,’ my 7 year-old mouth tasting words that I had never known before. Undeterred by her persistent advice, I continued reading the book at home and I am truly glad I decided to carry on. Transported to a breathtaking new world, with shocks and thrills every few pages, I was moved so completely that it did not matter in the slightest that the meanings of a few words eluded me.
The basic premise is that a German professor, Otto Lindenbrock, his nephew Axel, and their Icelandic guide Hans, attempt to travel to the centre of the Earth via volcanic tubes. It takes a good deal of suspension of disbelief to see this as a scientific possibility today, but as an impressionable 7 year-old, this was a revelation. Discovering a vast magnetic ocean underneath the Earth’s crust, filled with prehistoric sea creatures, descending into the mouth of a volcano hanging only by rope, getting lost in the labyrinth of dark passageways and eventually being spat out of a volcano on a raft and surfacing somewhere in southern Italy – wow. This was a million miles away from my monotonous life of school and playgrounds and charm bracelets.
It was not just the action that captivated me. Verne’s use of language, translated into English from the original French, had lost none of its lyrical lilt, the powerful use of sensory imagery or intriguing descriptions. The torturously slow realisation of the meaning of the cryptic message that leads them to Iceland, the blustering frustration of the Professor as he forbids food in the house until he has solved the puzzle. and the description of the rugged little Icelandic ponies that take them up the slopes of Snæfellsjökull the Icelandic volcano. I nearly cried in fear as I read the part where Axel gets lost in the claustrophobic tunnels of the Earth, in pitch darkness and utterly alone.
Returning to read a favourite childhood book is not something to be recommended. I recently re-read Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and as a Literature student, almost as a reflex, my brain started picking apart the language and analysing the effectiveness of the plot.
I could have written this article about all the inaccuracies in this book, or how Axel is a one-dimensional character. But I didn’t. Preferring to remember the magic it inspired in me, I let my memories do the talking.
It is a true classic, and I urge you to discover it for yourselves, though perhaps not to read it aloud. Molybdenites is still a tongue-twister – even for an 18 year-old.
Originally published on The Yorker 24th June 2010