Science Fiction Studies

#100 = Volume 33, Part 3 = November 2006

Allen A. Debus

Re-Framing the Science in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth

Scientists and critics have often lauded Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) for the quality of its didactic geological content, rather than for its numerous references to prehistoric life. But the definitive version of this novel—the 1867 illustrated edition1—contains not only geological but also paleontological and even paleoanthropological elements; and the real “journey” that Axel, Lidenbrock, and Hans undertake is through time. In this essay, I will consider how these three similar yet distinct sciences are intertwined in Verne’s novel. By re-framing the story, I will show how the geological components are distinguishable from the paleontological ones, and how the paleoanthropological segments represent a kind of “life-through-time” tour through Verne’s living subterranean museum. Verne’s presentation of geological matters adds credibility and persuades readers that the adventure is scientifically feasible, while the paleoanthropological elements (added to the 1867 edition) serve to complete the journey from the oldest “Transition” stages (Silurian) through recent paleontological history—that is, into the era of Quaternary man.

The Geological. In Journey, Verne’s repeated references to two scientists create the illusion that passage into the Earth’s deep interior is possible. This ingeniously employed tag team resurfaces time and again, fooling readers into believing that it is possible to descend into an extinct, six-century-old volcanic crater leading into the Earth’s deep interior. One of these individuals never lived; the other was very real. The sixteenth-century Icelandic alchemist and scholar Arne Saknussemm (whose name is introduced in the same breath with real historical scholars such as Paracelsus, Roger Bacon, and Avicenna) is entirely fictitious. Humphry Davy (1778-1829)2 was, however, an eminent early nineteenth-century British chemist who also dabbled in geological and paleontological science.

Davy was a product of Britain’s Romantic Age (circa 1770 to 1830). Not unlike many naturalists, poets, and writers of this period, Davy wrote poems—the first in 1795—about the grandeur of Nature. Several of these were re-published in John Paris’s 1831 biography (1, 25-39). When inspired by coastal storms or scenic seaside cliffs, his verses are particularly moving and strongly imbued with philosophical contemplation. Geological allusions often make their way into his writing, as in the line “Majestic cliff! Thou birth of unknown Time” (1, 207) which reflects Davy’s comprehension of Nature’s geological processes acting through untold ages. Davy’s research in chemistry influenced another Romantic, Mary Shelley, who began reading his book Elements of Chemistry (1812) on October 28, 1816, while she was writing Frankenstein (Florescu 206-207).

When Verne’s young protagonist Axel, who is skeptical about science, opines that they’ll most likely roast to death within the volcano as they near the globe’s central fire, the names of Saknussemm and Davy keep popping up to quell his anxiety or simply to overrule him. In contrast, the courageous Lidenbrock, who is portrayed as the “Columbus of the underground region” (Journey 107), who has a “volcanic imagination” (22), and whose study is a veritable museum, seems to be Science personified. Yet even he is not entirely rational, since he never considers the possibility that Saknussemm’s cryptogram could be a practical joke, or that he is leading his expedition on the shaky premise of Humphry Davy’s erroneous geological theory—which Davy himself had disowned some four decades before Journey’s publication date.

Throughout the story, Verne uses the inherent authority of science and the “reality” of an earlier exploration to beguile readers into believing that the intrepid party will indeed have safe passage to the Earth’s core through an extinct volcanic crater. First, there are the runes in the cryptogram that must be so cleverly deciphered—suggesting that whoever was responsible for them would not have troubled to craft such an elaborate ruse unless there was something important to conceal. Second, although Davy’s theory of volcanoes provides some scientific semblance as to why such a journey might be possible, any time Axel expresses well-reasoned doubt about such a theory, Lidenbrock retorts that Saknussemm accomplished it, and they shall too. Wielding the “fact” of Saknussemm’s prior journey as an absolute, Verne repeatedly makes reference to Davy’s scientific ideas, peppering his name through passages of the novel to allay Axel’s fears about being boiled alive. Who is right? Shall we believe Lidenbrock, who rests his case on Davy’s good name, or should we instead trust Axel’s intuition, founded on the premise of a central fire, a notion much older than Davy’s theory? As readers, we are left with an impression that on the grounds of both scientific theory and practical experience this incredible journey should indeed be possible.

Lidenbrock’s premise for why they won’t encounter elevated temperatures even as they near the base of the Earth’s crust is based on Humphry Davy’s geochemistry, in particular on his chemical oxidation theory of volcanic eruption. Davy, who had conducted many laboratory experiments on the electrochemistry and purification of metallic elements, had observed the reaction of water with alkaline metals such as sodium and potassium. He extrapolated these observations to volcanic proportions, postulating the existence of metallic veins within reactive alkaline cores underlying volcanoes. Water infiltrating through surface cracks contacted the underground metal, reacted violently, and created volcanic eruptions.3

Davy made what was perhaps the earliest model of a miniature volcano to illustrate this principle. Instead of using typical household chemicals such as baking soda and vinegar as reactants, however, Davy demonstrated his theory using potassium and water. This reaction creates flammable hydrogen gas.

A mountain had been modelled in clay, and a quantity of potassium introduced into its interior; on the addition of a little water, the potassium inflamed, successive explosions were produced, boiling lava was seen flowing down its sides from a crater in miniature, and mimic lightnings played around its summit, An eyewitness observed, “that the tumultuous applause of the audience might in the dramatic illusion produced have been mistaken for the shouts of alarmed fugitives of Herculaneum or Pompeii.” (Consolations 138)

Davy’s volcanic theory is compatible with the separate notion of a steadily cooling Earth. Verne’s most elegant presentation of Davy’s ideas is found in chapter six, where he describes chemical reaction on the surface of the globe, followed by crustal cracking and subsequent recession of those eruptions into the Earth, where their effects on the surface eventually dissipate.4 As Lidenbrock explains,

The Earth heated up through combustion on its surface, not from any other cause. The surface was composed of a great quantity of metals such as potassium and sodium, which have the property of catching fire as soon as they are in contact with air and water. These metals started to burn when the water-vapour in the atmosphere fell to the ground as rain. Little by little, as the water worked its way into the cracks in the Earth’s crust, it produced further fires, explosions, and eruptions. Hence the large number of volcanoes during the first days of the world. (32)

In Lidenbrock’s view, there is no planetary core of “central heat,” and Axel nearly believes him following this oration. In the final chapter, however, their debate over central fire versus Davy’s cooler chemical model is unsatisfactorily resolved, and Axel is still waffling:

As for myself, I personally cannot accept the theory of the cooling of the Earth. Despite what I have seen, I believe, and always will do, in the heat at the centre. But I admit that circumstances which are not properly explained can sometimes modify this law under the effect of certain natural phenomena. (215)

By the late 1820s, Davy himself had abandoned his chemical theory for volcanoes.5

Apart from Davy, much of the geology of Verne’s Journey—as detailed in an excellent 2003 article by John Breyer and William Butcher—seems patterned on Louis Figuier’s 1863 La Terre avant le déluge [Earth Before the Deluge]. Although the English edition of Figuier’s popular book doesn’t mention Davy by name, his volcanic theory is briefly described on page 15, introducing a section titled “Chemical and Nebular Hypothesis of the Globe.” Here, Figuier contrasts the idea of a still existing “central fire” with a diluted synopsis of Davy’s theory:

the solid crust is supposed to have contained abundance of potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, and other metallic elements. The percolating waters, coming in contact with these substances, produce combinations resulting in the conversion of the metals into their oxides—potash, soda, lime and magnesia— all of which enter largely into the composition of volcanic rocks. (15)

Figuier goes on to outline the (then preferred) nebular hypothesis for explaining how the Earth formed, offering insights into the workings of volcanoes. From contemporary measurements of the Earth’s heat gradient, geologists (as well as laymen) were hard pressed to understand why a temperature capable of melting crustal rock was projected for a depth of only 30 miles. And how much hotter was it below this depth! Figuier suggested that the center of the Earth was 195,000 degrees Celsius, “a degree of heat which surpasses all that imagination can conceive” (80). Clearly, without Davy, Verne’s Journey would not have been possible.

Axel’s belief in a central fire stem plausibly from passages in Figuier, beginning with the latter’s discussion of LaPlace’s nebular hypothesis for origin of the solar system. According to that theory, the Earth should still be molten within yet steadily cooling at the surface, causing crustal contractions:

the process of contraction ... was another cause of dislocation at the surface, producing either considerable ruptures or simple fissures in the continuity of the crust ... eruptions of granitic or metallic matter—these vast discharges of mineral waters through the fractured surface—would be of frequent occurrence during the primitive epoch.... (98)

Decades before, Davy had described how the cooling of the Earth’s crust caused localized contractions permitting penetration of seawater into crustal cavities, resulting in volcanic eruptions (Consolations 134-35). In both Axel’s (i.e. Figuier’s) and Lidenbrock’s (i.e. Davy’s) terrestrial models, “sedimentary soil” of the Second Period (Journey 143), as well as a host of “antediluvian” organisms, would have fallen episodically through such cracks and fissures. This would explain the presence of fauna from prehistoric times inside the Earth’s great subterranean caverns.

It might seem odd that the experienced geologist Lidenbrock is less up-to-date in his theories of volcanoes than his young and impressionable protegé Axel. But in this case at least, the fictional need outweighs the scientific. Verne has to have the Professor side with Davy (who had supposedly even visited Lidenbrock decades earlier6) in order to make the journey seem more believable.

A final geological prop appears in the conclusion of Journey. The eruption of a full-sized version of Davy’s miniature exploding volcano, Stromboli, transports the adventurers out of their “lost” underground world, back to the Earth’s surface, and back to their modern reality.

The Paleontological. Although more often recognized as a “geological epic” (Costello 83), Verne’s Journey should also be viewed as a “life-through-time” paleontological work. The heroes progress through a cavernous “museum” where fossil exhibits are encountered in situ and where the past comes alive literally and imaginatively, where coordinated textual and artistic “signage” offers explanations to each temporally-ordered “display,” and where the entire experience is framed in nineteenth-century paleontological knowledge through the written commentary of Axel, who may be regarded as the museum’s curator or guide.

Verne often foreshadows living specimens with fossils. The explorers must first descend into an extinct volcano (Snaeffels), later on to be swept up in Stromboli’s live, fiery eruption. Likewise, from chapter 19 onward, the travelers repeatedly come upon fossils of plants and organisms that will later come to life before their amazed eyes.

Verne first conditions the reader to his approach by having the explorers accidentally enter the wrong shaft, one leading upward through layered strata representing geological time. They then must retrace their steps to find an alternate tunnel permitting descent toward the center of the Earth never actually reached in the novel. Their mistake is noticed on the basis of fossil plants and animals preserved on the walls of the dimly lit “museum hallway.” “It became plain [in the upward shaft] that we were moving back up the scale of animal life, of which man forms the peak” (100).

With their protagonists now well on their way, Verne and the illustrator Riou7 proceed to meld text and imagery to dramatize what it would be like to hike through a fantastic setting where all the major representative lifeforms from prehistory could be encountered, sequentially, in a single journey. Riou’s illustrations effectively highlight paleontological passages and serve as a visual counterpoint to Verne’s text, creating a striking paleontological “life-through-time” ambiance wherein fossil bones later become incarnate, sometimes horrifically. At Port Grauben, the explorers enter a primeval forest comprised of 40-foot giant mushrooms (wonderfully illustrated by Riou) and—mentioned in relative stratigraphical order, from oldest to youngest—Sigillarias tree-sized ferns, and enormous lycopods from the Devonian and Coal Age. Axel regards this prehistoric flora as an act of Providence that “seems to have wanted to preserve in this enormous hothouse all the antediluvian plants which have been reconstructed by the scholars” (142). Strewn about are recently lignitized logs, which are used to build a raft, and the bones of certain Cenozoic mammals, Deinotherium and Megatherium. The heroes then launch their raft onto the Lidenbrock Sea, where they soon encounter gigantic patches of algae, which cause Axel to muse “What natural force could have produced such plants? What must the Earth have looked like during the first centuries of its formation when, acted upon by heat and humidity, the vegetable kingdom was developing solitarily on its surface?” (150).

Perhaps the novel’s most illuminating paleontological passage is Axel’s waking dream, much discussed by scholars.8 Here, Verne has masterfully encapsulated four hundred pages of Figuier’s Earth Before the Deluge in some six hundred words. Two “living fossil” fish, Pterichthys and Dipterides, are hooked on a line cast by Hans, prompting Axel’s imagination to be carried away “into the fantastic hypotheses of paleontology” (152). The ensuing waking dream sequence comprises travels across geological time, back to the planet Earth’s formation from a nebula in space. Yet key points along the way are paleontological, as Axel’s mind spins backward into Time’s recesses, where the reader glimpses eight prehistoric mammalian genera. During this directionalist (and non-evolutionary) retrogression through the ages, mammals are soon replaced by saurians, fish, and then invertebrate forms.

Riou’s accompanying illustration reveals Axel’s imaginary vision, foreshadowing what is yet to come along the journey’s route. He places fauna from the most recent age of mammals in the foreground, while those from the older Secondary (Mesozoic) Era can be seen farther out at sea. Certainly Riou could not condense the entire magnificent panorama of Axel’s waking dream—including astronomical aspects—into one drawing. So, using a delimited sense of depth perception, Riou emphasizes the most intriguing elements of Axel’s epiphany—its paleontological components—approximated for the viewer’s perspective as a temporal succession.
Riou’s next two illustrations depict an encounter with and combat between a pair of titanic marine saurians, Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus.9 Fossilized bones have now come to life, as Axel confirms that “two monsters are disturbing the surface of the seas. I have before me two reptiles from the Primitive oceans” (159). The heroes then witness the “indescribable fury” of these creatures as they fight to the death. The explorers have now passed through the Earth’s Secondary Era’s Lias and Lower Oolite stages.10

Shortly thereafter, the explorers encounter a plain of bones upon which “was accumulated the whole history of animal life.... A thousand Cuviers would not have been enough to reconstruct the skeletons of all the once-living creatures which now rested in that magnificent grave-yard” (178). Axel further reflects on how the assemblage may have been deposited through fissures in the crust. While it isn’t clear whether any of the remains represent species formerly inhabiting the Earth’s interior, Axel reasons that the bones formed as flood waters receded, forming the Lidenbrock Sea.

To accompany this passage, Riou illustrates a jumble of bones representing remains of Tertiary elephants (tusks and skulls are most evident). In this way, although Verne discusses Secondary Era species found in the ossuary as well, Riou’s illustration emphasizes that we have graduated well beyond saurian stages of life through the Pliocene epoch, when Mastodon thrived. Moreover, while an assortment of fossils lies intermingled in the ossuary, Verne discusses recognizable genera in relative geological order, from oldest to youngest. As Riou shows, we have clearly strayed into the age of mammals and of prehistoric Man.

Almost on cue, Lidenbrock then spies the mummified remains of a prehistoric man and launches into a humorous lecture on paleontology. In the ensuing chapter, the three explorers (predictably?) encounter living specimens of mastodons and a giant human, a “Proteus of these underground realms” (186). At the sight of the latter, Axel reflects “So the dream world where I had seen the rebirth of this complete world from prehistoric times, combining the Tertiary and Quaternary Periods, had finally become reality!” (186). Riou’s artwork reinforces this impression by presenting, in quick succession, the following illustrations: a plain of fossil bones, the mummified corpse, a luxuriant Tertiary forest, and some grazing mastodons being herded by a giant Quaternary man. It is evident that in Verne’s subterranean paleontological museum, the past repeatedly comes alive both figuratively and literally.

The Paleoanthropological. In a sense, during their journey, Axel, Hans and Lidenbrock become “cavemen.” At one point, the explorers are likened to troglodytes (118); Axel frets over their possible death and transformation into fossils (127), an eventuality that would surely prompt some “serious scientific questions” about how they came to be there in the first place (127). Hans is seen preternaturally as an “antediluvian man” (166). And Otto Lidenbrock is likened to one of Phineas T. Barnum’s (1810-1891) “exhibits” (216).11

In adding most of chapters 37, 38, and 39 to the illustrated 1867 edition of Journey, Verne’s motives were overtly paleoanthropological: he wished to explore the controversial issue of whether humans co-existed in the past with Quaternary fauna such as mammoths. Verne’s use of paleoanthropology permitted continuation of the geological “time tour” up through the most recent stages of prehistory. In contrast to more recent examples in speculative literature, however,12 Verne’s methodology was strictly non-Darwinian. Adding such passages to his novel—inadvertently supporting circumstances of a hoax purportedly proving the existence of man-in-prehistory while (tacitly) failing to embrace evolutionist theories concerning early stages in human development—may seem curious and even contradictory today, given Verne’s inherent science fictional theme.

At the end of chapter 37, the explorers discover a mummified corpse and associated human fossils strewn on a field of bones along the Lidenbrock Sea coast, prompting an excited Lidenbrock to exclaim, “Oh, Milne-Edwards, oh Quatrefages. How I wish you could see me here, Otto Lidenbrock!” (179). Chapter 38 then opens as follows:

To explain this reference to the two distinguished scientists, it should be recalled that a palaeontological event of great importance had taken place some months before our departure.

On 28 March 1863, French workmen under the direction of M. Boucher of Perthes had unearthed a human jaw-bone at a depth of 14 feet below the soil in a quarry at Moulin-Quignon, near Abbeville (Somme). It was the first fossil of the sort ever to see the light of day. Near it were stone axes and worked flints, which time had covered with a uniform coloured patina. This discovery had a huge impact, not only in France but in Britain and Germany. Many scholars from the Institut Français, including Messrs Milne-Edwards and Quatrefages, took the affair very much to heart....

In addition to the United Kingdom geologists who considered the fact as certain ... stood the German scholars. Amongst the most eminent, the most enthusiastic, the most carried away, was my uncle Lidenbrock.

Such a view, it is true, was vigorously challenged by M. Élie de Beaumont. This authoritative and respected scientist maintained that the terrain of Moulin-Quignon did not belong to the “flood” period but was more recent. In agreement with Cuvier on this point, he contended that the human race could not have existed at the same time as the animals of the Quaternary Era. (179-80)

Examining the mummy and seeing it as a vindication of his theories, Lidenbrock then proceeds to pontificate before an imaginary amphitheater of students and colleagues:

“[T]his is a fossil man, and a contemporary of the mastodons whose bones fill this auditorium. But by what route it arrived here, how the strata it was enclosed in slid down into this enormous cavity of the globe, I am unable to tell you. Undoubtedly, in the Quaternary Period, considerable upheavals in the Earth’s crust still occurred. The lengthy cooling of the globe produced fissures, cracks, and faults, into which part of the upper terrain must have dropped.” (183)13

The question at the center of this paleoanthropological debate, of course, was the contemporaneity of early man with prehistoric fossil animals. As one historian has described it, “[t]he debate on ‘the antiquity of man,’ as it was termed, was nowhere more lively, more vehement, than in Paris, where the posthumous authority of Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)—the “father” of modern paleontology—continued to cast a long shadow of skepticism over any discovery claims involving human fossils”(Rudwick, Scenes 158).14

As Lidenbrock expounds upon his discovery of the corpse in the ossuary, he is echoing discussions raging through scientific circles in France and England during the early 1860s following that of Boucher de Perthes (1788-1868). But whereas Boucher de Perthes had made a (genuine) discovery of prehistoric tools two decades before, discounted by skeptical scientists for years, this time the fossil human jaw of Moulin-Quignon turned out to have been planted in the site by unscrupulous workmen. This affair is expertly recounted in the context of the early history of paleoanthropology in chapters 1 and 3 of Erik Trinkaus and Pat Shipman’s The Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind (1993).15

It is interesting that Verne’s account of the affair—no doubt based on Figuier—does not correspond to historical fact. In his Earth Before the Deluge, Louis Figuier reported on the specimens dug from the deposits at Moulin-Quignon: “to the satisfaction of Mr. Prestwich and his colleagues ... flint-implements and the bones of extinct Mammalia are met with in the same beds, and in situations indicating very great antiquity” (476). Figuier’s details here are erroneous; in a letter dated May 5, 1863, British stratigrapher Joseph Prestwich (1812-1896) expressed skepticism about the jaw specimen’s authenticity, indicating that “ignorant workmen wished to imitate the real specimens” (Trinkaus and Shipman 93). Furthermore, a tooth found with the jaw, when sawed open, “proved to be quite recent; the section was white, glistening, full of gelatine, and fresh-looking” (Trinkaus and Shipman 95). In fact, even French scientists “determined to defend their national honor” against English challengers who doubted the jaw’s authenticity never openly accepted the hoax (Trinkaus and Shipman 95).

If Boucher de Perthes’s jawbone had not been perceived by French scientists as “prehistoric,” then Verne would not have needed it—nor the implied prehistoric human being—to complete his fictive paleontological journey. Figuier (whose work Verne admired and relied upon) felt pressured to acknowledge the prehistoric nature of such human remains. As elaborated by Rudwick (Scenes 206-212), Figuier refined his visions of prehistoric man, incorporating Riou’s new image of an Ice Age scene showing the “Appearance of Man” in the 1867 edition of Earth Before the Deluge. Figuier followed with his book L’Homme primitif [Primitive Man], published in 1870, containing thirty engravings by Emile Bayard (1837-1891) that represented the “stages” in the development of prehistoric man. These were cultural stages, however, not phases in organic evolution, which would have been harder to conceive or accept during this period (Moser 122-25, 135).

In yet another way, chapter 39 of Journey captures the essence of this controversial paleoanthropological debate. To quicken the reader’s pulses, Verne presents a dramatic encounter between his travelers and living specimens of prehistoric creatures—both mastodons and man:

Suddenly I stopped short. I held my uncle back.

The uniform light made it possible to see the smallest objects in the depths of the thicket. I thought I saw, no, I really did see, enormous shapes wandering around under the trees! They were in fact gigantic animals, a whole herd of mastodons, no longer fossil, but fully alive, and resembling the ones whose remains were discovered in the bogs of Ohio in 1801....

There, less than a quarter of a mile away, leaning against the trunk of an enormous kauri tree, was a human being, a Proteus of these underground realms, a new son of Neptune, shepherding that uncountable drove of mastodons! ... This was no longer the fossil creature whose body we had propped up amongst the bones; this was a giant, able to command these monsters. He was more than twelve feet tall. His head, as big as a buffalo’s, was half-hidden in the brush of his wild locks—a real mane, like that of the elephants of the first ages. He swung in his hand an enormous bough, an appropriately primeval crook for this shepherd from before the Flood.

We remained motionless, in a daze. But we might be spotted. We had to retreat.

“Run for it!” I shouted, dragging my uncle with me, who for the first time in his life didn’t resist. (186-87)

This passage constitutes a true rarity in Verne’s writing: it is one of the very few fictional scenes when he departs from his customary “hard” scientific approach to indulge in a moment of pure fantasy/horror. For early post-Darwinian readers of the 1860s, this fantastic confrontation with their own (primeval) ancestors certainly must have represented a harrowing literary experience.16

Ironically, views supporting the mechanism of human-primate evolution and survival of the fittest—often reflected in “lost world” tales of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries—cannot be found in Journey. Even Axel’s progressionist “waking dream” narrative is not really evolutionist in nature, and anatomically distinct Neandertal brutes and Pierre Boitard’s (1789-1859) dark vision of ape-men are also absent from Journey.17 Neither Verne’s fossilized human corpse nor the giant “shepherd from before the Flood” (187) appear prehistoric—that is, morphologically. Verne’s “paleo-shepherd” stands erect and unlike Boitard’s ape-man is not simian in appearance. Riou’s shadowy illustration of the shepherd is not as detailed or darkly outlined as his illustrations of prehistoric animals. This makes the giant shadowy shepherd seem all the more imaginary. Did Axel and company really see this apparition? Axel later confesses that believing that races of men populate the deep cavern would be “insane”(187), reflecting Verne’s misgivings on the matter of primeval “missing links.” Certainly, at this time, Verne did not accept the idea of physically less-evolved, primitive-looking ape-men.

Much later, Verne re-explored current ideas about primitive humans, although not in a “life-through-time” perspective. The two most notable examples are a posthumously published short story titled “Humbug: The American Way of Life” and his novel Le Village aérien [The Village in the Treetops] (1901). In the facetious “Humbug,” drafted by Verne in about 1863 and completed for publication in 1910 by his son, Michel Verne (1861-1925), the story’s protagonist gets caught up in a marvelous hoax purported to be a fossilized human skeleton surpassing even the Cardiff Giant’s enormous dimensions. If true, it would be worthy of the moniker “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

In his novel Village, Verne intended to “reconstruct a race intermediate between the most advanced of the apes and lowest men... I deal with the question broadly and fancifully, and anyhow, I am far from reaching the same conclusion as [Charles] Darwin, whose ideas I do not share at all.”18 Whereas Journey’s human-like fossil men were inspired largely by interpretations of the Moulin-Quignon specimens, the Waggdi species of Verne’s Village—intermediate between anthropoids and man—were inspired by Eugene Dubois’s (1858-1940) “missing-link” ape-man fossils, Pithecanthropus erectus, scientifically described in 1894. Interestingly, Dubois’s life-sized restoration of Pithecanthropus was exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exhibition “in which Michel Verne was involved.... The ape-man was the great sensation of the day” (Costello 199). According to DePaolo (31), the sculpture “undoubtedly influenced (Jules) Verne,” forming a conceptual basis for his cryptozoological Waggdi society.

Clearly Verne was current in his understanding of paleoanthropology and intrigued by the scientific controversies of the day surrounding human and ape fossils. In these two paleoanthropologically-themed tales, Verne pokes fun at Darwinism and scientists who dabble in far-fetched evolutionary matters. “Humbug” is an amusing satire both foreshadowing (as well as reflecting) the Cardiff Giant affair, while the latter is another novel in the “lost race” or “lost world” genre, certainly a popular theme in its heyday. Neither tale has the majesty and scope of Verne’s earlier Journey, however. Verne’s imagination excelled when his visions spanned the breadth of geological time, as in Journey, as opposed to being focused on merely the latest individual fossil discovery.19

Both prior to and during the years following Verne’s Journey, a host of apes, prehistoric-aspect anthropoids, and other fictive fossil men appeared in fantastic literature.20 Perhaps the most brilliant paleontological “waking dream” ever written, however, is Stephen Baxter’s novel Evolution (2003). Baxter cleverly devises an effective literary means to project a “life-through-time” paleoanthropological portrayal approximating Journey’s time span. While Baxter describes prehistoric scenes of 65, 63, 51, 32, 5, 1.5, .0127, .060 and .052 million years ago (and so on into the far future), earlier segments bear direct connection to our own prehistoric ancestry. For if the individual protagonists of each vignette do not survive to pass along their heredity to the gene pool of a subsequent generation, our species and civilization—we ourselves—will never come to pass. In Baxter’s prehistoric worlds, life’s contingency is distinctively paleoanthropological because it leads to us.21

In contrast to Baxter’s Evolution, Verne’s (and Riou’s) treatment of paleontology in the revised and illustrated 1867 edition of Journey emphasizes prehistoric succession of plant and animal life through geological time, dispensing with an evolutionary theme and yet culminating in a conclusion—then remarkable—that early, morphologically modern races of man did indeed coexist with extinct prehistoric mammals.

Conclusion. Volcanoes, fossils, and prehistoric leviathans anachronistically juxtaposed with modern adventurers would seem an odd admixture of literary props to be confronted with in a novel appearing in the 1860s. Yet in Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, scientific pedagogy provides the necessary perspective and justification through the thrill of a unique “life-through-time” experience that captured his readers’ imaginations. Framed within a (secondary) disbelief-suspending geological debate over the Earth’s central heat, Verne’s real focus is on organic transformation, especially in his revised and illustrated 1867 edition. The latter’s added paleoanthropological components dovetail splendidly with the novel’s paleo-temporal flow, creating a time-travel imagetext that transports readers to new ways of thinking—about geology but also about humanity.


1. The 1867 octavo edition was the first to be illustrated—by the artist Edouard Riou (1833-1900)—and included several additional scenes, most of them in chapters 37-39. These passages include the discovery of a vast graveyard of prehistoric bones along with the mummified body of a human dating from the Quaternary Era (triggering the impromptu lecture on paleontology by an excited Professor Lidenbrock), and a hallucinatory encounter with a live herd of mastodons accompanied by a giant herdsman. These revisions of Journey reflect Verne’s desire to insert the latest scientific developments and debates into his fiction, in this case the controversial discoveries of Boucher de Perthes. All excerpts and page references to Journey are from William Butcher’s translation for the Oxford World’s Classics (1998).

2. The standard biography is physician John Ayrton Paris’s The Life of Sir Humphry Davy (1831); those seeking a short yet authoritative description of Davy’s illustrious chemistry career may consult David M. Knight’s summary in Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Had the sub-specialty been recognized then, in addition to chemistry Davy would also have been regarded as an early geochemist. For besides making important collections of minerals for the Royal Society cabinet and providing public lectures on the chemical history of the Earth, Davy weighed in experimentally on the Plutonist versus Neptunist debates concerning the origins of basalt and studied erupting volcanoes. Surprisingly, Davy was more of a “Plutonist” (i.e., basalt formed through heat action) as opposed to “Neptunist” (i.e., basalt had an aqueous origin), which seems paradoxical given the nature of his chemical theory for volcanic eruptions. Davy also pondered paleontological matters, as in his little known Consolations In Travel, or the Last Days of A Philosopher (1830). Although much of Davy’s discussion centers on how man is not coeval with prehistoric animals, he structures his arguments in a “life-through-time” fashion. While some of Davy’s passages in Consolations may have a pre-(Charles)-Darwinian “evolutionist” or gradualist ring, Davy opposes that “absurd, vague doctrine ... which supposes that living nature has undergone gradual changes ... that the fish has in millions of generations ripened into the quadruped, and the quadruped into man” (Consolations 148-49).

3. Nearly two centuries prior to Davy, Edward Jorden (b. 1569) challenged the central fire hypothesis popularized through works such as Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus (1664). Jorden hypothesized a low temperature “fermentation process” in opposition to reliance on central heat, which he felt did not exist, to account for volcanic eruptions, occurrences of mineral springs, or metal ore deposits within the Earth’s crust (see Debus).

4. Verne didn’t read English, so one might speculate how he learned about the Englishman Davy, whose geological ideas are vital to Journey’s verisimilitude and its popular success. Davy’s theory is certainly given short shrift in Louis Figuier’s work, and there is little to identify Davy as a key to Saknussemm’s earlier, fictitious adventure. In 1813, Davy was awarded a medal from the French Academy for his electrochemical (not geological) research, which was notable given that France and England were then at war. It is likely that Verne may have been led to Davy through the French vulcanologist Charles Sainte-Deville (1814-1876) and the work of Scottish geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833, French edition 1843-48) was hugely influential and reformed geology during the mid-nineteenth century. Lyell did mention Davy’s volcanic theory, and French geologists were no doubt familiar with key passages.

5. Chemical tests performed on lava were not consistent with predictions of Davy’s theory. Davy’s hypothesis was challenged by Joseph Gay-Lussac (1778-1850). According to the latter’s chemical oxidation model of 1823, volcanic explosions occurred following contact with a salty seawater catalyst, rather than Davy’s fresh water. Rather than inflammable hydrogen, evolved gases were enriched in sulfide and chlorine. In 1820, Davy had already suggested that eruptions along the coast might be initiated when seawater contacted metals within the Earth (Paris, 2, 347). Eventually, Davy admitted that although there was

no other adequate source other than the oxidation of the metals which form the bases of the earths and alkalies ... it must not be denied that considerations derived from thermometrical experiments on the temperature of mines and on sources of hot water, render it probable that the interior of the globe possesses a very high temperature; and the hypothesis of the nucleus of the globe being composed of fluid matter, offers a still more simple solution of the phenomenon of volcanic fires than that which has just been developed. (qtd. in Paris 2, 347)

German geologist Leopold von Buch (1774-1853) improvised a theory of “elevation craters” founded on Davy’s mode of chemically caused volcanic eruption, which explained basaltic uplift. See Laudan for more on alternative nineteenth-century volcanic theories.

6. Lidenbrock proudly states that Davy had paid him a visit in 1825 while the latter was “passing through Hamburg” and that they “had a long discussion about the hypothesis that the innermost core of the Earth was liquid” (31). But, given that Verne describes Lidenbrock as being about fifty years old at the time of this story (1863), the Professor would have been only twelve or thirteen at the time of this supposed visit.

7. For a further discussion of the artwork in Verne’s work, see Evans, “The Illustrators of Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires.” Riou was a landscape painter of the 1850s through 1870s, of whom artist Ron Miller has stated that “I believe (Riou’s) work stylistically spans the transition between the illustrators of the early 19th century and those of the latter half—when the profession of professional illustrators became established” (qtd. in Evans “The Illustrators” 250). For more on Riou, see Rudwick, Scenes (chapter six) and Moser (120-25).

8. See, for instance, Evans, Jules Verne Rediscovered (62-63); Costello (84-85); and Breyer and Butcher (43). Unmentioned by De Paolo in his book is Jack London’s interesting Before Adam (1907), where on page 139 the protagonist, a twentieth-century human although in atavistic form, experiences an “epiphany” much like Axel’s waking dream. Unlike Verne, however, London was rather pro-Darwin.

9. Riou had supplied an entire series of drawings for Figuier’s Earth Before the Deluge. One of Riou’s two marine saurian combat illustrations for Journey recalls a similar one in the chapter called “Jurassic Period” (Plate XV). Rudwick refers to contemporary portrayals of such prehistoric monsters fighting as “visual cliché” (Scenes 186).

10. Soon after, they discover a geyser on a volcanic island at sea, a result favoring Axel’s central heat hypothesis that also foreshadows the novel’s climactic, fiery denouement. During a violent electrical storm at sea that reverses their compass and direction, Axel notices a scent of “laughing gas” (nitrous oxide), which causes the seafarers to choke. Although Verne may have meant to say “ozone” (discovered in 1840), it was Humphry Davy who discovered laughing gas in 1800.

11. Shortly following publication of the 1867 edition of Journey, Barnum showcased a “fossil man” in 1869; known as the Cardiff Giant, this was a famous American hoax. Verne’s reference to Barnum’s exploitation of fossil men (181) curiously antedates the Cardiff Giant by two years. See Franco for more about the Cardiff Giant affair.

12. See, for instance, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s (1875-1950) The Land That Time Forgot (1918) or Stephen Baxter’s Evolution (2003).

13. In the cited passage, Lidenbrock has also deftly linked Boucher de Perthes’s theory of man coeval with Mastodon to Davy’s cooled Earth concept. But by the late 1860s, Boucher de Perthes’s Moulin-Quignon evidence would be proven false, while Davy’s theory had already been falsified decades before. This passage might also be interpreted as demonstrating how young Axel is a more meticulous and level-headed scientist than his uncle. Verne may even be revealing contempt for (or lack of confidence in) benighted geologists and paleontologists through the pedantic figure of Lidenbrock— whom readers have been browbeaten to trust through 38 chapters.

14. Years before, Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) earned fame for debunking Johann Jacob Scheuchzer’s (1672-1733) infamous Homo diluvii testis, originally regarded as a drowned witness of the Flood, but which was instead revealed to be a fossilized Miocene giant salamander. Cuvier’s implied “rule” was that Man did not coexist with fossil mammals. Therefore, Man was not “prehistoric.” In fact, questions of human evolution or what Man’s evolutionary (anatomically primitive) ancestors looked like could not even be objectively entertained until Cuvier’s “rule” could be falsified or overthrown. In France, during the time that Verne labored on his editions of Journey, Cuvier still ruled the day.

15. Trinkaus and Shipman do not mention Verne’s evident interest in the matter or discuss Albert Koch’s (d. 1867) contributions to this scientific debate (v. Koch, Description).

16. The first French translation of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) was published in Paris in 1863—during the time that Verne was working on the first edition of Journey (see Costello 83).

17. Boitard’s fictional ape-man is discussed both in Rudwick (Scenes 168) and Moser (134-37). Evidently Verne wasn’t prepared to speculate quite as freely or daringly on the subject of man’s evolutionary ancestors as did Boitard in his 1861 novel Paris avant les hommes [Paris Before Man].

18. Verne interview, quoted in Costello (198).

19. Marc Angenot and Nadia Khouri claim that the “much broader and more significant spectrum” of prehistoric fiction is comprised by “what we term ‘ape-man tales’” (38). Angenot and Khouri consider Journey’s fossil men as part of a (paleoanthropological) “narrative formula” known as the “lost world” tale.

20. Perhaps the best condensed compilation of such tales is to be found in Peter Fitting’s recent anthology Subterranean Worlds (2004), although his emphasis is on anthropoidal creatures dwelling inside the Earth. The French sf author J.-H. Rosny the Elder (1866-1940) also specialized in paleoanthropological themes (Vernier 156-63).

21. When it comes to dinosaurs and fossil saurians of fantastic fiction, an enduring convention is to anthropomorphize the reptiles. “Paleo-man” is supplanted by or transformed into “reptile-man” (e.g. dinosauroids, or other cleverly disguised dinosaurs infiltrating human society). Thus, even dinosaurs of fantastic fiction can be considered in a paleoanthropological light after all.

Angenot, Marc, and Nadia Khouri.“An International Bibliography of Prehistoric Fiction.” SFS 7.1 (1981): 38-53.

Baxter, Stephen. Evolution. New York: Ballantine, 2003.

Breyer, John, and William Butcher. “Nothing New under the Earth: The Geology of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Earth Sciences History 22.1 (2003): 36-54.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. The Land That Time Forgot. 1918. New York: Ace, 1963.

Butcher, William. “Introduction.” Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth: Trans. William Butcher. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. vii-xxxii.

Costello, Peter. Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction. New York: Scribner’s, 1978.

Davy, Humphry. “On the Phenomena of Volcanoes.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. London. 1828. Vol. 118, 241-50.

─────. Consolations In Travel, or the Last Days of A Philosopher. Philadelphia: John Grigg, 1830.

Debus, Allen G. “Edward Jorden and the Fermentation of the Metals: An Iatrochemical Study of Terrestrial Phenomena.” Toward A History of Geology. Proceedings of the New Hampshire Inter-Disciplinary Conference on the History of Geology, Sept. 7-12, 1967. Ed. Cecil J. Schneer. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. 1969. 100-121.

De Paolo, Charles. Human Prehistory in Fiction, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003.

Evans, Arthur B. Jules Verne Rediscovered: Didacticism and the Scientific Novel. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

─────. ”Literary Intertexts in Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires.” SFS 23.2 (July 1996): 172-73.

─────. “The Illustrators of Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires.” SFS 25:2 (July 1998): 241-70.

Evans, I.O. “Introduction.” Jules Verne. The Village in the Treetops. 1901. New York: Ace, 1964.

Figuier, Louis. La Terre avant le Déluge. Paris: Hachette, 1864. Translated as The World Before the Deluge. Trans. Henry W. Bristow. London: Chapman and Hall, 1865.

─────. L’Homme Primitif. Paris: Hachette, 1870. Translated as Primitive Man. Trans. Edward Burnet Taylor. London: Chapman and Hall, 1870.

Fitting, Peter, ed. Subterranean Worlds: A Critical Anthology. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2004.

Florescu, Radu. In Search of Frankenstein. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975.

Franco, Barbara. The Cardiff Giant: A Hundred Year Hoax. Cooperstown, NY: New York Historical Assoc., 1990.

Kircher, Athanasius. Mundus Subterraneus, in XII Libros Digestus. Amsterdam: Apud Joannem Janssonium et Elizeum Weyerstraten, 1665.

Knight, David M. “Humphry Davy.” Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol III. New York: Scribner’s,1971. 598-604.

Koch, Albert. Description of the Missourium, or Missouri Leviathan; Together With its Supposed Habits and Indian Traditions Concerning the Location From Whence it was Exhumed: Also, Comparisons of the Whale, Crocodile and Missourium, With the Leviathan, as Described in the 41st Chapter of Job. 2nd ed. Louisville: Prentice and Weissinger, 1841. 19-20.

Laudan, Rachel. From Mineralogy to Geology: The Foundations of a Science 1650-1830. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

London, Jack. Before Adam. New York: Macmillan, 1907.

Lottman, Herbert R. Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.

Mitchell, W.J.T. The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.

Moser, Stephanie. Ancestral Images: The Iconography of Human Origins. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1998.

Paris, John Ayrton. The Life of Sir Humphry Davy. 2 Volumes. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831.

Roberts, Charles G.D. In the Morning of Time. London: Dent, 1923.

Rudwick, Martin J.S. “The Emergence of a Visual Language For Geological Science 1760-1840.” History of Science 14 (1976): 150.

─────. “Encounters with Adam, or at least the Hyenas: Nineteenth-Century Visual Representations of the Deep Past.” History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene. Ed. James R. Moore, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 231-51.

─────. Scenes From Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Shortland, Michael. “Darkness Visible: Underground Culture in the Golden Age of Geology.” History of Science 32.1 (1995): 1-61.

Sommer, Marianne. “The Romantic Cave? The Scientific and Poetic Quests for Subterranean Spaces in Britain.” Earth Sciences History 22.2 (2003): 172-208.

Trinkaus, Erik, and Pat Shipman. The Neandertals: Changing the Face of Mankind. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Verne, Jules. Voyage au centre de la Terre. Hetzel: Paris, 1864. Trans as Journey to the Center of the Earth. Trans. William Butcher. Oxford: Oxford UP. 1998.

─────. Le Village aérien. Paris: Hetzel, 1901. Trans. as The Village In the Treetops. Trans. I.O. Evans. New York: Ace, 1964.

─────. The Best of Jules Verne. Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1978. A Journey to the Center of the Earth (reprint of 1872 English ed.). 281-458.

─────. Voyage à reculons en Angleterre et en Écosse. Ed. Christian Robin. Paris: Cherche Midi, 1989. Translated as Backwards to Britain. Trans. Janice Valls-Russell. New York: Chambers. 1992.

───── (with Michel Verne). “Le Humbug: moeurs américains.” Hier et demain. Paris: Hachette, 1910. Rpt. Livre de poche, 1967. 145-86. Translated as “The Humbug: The American Way of Life.” Trans. William Butcher. Edinburgh: Acadian, 1991.

Vernier, J.P. “The Science Fiction of J.-H. Rosny the Elder.” SFS 2.2 (July 1975): 156-93.

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