When I explain my honors thesis subject to those who ask about it, not a few of them ask if I plan on looking at Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel, since the volcanic entrance to the cavernous depths of the world in his story is ‘Snäfell,’ in western Iceland. For some , Journey to the Center of the Earth might be their only popular source of information on the country, since it is perceived as so remote, and, in many American minds at least, the Nordic countries can all get mixed up in a Scandinavian mélange of fjörds and vikings and skyr.
To Verne’s credit, therefore, he has put Iceland on the map for many people over the past century and a half (his book was first published in France in 1864, and was translated by 1871). To his discredit, however, he never visited Iceland himself, and instead relied primarily on two French works on Iceland written about scientific expeditions made there in the late 1830s. One of these was published in eight volumes by the Commission Scientifique d’Islande et de Gröenland, and the other was by the Commission Scientifique du Nord; both are accepted as fairly reliable sources from the period with relatively little of the hyperbole I’ve referred to in the past, although the former works’ illustrations, according to Sir Richard Burton in his book Ultima Thule, “are so exaggerated as to be ridiculous, and unfortunately they have been transferred to the pages of succeeding authors.” Verne seems to ignore the British contributions to Icelandic science and study (of which there were several by the time he was writing his book). This is partially evinced in the conversation Professor Lidenbrock has with his host, M. Fridrikson:
‘The island has been already visited by learned men, I believe.’
‘Yes, M. Lidenbrock. The labours of MM. Olafsen and Povelson, undertaken by order of the king, the researches of Troil, the scientific mission of MM. Gaimard and Robert, in the French corvette La Recherche, and lastly the observations made by savants on the frigate La Reine Hortense, have largely contributed to our knowledge of Iceland.’
Olafsen and Povelson were Icelanders trained in Denmark, von Troil was Swedish, and La Recherche and La Reine Hortense carried the men who would write the two French works already mentioned. Excursions by Sir Joseph Stanley, Sir George Mackenzie, Sir Henry Holland, and Lord Dufferin, to name a few were forgotten. But let’s get back to Burton: in his list of previous works by travelers to Iceland, the proud English explorer wrote “Amongst travellers [we cannot] reckon M. Jules Verne’s ‘Voyage au Centre de la Terre,’ the least meritorious of the ‘terribly thrilling’ and marvelously impossible series” (by this he means the Voyages extraordinaires that includes titles like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, etc.). I find little reason to suspect Burton of Franco-phobia given that he lived in France for a time, spoke the language fluently, and expressly admired the French publications mentioned above (“it is admirably got up, with every luxe of printing; there is Gallic discipline in the strict editorial control … what a contrast to the shabby article which ultra-economical England would have produced!”). Burton may have been peeved at the popularity of such a clearly fanciful work and the ease of writing about amazing travels without actually carrying them out–he later writes that “Iceland is no place for dilettanti grimpeurs [amateur climbers]; it has neither comfortable inns nor Bureaux des Guides—these Alps are not to be passed over summâ diligentiâ [unless with the greatest care]; and M. Jules Verne’s balloon has not yet found its way there.”
So far we’ve seen that Verne didn’t visit Iceland before writing about it and that it isn’t apparent that he made use of all the sources available to him–neither is a very serious point against him, and anyway my point is not to detract from his popular work but to point out what makes his book an interesting source for the historian trying to learn about perceptions of Iceland in the nineteenth century. Let’s look at one more problem with Journey to the Center of the Earth as it concerns Iceland–which, in case you forget, is a backdrop for only about thirty pages of the book.
It wouldn’t be apparent unless you read his original (i.e. French) version, but Verne made a bad translating decision when he turned the Icelandic Snæfellsjökull into ‘Sneffles’ in French (which English translators then made ‘Snäfell’).* This might seem to be petty nit-picking at Monsieur Verne’s artistic liberty, but the reason I take issue has historical precedence: In 1883, Jules LeClercq (I’ve previously quoted him on Icelandic fish and horses) pointed out that Verne’s translation to Sneffles, when read back in Icelandic, would change the root of the volcano/glacier’s name from “snow-mountain” (snæ-fell) to “sniff” (snyða), giving the mountain the French name ‘Renifleur,’ which translates to Sniffler. I don’t think Verne knew enough of the language to be making a joke, as I haven’t found any similarly jocular hints on the topic in his book, and Burton wrote that the author’s naming of Sneffles was “a sniffling disguise, which seems to have been, but is not, invented in jest”; that is, he does not believe Verne made a pun on the peak’s appellation on purpose.
Ironically, the Introductory Note to my borrowed copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Dover Publications, Inc. (2005) mentions that, “During Verne’s time, intrepid explorers such as Sir Richard Burton were capturing the world’s attention with well-publicized expeditions to ‘dark corners’ of the earth…” Perhaps part of Burton’s annoyance at Verne’s works had to do with the fact that he perceived himself as a ‘real’ explorer (which undoubtedly he was), while Verne made a living off writing about fantastical versions of the world–and probably made more money from his book sales than Burton did. Both of them were prolific authors, each writing over forty books and countless other essays and articles. And in the end, the Frenchman made as significant a contribution in putting Iceland on the map from his desk in Paris as the British explorer did in his attempts to traverse parts of the island’s uncharted territory.
*There is no doubt that Verne was referring to Snæfellsjökull, as the volcano’s height and last eruption date he gave in his book–5,000 feet and 1219 A.D.–match the 4,749 feet and 200 A.D. measurements given by the Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Program, plus the Sneffles’ and Snæfellsjökull’s geographic locations are perfectly synchronous: they’re right on the tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula northwest of Reykjavík.