Axel is at the Hamburg house he shares with his uncle, Professor Lidenbrock. It is May 24, 1863. Lidenbrock rushes home, disconcerting Martha the cook, who is not ready with dinner yet.
Axel explains that his uncle is eccentric and egoistic, a mineralogist scholar and polyglot. He is brilliant, of course, but pursues his studies for himself and not for others. Although Lidenbrock does have a small speech impediment that people tend to mock, his name is much honored in the intellectual community. He is tall, thin, blonde, and possessing of “an iron constitution” (5). He has big eyes, a sharp nose, and imposing glasses. Lidenbrock's little home overlooking the canals leans a bit but holds up well. He is not poor, and houses both his orphan nephew and Grauben, a girl from Virland. Axel admires his frenetic and intelligent uncle, and himself pursues the study of geological science.
Lidenbrock’s study is practically a museum; the rocks and stones and gems have always fascinated Axel. That day, though, when Axel enters he sees his uncle perusing a book in excitement and delight. Axel is confused. He simply watches and listens while his uncle exults over this text. Finally, Lidenbrock says that he is examining the Heimskringla by Snorre Turlseon, a 12th-century Icelandic author who chronicled the Norwegian princes who ruled over Iceland.
Axel asks a few questions, and his uncle snottily tells him that he is looking at a runic manuscript; Axel’s pride is a little hurt due to his uncle’s manner. Before they can talk more about the runes, a filthy piece of paper falls from the book onto the floor. Lidenbrock picks it up and spreads it on the table in wonderment. It contains bizarre markings—the same runes used in the official manuscript. He mumbles that it is Old Icelandic.
Martha the cook interrupts and says that dinner is ready, but the professor is too absorbed to eat. Axel, though, has no qualms about breaking off for a meal.
Lidenbrock calls Axel back in to help him. He dictates the letter in an alphabet corresponding to the Icelandic characters, eventually coming up with a bunch of nonsense words. He concludes that he has found a cipher, since the letters are mixed up. This insight excites him, and he assumes that there is some great discovery to be made. He muses how the hands of the two texts that he is dealing with are different, but he cannot identify the creator of the cipher.
On the back of the book he sees a mark and leans in to decipher it. He sees that it is the name of Arne Saknussemm, a 16th Icelandic scholar and alchemist. There must be some great secret that the man was keeping, Lidenbrock decides. He looks at the words and concludes that they must be Latin, only jumbled up; if he and Axel had the key, then they could figure it all out.
As Lidenbrock talks, Axel’s thoughts wander to the portrait of Grauben on the wall. He and Grauben were in love and had become engaged, but his uncle did not know of these plans. Grauben was a fine mineralogist in her own right as well.
Lidenbrock brings Axel's attention back and asks him to write the words vertically. They play around with their findings; at one point, Axel accidentally writes out that he loves Grauben. His uncle is momentarily surprised but turns back to his project. Eventually, Lidenbrock loses his temper because he cannot figure out any sensible message. He barrels downstairs and out the door.
Martha is distressed that Lidenbrock has left. Axel informs her that Lidenbrock has said that no one is to eat until the mystery is solved. Axel wants to find Grauben and tell her what is going on, but he is worried that his uncle will return and will need his assistance.
Axel himself cannot stop thinking about the document either, but he is filled with an anxiety that will not abate. He sits in a large chair and lets his ruminations wander. For a few moments he works on the document again. After a time he feels that he is almost hallucinating and starts to wave the paper in front of his face to circulate air. When he does so, he notices something about the letters, picking out actual Latin words. To his delight, he sees that he has figured out how to understand the text: simply read the whole thing as one sentence.
After he reads in this manner, his face registers shock. He is astonished by the message and does not want his uncle to see it because Lidenbrock will no doubt pursue the terrible journey that the message details. He decides that all he can do is destroy the document.
As Axel is about to destroy the document, his uncle enters. Restless but determined, his uncle takes the document and works on it for three hours. Axel is quiet and watches him work.
The next morning Lidenbrock is still at it, fevered and tired. Axel starts to feel sorry for his uncle and wonders if he ought to say something, but the danger of revealing what he has found prevents him. What start to bother him, though, are the hunger pains from not eating. Around noon he starts to feel unwell. Two hours later he is worse and decides to reveal all.
Axel calls his uncle in a loud voice; when the professor sees his nephew’s face, he realizes that something is going on. Axel makes a sign and points out what he learned. Lidenbrock lets out a tremendous roar of triumph. He reads the message backwards to forwards and deciphers: “Go down into the crater of Snaefells Yocul which the shadow of Scartaris caresses before the calends of July, O audacious traveller, and you will reach the centre of the Earth. I did it. Arne Saknussemm” (25).
Lidenbrock is ebullient, energized. He tells Axel to pack their trunks.
Axel is very worried, especially when his uncle starts talking about how Axel will get some of the credit for their discoveries. Axel tries to dissuade Lidenbrock, suggesting that the document is a practical joke. To Axel's annoyance, Lidenbrock asks him to continue in a scholarly mode and to lay out his opinions.
Axel first asks about the place names, but his uncle is able to tell him what they refer to. (Snaefells, for instance, is the extinct crater that they must descend into.) Eventually Axel is worn down yet still maintains that it is unlikely that Saknussemm went down into the Earth and came back to tell about it. Such a journey would be impossible on account of the temperature of the center. The professor counters that no one actually knows what the temperature is and that it cannot be as hot as people say it is; if it were, the whole Earth would be compromised. Axel begins to agree with Lidenbrock, reluctantly. Even his ideas about internal heat fall away. In triumph, his uncle says that they must keep their find a secret from everyone.
In the immediate aftermath of the conversation with Lidenbrock, Axel is enthusiastic and ready to depart. As time passes, though, he loses his zeal.
While out walking he sees Grauben and calls to her. She sees his distress; for his part, Axel confides everything. To his surprise, Grauben encourages him to go on the adventure.
At home, Lidenbrock tells Axel that they are indeed leaving. Axel endures an awful night, but when he comes downstairs to set out he sees Grauben there. She tells him that she has talked to Lidenbrock about his aims and goals; now, she thinks that it will be a fantastic journey for the two men. When Axel comes home he will be a man, Lidenbrock’s equal. Then, Axel and Grauben can marry as they wish.
Axel and Grauben go into the professor’s study; he tells them that he and Axel must be ready to depart right away. Grauben helps Axel pack, telling him calmly all the while about why the excursion is a good idea.
That night Axel is filled with terror. He dreams of chasms and of falling forever. In the morning he feels weak and frightened. Grauben says goodbye and the men embark upon their adventure.
The packages are loaded onto a steam engine and the train departs. Axel looks out the window and examines the countryside. He and Lidenbrock arrive in Kiel and spend the day wandering around before the time comes to leave. They then board a ship and sail to the capital of Denmark.
At ten the two men disembark and proceed to the Museum of Northern Antiquities. Keeping their secret, they converse with Lidenbrock’s friend Professor Thomson. They then look for a schooner to take to Iceland. Axel is still very apprehensive, but enjoys exploring Copenhagen. He wishes that Grauben were with him.
Lidenbrock devises the idea of venturing up a very high church spire to get used to heights. He yells at Axel when the boy seems trepidatious. In fact, Axel can barely open his eyes when they make it to the top, and when he does he becomes dizzy. Nevertheless, he forces himself to look. His uncle then announces that he and Axel will practice again the next day.
Verne’s adventure stories are most memorable for their fantastic environs, such as the depths of the ocean and the bowels of the Earth, but his characters also play an important role in the novels’ enduring popularity. In this work, the main figures are Axel and Lidenbrock, who could not be more different. Axel is less finely drawn, occasionally cartoonish in his persistent anxiety and tremulousness. However, he is also a stand-in for the reader, and we may forgive him his trepidations when we realize exactly how terrifying the journey truly is. Lidenbrock, in contrast, is multifaceted and endlessly intriguing. He is a classic brilliant-but-mad professor type, arrogant and condescending but mesmerizing in his insatiable enthusiasm and ambition. It might not be a stretch to see why Axel is so retiring at times, given his uncle’s occasionally overbearing behavior. As for the only two female characters in the novel, unfortunately both Martha and Grauben are mere ciphers. Neither has any sense of psychological dimension; Martha is a harried cook and Grauben a beautiful and loving young woman whose only role is to encourage the protagonist on his journey.
In these first chapters Verne sets up the coming action. It is no wonder that his works are progenitors and still perhaps some of the best examples of science fiction and adventure stories: here, there is a mysterious manuscript complete with an abstruse message which, once deciphered, alludes to an unbelievable journey undertaken by a brilliant-yet-misunderstood 16th-century alchemist and scholar. A sense of thrill also arises when it becomes clear Lidenbrock and Axel are the only ones who know about Arne Saknussemm’s putative journey to the centre of the Earth.
In the introduction to the Oxford Classics edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth, scholar William Butcher articulates why he believes that the novel is so thrilling: “The mood is light-hearted—although hardly optimistic, for it contains tragic, obsessive, and sometimes morbid elements. There is even a love-element, of sorts. In this novel, more than elsewhere, Verne seems to let himself go, while at the same time drawing inspiration from many different sources.” He adds that the novel is “unusual in its degree of escape from contemporary (and indeed historical) reality. Verne is here in his element. He delights in the feel of subterranean existence, with imagination, even dreams, playing an important role. His writing is volcanic.”
There are several fascinating sides to point out about the characters and text itself. First of all, Snorre Turleson was a real historian and politician who composed the Heimskringla, a chronicle of Norse mythology and early history. The work was written on vellum; as for the runes, Verne was influenced by runic characters he saw in Oslo in 1861. The characters are from a little-known type used in Scandinavia from around 450-1200 and in Britain from 650-1100. Second, Arne Saknussemm is not an actual person but is based on Professor Arni Magnusson, an Icelandic scholar. Magnussen traveled on behalf of the King of Denmark in the early 1700s; some of his work was lost in a 1728 fire at the University of Copenhagen.
In terms of literary allusions, Verne’s idea for the cryptogram most likely came from Edgar Allan Poe’s famed detective short story “The Gold Bug.” But there are other true-to-live historical references that appear at this early point in the novel, too; Sir Humphrey Davy, for instance, was a chemist who discovered laughing gas, invented the miners’ safety lamp, and proved that the diamond was a form of carbon. “Calends” was the first day of the month in the Roman calendar; a Leyden jar was an electrical condenser with a glass jar that served as a dielectric between sheets of tin foil. August Petermann of Leipzig, who is also mentioned, was a cartographer and geographer.