With the letters of recommendation and luggage safely stowed away, Hans and Lidenbrock depart on the schooner Valkyrie. They will spend ten days on this initial journey, passing Scotland on the way to Iceland. Once the schooner approaches Portland Cape the water grows rough, but the vessel is finally able to drop anchor and the men alight.
Lidenbrock sees Snaefells in the distance and crows with delight. The governor of the island, Baron Trampe, greets them. Mayor Mr. Finson and the science teacher, Mr. Fridriksson, with whom the travelers will stay, also join them. The latter is the only person Axel can speak with due to language barriers.
Then, Lidenbrock decides to visit the library and Axel chooses to walk about the town, which he finds bleak and depressing. There is a small Protestant church but no trees and scant vegetation. The houses are diminutive. He sees few inhabitants, and considers them “exiles on this frozen land” (50). The men do not smile and the women are sad and resigned.
Axel and his uncle have dinner at their host’s house, Axel being cautioned to say nothing of their true plans in being there. Mr. Fridriksson explains that there is a huge library in the town but that the books are actually dispersed among the inhabitants because everyone wants to read them and share them; love of learning is in the blood of the country’s people. He asks if Lidenbrock wants to see any particular books.
After a moment, Lidenbrock asks if there are any works by Arne Saknussemm. Fridriksson is pleased with this request and seems to admire the scholar, but then admits that there are no books by Saknussemm left because he was persecuted for heresy and his books burned in Copenhagen in 1573. Lidenbrock cannot resist an utterance of delight, which causes his host to inquire whether he knows of a secret. Lidenbrock says that he does not, and talk turns to mineralogy. Unknowingly, Fridriksson suggests going to see Snaefells, the impressive mountain with the extinct crater. Since this conversation is conducted in Latin, Axel can understand and is amused. Fridriksson tells the visitors that they will have to travel by land to the mountain since there are no small boats in Reykjavik; he will also procure a guide for them.
The next morning Axel finds his uncle talking to Hans, their guide. Hans is very tall and imposing, with an intelligent and calm demeanor; he is also a skilled hunter of eider. This serious manner allows him to get along well with Lidenbrock. Hans agrees to take the two travelers to Stapi, the village at the base of the mountain. Getting there will take seven to eight days, longer than Lidenbrock and Axel had planned.
Axel gives an overview of the objects that will be brought on the expedition: a thermometer (which he does not think can handle the extreme temperatures they will no doubt find); a manometer to show air pressure greater than that of sea-level; a chronometer; compasses; a night-glass; Ruhmkorff lamps; two rifles and two revolvers; tools; provisions in terms of food and gin (but no water, since they will use springs); a medical kit (which scares Axel); tobacco; money; and clothing.
The men dine with Baron Trampe, the mayor, and a prominent physician before they depart. Lidenbrock is granted a map and chart of Iceland to help with his pursuits in mineralogy. The next morning, Axel wakes up at five. The horses are prancing and whinnying and Hans is loading the luggage. Everyone bids adieu.
The weather is perfect for Lidenbrock's travels and Axel even begins to feel a sense of excitement about the journey. He does not think that they will actually go to the center of the Earth, but at least this stage of the expedition is fascinating. Hans leads the travelers around the shore. Mountain peaks jut up through the clouds. Lidenbrock praises his horse as brave and reliable.
The countryside seems deserted, with only a few hardscrabble huts dotting the land. This layout amuses Axel, since he is supposedly passing through one of the more inhabited parts of the country. Axel has no idea of the terrors of Nature that await him when he gets closer to the interior.
Eventually, the three men reach a small settlement named Ejulberg, where they rest. They then need to cross a mile-wide fjord, but Lidenbrock’s horse disappoints him by dumping him off. To their good fortune there is a ferry, and they cross the fjord with the horses and their luggage in an hour. They then reach Garoar.
In Iceland the sun never sets, and Axel notes that the nights are filled with light. He and his companions spend the evening at a peasant’s house and have a pleasant time with the man, his wife, and their nineteen children. The food is strange to Axel but he is so hungry that he eats everything.
The three men soon depart for the next leg of their journey. The land becomes marshier and harsher. The mountains extend forever. The bleak landscape is only made more disturbing when the travelers see a grotesque leper wandering about. Axel feels very melancholy.
That night Lidenbrock and the others rest in an abandoned, cold cottage. The next day the features of the environment are the same, but the travelers see steam rising above ground from hot springs. They arrive at a seacoast village and spend one day there before they move on.
Now at Stapi, a small parsonage and settlement, Axel notes the new features of the landscape. It is comprised of basalt, an igneous rock that takes geometric patterns as though shaped purposefully by humans, spreading out in pyramids and cones and lines. Axel has heard of famous basalt constructions before but has never seen them in person. Some of the basalt has toppled over, and has come to resemble Classical ruins.
At Stapi, Axel and the others stay with the Rector, whom Axel finds rather coarse (much like very the country people that these priests must minister to). This man, who is not a scholar but a rural peasant priest, does not impress Lidenbrock. The horses are replaced and Lidenbrock informs Hans that the exploration party will be going all the way to the volcano’s furthermost limits. Hans nods but says nothing.
Axel’s nerves are stretched. He has nightmares and feels that he can no longer stand his apprehension. He goes to his uncle and tells him his worries. His uncle simply says he has been thinking about the dangers of the journey, particularly the possibility of an eruption of Snaefells. His questioning of the villagers and his research have led him to conclude that there will not be one. Axel realizes he has been defeated by scientific arguments and returns to bed.
When it is time for the travelers to depart, the Rector and his dour wife give them a large bill.
Snaefells is a formidable 5,000 feet high with a double cone; it looks like a giant wearing a white snowy cap. Along the Stapi fjord, the soil becomes fibrous and herbaceous. Axel is interested in the “mineralogical curiosities displayed in the vast natural history collection” (77). He concludes that the island must have emerged relatively recently from the waters and was generated by underground fires. There must have been tremendous pressure in the island, which pushed up the crater. Axel feverishly concludes that the interior must be white-hot. Hans moves cautiously and thoughtfully, laying out a path by which the adventurers can return. They move closer to the mountain but it seems like an optical illusion, for it never actually seems to get closer. The slopes are rocky and precipitous, yet eventually the explorers discern a sort of staircase up the side. Axel is touched by how his uncle watches over him.
By seven that evening, Lidenbrock and the others have made their way to the snow level. It is cold and windy; Axel is exhausted. Hans states that they cannot stop yet because they are in the path of the “mistour,” a powerful waterspout. They rush away as fast as they can, thanking Hans for his life-saving advice. The men finally make it to the summit at eleven that evening.
Surprisingly, Axel sleeps quite well, waking up to a cold but bright sun. He is on the southern summit of Snaefell’s two peaks and can see the glaciers, rivers, and infinite peaks wreathed with smoke below him. He feels “intoxicated by the voluptuous pleasure of the heights” (80) and thinks of sylphs and elves. It is time, Lidenbrock announces, to move to the crater, an inverted cone about a mile across and two thousand feet deep. The slopes are gentle, though, so that it will be easy to descend. Axel is worried, but there is no going back now.
Parts of the cone have glaciers on them; occasionally the men are obliged to tie themselves together. Finally they make it to the bottom and Axel looks up to see the now-diminished opening. There are three vents at the bottom where steam and lava once erupted. Lidenbrock gleefully inspects them.
Suddenly, Lidenbrock calls for Axel to come over to him, his voice filled with delight. Axel sees the marking of Arne Saknussemm on a boulder.
Hans then decides to take a nap. Lidenbrock paces and Axel is lost in thought. The next morning dawns cloudy but they barely notice the sky, deep as they are in an opening in the Earth. Axel thinks about how only one route was followed by Saknussemm; this route could be identified by shadow of Scartaris playing on the edge during the last days of June. For a few tense days, Lidenbrock waits for this occurrence, growing angry and frustrated when it does not arrive. Finally he sees what he has been waiting for: the sun illuminating the middle chimney.
In these chapters, Lidenbrock and Axel spend time in Iceland both preparing to set out on their journey and then finally undertaking the miles to Snaefells itself. While in Copenhagen, Lidenbrock revels in the irony of no one knowing what he is up to, while Axel tries to quiet his mind and steel himself for the terrifying trek. Verne then skillfully describes the barren, bleak landscape of the Icelandic countryside in a way that foreshadows the lonely, at times treacherous path down into the centre of the Earth. The wandering leper, crass Rector, and abandoned cabin add a strange and surreal element to the journey.
One other character is introduced in this section: the stoic and silent Hans, a fine foil for the garrulous Lidenbrock. Hans is a loyal and eminently useful personage, saving the two other men’s lives multiple times. His doughtiness, combined with his intellect and intuition, makes him perhaps the most integral person on the journey; it is pretty clear that Lidenbrock and Axel would have perished sooner or later without Hans.
Fans of Shakespeare may thrill to Axel’s mention of Hamlet: “In the state of nerves I was in, I half-expected to see Hamlet’s shadow stalking along the legendary terrace” (45). In his notes to the novel, William Butcher explains, “Even Hamlet seems to be a source for the decidedly all-englobing Verne: including the theme of madness, the cemetery, the skull, Elsinore, and the quotation ‘That is the question’ (ch. 33). Hamlet was drawn from ancient Scandinavian legend, and ultimately from Iceland, where the story features in many different Sagas.”
What this section also makes clear is that the part of the novel that actually takes place in the subterranean world is only a portion (three-fifths, in fact). There are over two dozen chapters featuring Axel and Lidenbrock back in Hamburg deciphering the runes, or on their journey through Denmark and the Icelandic countryside to get to Snaefells. Verne may have chosen this narrative design be to demonstrate just what a feat it was for the adventurers to make it to their destination; he may also have wanted to heighten both Axel’s nervousness and Lidenbrock’s excitement. We as readers get more time with our protagonists before their mettle is tested; anticipation breeds in us (and in them) as the miles are traversed.
As the chapters pass, Axel does indeed prove a fascinating figure to watch. As Butcher notes, there is an interesting tension between Axel-the-narrator and Axel-the-character. Axel always has “spontaneity and hence true discovery and creativity." However, “with time, a role-reversal occurs and many of the professor’s characteristics and functions are transferred to him, including the passionate subjectivity.” Examples of this transference can be seen in Axel’s acknowledgment that at the beginning of the journey “I was caught up in the happiness of those who go on journeys, a feeling of hope mixed with a sense of freedom. I began to feel involved in the trip” (61) and “I forgot who I was, where I was, and lived the life of elves and sylphs, the imaginary inhabitants of Scandinavian mythology” (81). While it may also seem that Axel is full of questions, some of them seemingly simple ones, these are questions that actually might not have simple answers. Such inquiries could cause Lidenbrock to be more honest and perspicacious.