Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea PDF Print E-mail

Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870)
Reviewed by John Hertz
August 2007

Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Collecting Science Fiction Books; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.

Who is the hero of this book? Professor Aronnax? Captain Nemo? Ned Land? Conseil?

It is a classic of science fiction. Full of wonders, it presents them as within reach of science, as precisely for that reason wonderful. It turns on its science. The operation of that science is a story of people.

It is set in the years 1866-68, i.e. before the date of publication, not the fictional future but the past — and for the original readers, recent. For us this is a technique more expected in mainstream literature, where it is employed, as Verne employs it, to provide a sense of realism.

Aronnax, a French scientist, has been in Nevada collecting specimens, animal, vegetable, and mineral; he also knows the sea; he has practiced medicine; he is what was then called a naturalist. And Conseil is his manservant. We are plunged into the 19th Century.

The story opens with reports of something harming ocean traffic. Maybe it is a sea creature. The reports are not very believable — to the characters. We are plunged into the substance of science fiction.

The reports grow. The United States Navy sends a frigate, the Abraham Lincoln, to hunt down the sea creature, if the creature exists. Aronnax is invited along. Ned Land is a French-Canadian harpoonist engaged by the frigate captain to complete his armament.

Land's sharp eyes spot the creature. The frigate shells it, in our wonderful language where shelling peas is removing shells from them, and shelling a target is firing shells at it. Aronnax falls overboard, Conseil dives after his master, they find Land in the water, and the creature proves to be the submarine vessel Nautilus. Nemo is its captain.

People in 1870 who could read French — or English, the first translation was in 1872 — would know Nemo as Latin for No one. When we meet him that is the only name he gives for himself. He remains a mystery.

Not at all incidentally Abraham Lincoln is one of his heroes. By Chapter 7 of the first half the ship Lincoln is gone and we do not see her again. By Chapter 8 of the second half we see an etching of the man Lincoln on a wall of Nemo's room. This is a subtle as well as a dramatic book.

The three companions are passengers of the Nautilus while it cruises 20,000 leagues — if you will, 8,000 miles — under the sea. The ship runs by electricity. Let us pause for a moment at that.

This was science fiction when written. It did not seem impossible, but had not been accomplished. By World War I submarine vessels, all too real, indeed used electric power, and submarine was a noun. But s-f is not in the business of predictions, neither glorified if something in it comes to pass, nor ruined if history goes some other way.

Captain Nemo designed and constructed his Nautilus. He had parts manufactured round the world; built from them in secret; then renounced the land to become a lord of the ocean. He brought with him his library of twelve thousand books, his collection of paintings by the masters, his pipe-organ and musical scores. Aronnax dines with him in a room of ebony, porcelain, and glass, or alone in an ample cabin Nemo has given. Nemo's own cabin is severe, no comfort, only necessities.

Outside, captain and crew walk the ocean floor in pressure suits, breathing compressed air, gathering food and fabric from fish, farm, and forest, hunting with electric guns. Inside, a study holds display cases of specimens Nemo has collected himself, surpassing any museum in Europe. Aronnax, our narrator, is fascinated.

Aronnax, Conseil, and Land have the freedom of the ship. Sometimes for days Nemo does not appear. His crew, at least twenty, variously European by their looks, are even more scarce. Otherwise he is a generous host. His conversation is thoughtful and knowledgeable.

The four are well named. Nemo we noted. Land yearns for escape to solid ground — a seaman by profession, among many sly jokes. Aronnax is a peacemaker, like the first Aron (as French spell it), Moses' brother in the Bible. Conseil is such a traditionalist he always addresses his master in the third person (another note of the 19th Century), e.g. "Whatever master pleases" — to the annoyance of his master; so much for counsel.

One famous joke is in a scene of attempted escape. Land has a scheme to seize the ship's dinghy. Aronnax dresses warmly for the surface of the sea. He runs into Nemo, who says only "Ah, monsieur, I was looking for you," and engages him in historical talk — foiling the scheme — not at all incidentally revealing a key to Nemo's character at just this moment — and without a word of how he takes Aronnax' obvious costume.

Adventure made this book famous. Undersea marches, near-crushing by ice at the South Pole, a supply base inside an extinct volcano, fighting a giant squid, a passage 150 feet below the Suez isthmus. The adventures build to a climax. Along the way they reveal character. What about those lists of fish?

There is a viewport in the Nautilus. Through it and on excursions Aronnax recognizes creatures of the sea. Naturally he writes down what he has observed, which for a scientist is of paramount importance. Our book, as we come to realize, is his journal.

His writing is of course Verne's writing. A good author can use description both to show us where the characters are, and by pointing out what they notice, to show us what they are. What a viewport upon Aronnax that over thousands of leagues he knows and delights in countless plants and animals by name.

One theme of the book is freedom. Does Nemo have it? Is Land wise seeking to escape, Aronnax to explore, Conseil to endure? Who rises, who sinks, before which challenges, or if you will temptations?

At length we meet Nemo's hostile purpose, long suggested to us. It is not his only purpose. His science and artistry, his bravery and leadership, are genuine. His love and respect for fellow creatures and fellow human beings are genuine too, but they are flawed. In the crisis we remember it is not our first massacre. The meeting with sperm whales and baleen whales comes back to us.

Is Nemo contrite? Does he lead himself to punishment? When the companions escape, did he allow it? Verne's architecture in this book, his coloring, his texture, frame these questions. The greatness in his execution has made this book endure.

The 1872 English version, by Lewis Page Mercier (1820-1875), is still the most widely circulated (sometimes as by Mercer Lewis), possibly because it is in the public domain under copyright law and so does not call for royalties. It omits about a fifth of the text, possibly by order of the publisher, and adds a handful of errors, possibly because Mercier worked from French read aloud to him. The 2007 Franklin Watts edition is a reprint of it.

In the 1960s Walter James Miller began calling attention to Mercier's failings. Miller's translation of 1965 has an afterword by Damon Knight, which alas I cannot recommend. In 1976 Miller published an annotated edition showing all Mercier got wrong. In 1993 he made another translation with Frederick Paul Walker. In 1998 William Butcher made a new translation with copious endnotes. Butcher says the 1991 version by Emanuel Mickel is Mercier's word-for-word, although Mickel restores Mercier's cuts. It is hard to call any of these a model of perception and they all lay on pet theories thick.

The 1962 translation by Anthony Bonner restores Mercier's cuts and adopts 20th Century language. In 2000 Books of Wonder reprinted it with illustrations by Diane & Leo Dillon, which earned them a nomination for the Association of S-F Artists' Chesley award.

The 1954 Walt Disney motion picture is a classic on its own merits. Paul Lukas is Aronnax, James Mason a fine Nemo, Kirk Douglas is Ned Land, Peter Lorre is Conseil; it won two Oscars for Art Direction and Special Effects.

I've led discussions of this book at s-f conventions. For the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention, I had the honor of choosing four s-f classics, each to be the subject of a panel discussion; one was Twenty Thousand Leagues.

This is an adult book. It may be Verne's masterpiece.

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