4. Jules Verne, the Man Who Foresaw Tolkien


Concerning the views on technology and adventure in the wild, there was an author who, though not a known direct influence to Tolkien, preceeded him into depicting the use (and sometimes abuse) of machinery and the open-air exotic and dangerous adventures through the scope of fantastic fiction. The two most likely works by Jules Verne to be compared with Tolkien are Voyage au centre de la terre, A Journey to the centre of the Earth, and Les cinq cents millions de la Bégum, The Begum's Fortune.   


4.1 Runes to Ruin


For young Axel Lindenbrock, it all starts when his uncle, the geologist Otto Lindenbrock, discovers an inscription in a manuscript of Old Icelandic runes (written by some Snorre Turleson, a name misteriously similar to that of the writer of the prose Eddas, Snorri Sturluson) The insricpton is no other thing than the name of his owner, an alchemist from the 16th century, who hid a message on how to get to the centre of the planet under a secret code. Once the code is deciphered, Lindenbrock decides to enter the core of the Earth. In Tolkien, deciphering the runes from the Ring triggers the whole adventure on, for being it the One Ring, it must be taken to the depths of a volcano to be destroyed. This is the way how the plots are set in motion both in The Lord of the Rings and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth respectively:


As Frodo did so, he now saw fine lines, finer than the finest pen-strokes, running along the Ring, outside and inside: lines of fire that seemed to form the letters of a flowing script. They shone piercingly bright, and yet remote, as if out of a great depth.



'I cannot read the fiery letters,' said Frodo in a quavering voice.
'No,' said Gandalf, 'but I can. The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here. But this in the Common Tongue is what is said, close enough:

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, 49

My uncle raised his spectacles, took up a strong lens, and carefully examined the blank pages of the book. On the front of the second, the title-page, he noticed a sort of stain which looked like an ink blot. But in looking at it very closely he thought he could distinguish some half-effaced letters. My uncle at once fastened upon this as the centre of interest, and he laboured at that blot, until by the help of his microscope he ended by making out the following Runic characters which he read without difficulty.

“Arne Saknussemm!” he cried in triumph. “Why that is the name of another Icelander, a savant of the sixteenth century, a celebrated alchemist!”

J. Verne, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Chapter III, The Runic Writing Exercises the Professor


4.2 Isengard and the Stahlstadt


Verne was said to be a visionary, but unlike Tolkien, he admired technology, for he portrayed improvements as devices for adventure and new astonishing discoveries. But it seems he also rejected the power of technology as a tool for threaten and dominance, the control of rule by the aid of machines. One of Verne's most noticeable argument against technology applied to weapons appears in The Begum's Fortune. a novel in which a high inheritance is to be divided between two scientists; one of them builds am peaceful city of welfare (an utopic city like those of Fournier and the former socialists) and the other builds a fortress-factory. They had been the power to materialise their dreams, as if they had been given a Ring of Power, and so they acted. This happy coincidence branches Tolkien literarily together with the French pioneer of what should be called technology-fiction in contemporary narrative, for they both portrait industrialization as a devilish process of dehumanization. Saruman's Isengard is a steel industry, full of foundries, forges and anvils, as if it had been transported in time to the Iron or Middle-Age, and the Stahlstadt resembles a modern cannon factory from the Industrial Revolution, or First World War itself. In the following extracts, each one depicts his own Hell-factory (every fist fragment belongs to Chapter V from The Begum's Fortune by Verne. The second ones belong to Chapter VIII from The Two Towers):


In five years there sprang up on this bare and rocky plain eighteen villages, composed of small wooden houses, all alike, brought ready-built from Chicago, and containing a large population of rough workmen. In the midst of these villages, at the very foot of the Coal Butts, as the inexhaustible mountains of coal are called, rises a dark mass, huge, and strange, an agglomeration of regular-shaped buildings, pierced with simmetrical windows, covered with red roofs, and surmounted by a forest of cylindrical chimneys, which continually vomit forth clouds of dense smoke. Through the black curtain which veils the sky dart red lightninglike flames, while a distant roaring resembles that of thunder or the beating of the surf on a rocky shore.
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Many houses there were, chambers, halls, and passages, cut and tunnelled back into the walls upon their inner side, so that all the open circle was overlooked by countless windows and dark doors. Thousands could dwell there, workers, servants, slaves, and warriors with great store of arms; wolves were fed and stabled in deep dens beneath. The plain, too, was bored and delved. Shafts were driven deep into the ground; their upper ends were covered by low mounds and domes of stone, so that in the moonlight the Ring of Isengard looked like a graveyard of unquiet dead. For the ground trembled. The shafts ran down by many slopes and spiral stairs to caverns far under; there Saruman had treasuries, store-houses, armouries, smithies, and great furnaces. Iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded. At night plumes of vapour steamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green.

This erection is Stahlstadt—Steel Town. The German city, and the personal property of Professor Schultz, the ex-chemistry professor of Jena, who has become, by means of the Begum's millions, the greatest ironworker, and especially the greatest cannon-founder of the two hemispheres. [...] With the aid of his enormous capital, this large establishment, which is at the same time a veritable town, started up as at the wave of a conjurer's wand.
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This was Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, the name of which had (by design or chance) a twofold meaning; for in the Elvish speech 'orthanc' signifies Mount Fang, but in the language of the Mark of old the Cunning Mind.
A strong place and wonderful was Isengard, and long it had been beautiful; and there great lords had dwelt, the wardens of Gondor upon the West, and wise men that watched the stars. But Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better as he thought, being deceived-for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child's model or a slave's flattery, of that vast fortress. armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery, biding its time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength.
This was the stronghold of Saruman, as fame reported it; for within living memory the men of Rohan had not passed its gates, save perhaps a few, such as Wormtongue, who came in secret and told no man what they saw.

On arriving under the walls of Stahlstadt it is useless to try to enter one of the massive gateways which here and there break the line of moats and fortifications. The sternest of sentinels will repulse the traveller. He must go back to the suburbs. He cannot enter the City of Steel unless he possesses the magic formula, the password—or, at any rate, an order, duly stamped, signed, and countersigned.
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This was the stronghold of Saruman, as fame reported it; for within living memory the men of Rohan had not passed its gates, save perhaps a few, such as Wormtongue, who came in secret and told no man what they saw.


There is a surprising common model known (because of chronology) both to Verne and Tolkien, which is Krupp's factory-city at Essen, mentioned in this same chapter V from The Begum's Fortune:


What none of his competitors can do he achieves. In France lingots of steel are turned out, eighty thousand pounds in weight. In England a hundred-ton gun has been cast. At Essen M. Krupp has contrived to cast blocks of steel of ten hundred thousand pounds! Herr Schultz does not stop at that—he knows no limits.


Germany's iron and steel overlord had built a factory so big that he kept his workers in as if it was a city, or a state itself, same as the Stahlstadt or Orthanc.


4.3 Volcano Divers

To accomplish their mission, Frodo and Sam have to enter Mount Doom and access its Cracks through a corridor in the east side, Sammath Naur ("the Chambers of Fire"), as once did Isildur, King of Gondor. This shouldn't be a problem only in case the mount wasn't an active volcano, as described in the Atlas of Middle-earth:


Mount Doom stood in the midst of the Plateau of Gorgoroth in northwestern Mordor; yet in that land of vulcanism it seemed to be the only active volcano. There were, however, steaming fissures such as those between which Saurons Road ran from Barad-dûr to the Mountain. Mount Doom was evidently a composite or strato-volcano, formed of alterning layers of ash and lava. Both its elevation and description prove it was not a simple cinder cone: "The confused and tumbled shoulders... rose for maybe three thousand feet... and... half as high again its tall central cone." Still, its 4500-foot elevation was not remarkably high -- far short of Mount Etna, in Italy, which towers 11,000 feet and has a base of ninety miles in circumference


Axel Lindenbrock has to follow his uncle Otto to the center of the Earth through the crater of the Sneffels, an Icelandic volcano at a peninsule following the coast above Reykjawik, for it was the path followed by Arne Saknussemm.


The following paragraphs describe the impressions of both Mount Doom and the Sneffels for the hobbits and Axel Lindenbrock respectively:


Still far away, forty miles at least, they saw Mount Doom, its feet founded in ashen ruin, its huge cone rising to a great height, where its recking head was swathed in cloud. Its fires were now dimmed, and it stood in smouldering slumber, as threatening and dangerous as a sleeping beast. Behind it there hung a vast shadow, ominous as a thunder-cloud, the veils of Barad-dûr that was reared far away upon a long spur of the Ashen Mountains thrust down from the North.

Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, 902

On the 19th of June, for about a mile, that is an Icelandic mile, we walked upon hardened lava; this ground is called in the country ‘hraun’; the writhen surface presented the appearance of distorted, twisted cables, sometimes stretched in length, sometimes contorted together; an immense torrent, once liquid, now solid, ran from the nearest mountains, now extinct volcanoes, but the ruins around revealed the violence of the past eruptions. Yet here and there were a few jets of steam from hot springs.

J. Verne, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Chapter XIII, Hospitality under the Arctic Circle

Now, thought I, here we are, about to climb Snæfell. Very good. We will explore the crater. Very good, too, others have done as much without dying for it. But that is not all. If there is a way to penetrate into the very bowels of the island, if that ill-advised Saknussemm has told a true tale, we shall lose our way amidst the deep subterranean passages of this volcano. Now, there is no proof that Snæfell is extinct. Who can assure us that an eruption is not brewing at this very moment? Does it follow that because the monster has slept since 1229 he must therefore never awake again? And if he wakes up presently, where shall we be?

J. Verne, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Chapter XIV, But Arctics can be Inhospitable, Too


This sudden geographical approach to both masterpieces responds to a problem about sources. Those possibly considering the influence of war in the plot of the book because of the continuous tripping across Middle-earth, may have looked back to previous literature. No soldier save those in Italy may have seen a volcano when marching to battle. Verne's journey was a physical descent to the centre of the planet, a scientific experiment as well as a spiritual trip to Axel, for he has to deal with the cruelty of thirst and isolation underground. For the hobbits it is a descent to the very heart of evil, a descent straight down to Hell, due to the appearance of the environment as well as to the choice between keeping straight (rejecting the Ring) or falling (keeping the Ring).



© 1996-2006, Universitat de València Press

© Ignacio Pascual Mondéjar, 2006

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