Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas by Jules Verne

Drama in the deeps…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A mysterious sea monster has been damaging ships around the world, so a team is put together to hunt it down. The famous French naturalist Dr Aronnax happens to be in America at the time, so is invited to join the hunting party. Soon he will discover that the monster is in fact man-made – a submarine built and captained by the enigmatic Captain Nemo, and Aronnax and his companions will find themselves unwilling guests aboard the Nautilus as Nemo takes them on a fabulous journey beneath the seas and oceans of the world. But Nemo is more than a simple explorer – gradually Aronnax begins to suspect there is a darker purpose to his travels…

The beginning of the book is very reminiscent of my old friend Moby-Dick, as the hunting party sets off to sail rather aimlessly around the vastness of the world’s oceans hoping that they might coincidentally happen upon the sea-monster. Aronnax’s servant, Conseil, accompanies him, and on board they meet Ned Land, a master harpoonist whose task is to kill the monster should they find it. When their ship finally has a disastrous encounter with the Nautilus, these three men will be taken aboard as captives, although for the most part they will be treated more as guests, free to participate in the submarine’s adventures but not free to leave it.

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And what adventures! They will visit coral reefs and underwater passages between seas; they will slaughter all kinds of things for food or fun; they will visit islands inhabited only by savage tribes and find themselves in danger of being slaughtered themselves for food or fun, which seems like poetic justice to me! They will observe all kinds of strange creatures that live in the depths, some of them real, some mythical. Aronnax and his faithful assistant Conseil will catalogue hundreds – nay, thousands – of different species of fish and underwater plant life. And Aronnax, our narrator, will kindly list most of these, giving their Latin names and telling us their biological classification.

I must be honest and say all those lists of fish nearly did for me after a bit…

In the 89th genus of fish classified by Lacépède, belonging to the second sub-class of osseous fish characterized by a gill cover and a bronchial membrane, I noticed the scorpion fish, whose head has stings on it and which has only one dorsal fin: according to the subgenus, these creatures are either devoid of small scales or covered in them. The latter subgenus provided us with specimens of didactyls 30 to 40 centimetres long, with yellow stripes and fantastic-looking heads.

Now you may (possibly) be thinking that sounds quite interesting but, believe me, by the time you’ve travelled about four thousand leagues you will never be able to walk past another sushi restaurant without shuddering. Fortunately, I am a master of the art of skipping – obviously, or I’d never have made it through Moby-Dick’s interminable whales either – so very quickly learned to recognise when Aronnax was going to become the world’s leading fish bore and jump a few paragraphs. This worked excellently since, in between the excruciating fishiness and the mind-numbing technical descriptions of the submarine, there’s lots of adventure and some interesting insights on the world as it was in Verne’s day.

The characterisation is good too. Aronnax doesn’t much mind his status as prisoner since, as a scientist, the journey is giving him the opportunity to observe first-hand things that no man has seen before. Conseil is simply his faithful servant – wherever Aronnax is is where Conseil wishes to be – but he provides some gentle humour and acts as a bridge between Aronnax and the third member of the group, Ned Land. Ned feels his imprisonment harshly, especially since Nemo is not keen on letting him harpoon everything he sees, and he’s always pushing Aronnax to consider ways to escape. And Nemo himself is an ominous, brooding presence on board – a scientist too, but who has deliberately cut himself off from the world of men. Aronnax studies him much as he studies the other ocean life, and comes to think that he has perhaps suffered some tragedy or injustice that has driven him to this strange existence. He is another Captain Ahab, although he is sailing in the belly of the monster of the deep rather than chasing after it. But he is driven by the same desire – revenge!

Two hours after leaving the Nautilus we crossed the tree-line; the mountain peak towered 100 feet above our heads, its dazzling radiation projecting a shadow on the slope below. A few petrified shrubs ran here and there in grimacing zigzags. Fish rose as one before our feet like birds surprised in tall grass. The rocky massif was hollowed out with impenetrable burrows, deep caverns, and pits at the bottom of which I could hear frightening things moving about. I blanched when I spotted an enormous antenna blocking my route, or terrifying claws clattering shut in the darkness of a cavity! Thousands of luminous points shone in the darkness. They were the eyes of huge crustaceans lurking in their dens, of gigantic lobsters standing to attention like halberdiers and waving their legs with metallic clanks, of titanic crabs set like cannon on their mounts, and of awe-inspiring squid twisting their tentacles into a living brush of snakes.

This is a new translation by William Butcher who is an expert on Verne, and that expertise shows in the avoidance of any of the obscurity that can happen in translations, especially of older works. He also wrote the excellent introduction and notes, which give a lot of insight into the writing of the book – what influenced Verne, his ongoing negotiations with his publisher to get the book into shape, how the book fits into his overall body of work, etc., along with a literary analysis of the various themes. There’s lots of actual science in the book, and unfortunately I lacked the knowledge to know what was still considered true and what had been superseded since Verne’s day. I was a little disappointed that the notes didn’t do a bit more fact-checking, but there are so many facts it would have been a huge undertaking. However, the notes do explain many references to contemporary scientists and events that would otherwise have gone over my head.

Jules Verne

Truthfully, if I factored in those endless fish-lists, I’d find it hard to rate the book as more than a 4-star read, but since I found it easy to skip them without missing anything essential to the story, they didn’t bother me (and fish enthusiasts might even enjoy them!). The descriptions of the wonders of the deeps, the glimpses of other civilisations, the mystery surrounding Captain Nemo and the thrilling adventure aspects all more than made up for the excessive fish-detail, making it a five-star read for me – a true classic!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. The illustrations, which I’ve taken from Wikimedia Commons, are by Alphonse de Neuville (1835—1885) or Édouard Riou (1833-1900).

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40 thoughts on “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas by Jules Verne

    • Absolutely – there’s a reason they become classics, eh? Thank you – I also love writing reviews for the classics – there’s always plenty to say about them! 😀

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the plot part, FictionFan, and the characters, even if the fish stuff wasn’t exactly enthralling. Interesting how that style of a lot of description pops up here as it does in other books of the time. One thing I’ve always liked about this one is that it broke ground. Perhaps it’s just me, but I give credit to authors who break new ground and add to a genre, even if the actual story might be a little too fish-y.

    • I think maybe readers (well, me, anyway!) are probably lazier now. We’ve been spoiled by all the wildlife documentaries and the ability to get an image of anything in seconds on the internet, so reading lengthy descriptions of a fish no longer has the same appeal it may once have had! But there’s loads of adventure in this one too, and I loved the mix of real science and his imagination even if sometimes I wasn’t sure where the line between them was. Must read more Verne!

  2. I devoured Jules Verne in my teens (and, to be honest, I probably skipped all the boring bits as well). Happy to report that I stayed with the boys in a room that was supposed to imitate the Nautilus when we visited Futuroscope in France. They loved it!

    • Ooh, that sounds like fun! It’s so well described in the book that I felt I could actually visualise it, which doesn’t often happen with me. Intriguingly this translator (and Verne expert) was bemoaning earlier translations, saying they omitted up to 22% of the original text – I’m betting it was mostly the fish-lists!

  3. I wonder about the quality of Verne’s lesser known Voyages Extraordinaire (he wrote many besides Around the World in 80, Twenty Thousand Leagues, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth) – one day i will have to seek some of them out in good translations.

    • I didn’t know about the Voyages Extraordinaires till I read the intro to this one. I wonder if maybe this translator will do some of the others – he was pretty scathing about the quality of most earlier translations. I’ll keep an eye out for them appearing…

      • I had been musing (and who doesn’t enjoy a good muse) about good translators of French classics particularly Verne who has been written for all audiences by just about every one with a quill/pen/typewriter/computer. Good to read your review and make a note re this edition for future reference

        • Thank you! I’m not very knowledgaeable about French literature and am often surprised at how clunky translations can feel – I feel it ought to be one of the easier languages to translate somehow. This was a very good translation, though, so I’m hoping maybe he’s done or will do more of the Vernes.

    • For some reason I didn’t read much Verne in my youth, except Around the World in 80 Days. I reckon this would have been a tough read for a kid, although an abridged version just getting straight to the adventure aspects would be great (even this adult wouldn’t have minded some of the fish-lists being abridged! 😉 )

  4. Despite having his entire collection on our shelf when I was a child, I never read any Verne! I do remember loving the film version (the 1954 Disney production) and always liked that the first nuclear powered sub was given the name Nautilus.

    • Based on this, I think they’d have been quite a tough read for a child, though an abridged version just cutting to the adventure aspects would be great, I think. I’ve never seen the film – must look out for it. And that’s a great factlet about the sub which I didn’t know – thanks for that! I love that idea too!

  5. I never waded my way through this one, but I do recall seeing the film. I must have been too young to fully appreciate it, though, as all I came away with was an overpowering need to gulp in huge breaths of fresh air!

    • I’ve never seen the film but hopefully they stuck more to the adventure aspects than all the endless fish! I’m not sure I’d really consider this to be a kids’ book – the language and science are pretty hard, and the underlying story of Captain Nemo is pretty dark. I’m glad I was reading it as an adult – I don’t know that child me would have loved it at all…

    • I’d only read Around the World in 80 Days before, long ago, and seem to remember quite enjoying it without absolutely loving it. This one was a lot of fun though, apart from those fish!

  6. I am so fascinated by the life forms which can found in the depths of the ocean – compared to the rest of the world, the oceans are still relatively unexplored. It would be amazing to travel around in a submarine! Okay, since scuba diving makes me feel slightly claustrophobic, perhaps a submarine would actually be a nightmare… I will stick to reading this book 🙂

    • Ha! Yes, I don’t think I’d enjoy actual submarine travel either, but a vicarious trip in the Nautilus was fun! Despite my moans about the fish-lists, he did describe lots of other more interesting stuff – both creatures and undersea features, like volcanoes and so on. I assume a lot of it was imagined since people hadn’t been able to go so deep at the time, and I did wish I knew which bits were true…

  7. I LOVE that you skipped ahead during some detailed parts and still gave the book five stars. It almost makes me think you are an emotional reader like me. ♥️ Wonderful thoughts on this, FF. I have wanted to read it since I was too young to read it (when we went on the ride named as such at Disney World), and now what am I waiting for!

    • It’s only since I started reviewing that I’ve realised how often I skip descriptive stuff, especially in the classics where so often they seem to go for endless lists. I guess it was all more interesting when they didn’t have instant access to wildlife documentaries and google images of everything! Despite the adventure aspects, I think this would have been a pretty tough read for a kid, so I think you’re at the perfect age for it now… 😉

  8. It sounds like there is actually quite a fun story in there somewhere among a fair amount of fishy content. Because I am blind and rely on audio, I think I would struggle with it though, as I would be tempted to do as you have and skip the never ending descriptions, but this is a lot harder to do with audio than with a physical book.
    You’ve saved me from Moby-Dick however. It has been on my list of books I should have read and haven’t for quite some time, but having read your review, I reckon I’ll give it a miss, as life is far too short.

    • Yes, I think that’s one of the reasons I struggle with maintaining concentration on a lot of audio books – I think I skip quite often without being conscious of it. This might be one where an abridged audio would work, though, because I’d imagine the first thing to be cut would be 90% of the fish descriptions, and the remaining adventure stuff is very good. Hahaha – I must admit I had a lot of fun hating Moby-Dick – it took over the blog for months as I spat rage about it, parodied it, ( https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/friday-frippery-a-conversation-regarding-whales/ ) and generally was horribly mean about it! I miss it… 😉

  9. I think I’ve only read an abridged version of this because I remember reading it as a pretty young age and I can’t recall much about fish. I remember being super disappointed after doing a tour of a military sub because it was nothing like the Nautilus!

    • The translator (and Verne expert) of this version says in his intro that lots of earlier translations omitted great chunks, as much as 22% of the text. I’m willing to bet it was mainly the fish stuff, and reckon it wasn’t a bad decision! 😉 Haha – what a disappointment! Sometimes it’s better just to keep the dream…

  10. I have this on my Classics Club list and I am very much looking forward to reading, even more so after reading your thoughts FF… well, perhaps not those endless fish-lists, but the wonders of the deep, mystery and the thrilling adventure sound right up my street! 🙂

    • I get the impression from the intro that lots of translations dropped a lot of the text, and I’m guessing it was probably mainly the fish-lists, so it might depend which version you have. But the rest makes up for it anyway – jump into your diving suit and have fun! 😀

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