Friday, April 10, 2015

An Antarctic Mystery, or The Sphinx of the Ice Fields by Jules Verne

Better than the book it pays homage to, but not much
Jules Verne’s novel An Antarctic Mystery, also known as The Sphinx of the Ice Fields was originally published in 1897 under the French title of Le Sphinx des glaces. It is a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. If you haven’t read Poe’s novel, don’t worry. You don’t have to. Verne summarizes the entire narrative in chapter five of this book, and it’s far more entertaining than Poe’s original telling of the story. The whole time I was reading Poe’s book I kept thinking to myself that Jules Verne would have handled this material much better. After reading Verne’s homage to Poe’s work, it turns out I was right about the “better” but not right about the “much.”

Mr. Jeorling, the narrator, is an American geologist doing some research in the Kerguelen Islands, located in the Southern Ocean. Upon completing his study, he looks for a ride back home. The next ship to arrive in port is the Halbrane, an American schooner. The boat’s mysterious skipper, Captain Len Guy, is not willing to accept a passenger at first, but when he finds out that Jeorling is from Nantucket he welcomes him aboard. It turns out that Len Guy is the brother of William Guy, the captain of the Jane, a ship that disappeared in the Antarctic eleven years earlier. Among the passengers on board that vessel was Arthur Gordon Pym. Though Pym’s narrative made it back to Nantucket and into the hands of Poe, the captain and most of the crew of the Jane never returned. Captain Len Guy is heading toward the South Pole in hopes of finding survivors. Jeorling is shocked to find out that Poe’s fantastic novel has a factual basis. Like Pym, he possesses a curious nature and an adventurous soul. Intrigued by the mystery, he boards the Halbrane as it departs on its Antarctic expedition.

Like Poe, Verne makes the reader wait forever before the ship gets anywhere, but at least he keeps things interesting along the way. As in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Verne’s curiosity about natural phenomena is infectious. His descriptions of flora, fauna, and oceanic and atmospheric conditions provides a vivid travelogue for those with an enthusiasm for science. He also interjects suspenseful moments of conflict between crew members, some of whom have mysterious backgrounds and ulterior motives. Unfortunately, one story element involving secret identity is carried through most of the book, yet it’s painfully obvious from the very beginning who the person in question really is.

At the time this book was written, no one had yet reached the South Pole, and it was not yet clear whether there was even an Antarctic continent or just a huge sheet of sea ice. In his novel, Poe created an entire Antarctic civilization. The scientific-minded Verne seems uncomfortable with some of Poe’s flights of fantasy, so he ignores them altogether. The titular mystery is primarily concerned with the fate of the Jane’s crew. The people or creatures that Pym described in his narrative are of secondary importance. This grounds Verne’s story more firmly in reality, but it also unfortunately squanders some opportunities to delight in the weirdness of Poe’s vision. As a result, Verne’s novel ends up being mostly a book about ice. It’s a good example of 19th-century exploratory adventure literature, but there’s nothing remarkable about it that makes it stand out from Verne’s better-known science fiction works. If you enjoyed Twenty Thousand Leagues it’s a safe bet you’ll like this one too, but it’s not nearly in the same league, no pun intended.
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