Archive for November 13th, 2013


a jules verne vision

nc wyeth mysterious island

When I was a kid, my favorite movie was Disney’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. My favorite book was The Mysterious Island, illustrated by the incomparable NC Wyeth. One of my favorite childhood memories, even today, was accompanying a friend to Journey To the Center of the Earth (corny as seen through today’s eyes), starring Pat Boone. I think this series of facts qualified me as having been a full-fledged Jules Verne fan at the age of eleven.

The Mysterious Island was transformative. Originally published in French in 1874, its central message as I have always remembered it, is that human intelligence can only accomplish so much. In the end, human compassion is the game-changer.

The story begins during the Siege of Richmond in the American Civil War. Five northern prisoners of war escape by hijacking a balloon which, after a journey of several days, maroons them on a deserted island in the South Pacific. The book tells of their struggles to survive.

mysterious island 2The escapees are Cyrus Harding, a railroad engineer in the Union army; his black manservant Neb (short for Nebuchadnezzar), a former slave who had been freed by Harding; the sailor Bonadventure Pencroff; his protégé Harbert Brown, a young boy whom Pencroff raises as his own after the death of his father, Pencroff’s former captain; and the journalist Gideon Spilett. The company is completed by Cyrus’ dog “Top.”

They name the island “Lincoln Island” in honor of the American president. With the knowledge of the brilliant engineer Harding, they are able to sustain themselves on the island producing fire, pottery, bricks, nitroglycerin, iron, a simple electric telegraph, a home on a stony cliffside called “Granite House”, and even a seaworthy ship. They even manage to figure out their geographical location.

The mystery of the island is that there is an unseen deus ex machina responsible for the castaways’ survival after falling from the balloon, the mysterious rescue of Top from a dugong (whatever that is), the appearance of a box of equipment (guns and ammunition, tools, etc.), and other seemingly inexplicable occurrences. The group finds a message in a bottle which directs them to rescue a castaway on a nearby island. On the return voyage to their home island, they lose their way in a storm but are guided back to their course by a mysterious fire beacon. Pirates arrive at Lincoln Island to use it as their hideout, but their ship is mysteriously destroyed by an explosion and they are found dead, apparently in combat, but with no visible wounds. Harbert contracts malaria and is saved by a box of sulphate of quinine, which mysteriously appeared on the table in the Granite House.

The secret of the island is revealed when it is discovered to be Captain Nemo’s hideout and home port of the Nautilus. In classic crossover sequel style, the Nautilus had escaped the maelstrom at the end of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and sailed the oceans of the world until all its crew except Nemo had died. Nemo brought the Nautilus to its secret port on Lincoln Island.


Now a kindly old man with a beard, he had been the savior of the heroes all along, providing them with the box of equipment, sending the message revealing the castaway, planting the mine that destroyed the pirate ship, and killing the pirates with an “electric gun.” Nemo, it should be remembered, means “no name.”

nemoTowards the end of the story on his deathbed, Nemo reveals his true identity as the lost Indian Prince Dakkar, son of a Raja. The Nautilus is scuttled and serves as Captain Nemo’s tomb. Afterward, the island’s central volcano erupts, destroying the island. The colonists, forewarned of the eruption by Nemo, find themselves safe but stranded on the last remaining piece of the island above sea level. They are rescued by a passing ship.

Wow. Nemo remains my true hero of the story, even today.

I should have held this post for some momentous day in Jules Verne’s life, but he was born in February 1828 and died in March 1905, and it is grey, cold, and windy outside today. I derive pleasure by remembering this book and knowing that I must (and will) get though the storm outside because there is so much to be done to assure the survival of my castaways.

Nemo isn’t the only bearded old man in the world.


This post contains a heavily-edited account of the book as it appears in Wikipedia.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Kirk Douglas performing “Ned Land’s Song” from the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea