Jonathan Crowe

My Correct Views on Everything

Mad Englishmen and Dogs: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras

It’s taken me a while to get to the second volume in Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras). At this rate it will take me more than a decade to get through all 54 novels in this series. Clearly I am going to have to pick up the pace.

Aventures du capitaine Hatteras Hatteras was first serialized in the Magasin d’Éducation et de Récréation from March 1864 to December 1865; the definitive version was published as a book a year later. It’s listed as the second volume in Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires, though the sequence is a bit confusing: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth was published, and From the Earth to the Moon was serialized in another periodical, during Hatteras’s run, and saw book publication sooner, but come after Hatteras in the VE numbering.

But before I get to Hatteras, let me mention that at the Readercon dealer’s room I spotted, at the Wesleyan University Press table, a number of new English translations of Verne’s work. Decidedly tempting, but I held off from buying any, at least for now. (This may change when it’s those books’ turn.) Check out Wesleyan’s SF catalogue.

The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (OUP cover) Speaking of translations, and getting back to the book at hand, there is a new translation of Hatteras by William Butcher, published in 2005 by Oxford University Press. I didn’t read it, though; for these purposes I used the Project Gutenberg version, which is transcribed from the American translation published by Osgood in the 1870s — a translation that Arthur Evans calls “of relatively good quality.” I still spotted some quirks, such as what I assume were poor translations of the imperfect tense as “used to do” where it probably should have been “was doing.”

Anyway.

Where Five Weeks in a Balloon traversed Africa, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras is a novel of polar exploration. The eponymous Captain Hatteras is determined to be first to the North Pole. He anonymously assembles a crew and builds a ship in Liverpool, and sets sail for Greenland, hiding along the way. It’s only when the crew is set to turn back that he reveals himself. The ship is stuck in the ice over winter; tensions mount and the crew eventually mutinies while Hatteras and a few companions are on an over-the-ice expedition in search of coal. He returns to find his crew gone and his ship burned. He and his remaining companions use all their ingenuity to survive the cold and attacks by polar bears, to build another boat from the ruins of the shipwreck, and to make their way to the North Pole.

In real life the conquest of the North Pole was not to occur for more than 40 years, so the Pole itself is a matter of some conjecture for Verne. Hatteras hypothesizes a new continent, New America, stretching northwest from Ellesmere Island (which itself was only named in 1852, and would not be crossed by Europeans until 1881). He also hypothesizes that the Pole is not the coldest point in the Arctic, that it is ice-free at least part of the year, and that a volcano is found there.

Carte des régions circumpolaires du capitaine Hatteras

It’s both a better book than Five Weeks, and much longer, broken into two parts (with a damn effective cliffhanger at the end of part one, when the ship is destroyed).

Many of the idiosyncracies we saw in Five Weeks are carried over here: an absolutely mad, driven protagonist — a character type I suspect we’ll see again in subsequent Verne adventures — and the elucidation of provisions, supplies, and distances with a nearly autistic fervour. The animals that the expedition encounters are to be shot and butchered, and women are not to be found; at least Verne is not quite as objectionable in re the “Esquimeaux” as he was with Africans in Five Weeks.

Dogs play a central role in Hatteras: the captain’s faithful dog, Duke (“Duk” in the original French) gets more print than Hatteras himself, since he roams the ship while Hatteras is in hiding. Duke is widely resented by the crew, who try to kill him at one point. Then there are the sled dogs, a vital resource in the north.

Science! On several occasions Verne’s characters must solve their predicament using scientific principles — in most cases, using the extreme cold of their environment to provide a solution that their isolation would otherwise deny them. From our vantage point, 145 years later, these solutions seem rather loony: bullets shaped from frozen mercury, starting fires with lenses made of ice, black powder used in ways and quantities to make the Mythbusters proud. (Captain Hatteras just predates dynamite, which was patented by Alfred Nobel in 1867; black powder is all our heroes had.)

There are episodes of real conflict and tension, with the mutiny subplot and the single-minded obsession of Hatteras himself, who becomes, in the end, a tragic, broken figure. The end of the book — which was rewritten at the urging of Verne’s editor — achieves a poignancy I would not have expected from Verne: Hatteras, prevented from jumping into the volcano to achieve his goal, is institutionalized upon his return to Britain, always walking northward. (In the original version, Hatteras does jump.)

What’s next? A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Voyage au centre de la terre). I think you’ve heard of that one.