Friday, January 18, 2013

When the Sidekick Tells the Story: Two Vernean Narrators for the Price of One

As I was making a mental list of narrators who are actually the sidekicks, I thought of the sidekicks of heroes in series of stories surrounding them.  To round out this series of entries, however, I’m going to depart from that pattern to talk about two narrators of two distinct novels by one author, Jules Verne. 

Illustration by Edouard Riou, 1864
The first character is the easiest to peg as a sidekick: the narrator of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Axel—whose name has been “translated” to Harry in some English versions for inexplicable reasons since Axel is a cooler name—the nephew of the actual hero of the story, his absent-minded genius uncle Lidenbrock (or Hardwigg). 

Dragged not across, but through the globe, Axel spends most of his time complaining about how hanging out with his sweetheart/cousin Graubin (Gretchen…actually I approve of this change) would be way more interesting than traveling to Iceland, climbing Mt. Sneffels, spelunking into volcanic tubes, navigating coal mines and caves and under oceans, and finding an entire self-contained eco-system including a sea and underground sun, just to name a few of the wonders Axel fails to appreciate.

Meanwhile Professor Lidenbrock is very smart, possibly insane, and provides much-needed exposition about geology and other science-y things, which our narrator usefully doesn’t have a clue about.  If Axel was a colleague of the professor rather than his ignorant nephew, Verne wouldn’t have had the excuse to explain to the readers all the science needed to understand the plot. 
Illustration by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou, engraved by Hildibrand, 1871
The second Vernean Narrator is the narrator of TwentyThousand Leagues Under the Sea, Professor Pierre Aronnax.  Here, instead of having an ignorant character narrate, Verne “cuts out the middleman” and lets an expert do the talking.  Yet I still consider Aronnax to be a sidekick, and that’s because the hero of this story is also the villain. 

That’s right.  I’m talking about Captain Nemo.

Admittedly this designation is debatable.  Captain Nemo is the villain.  He takes the main good guys captive and tries to keep them that way for the rest of their natural lives.  He is a pirate and terrorizes various sea-vessels with his pre-submarine, the Nautilus.  By all rights and purposes, Aronnax—who is moral as well as smart—should be the hero. 

However he never quite makes it there, in my estimation.  Most of what he discusses while he plans to escape is not how he is planning to escape, but how he’s trying to understand the inner workings of Nemo’s mind.  And let’s not forget Nemo’s heroic actions that make painting him as a villain so difficult: he keeps the good guys captive…after he saves them from drowning.  He terrorizes ships and steals sunken treasure…then turns around and gives away his spoils like a Robin Hood of the Seven Seas. 

The reason I'm discussing these two narrators together is to show the contrast: 
  •  A reluctant, cynical nephew chronicling a great adventure of an eager heroic professor
  •  An idealistic professor chronicling the jaded crusade of a cynical, villainous captain
Axel doesn’t really want to be a part of Professor Lidenbrock’s adventure.  Professor Aronnax, although not a willing participant at first, can’t help but be fascinated by Captain Nemo’s adventures.  Perhaps the link lies in that, no matter who is leading the way, the call of adventure turns out to be an irresistible lure to even the most reluctant of individuals.

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