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From a scientific point of view, this story has not aged quite as well as other Verne stories, since most of his ideas about what the interior of the Earth contains have since been disproved, but it still manages to captivate audiences when regarded as a classic fantasy novel.
The story begins in May 1863, the Lidenbrock house in Hamburg, Germany, with Professor Lidenbrock rushing home to peruse his latest purchase, an original runic manuscript of an Icelandic saga written by Snorri Sturluson ("Heimskringla"; the chronicle of the Norwegian kings who ruled over Iceland). While looking through the book, Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel find a coded note written in runic script. (This is a first indication of Verne's love for cryptography. Coded, cryptic or incomplete messages as a plot device will continue to appear in many of his works and in each case Verne goes a long way to explain not only the code used but also the mechanisms used to retrieve the original text.) Lidenbrock and Axel transliterate the runic characters into Latin letters, revealing a message written in a seemingly bizarre code. Lidenbrock attempts a decipherment, deducing the message to be a kind of transposition cipher; but his results are as meaningless as the original.
Professor Lidenbrock decides to lock everyone in the house and force himself and the others (Axel, and the maid, Martha) to go without food until he cracks the code. Axel discovers the answer when fanning himself with the deciphered text: Lidenbrock's decipherment was correct, and only needs to be read backwards to reveal sentences written in rough Latin. Axel decides to keep the secret hidden from Professor Lidenbrock, afraid of what the Professor might do with the knowledge, but after two days without food he cannot stand the hunger and reveals the secret to his uncle. Lidenbrock translates the note, which is revealed to be a medieval note written by the (fictional) Icelandic alchemist Arne Saknussemm, who claims to have discovered a passage to the centre of the Earth via Snæfell in Iceland. In what Axel calls bad Latin, the deciphered message reads:
In Snefflls [sic] Iokulis kraterem kem delibat umbra Skartaris Iulii intra kalendas deskende, audas uiator, te [sic] terrestre kentrum attinges. Kod feki. Arne Saknussemm. "
In slightly better Latin, with errors amended:
" In Sneffels Jokulis craterem, quem delibat umbra Scartaris, Julii intra kalendas descende, audax viator, et terrestre centrum attinges; quod feci. Arne Saknussemm "
which, when translated into English, reads:
" Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jökull of Snæfell, which the shadow of Scartaris touches (lit: tastes) before the Kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth. I did it. Arne Saknussemm
Professor Lidenbrock is a man of astonishing impatience, and departs for Iceland immediately, taking his reluctant nephew with him. Axel, who, in comparison, is cowardly and anti-adventurous, repeatedly tries to reason with him, explaining his fears of descending into a volcano and putting forward various scientific theories as to why the journey is impossible, but Professor Lidenbrock repeatedly keeps himself blinded against Axel's point of view.