Adventures in Reviewer Parallax: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras

On January 22, 2014, I was at a flea market in Texas.

I was in a hurry, and I’d heard the title of this Verne novel, saw it was polar story, so I grabbed it off the shelf without a closer look. I thought I was getting Verne’s sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

For the record, that would be Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery.

Review: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, Jules Verne, trans. William Butcher, 1864, 2005.

Adventures of Captain Hatteras
Cover: “The Explorer A. E. Nordenskiold” by George Rosen

This was Jules Verne’s second novel and the first of his Extraordinary Journeys, a series that continued for 50 years and 63 more books.

It was popular in its day. Four English were done in the 1870s, but Butcher, as the back cover would have it, “the father of Verne Studies”, says none were subsequently done until his.

Real polar explorers found it one of the most accurate pictures ever written of life in the Arctic — or so a footnoted source says.

There’s no doubt Verne turned over a library for this book. He was a devotee of polar exploration though somewhat hampered by not reading English. However, many polar chronicles had been translated from English into French.

The plot of this two-decker novel has the ship the Forward departing Liverpool on April 6, 1860 with Richard Shandon, second-in-command, on board. The captain, whoever he is, will show up later. Shandon is known as a reliable and knowledgeable seaman with experience of Arctic waters. Dr. Clawbonny joins the ship later in the voyage. He’ll be an affable, steadfast character with an encyclopedic knowledge of polar exploration and the polar clime – though most of it is was learned through books. He’s looking for more actual experience.

The Captain does show up later. Actually, he’s been aboard already but in disguise. It is, of course, Hatteras. The crew is not happy about that. To them, he’s a bit of a cursed figure since he’s the sole survivor of a previous, failed expedition to the North Pole. And that’s where he wants to go again.

Eventually, even the reliable Shandon has had enough, and he leads a mutiny.

The first part of the novel ends with:

And yet the situation was terrible for these four people, in the company of a dying man. They were without resources, lost and alone at the eightieth degree, in the heart of the Arctic!

In the second half of the novel, in a scene similar to what happens when the castaways arrive on Verne’s The Mysterious Island, Clawbonny takes inventory of what they have to keep them alive.

Hatteras shows just how obsessive he is because he’s not giving up the idea of heading for the North Pole.

He’s also very hostile to Americans and wants the glory of reaching the Pole to be granted to England. That hostility only gets worse when the men meet Johnson, a remnant of an American expedition. The fact that Johnson and Hatteras’ are essential for each other’s survival doesn’t make Hatteras any more grateful or gracious.

Things get to the point where Hatteras and Johnson fight a duel on an ice floe. But, after again saving each other’s life, the two are finally reconciled and its forward to the Pole.

Hatteras gets there. There’s a volcano at the top of the world, and a warm sea, and even talk of a hollow earth (an idea explored further, of course, in Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth).

Hatteras’ gets his monument and credit, but he also goes completely mad, subsumed by the obsession that has marked his character from the beginning.

On returning to civilization, Clawbonny visits Hatteras at the mad house. The novel ends with Hatteras aligned like a compass needle to a pole he’s already reached:

For some time, Captain Hatteras had been walking several houses each day, followed by his faithful dog [and Duke the dog is quite faithful throughout the book], who gazed at him with soft, sad eyes; but it was invariably in a particular direction along a certain avenue at Sten Cottage. Once the captain reached the end of the avenue, he would retrace his route, walking backwards. If somebody stopped him, he would point to a fixed spot in the sky. If someone tried to make him turn round, he would flare up, and Duke, sharing his anger, would bark furiously.

The doctor attentively observed such a strange mania, and soon understood the reason for such a singular obstinacy; he guessed why the walk followed a fixed direction, under the influence, as it were, of a magnetic force.

Captain John Hatteras marched constantly north.

But, as engaging as Hatteras’ mad drive north is, equally interesting are the tales and bits of Arctic lore that he and Clawbonny share.

Butcher loads this edition with all sorts of extras including footnotes stating where Verne got all his information. Can you really start a fire using a piece of ice? Yes, you can!  William Scoresby did!. Can you use your frozen hands to make ice? Yes!

Butcher also points out Verne’s occasional sexual puns and innuendos, his misspellings of names, surprisingly frequent confusion between “east” and “west”, and where he seems to have totally invented locations or mangled his sources.

Butcher completes his nice package of extras with a map showing Hatteras and company’s journey through the real and Vernian Arctic. There’s also a chronology of Arctic exploration through the time of Verne’s novel, contemporary advertisements and reviews of the novel, and a timeline of Verne’s life.

No, it’s probably not that interesting for those who aren’t interested in Verne or polar exploration. But this relatively obscure novel is worth a look if you are.

Medieval Otaku has more details — and enthusiasm for the book.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

One thought on “Adventures in Reviewer Parallax: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras

  1. medievalotaku November 3, 2018 / 3:55 pm

    Thank you for the link! I’m a big fan of works having to do with the Frigid North, as was Jules Verne. The Adventures of Captain Hatteras is still my favorite book within Verne’s corpus. I had no idea that the translator was considered “the father of Verne studies.” That helps explain why the notes to the book were so detailed.

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