JULES VERNE: THE FIRST KENNETH ROBESON?
We all think of Lester Dent as Kenneth Robeson I, the best and most prolific of all the writers who ever penned a Doc Savage adventure. But is that really true? After reading some sixty-seven consecutive Doc exploits, beginning with the “Man of Bronze,” it seemed that it was time to read a something different. It had been on my mind to revisit the classics and Jules Verne seemed to be a good starting place. “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (1870) proved to be as enjoyable this time around as it was some thirty odd years ago. Naturally, since there is a sequel of sorts to this adventure, the epic would not be complete until “The Mysterious Island” (1874) was finished.
Likewise, it proved itself to be the classic it is acclaimed to be. Being a dedicated Doc fan I always am on the prowl for bronze doppelgangers whenever reading newer fiction. Imagine my surprise when these little treasure nuggets began popping up in Verne's narrative a story written nearly sixty years before the first ever Doc Savage novel was printed.
Every reader who is even mildly acquainted with Doc Savage has heard of some of these literary ancestors. Horace Holly from H. Rider Haggard's “She” has all the appearances of being Monk Mayfair's ancestor. There is Philip Wylie's “The Savage Gentleman,” which has been cited by some as a Doc Savage prototype. What makes “The Mysterious Island” so special is that it describes a group of men who do seem to form a basis for the Doc Savage group.
“The Mysterious Island” centers around a group of men who are marooned on an island in the South Pacific at the very end of the Civil War. The adventure begins with five detainees who commandeer a balloon to escape Richmond in the final days of the conflict. The leader of this group is Captain Cyress Harding. He is an officer in the Union Army and an engineer. He is described as being forty-five years of age with a strong profile, piercing eyes, and tenacious strength. Verne describes him as "courage personified."
The second man in the group is Gideon Spillet. He is a reporter for the New York Herald, but he is more than a simple correspondent. He is a world traveler, resolute, courageous, and possesses a vast knowledge of many odd and useful subjects. Our third man is Neb, a loyal companion, blacksmith, and superb cook whose devotion to Cyress Harding is a tribute to their life-long friendship. The fourth man is a sailor named Pencroft. He is a bold man who we are told has had many adventures throughout the world. Lastly comes along young Herbert Brown who is Pencroft's ward. He is a young well-educated lad who proves himself to an accomplished naturalist. Here are five men, but there is one more traveler who joins the group. It is Top, faithful canine pet of Cyress Harding, who breaks his chain in a last ditch effort to join his master in escaping their Confederate prison.
The descriptions given above are very short and abridged especially when compared to those written by Verne. Lester Dent uses a few short sentences to describe Doc Savage and his aides. Verne uses dozens of paragraphs, some of which are quite lengthy. The descriptions go into great depth to describe what an extraordinary group of men these five adventurers are.
Cyress Harding's description is probably the most thorough. The author goes into tremendous detail to convey to the reader the high position Harding commands in the story. The engineer is a natural leader of men. His companions are bound to him as if they had been life-long friends even though they are all only very recently acquainted with the exception of Neb.
The other five men view Captain Harding as infallible. As their balloon approaches a deserted island, Harding is lost into the sea. It is initially feared that he may have drowned but as his companions discuss the situation they reject his death as a ridiculous impossibility. This is Cyress Harding they are talking about he is incapable of drowning! It is simply something that could not happen to a man of Harding's ability and character. The castaways have supreme confidence in the engineer. As it turns out, their faith is well founded. We are astonished by Harding's abilities throughout the story.
Harding does some amazing things. Marooned with only the basic things in their pockets, Cyress Harding manufactures fire, nitroglycerine, pottery, iron/steel, glass, gun-cotton (a substitute for gunpowder). He calculates their latitude with a stick and his own expert knowledge of mathematics and trigonometry. The longitude he computes using one of his companion's watches. Later when they obtain possession of a sextant, Harding's "crude" calculations are found to be within the acceptable range of observations as those made with a precision device. Harding is nothing if not a man's man. Had this been a Doc Savage adventure there is nothing that Harding accomplishes that would not have been expected from our bronze champion.
The next character to join the group is an ape. Jup is the name given him by his captors. He adapts well to their companionship and becomes as much a member of the group as any one of the men. Jup is captured when he and several of his fellow apes invade the castaway's home. It is not just a simple hut. Rather it is an eagle's nest every bit as impressive as Doc Savage's headquarters on the eighty-sixth floor and a tribute to Harding's genius as an engineer. The men name their home Granite House. It is a cavern high on the cliff overlooking the ocean. The grotto is initially underwater and is simply a drain through which the lake empties into the ocean below. Harding's use of the nitroglycerin he manufactures enables the men to drain the lake and expose the cavern. After setting up home in their new abode, the men come and go by a rope ladder. This is simply too much trouble and Harding devises a water-powered elevator to ease their labor.
Lastly, a sixth man joins the group. His name is Ayrton and he comes to the group's attention by way of a message in a bottle. He is marooned on nearby Tabor Island. The companions, having built a small sailing vessel, send two of their number to the island to rescue him. They find not a man but a wretched beast. As it turns out, Ayrton was a pirate who was left marooned on Tabor Island as punishment for attempted piracy. Slowly he is rehabilitated from a desolate creature into a civilized man. He expresses great remorse for his crime and later proves his worth and loyalty to his newfound companions.
On Lincoln Island, as it has been named by its discoverers, we have six men, a dog, and an ape. It is remarkable when we realize that six decades later Doc Savage's own group is comprised of six men, a pig, and an ape. In the Doc Savage stories we have Monk's pet pig, Habeas Corpus, and Ham's pet ape, Chemistry. These two pets, like Top and Jup, are loyal to their masters and perform real duties. In either set of stories the pet's true worth is shown not in the chores of an everyday existence but in the drama that comprises adversity and tragedy.
Aside from being the superb engineer he is, Harding is also a humanitarian. He freely welcomes Ayrton into their group. Later in the story, pirates invade Lincoln Island. Captain Nemo covertly destroys the pirate craft but six members of the pirate crew escape destruction and are freely roaming the island. The five companions want to hunt them down and kill them but Cyress Harding counsels waiting and seeing if the pirates become reconciled to their new situation. Harding argues that the pirates, once they recognize that they too are now marooned, may perhaps wish to live in peace with the castaways. Here we have a direct corollary to Doc Savage's code of never taking a human life if at all possible.
The other five men are all very competent in their professions. One is a naturalist who comes across many edible and useful plants on the island. Another is a sailor who is also an excellent shipwright and builds a ship while they are marooned. Gideon Spilett is a reporter but is also versed in many other subjects. Spilett is not a certified medical doctor he has enough generalized knowledge on the subject to be very practical.
Another is an excellent cook and also possesses excellent credentials as a blacksmith. All in all, the men as a group represent an impressive body of information. All possess great courage and show themselves to be admirable companions.
Doc Savage's men are all experts in their appointed disciplines. Ham Brooks is one of the finest legal minds ever to come out of Harvard. Monk Mayfair is a world-class chemist. Renny Renwick's skill as an engineer makes him one of the top men in his field. William Harper Littlejohn is an expert on the subjects of geology, archeology, and natural history. Lastly, Long Tom Roberts' expertise in the area of electricity classifies him as a leading authority on the topic. Five men, each a specialist in his own line of work, each complimenting the others' intellect and forming an all encompassing body of knowledge.
The men of Lincoln Island similarly comprise an assemblage of men whose combined wealth of knowledge leaves very few deficiencies in their ability to not only survive but also thrive. In short order, the deserted island they arrive on becomes nothing less than a colony only awaiting legal representatives from the government to take possession. The wilderness is tamed and civilization triumphant.
It is easy to make the correlation of Cyress Harding to Doc Savage. Both men are heroic figures. But there is still yet another individual that also possesses many of the characteristics and traits we have come to recognize in the man of bronze. In the closing chapters of the book, the castaways meet their unknown benefactor Captain Nemo. Let us scrutinize Captain Nemo and go back to the story of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
First and foremost Captain Nemo was a scientist and engineer but he was something more than an expert of applied science. He transformed the theoretical into the practical. Not only did he make the impossible, possible, he made it plausible. Doc Savage embodies these same abilities in his fantastic adventures across two decades. Nemo had a source of unlimited wealth from the innumerable wrecks spread across the ocean floor. Doc Savage had the Valley of the Vanished and its golden trove. Nemo and his men spoke an unknown language, which apparently only they themselves understood. Doc and his men spoke Mayan, a language that was virtually unknown outside their group. The Nautilus' captain was a self-proclaimed champion of oppressed peoples. We are told innumerable times that this was the same task to which Clark Savage and his companions worked at.
Without a doubt, Nemo is a political rebel and well outside the law. Doc Savage is also something of a political rebel although he was much more circumspect in his methods. The Crime College is an institution that could be viewed as nothing less than a complete departure from the normal societal laws regulating crime and punishment. The crew of the Nautilus has a familial love for one another and it is clearly stated that any one man would willingly sacrifice his life to save that of one of his fellows. Verne demonstrates this with the death of a crewman following the attack on some unknown vessel. This same altruistic ideal is shown throughout the Doc Savage series. Lastly, in “The Mysterious Island,” we learn that Captain Nemo is of Indian descent. This would place him in a race that is generally darker skinned than Caucasians. Clark Savage, Jr., while his ethnic origins are unknown, clearly has a darker than normal complexion for a Caucasian.
Lastly let us examine the travels of the Nautilus. Captain Nemo conquers the South Pole in his vessel. Doc and his crew prevail over the northern ice in “The Polar Treasure.” Where the Nautilus has a near disaster after being trapped in an icy sepulcher, Doc's vessel, the Helldiver, carries a quantity of liquid chemicals that will melt the ice should their ship become similarly trapped.
Verne's adventurers travel via underwater tunnel from the Red Sea into the Mediterranean under the desert sands of Egypt. Doc and his men undertake a long journey in an underwater tunnel under the sands of the Arabian Desert in “The Phantom City.” Nemo visits Atlantis. Doc Savage and his men visit Taz. Captain Nemo and his companions traverse the Sargasso Sea while describing a wrecked underwater ghost fleet lost in the tangles of the marine weed. Doc fights a vicious gang in the same locale in The Sargasso Ogre. Doc has a secret refuge in the frozen arctic his fortress of solitude. Nemo has a secret safe haven within the heart of an extinct sunken volcano where he goes to refit his craft.
Thus far we have spoken only of the heroic. As a final point, let us scrutinize that inhuman fiend, John Sunlight. In the Doc Savage series, John Sunlight has been described as a dark reflection of Clark Savage. But if Clark Savage bears some resemblance to Captain Nemo, then so too does John Sunlight bear a resemblance to the darker side the Nautilus' captain.
If the spirit of Captain Nemo was ever reincarnated, then here it is. One tends not to think of Sunlight as scientist/engineer but as something of criminally-minded genius. In actuality he does exhibit some remarkable abilities in this area as shown by his understanding of the diabolical devices he steals from the Fortress of Solitude. Neither Captain Nemo nor John Sunlight demonstrates any qualms in the toll of human lives their self-appointed tasks exact. Cold, remorseless, ruthless, and possessing a brilliant intellect we can see that John Sunlight is a shadowy reflection of Nemo across the abyss of time.
There clearly are many parallels between the stories and characters. Without doubt, Jules Verne deserves to be acknowledged as one of the literary grandfathers of Doc Savage's pulp adventures. The two books, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Mysterious Island” are truly enjoyable reading. But finding a linkage to the man of bronze gives the stories an additional pleasure and one that any fan of Doc Savage would enjoy.