The Ice Sphinx, when Jules Verne wrote the sequel to a Poe play

With Journey to the Center of the Earth, Five weeks in a balloon and some other, The ice sphinx It was always one of my favorite Jules Verne novels; partly because of the work itself and partly because of the magnificent adaptation to comics made by the cartoonist José Duarte Minarro in 1973 for that priceless collection of the Bruguera publishing house, entitled Youth Literary Jewels. Curiously, the book is a continuation of a classic by another no less famous author, Edgar Allan Poe, who also influenced a third writer, HP Lovecraft, who in his work In the mountains of madness includes several references.

Obviously I mean the Narration by Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe’s only proper novel (the rest of his literary output consists of short stories and poems). Published in one volume in 1838 (it had previously been serialized), the plot is a feverish combination of reality and fantasy in which horror is expressed in an unusually crude way, with passages of cannibalism and even science fiction, reflecting the mystery that the polar regions constituted a time when the first scientific expeditions to such corners of the planet were organized.

The Arthur Gordon Pym that gives the book its title is, as Salvador Vázquez de Parga says, one of the first born adventurers in literature, inspired “for the desire for freedom, for the love of danger and for the sense of fantasy”. Of course, with a lousy eye to choose the ships he boards as a stowaway. In the first she ends up shipwrecked. In the second he has to attend a mutiny and a new sinking from his hiding place, from which he survives with other companions to, after seeing a macabre ghost ship full of rotting corpses pass by, end up fighting with each other to devour each other before the terrible prospect of dying. famine on the high seas.

Pym is rescued, but he himself expresses that «I never experienced a more burning desire for the violent adventures that shake the life of a navigator than a week after our miraculous salvation». And, consequently, the third time he enlists in a schooner to hunt seals in Antarctic waters. But the ship arrives at Tsalal Island, a strange land, with a mild climate, thick and multichromatic water plus a strange labyrinth among the mountains with hieroglyphs carved in stone, in which a black tribe lives who do not know the color white. because nothing there has it. Those people murder the crew except for the protagonist and his friend, who flee in a canoe, entering a milky and warm sea.

That last part of the story becomes almost dreamlike, nightmarish, and culminates when the characters, flown over by menacing giant birds while being dragged by a strong current in the midst of completely abnormal weather conditions -increasing heat, colossal clouds of steam, absence of night and of ice, a rain of ashes-, come to the abrupt end of the story, as disturbing as it is full of intrigue:

And suddenly we were plunged into the bowels of a waterfall, and a chasm opened before it to receive us. But in our wake a human figure appeared, veiled, with dimensions much larger than those of any inhabitant of Earth, and with skin as white as snow.

That was the strange reason that Jules Verne would recover fifty-nine years later to make him the center of the plot of The ice sphinx. He was not the only one to do so, since Poe’s novel, despite receiving rather negative reviews, had an enormous direct or indirect influence on many writers: Melville and his Moby-DickCharles Romeyn Dake with A strange discoverythe aforementioned Lovecraft with In the mountains of madnessPaul Theroux with The Old Patagonian ExpressBaudelaire in his poem Journey to Cythera and many more.

The fact is that, in 1864, Verne had written Edgar Poe and his worksa study of the genius of Baltimore in which he highlighted the fact that the history of the Narration by Arthur Gordon Pym it had an open ending -or rather it was left unfinished-, with the characters paddling in those inscrutable latitudes, dragged by an invisible force. And the French wondered: «Who will continue it? Another more daring than me and more daring to enter the domains of the impossible». Actually few would be more appropriate than him, but he thought about it for more than three decades and when he got down to it he already had some experience in polar issues, having published The Adventures of Captain Hatteras in 1864 and country of fur in 1872, although they took place in the Arctic.

Thus, in 1897 he drew Le Sphinx des Glacesfirst in installments in a family-friendly magazine called Le Magazin d’education et de récreation and then in two volumes. By then he was in his final stages, suffering from blindness – due to diabetes that would end up sending him to his grave in 1905 – which made him slow down his prodigious creative rhythm without interrupting it. Perhaps that physical limitation prompted him to write second parts of previous works: Verne had recently written the sequel to a novel of his own: Mason’s Secretin which he recounted new adventures of the protagonists of From the Earth to the moon; on that occasion they planned to fire a giant cannon that would change the planet’s axis and melt the ice at the poles to take advantage of the mineral riches of its subsoil.

The approach of The ice sphinx it is that of a sequel that takes place shortly after the narration by Poe. He had suggested that his story should continue in an underground world, but Verne already had on his resume Journey to the Center of the Earth and there was no question of repeating itself. So he opted again for the frozen setting and, in this way, the reading introduces us to a new protagonist, an American geologist named Jeorling who, wishing to study the South Pole, enlists in the expedition that Captain Len Guy organizes in search of of his brother William, lost in the Antarctic Ocean. William commanded the ship Arthur Gordon Pym was traveling on and his diary, found on the corpse of one of his crew, reveals that he is still alive with a handful of survivors on Tsalal Island. You have to rescue them.

The trip begins in the Kerguelen Islands and little by little they go into that corner of the world, facing sometimes bad weather, sometimes floating ice and sometimes the reverential fear that sailors have of the ice sphinx, which attracts the boats to their destruction. Events are precipitated when the terrified crew mutiny and a huge iceberg spins the schooner away. Some manage to save themselves, but their boat is dragged towards the menacing sphinx by that mysterious force described by Poe and against which they cannot fight.

“And then, a quarter of a mile away, a mass was drawn that dominated the plain in an extension of 50 toises on a circumference of 200 to 300. Due to its strange shape, that massif resembled an enormous sphinx, with the torso erect, the legs legs outstretched, crouched, in the attitude of the winged monster that Greek mythology has placed on the road to Thebes.
Was it a living animal, a gigantic monster, a mastodon whose dimensions were a thousand times greater than those enormous elephants of the polar regions whose remains are still found? In the state of mind in which we found ourselves, it would have been possible to believe so, and also believe that the mastodon was going to rush on our boat and crush it in its claws».

Finally, and paradoxically, they are helped by those they were going to rescue and Jeorling discovers the mystery of the place: that force is magnetic because the ice sphinx turns out to be nothing more than a large rock magnetized by induction of electrical discharges poles, combined with a subterranean metallic vein in the heart of the figure. A gigantic magnet, in short, that attracts everything that is metallic, from ship fittings to tools and weapons, as shown by the multitude of pieces adhered to the rocky wall, in the manner of the harpoons hanging from the back of Moby Dick. :

“So there was a magnet of prodigious intensity and we had entered its zone of attraction. Before our eyes one of those astonishing effects which had hitherto been regarded as fables had been effected. swallowed them for this reason?… And yet, it was so…

(…) Those continuous currents to the poles, which shake the compasses, must have extraordinary influence, and it would be enough for a mass of iron to be subjected to their action for it to become a magnet with a power proportional to the intensity of the current».

And at the foot of it they find something else: the frozen body of Arthur Gordon Pym still carrying a rifle that, instead of saving him, condemned him.


The ice sphinx (Julio Verne)/Narration by Arthur Gordon Pym (Edgar Allan Poe)/Heroes of Adventure (Salvador Vázquez de Parga)

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