The Village in the Treetops: Verne reacting to Darwin

The Village in the Treetops by Jules VerneThe Village in the Treetops by Jules Verne

When English naturalist Charles Darwin released his groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species in November 1859, it set off a firestorm of controversy regarding its central tenet: organic evolution, and the descent of life from a common ancestral source. Indeed, such was the brouhaha over this novel concept that even 66 years later, during the so-called Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, the subject was hotly debated, and in fact, to this very day, over 150 years since Darwin’s most famous work was published, there are still millions of religious fundamentalists who adamantly deny its veracity. And so, it may well be understood that Jules Verne — the Frenchman who has been called “The Father of Science Fiction,” and who certainly had an ardent interest in all matters pertaining to scientific matters in general — took an especial interest in the subject, despite the fact that he was a devout, churchgoing Catholic.

The result was the author’s The Village in the Treetops (originally published as Le Village Aerien, or The Aerial Village, in 1901, four years before the author’s death at age 77), which sees Verne coming to grips with the possibility of a so-called “missing link” between man and ape. This novel, one of the many in the “Extraordinary Voyages” series that he’d started with publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, beginning with 1863’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, was not translated into English until Ace paperbacks came out with its I.O. Evans translation in 1964; the edition that I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on. As it turns out, the book finds Verne in Englishman H. Rider Haggard territory, with a tale of the discovery of a lost race in the wilds of Africa, although to be fair, the Frenchman was writing novels set in “The Dark Continent” (Five Weeks in a Balloon, his very first, for example) decades before Haggard ever began his authorial career.

In The Village in the Treetops, the reader makes the acquaintance of two adventurers in their mid-20s, John Cort, an American, and Max Huber, a Frenchman. The two work in a factory of some sort in Libreville, Gabon, in the central Africa of 1898, and have recently been on an ivory-hunting expedition with a Portuguese trader and a large retinue. Trouble arises suddenly for the caravan when an elephant stampede kills the trader and puts all the servants to rout, leaving Cort and Huber alone with Khamis (a 35-year-old “foreloper” guide from Cameroon) and their 10-year-old adopted native son, Llanga. The quartet must now trek over 1,000 miles on foot to reach Libreville again, and thus decides to take a shortcut, through the unexplored immensity of the Oubanghi forest. And after a journey of many weeks, and some harrowing adventures, the four discover the remnants of the camp of one Dr. Johausen, who had gone missing three years earlier whilst studying the language of the apes. They also rescue from drowning a young boy who is more monkey than human, and ultimately come upon their most startling discovery of all: the village of Ngala, built upon an enormous platform 100 feet up in the trees and peopled by the apelike Waggdi tribe, which people just might constitute that long-sought “missing link.” The quartet is amicably treated by the Waggdis, although the question of being able to leave remains very much an issue…

I must say that the primary difference, for me, between Verne — and between later African fantasist Edgar Rice Burroughs, for that matter — and Rider Haggard is that the Frenchman and the American did not ever visit Africa (Verne had, to be fair, sailed to Lisbon and Algiers in 1878), whereas the Englishman had lived and worked there for many years. Haggard’s African novels, thus, always have that effortless aura of verisimilitude, despite their fantastic elements; one lacking from the fictions of the other two. Still, what Verne lacked in actual travel experience, he tried to make up for with copious amounts of research from guidebooks and other sources, so much so that The Village in the Treetop does carry a patina of realism. Fauna and flora are meticulously described… at least, as much as any reasonable reader might expect.

Indeed, his novel here, at least the first 2/3 of it, is largely an African safari-type of tale, and our adventurers don’t even arrive at that Waggdi village until page 143. Another main difference between Haggard and Verne (based on my substantial experience with the former and limited reading of the latter) would seem to be their treatment of the African natives. Haggard was never condescending, and always attributed a great nobility to his Zulus and other native tribes; Verne, at least here, is more casually racist. For example, Llanga has a lighter complexion than many other central Africans; he sports “an aquiline, unflattened nose; nor did he have the thick Negroid lips. His eyes shone with intelligence…” Khamis is said to have “blood thicker than that of the white man, which blunts the feelings and is less perceptible of physical pain…” And then there’s this, from Max Huber: “Between the natives and the apes of the Congo… I don’t think there’s very much difference.” Ouch!

As far as the book’s pro or con attitude to Darwinism, things are left fairly up in the air, although by the novel’s end, it seems pretty darn clear that the Waggdis are more human than ape; a verifiable missing link. Still, Verne does muddy the waters a bit by having Cort and Huber debate the issue before their arrival at Ngala. His book, for the most part, is fast moving and exciting, and he keeps things lively for the reader by throwing in any number of action set pieces: that elephant stampede, an attack by two crazed rhinos, an attack by an army of monkeys while our quartet is traveling by raft downriver, a harrowing experience in a rapids, and their ultimate escape from the Waggdi village. Despite their occasional racist remarks and keenness on shooting animals, Cort and Huber are basically decent, likable men, and indeed, we should remember that they dearly love the young Llanga, highly esteem the shrewd guide Khamis, and are only hunting for food and to survive. They are remarkably cool characters, too, so much so that when they are trapped in the branches of a tamarisk tree, with hundreds of elephants stampeding beneath them, Cort comments, “This is getting rather involved.” To which Huber replies, “You could almost say it’s getting complicated!” I love it!

The bottom line is that, although little read and seldom discussed today, The Village in the Treetops is certainly well worth a look for today’s discriminating reader. It might be lesser Verne, to be sure, but still proved very entertaining, and even educational, for me. For example, in regard to tsetse flies… when Verne says, “…the travelers had no need to worry about [them] … their venom is mortal only to horses, camels and dogs, and not to man any more than to the wild beasts…” Who knew?

Published in 1901. A hunting party on the headwaters of the Congo has its leader killed and supplies destroyed by a herd of rampaging elephants. They find a raft left behind by an eccentric German scientist who was trying to learn the language of apes. Going down river on the raft, they rescue a baby who seems to be a young “missing link” hairier than a human child but capable of limited speech. The raft wrecks on rapids and the party are rescued by the child’s people, the Wagdi, who like him appear to be on the border between ape and human culture. They not only have language, but also the village of the title (huts built on a platform in the trees), simple pottery, cooking, weapons, music, and alcohol. Their indulgence in the last item permits the party to escape after discovering that the eccentric German, now insane, is the nominal god-king of the village. This book predates Tarzan by a decade, and tackles very similar ideas about evolution and the dark heart of Africa. However, unlike Burroughs, Verne shows here a keen understanding of both science and human nature.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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