Reading the runes

In Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a volcano in Iceland proves to be the way to enter the depths of the Earth… but how do the protagonists of this story figure this out from a complex encoded text?


Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) tells the story of how Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel enter the depths of the Earth via the crater of a volcano called Sneffels, on the western coast of Iceland. But the journey, which eventually takes the heroes through the Earth to the other end of Europe, starts with the discovery of an ancient manuscript between the leaves of an old book bought from an antiques dealer. To his nephew’s suggestion that a translation of the book would be more useful, the Professor protests: “A translation! What good would a translation be? This is the original work, in the Icelandic language, that beautiful idiom both simple and rich which makes possible the richest, the most varied grammatical and word combinations!”

Reading the runes article text

Luckily the Professor is a polyglot and he translates every Icelandic rune (or letter) into its equivalent in our alphabet. This is the result he gets:

m.rnlls
sgtssmf
kt,samn
emtnael
Atvaar
ccdrmi
dt,iac

esreuel
unteief
atrateS
nuaect
.nscrc
eeutul
oseibo

seec]de
niedrke
Saodrrn
rrilSa
ieaabs
frantu
KediiY

He then (somewhat improbably?) immediately sees that:

  • This message concerns “some astonishing discovery”
  • The consonant to vowel ratio (79 to 53) makes it highly likely that it was not after all written in Icelandic but a “Southern” language, because “Northern” languages contain even more consonants. Since medieval scientists commonly communicated in Latin, this must be Latin.

Further observation reveals that these letter sequences, with punctuation, capitals and brackets can’t be part of a natural language in its normal form, and therefore the message was written in code: a key must be found.

The Professor’s instinct leads him to ask Axel to rearrange the letters, first taking the first letter of each sequence, then the second letter, etc. By following this idea, his long-suffering nephew obtains the following result:

messunkaSenrA. icefdoK. Segnittamurtn
ecertserrette, rotaivsadua, ednecsedadne
lacartniiilu]siratracSarbmutabiledmek
meretarcsilucoYsleffenSnI

At this point, several clues seem to present themselves, as words from various languages emerge from the magma:

  • From English, ‘ice’ and ‘sir’
  • From Latin, ‘rota’ (wheel), ‘mutabile’ (changeable), ‘ira’ (anger), ‘nec’ (neither) ‘luco’ (sacred wood) and ‘atra’ (black)
  • Possibly from Hebrew, ‘tabiled’
  • From French, ‘mer’ (sea), ‘arc’ (arc/arch), ‘mère’ (mother)

What can the connexion between these words be? It’s tempting to see a link between ‘ice’ and ‘mer’ in a document written in Iceland. The young man’s speculation becomes feverish, and he gets so worked up by his efforts that he feels the need to fan himself, using the piece of paper he has been working on. As it flits backwards and forwards in front of his face, as if via an optical illusion the meaning appears clearly to this fluent Latin speaker: the text was written backwards! This is how it should read:

In Sneffels Yoculis craterem kem delibat umbra Scartaris Julii intra calendas descende,
Audas viator, et terrestre centrum attinges… Kod feci.

… which, if you ignore the poor spelling, means:

Audacious traveller, if you go to Sneffels and descend the crater of Yokuls, touched by the shadow of Scartaris just before the July calends, you will reach the centre of the Earth. This I have done.

You can guess what happens next.

This particular word quest may lack plausibility, just as the rest of their adventures, across underground seas and giant mushroom forests inhabited by long-extinct creatures and culminating in an eruption which saves the travellers from certain death by ejecting them out of the volcano at great speed on a jet of lava, perched as they are on a flimsy wooden raft… But that’s not to say that some aspects of the Professor’s approach can’t be applied to decipher other coded texts.


Your task

Using what you have learned about Jules Verne’s version of the Icelandic runes, what does the following text mean?

Beware: There are a few letters that do not fit exactly – see if you can decipher them!

Reading the runes competition text

Ms Marie Elven teaches written French language to all undergraduates taking French at St John’s. Her special interest lies in teaching Prose (translation from English into French), an exercise which provides multiple opportunities to explore aspects of language. She is a strong believer in the integrated study of language and literature, a belief which is central to her approach to language teaching. She is also interested in more theoretical aspects of translation and has taught part of the Advanced Translation paper for Paper XII.

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