Review of Polar Literature

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Book Review:The Frozen Ship: The Histories and Tales of Polar Exploration

By Sarah Moss

Blue Bridge Books 2006, 272 pages, $24.95

ISBN 10 0-7432-8077-6

As the Canadian poet Robert Service once noted, “There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold.” The snow-covered northern and southern extremes of the Earth have hosted expeditions of prospectors, explorers and ascetics for more than 2000 years. Europeans began visiting the Polar Regions in the 4th century BC, when Pythias of Massalia sailed north from Britain. A thousand years later, Celtic monks seeking cloister from worldly things sailed to Iceland. By the time Erik the Red settled in Greenland and British ships stumbled upon Antarctica by way of the South Pacific in the 16th century, the blank areas atthe top and bottom of the map had taken shape and the golden age of polar exploration had begun. The body of polar literature produced during this golden age, which ended in the mid-20th Century with the advent of the Cold War, is the subject of Sarah Moss’ short and charming The Frozen Ship: The Histories and Tales of Polar Exploration.

There were dozens of polar expeditions between 1700and 1950, most of them undertaken by ill-prepared Englishmen and a few launched by Americans and Norse. Whether or not the expedition survived was immaterial—all went on to fame and glory. Nearly all kept exquisitely detailed journals that described their hiemal ordeals, sometimes right up until the hour of death, and their descriptions of dangerous and desolate landscapes became a touchstone for British poets, children’s authors, and novelists, particularly those of the gothic tradition. 

Moss has organized the book thematically rather than chronologically, with sections on colonies, extended voyages, failed voyages, and women in the polar regions. The liveliest sections describe the ordeals of explorers who died on the icecaps or nearly did. She quotes generously from the Robert Falcon Scott diary of his 1901and doomed 1911 expedition. Scott, whose Victorian duty-above-all ethic and penchant for man-hauling (where men rather than dogs pulled the sledges) inspired one of his men to kill himself along the way, was found in 1913, poised over his diary, frozen stiff. Other similarly hapless explorers include Sir John Franklin, who brought too much silver cutlery and not enough food on his 1845 expedition, and Salomon August Andree, a Swede who in 1897 attempted to fly to the North Pole in a balloon but mistakenly left the steering apparatus on the launch pad. Stranded in the Arctic Circle and out of food, both men were forced to eat their sealskin gloves and shoes. Neither party was seen again. 

Accounts of polar expeditions were widely read during the 18th and 19th centuries, and Moss argues convincingly that they were critical to the development of gothic novels, romantic poetry, and children’s literature (including the works of A.A. Milne and J.M. Barrie). Moss’ research traces Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s arctic fascination to letters he sent his wife while on a walking tour of Germany, and Moss’ exegesis of Shelley’s gothic arctic landscape is a refreshing look at an increasingly neglected masterpiece. Even as the poles became well mapped, the Arctic and Antarctic in British literature remained almost as the Celtic monks saw it twelve hundred years ago: silent and pure, a mystery shrouded in white. 

The Frozen Ship covers a lot of ground—500 years in less than 250 pages. That’s a lot of moiling, but a short introduction outlining the history of Arctic and Antarctic exploration does a fine job of giving readers their bearings, preventing the book’s immense scope from overwhelming. Moss, a lecturer in American and English literature at the University of Kent, is much better at literary analysis than historiography. Often she falls into the trap of applying present day sensibilities to Victorian-era situations. For example, she chastises Sir William Edward Parry for giving “no thought that the men themselves might be allowed to write [their own accounts of the Arctic voyage]” when most of the men, who were sailors in the British Navy, were probably illiterate. Still, Moss tells a good story and manages to keep a number of thematic balls in the air while she hopscotches back and forth through the different expeditions. 

The kind of exploration that Moss describes doesn’t happen much anymore, and while it’s hard to feel nostalgia for the days when polar explorers ate their shoes, the literature they left behind is without peer in today’s non-fiction literature. The arguable exceptions are adventure stories like Jonathan Krakhaur’s Into Thin Air or Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, but these books are more concerned with disaster than exploration. For John Donne, writing in the 17th century just as the poles became part of popular British consciousness, they were invisible, “numinous” places; with no continents left to discover, it is hard to say where outside of the boreal ice and its well-marked poles Donne’s numinousness might still live.

– Reviewed by Brendan Hughes

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