I decided I’d start with Ernest Shackleton’s Escape from the Antarctic, because I mentioned it in my blog post yesterday and have continued to think about it even though it’s been a couple of years since I read it last and it’s currently packed away in a box along with most of my books. (Most of my very favourite books are kept out … but some I missed in the various moves and storage units of the last two years.)
I really like the line from Penguin of short nonfiction texts (or excerpts from longer ones) with letter-press (I believe) covers. I first found them in a remainder bookstore in Llandudno, Wales. I don’t think I found the Shackleton one there–I found such gems as Thomas Browne’s Urne Burial and Hume’s On Suicide–but I’ve since looked out for other books in the series. Probably the one I have of two essays by William Morris will come up later in this series of posts.
Since I don’t have the book to hand, I can’t tell you things like whether it’s an extract of a longer work (I thought it was at one point, but although I enjoyed Heart of the Antarctic, that was about another expedition), or whether it was a talk, or what was the original context. As a scholar I feel mildly guilty about that … though there are definitely schools of thought that would argue that that original context is immaterial to the discussion. I’d like to know, however, so if anyone does, feel free to share in the comments.
On to the book. It’s a retrospective account of an ill-fated expedition Shackleton made to the Antarctic in 1914, where his ship was caught in the ice near a small uninhabited island (I believe Elephant Island) and crushed. He and his crew got to Elephant Island, with no means of communication, no hope of escape, and the Antarctic winter coming on. Shackleton considered his resources and his situation, and decided that the only thing to do was to take the ship’s boat (so, the small craft they used to get to shore and so forth) and sail by dead reckoning to the nearest accessible habitation, the whaling station on South Georgia Island. It was about 800 miles away.
He takes some other men with him–I think there were five, including a doctor–and off they go in their little boat, bruised by the stones they needed for ballast, hungry, wet, cold, and with one shot of hitting South Georgia Island using nothing but their knowledge of the stars and a sextant. Astonishingly enough, they reached the island–but on the opposite side from the whaling station.
Because of the currents, they dared not try to go around the island by sea. Apart from the coastline, the island was uncharted and unknown, and three of Shackleton’s men were in such dire straits they couldn’t possibly march the 30 or 50 miles it would take to get to the whaling station. After a nourishing meal of raw albatross, Shackleton and the other two men took the barest minimum of food and oil for their stove, and set off at a diagonal down the island.
There’s a passage in the work, which is what T.S. Eliot alludes to in The Waste Land, during which Shackleton talks about he, and in private discussions with the other two men they as well, felt as they slogged through the glaciers and mountains of that island, that there was another walking with them. T.S. Eliot’s allusion is more obviously to the post-Resurrection appearance of Christ on the road to Emmaus; and Shackleton, though clearly uncomfortable at raising the subject, is as utterly serious about the experience, and the need to share it.
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you …
I’ve often thought about the utter shock that the Russian whalers must have felt when a total stranger walked up from the inland side of their station and knocked on their door–and even more so when they realised it wasn’t a total stranger, but a man they’d met earlier in the year, looking rather the worse for wear and with crazy beards. When they whalers took one of Shackleton’s men with them to go find the men he’d left on the other end of the island, after they’d washed and shaved (being Edwardian Englishmen), the men left behind didn’t recognize the one who’d come to get them, he looked so different clean-shaven and clean and in proper clothes.
Back at the whaling station, Shackleton was trying to figure out how to get back to Elephant Island to rescue the other members of his crew. After a variety of efforts over several months, most of them prevented because of the ice, with the help of the Uruguayan government he finally managed to get in to Elephant Island within sight and access of the men left on shore. They had only a few hours before the ice closed around them again, and it had been, as I said, months since he had left in a small open boat with five men for an 800-mile journey across the Antarctic ocean at the onset of winter.
Shackleton’s second-in-command, Wilde, was so confident that Shackleton would return that for the past month or so, after he reckoned it began to be possible, he made the men get ready for a quick escape. Shackleton didn’t even land; they were loaded and off the island within a few hours, and made it out of the pack ice to Uruguay and the journey back to England–and to join up with the First World War, which they were probably the last Englishmen in the world to hear about.
I think it is this last part of the story, the bit about Shackleton’s second-in-command, that makes it resonate so very strongly with me. Not just the sheer astonishing accomplishment of the journey–but the fact that Wilde maintained, in the face of no encouragement but his belief in Shackleton’s character and promise, that his commander would return and would rescue them, and therefore prepared accordingly.
It’s hard to imagine that kind of confidence. It is, to me, sublime. And what is more–it wasn’t misplaced. Shackleton did make that incredible journey, did come back, did rescue his men–all of them! Wilde had faith: and Shackleton fulfilled it.
That doesn’t happen very often in the world.
Every time I think about this story, I am inspired and humbled. Shackleton felt there was Another walking beside him, giving him strength for that last horrible march over the uncharted and unwalked glaciers of South Georgia Island.
I have a character in one of my stories who is going to grow into being a great leader and captain. Whenever I think about what that means, how to show it, how to write it, what kind of person that could be, I think of Ernest Shackleton and his second-in-command Wilde, lost in the dark of the Antarctic winter, having faith and fulfilling it.