The Compleat Shackleton – Globe of Books and Movies


“MEN WANTED for perilous journey, small salary, biting cold, long months of total darkness, constant danger, questionable safe return, honor and recognition in case of success.”

He has long drifted in the seas of imagination an apocryphal advertisement that the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton is said to have published in the London newspaper “The Times” before embarking on his most famous expedition. Many historians have failed to authenticate the announcement, but the legend persists. The tale of Sir Ernest H. Shackleton’s ability to keep his men alive in brutal conditions on a spectacularly failed Antarctic voyage continues to grow into the myth of our culture. We know him today for his participation in four separate forays into Antarctica, the last being the poignant end to a short and ultimately deeply influential lifetime of adventure.

In 1922, after reaching a remote whaling station on South Georgia Island, Shackleton returned to his ship after a pleasant meal, suffered a fatal heart attack, and died on the eve of his final voyage to the frozen south. After burying him, the crew returned to Cape Town to refit and resupply, but the thick pack ice – Shackleton’s arch-enemy – thwarted their efforts and they halted the expedition. Ship-dependent polar exploration ended with his death.

Ernest Shackleton
‘The Chief’ – photograph by Frank Hurley
© Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

The London-based Folio Society is paying homage to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legacy this year with ‘Shackleton’s Antarctica’, a three-volume box set encompassing the explorer’s tales of the Nimrod and Endurance voyages: ‘The Heart of the ‘Atlantic’ and ‘South’. The editions feature illustrations and photographs by expedition artist GE Marsten and photographer Frank Hurley, depictions of the haunting mountain ranges of our southernmost continent, a map showing the expedition’s path, and a introduction by Shackleton’s granddaughter, Alexandra. This set is for book lovers with a bit of cash to spare.

These Antarctic editions of Shackleton resemble their author – manly, graceful and ambitious. The dark blue volumes take a little muscle to pull off a shelf, and the blue and white cloth binder box with icy white text in a navy blue field is reminiscent of dull sunshine bouncing off glaciers. Even the top of the pages gleams, the gleaming silver edges of promised treasure, whether under the kerosene lamps of a dim ship’s galley or under fluorescent desk lamps at a less extreme latitude. A ribbon sewn to the binding serves as a placeholder while the reader restocks on coffee or hard tack, whatever food is needed to make ones way through the tomes.

Unlike an expedition to Antarctica, the books aren’t as intimidating as they look. Shackleton is a straightforward communicator, laying out the details of journeys from meticulous preparation to daring rescues in clear, easy prose with polished Edwardian overtones. Shackleton’s writing reveals an equal familiarity with ships’ stores and tackle as with Masefield, Browning and Psalm 107. The challenges he describes seem insurmountable, stacked as they are above sub-zero temperatures and of an abominable regime.

Shackleton’s story came alive with the centenary of his death. We can watch the PBS series ‘Chasing Shackleton’, a reality TV show where scientist, author and adventurer Tim Jarvis leads a crew recreating the incredible rescue sail depicted in the book ‘South’, from Elephant Island to back from South Georgia and through the mountains. You can listen to Dan Snow from the History Hit podcast broadcasting the search for the sunken Endurance wreck aboard the Needles II. Or we can read the explorer’s own words in these beautiful books, look at the photographs, study the maps and marvel.

Why do we care so much about this man who, in a time of great inequality similar to ours, devoted his life and destroyed his health in search of glory at the end of the world? Why is there still such a fascination for the artefacts of a life that men mount new expeditions to claim the trophies?

Shackleton’s key is how he treated his crew. In a time of rigid class divisions, he recognized the humanity and importance of the lowest sailor. A photo in ‘South’ shows scientists scrubbing the floor of the ‘salon’ aboard the Endurance during the ten months it was frozen in ice; these days it looks like merry drudgery, but back then it was a shocking violation of hierarchical loyalty. We didn’t mix with the mob who ran the ship, who cooked and cleaned, who took care of the cattle. We did not rub.

Shackleton had a hunch that keeping the boundaries of British society on the ice was tantamount to endangering the entire crew. The story of his return with all the men alive and loyal after four harrowing years completely overshadows the losses – the ship, the sleds, the dogs – anything they couldn’t carry.

What we seek, when we pursue it, is that relationship of trust in leadership. That the person we follow will do everything in their power to help us all get there, together. More importantly, we can be sure that if they should leave us behind, they will come back for us. As the glaciers melt, it’s clear that we have to find those people, we have to be those people.

With the release of these volumes, the Folio Society has given us a map to understand how to unearth the courage to be true to ourselves and those with whom we journey in our lives. When small disasters make life seem like an impossible drudgery, when there’s no way out we can see, we can pull a smooth blue ribbon, find Ernest Shackleton’s words and open ourselves to the possibility.

“Shackleton’s Antarctica”, in a magnificent Folio Society edition.

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