Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton and the Changing Face of Heroism

May 8, 2008

Once upon a time, heroes were meant to be the persisting role models for our young people. They were special people, selected as exemplars by public acclaim to demonstrate the higher elements of human character - bravery, dedication, self-sacrifice. Yet this new book shows how transient this fame can be and how closely it is coupled to changing cultural norms.

Initially, the almost saintly status awarded to Scott after his death proved to be an enduring element in the public's perception of Antarctica for many decades. His death was portrayed as a sacrifice and, coming as it did in the declining years of the British Empire, it accorded well with the patriotism that the media attached to it. No one dared question Scott's plans or leadership and Amundsen's victory in reaching the South Pole first was generally regarded by the British as unsportsmanlike and, by those who cared about dogs, as unspeakable.

Scott's position as a Royal Navy officer gave him greater public credibility and recognition than Shackleton could ever attain as a mere Merchant Navy officer. And the declaration by the Admiralty that Scott and his companions were to be considered as "killed in action" accorded well with the prevalent notion of Christian martyrdom. Meanwhile, Shackleton was largely ignored. His problems with Endurance and the rescue of his men from Elephant Island coincided with the middle of the First World War and so his exploits were accorded little publicity when thousands of men were dying every day in the trenches.

Scott's diary became a national treasure on permanent display and England is covered in memorials to him, whereas Shackleton, as a Union supporter, fell foul of Irish nationalism and nobody in Ireland would commemorate his exploits. Yet Shackleton is now a model for leadership whereas Scott is branded as a bungler. Why have the heroes changed places?

Stephanie Barczewski shows that the timing of his death ensured Scott's immortality as a sacrificial warrior, a role that resonated in a world stricken by bereavement. Shackleton not only survived but appeared to have escaped the consequences of the war, making his actions suspect. Since then expectations have changed. Barczewski's trawls through contemporary literature show how widely the traditional patriotic team-playing hero has since been replaced by the unpredictable, ambitious and charismatic opportunist: the Scott and Shackleton contrast writ large.

The first five chapters provide an excellent summary of the Scott and Shackleton expeditions to ensure that any reader can appreciate Barczewski's cultural analysis in the following chapters. The remaining eight chapters first examine commemoration of the two heroes in physical, printed and visual forms and then look at Scott's decline and the rise of Shackleton as the superhero. The treatment is exhaustive, with 65 pages of notes, and I wondered if a shorter version with fewer examples might not have been just as effective.

Where once courage and sacrifice were the watchwords, the culture from the 1960s onwards has favoured ambition and determination, the individual rather than the community. Modern "heroes" are celebrities, made by the media, whose wealth and fame rather than their deeds are their principal attributes. And we now prefer our heroes flawed.

Interestingly, in her epilogue Barczewski notes that the barometer has changed once more and now Scott's reputation is rising again as Shackleton's falls. This more realistic assessment recognises that even the greatest person has feet of clay. Barczewski's book is a valuable addition to the already extensive Antarctic literature and her unusual analysis of our Antarctic heroes provides us with a mirror in which we can see our own failings reflected in our changing cultural ideals.

Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton and the Changing Face of Heroism

By Stephanie Barczewski
Hambledon Continuum
412pp
£25.00
ISBN 9781847251923
Published 17 December 2007

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