Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book review - Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: the Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance, by Jennifer Armstrong.  You should read this book.  It's as simple as that.  If you have never been inspired by the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition to Antarctica in 1914, or if you want your children to appreciate it along with you, this is the book.  Everyone in our family was spellbound by the audiobook.  It was written for children, the vocabulary is approachable, the storytelling is clear and simple... and yet I found it brought the heroism of Shackleton and his men to life better than anything else I've read on the subject.  Future leaders of the world, read this book.

In recent years I've become interested in what you might call literary detective work.  It's highly speculative, but quite enjoyable to attempt to pinpoint the influences on a favorite author.  It's a little like mindreading, and about as provable by hard facts.  Still, I am prepared to go out on a limb and say that my favorite author, C.S. Lewis, was inspired by reading the (for him) contemporary accounts of Shackleton's voyage (as well as the previous doomed expedition of Scott), and worked elements of them into the Narnia chronicles and space trilogy.  Puddleglum's dire prediction about how these Northern journeys always end... Frank the cab driver's observation that "worse things happen at sea"... Ransom lying exhausted for days in a cave after battling with the Unman in Perelandra... Shasta's struggle and renewed determination when he is required to run a marathon after crossing the desert... Caspian's eagerness to keep exploring to the Eastern edge of the world, and his son Rilian's desire to visit the lowest reaches of Bism, both only recalled by the need to fulfill their duty to protect their people. 

One account in Armstrong's book that gave me chills was the description of the final trek of three men over the uncharted mountains of South Georgia Island to reach the whaling station that was their only hope.  On this hike they at one point had to slide down a mountainside on loose gravel because there was no other way (reminding me of the descent into the Underworld in The Silver Chair).  All three men reported independently afterwards that during the hike they had an impression, an awareness, of the presence of a Fourth Man.  Of course you think about the Biblical account of the fiery furnace when you hear that.  But I was also reminded of how Shasta, in The Horse and His Boy, becomes aware of a fellow-traveller at his side as he makes his way through a foggy mountain pass.  When Aslan reveals himself, Shasta understands that the Lion has been his companion through all the dangers of his adventure.

I can easily envision Lewis, with his wide-ranging interests and especially his fascination with "Northernness" in mythology, reading the Shackleton accounts avidly.  They would become a prominent feature of his thought-life, and he would return to the idea of what makes a leader great as he wrote his books.  All speculation, of course, but after all, both Shackleton and Lewis had their part in the Great Conversation.

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