Arctic Narratives: Fiction and Reality

At the very moment of writing this chapter in the autumn of 2019, a legendary ship belonging to the history of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration, the Terror, was uncovered under the Arctic ice, off King William Island in Canada’s far north. The story of the Terror and its even more famous sister ship the Erebus, long lost ships from Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage, belong to the legend-arium of the Arctic Ocean. The two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic, and all 129 men were lost (see Parkinson 1997). Stories about cannibalism and polar bear attacks provided food for Victorian imagination, and even Charles Dickens wrote newspaper columns about the event as well as a poetic prologue to Wilkie Collins’s play The Frozen Deep (1856); therefore, the most popular and canonical Victorian novelist was obsessed by the unknown Arctic (see Hill 2008, 4).2

One of the founding texts of Arctic exploration was Captain Franklin’s own journal based on his first and unsuccessful voyage to find the Northwest Passage between 1819 and 1822, published as Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea (1823). It was his last and fateful journey to the Arctic Ocean, beginning in 1845, which resulted in an enormous production of visual representations of the Arctic in the British media; indeed, for much of the nineteenth century, the polar regions were a source of fascination for the British public (see David 2000). When discussing specifically visual perspectives on the Arctic, Russell Potter’s Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture 1818-1875, is a relevant contribution. Potter’s book illuminates the nineteenth-century fascination with visual representations of the Arctic, since in the nineteenth century it was the Arctic - in its remoteness and mysteriousness - that captured the imagination of artists. In Potter’s view, the Arctic’s impact could be seen in visual media such as panoramas, paintings, photographs, cartoons and advertisements. He claims that visions of the Arctic “dominated popular art forms, among them fixed and moving panoramas, magic-lantern shows, and illustrated books and newspapers” and that “it was principally through the technologies of cisión that the Arctic was most keenly and energetically sought” (Potter 2007,4, emphasis original). What is also important in the context of my chapter is that visual representations of the Arctic multiplied due to the fascination with the disappearance of the Franklin expedition.

Janice Cavell, in her book Tracing the Connected Narrative: Arctic Exploration in British Print Culture, 1818-1860, aims to place Arctic exploration narratives in the broader context of the print culture of their time, including newspapers, periodicals and cheap popular literature, which were especially devoted to the Franklin expedition.3 More specifically, she studies how British journalism in the early and mid-nineteenth century simultaneously reflected and shaped popular responses to the stories of Canadian Arctic exploration. According to Cavell (2008, 36), Arctic exploration was seen as a characteristically British achievement, which exemplified and illustrated the nation’s greatness. At the same time, the national narrative of the Arctic in the 1850s was very limited in its means of representation and imagination, so that “a few standard images of the Arctic were repeated over and over in the illustrated papers with only slight variations” and “they eventually became a kind of shorthand that represented the far north in the popular imagination mainly through clichés and stereotypes” (40). In this sense, Cavell’s detailed historiographical analysis of the nineteenth-century British print culture does not make such huge claims as Potter does in his argument that visions of the Arctic dominated popular art forms. What is interesting, however, is that some of these “standard images” - about colossal icebergs and grisly polar bears, especially in Edwin Landseer’s famous painting Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) - were linked to the sensational story of the Franklin expedition and its unsolved mysteries. The popular visual media of the Victorian age also inform the ways in which Patrick Sumner, the main character of Ian McGuire’s novel The North Water, sees the Arctic, including a polar bear, which “appears and disappears from his view in awkward, flickering glimpses like an image in a zoetrope” (McGuire 2016, 255).4

As Benjamin Morgan (2016, 6) suggests, discussing the nineteenthcentury travel narratives concerning the Arctic, “[i]n a very real sense, then, explorers could only see these [Arctic] landscapes in the ways that were already highly mediated by existing poetic and artistic traditions”. According to Morgan,

[t]he Arctic sublime is a well-studied Romantic and Victorian aesthetic of threatening landscapes, terrible creatures, and deathly danger ... a wide array of popular culture including spectacular panoramas ... massive paintings of barren landscapes and wrecked ships, and a tremendous amount of adventure fiction idolizing the Arctic explorer.


In The North Water, the protagonist Sumner, the ship’s doctor and surgeon, can initially only see the North and the Arctic through literary, cultural and artistic frames. It is, then, a question of visualizing the Arctic in imagination and myths. But it appears, finally, that the cruel reality of the Arctic Ocean is indifferent to human strivings and that it is always resisting the urge to frame it according to human needs and wishes:

His [Sumner’s] mind moves to the northern ice fields and the great wonders he will no doubt see there - the unicorn and the sea leopard, the walrus and the albatross, the Arctic petrel and the polar bear. He thinks about the great right whales lying bunched in pods like leaden storm clouds beneath the silent sheets of ice. He will make charcoal sketches of them all, he decides, paint watercolour landscapes, keep a journal possibly. ... He will read widely (he has brought his dogeared Homer), he will practice his disused Greek.

(McGuire 2016, 30)

In fact, it is not only Sumner - more educated than other men on the whaling ship - but also the text itself which employs these cultural and artistic frames in order to represent the whaling business on the Arctic Ocean. McGuire seems to use as his model J.M.W. Turner’s infamous whaling paintings, especially “Whalers” (1845), in which the dark head of a harpooned whale erupts above the sea surface, and “Hurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!” (1846), which depicts Franklin’s famous ship the Erebus. Therefore, it is possible to argue that The North Water is strongly inspired by the nineteenth-century British imaging and imagining of the Arctic Ocean and the whaling business, making McGuire’s realist novel a self-reflexive and critical interpretation of the historical past and its construction in verbal narratives and visual images.

In The North Water, the Arctic Ocean as a continually changing entity serves as a metaphor for the fluidity of human identity. In her book The Novel and the Sea, Margaret Cohen (2010,13) rightly invites us to “revise the dominant narrative about the rise of the novel” by reconsidering “our long-standing prejudice that those processes and events defining the modern novel occur on land”. Cohen’s study of sea adventure fiction makes the Arctic Ocean a marginal case, however. Actually, it seems that the history of the Arctic Ocean is still less represented in the studies of sea fiction, an area dominated by the studies of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Sumner, the main character of The North Water, has previously served as an army doctor among the British troops in India and is eagerly expecting the clarity, peacefulness and emptiness of the Arctic Ocean “after the madness of India: the filthy heat, the barbarity, the stench” (McGuire 2016, 30). His ideal picture of the Arctic - “a kind of holiday” which gives him time and space to “paint watercolour landscapes” (30) - is in an ironic juxtaposition to the Orient and its fullness of life, action and noise. Actually, it has been suggested that the spatial and perceptual differences between rhe Arctic and other British imperial “possessions” meant that the voyages to the frozen North were seen as “pure” fields of masculine adventure and exploration - for example, because “Arctic exploration did not involve the warfare, women, or ‘weakening’ climate associated with Britain’s tropical colonies” (McCorristine 2018, 8). Therefore, a central part of the dream of the Arctic has been its construction as something pure, frozen, white, empty and masculine. In addition, as Robert G. David argues, as Arctic narratives often focus on challenging voyages without clear or definite discoveries, the differences between Arctic explorations and imperialistic expeditions of other parts of the world (e.g., Asia, Africa and the Americas) recommend correctives to general theories of imperial travel narratives such as Marie Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes (1992). As David (2000, 237) suggests, “the exclusion of the Arctic from the case studies [of imperialism] has caused these scholars to construct theories drawn from an important, but still limited range of evidence”. Consequently, for David, to neglect the study of the Arctic is to ignore a crucial part of the history of Victorian imperialism as well as to see all imperial travel narratives according to the same theoretical framework.

The North Water is a thoroughly masculine narrative, to be sure. As Jen Hill (2008, 4) argues in a study of nineteenth-century British imagination of the Arctic, “exploring and mapping the Arctic was a self-conscious exercise in national masculine identity building perceived to take place in ‘empty’ space”.5 In her phrasing, John Franklin’s doomed voyage to find the Northwest Passage was a sign of “the remasculinization of culture” and “the rigor of male-only Arctic expeditions discovered and articulated a masculinity in opposition not only to women at home and to upper-class male dandies in the metropole, but to colonial threats as well” (6). The unknown Arctic and the Franklin expedition’s failure to conquer it created the “white space” as a test field for the limits of human - and especially masculine - experience. As Margaret Cohen (2010, 12) suggests, classic sea fiction celebrates “heroic performance in dangerous zones, often at the edges of existing knowledge and society”. In addition, as Cohen has it, in sea fiction the ship’s crew is often “on dangerous, uncharted, indeed hitherto unimaginable terrain” which also makes possible ethically questionable action at sea and on the margins of civilization, such as killing (19, 88). As a fiction, which aims at thematic dimensions in addition to its mimetic rendering of the lost world, The North Water creates a universe of its own with symbolic functions given to different characters. Through this, it also aims to construct a philosophical narrative of the lost world of the Arctic instead of only a physical adventure story.

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