The subtitle of Lansing’s book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage got me thinking about the role of the “hero” in an adventure narrative. As Matt asked last week, Do all adventure narratives need heroes? While I initially disagreed with his question, I couldn’t help but think back to the concept while reading about Shackleton’s role in the group.
“Members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition” lists Sir Ernest Shackleton as “leader” of the expedition. Lansing catalogues Shackleton’s leadership qualities throughout the text, including physical fearlessness, “pathological dread of losing control of the situation”, consuming sense of responsibility, and desire to keep control of his party (73). Shackleton’s nickname of “Boss” serves to accentuate his absolute authority amongst his expedition members (85). This responsibility and authority, Lansing writes, contributed to “a barrier, an aloofness, which kept him apart” (86).
Regardless of Shackleton’s standout traits, Lansing still claims, “There was not a hero among them, at least not in the fictional sense” (69). Yet Lansing continues to highlight Shackleton’s outstanding role as a leader: “But Shackleton was not an ordinary individual. He was a man who believed completely in his own invincibility, and to whom defeat was a reflection of personal inadequacy…This indomitable self-confidence of Shackleton’s took the form of optimism…It was what made Shackleton so great a leader” (103). Even if Lansing does not explicitly use the word “hero” to describe Shackleton, he frames the man as certainly more than a leader from early in the text.
The final scene of Endurance solidified my perception of Shackleton as a hero, or at least Lansing’s efforts to frame him as such. When Shackleton’s rescue ship approached Elephant Island, castaways cheered at not just the sight of the ship, but more so at the recognition of Shackleton on board. “In fact the excitement ashore was so intense that many men were actually giggling,” Lansing writes (280). Shackleton “urged the men to get on board as quickly as possible”. Again, although Lansing does not use the word “hero” to describe Shackleton during this ending scene, the imagery of Shackleton approaching the island in his ship and essentially saving the day certainly implies heroic action.