Kingdoms of Ice and Snow: Exploration in Writing and Film

Module code: EN3190

Module co-ordinator: Dr Mary Ann Lund

The exploration, mapping, and conquest of distant lands has long captured the British imagination and formed an essential part of colonial ambitions. During the first quarter of the twentieth century (the 'heroic' age of exploration), British expeditions attempted to reach the world's most extreme points, the unconquered South Pole and the world's highest mountain, Mount Everest, and in doing so to further scientific and geographical knowledge about these isolated regions. The expeditions became the front-page stories of their day and quickly assumed the status of national myth, while their protagonists — Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, George Mallory — came to redefine or complicate ideals of Britishness, masculine valour, and heroism. The stories that came out of these expeditions — of human endurance, physical and psychological suffering, and death — continue to haunt us. The Scott centenary commemorations (2010-13) brought the subject back to national prominence and provoked a reassessment of his reputation, while the forthcoming centenary of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition (2014-17) will surely do the same.

This module explores the major role that writing and film have played in this myth-making process. It will introduce you to works which are, for the most part, not the product of the study or film studio, but documents that convey with startling immediacy the first-hand experience of exploration: Captain Scott’s journals, for example, were written throughout his Antarctic expedition, and his last sledging diary was recovered from his frozen body after his death on the return journey from the South Pole. The expedition's official cinematographers developed pioneering techniques of working in sub-zero conditions.

Aims

The module will question why writing and film played an important part in the process of exploration and what purposes they were deemed to serve as records — official or unofficial — of the expeditions, and as later reflections upon their triumphs and failures. Building on the work of core modules EN1020, EN2060, and EN3030, students will explore the changing significance of exploration accounts in relation to the First World War and the Empire, as well as other responses to them later in the twentieth century.

The course is divided into four sections. The largest section, The Great Ice Barrier, examines Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (1910-13) through study of his Journals, Herbert Ponting's film The Great White Silence (1924, recently restored by the British Film Institute), and Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s memoir of his experience on Scott’s expedition, The Worst Journey in the World (1922), which includes a harrowing account of his midwinter journey to collect Emperor penguins’ eggs. In the second section, Endurance, we'll study Frank Hurley's film South (1919), which tells the story of Shackleton's ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic, the destruction of the ship, and the crew's journey to the remote and desolate Elephant Island. F. A. Worsley's Shackleton's Boat Journey (1940), which narrates the 800-mile journey in an open boat to seek help for the stranded men, will be examined in comparison to Shackleton's own account. The third section, Everest, explores the 1924 mountaineering expedition through Tibet to the 'third Pole' through a combination of the accounts of team members, including George Mallory’s writing on mountaineering and contemporary newspaper reports and images. The fourth and final section, Afterlives, considers the changing attitudes to these expeditions and their protagonists during the twentieth century, including the film Scott of the Antarctic (1948), parodies such as W. E. Bowman’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956), and modern writing and film, such as Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita (1997) Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World (2007).

Learning

The module is taught in weekly two-hour seminars and film screenings. You'll be required to read set texts in advance and to contribute actively to class through discussion and unassessed group work.

By the end of the module, students should be able to...

  • Demonstrate knowledge of the original expeditions including their organisation, purposes, geography, major issues, and setbacks
  • Situate the set texts and films in their immediate historical and political contexts
  • Recognise the conventions of expedition publications and evaluate their individual distinguishing features
  • Critically analyse the texts and films with relation to colonialism and empire; heroism and masculinity; the legacy of World War I; mourning and memory; humankind and the natural world
  • Assess the ways in which texts and films contribute towards the process of myth-making
  • Compare the depictions of figures such as Scott, Shackleton, and Mallory in contemporary accounts and in later writing and film 

Assessment

  • One essay of 5,000 words; students are encouraged to use images in their essays