Scott and Amundsen
by Roland Huntford
Putnam’s, 665 pp., $19.95
Roland Huntford has written a book which is at once exciting and sobering, heartening yet troubling. It is exciting to read of two famous marches across Antarctica to the South Pole, sobering to mark the difference between success and failure. It is heartening to rediscover the bravery and resourcefulness of human beings, and troubling to see a long-admired hero tumbled from his pedestal, a long-admired reputation re-examined and diminished. The marches to the Pole are those made by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott in 1911-1912, the one a curiously muted triumph, the other the most belaureled disaster in the annals of polar exploration. The reputation is that of Scott, in British eyes the very beau idéal of a nation’s heroism, the apotheosis of English pluck and sporting spirit, make-do and the close-run thing. “By gad, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” “By gad, sir, so you have!” Only this time it was a life—five lives—with a public acclaim commensurate to the loss.
But Scott and Amundsen is not just a retelling, however knowledgeable and purposeful, of an old story. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking study, in Part One of the lives and characters of the two titular heroes up to the time of their so-called “race to the Pole,” and in Part Two of the race itself. By the end of Part One we are in a position to judge both men with regard to their professional competence, willingness to learn, experience in arctic and antarctic command, and overall fitness to undertake and, when the great day came, carry through the last terrestrial “first” left to man before he reached for the moon and the exploration of outer space. This is a theme worth developing, and Mr. Huntford develops it with zest and conviction.
He has not a shred of doubt that Amundsen was the right man for the job, and Scott the wrong. I find it impossible to dissent from the first half of this proposition, and hard to argue against the second. By the end of Part One Amundsen has emerged as a very formidable customer indeed, the incessant student as well as practitioner of polar travel, physically as hard as nails and in spirit tough as old boots, his head cleared of all cant, a man born to lead men. Big-boned, long-limbed, hardbeaked, he looked the embodiment of northern virtue and endurance. His mother, surveying her elk of a son, called him “the last of the Vikings.”
He was born to a consciousness of high latitudes, knew men like the Tromsø and Hammerfest sealing skippers who wrung their livings from the northern seas and ice, and felt himself one in blood and bone with such giants of exploration as Astrup and Sverdrup and, above all, the remarkable explorer, zoologist, and oceanographer Fridtjof Nansen. His experience was immense, his record one of endeavor and success, from his first season before the mast on the sealer Magdalena, his …