- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003


By Max Jones

Oxford University Press, $30, 352 pages, illus.


Why was Scott such a big deal?That strange, wrongheaded, relentless character died in a tent on Antarctic wastes “sometime between 28 and 31 March (1912),” writes Max Jones in “The Last Great Quest,” his fine new book on Capt. Robert Falcon Scott. He and his two remaining companions, Henry Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson, were only 11 miles from a food cache which might have saved them.

Scott’s reputation since then has soared and sunk. At its height, he was the idol of every British schoolboy, the toast of many nations, the epitome of English grit and gentlemanly courage. His scribbled final message is deservedly one of the most famous farewells in letters: “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”

And at the nadir, revisionists painted him as a bully and a failure, whose bad decisions and delusions led to a double debacle. Not only did Scott fail to get to the South Pole ahead of his rival explorer Roald Amundsen, but also he lost his own life and that of four others needlessly.

Yet, as Mr. Jones repeatedly demonstrates, Scott’s name continued to resonate through a “steady stream” of books even through the unimaginable human carnage of World War I. “Why,” Mr. Jones asks, “did the death of five men cause such a sensation ninety years ago, not only in Britain, but around the world?”

Through a meticulous examination of the origins and the outcomes of the Scott Antarctic expedition, and their place in the context of British society at the turn of the century, Mr. Jones, weaving record, anecdote and example with great skill, comes to some remarkable conclusions: chief among them is his belief that the Scott story continued to shine in the popular mind for generations because of its unique place in time.

Just as the British nation collectively girded for the hideous ordeal of a world war where one out of eight long serving soldiers died, Scott’s legend erected a new and brilliant ideal of English character; and then, paradoxically, after nearly six years of slaughter, most of it purposeless, Scott appeared again in a new light, a hero unsullied by the filth and depression of the trenches, a man whose death, unlike those of World War I comrades, meant something.

There was also the enduring magnetism of the companion-story to Scott’s journal of hope, suffering and death, the actions of Capt. Lawrence “Titus” Oates. This aristocratic Etonian from a socially top British Regiment, the 6th Iniskilling Dragoons, was one of only two members of the Scott expedition who “bought” his place by contribution of 1,000 pounds pounds, at the time, a large sum. (The other, not insignificantly, was Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a graduate of elite Winchester School and a member of Oxford’s socially pre-eminent college, Christ Church). Garrard was to write the expedition’s literary monument, the brilliant “Worst Journey in the World” in 1922. Garrard was there at the Scott tent when the bodies of the leaders and the famous notebooks were found.

Oates had the misfortune to find his strength failing and his feet frozen as the men struggled to return from the Pole to their base. Their daily battle was a losing one. Scott wrote that Oates “slept through the night, hoping not to wake, but he awoke in the morning.” Then Oates walked out alone into the blizzard after uttering the immortal words, “I am just going outside and I may be some time.”

Scott noted, “We knew that Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.”

This double drama, Scott’s perseverance and Oates’ sacrifice for his companions, both clothed in the noble simplicity of Scott’s remarkable expression, created a halo around these men — both members of the ruling class elite - which transcended years and fashion. And both, through distant death, were able to escape that corrosive scrutiny, which turns today’s heroes into so much mulch for the celebrity machine.

Mr. Jones rightly makes much of the treatment received by the only working class member of the fated party, Petty Officer Edgar Evans. Though of great physical strength, Evans weakened and died well before the others, became a burden to them, was the subject of critical (and at first suppressed) notes in Scott’s papers, and was virtually forgotten in the national sensation and mourning that followed in England. In case anyone had forgotten who belonged to what milieu, Evans silently reminded him or her.

A third element was the literary merit of Scott’s writing, believed to have been edited by his family friend, the playwright J.M. Barrie of “Peter Pan” fame, but certainly mostly his own creation under the worst circumstances. Ten years later Cherry-Garrard’s book would hoist Scott into the literary hall of fame by its own poetic and unique evocations.

Nothing, he would argue, of such outstanding literary quality is attached to other heroes.

Were these circumstances so peculiar as to put a period to this sort of immortality? Mr. Jones feels this may be. “The peculiar combination of heroic endeavor, scientific research, and national glory expressed by Scott’s Antarctic expeditions, has been energized only once since the conquest of the South Pole: in the race to the moon.” But he notes, of the Apollo astronauts, “Sealed in metal boxes astride giant bombs, their lives rested less on their own ingenuity than on the successful operation of a chain of thousands upon thousands of mechanical and human components.”

Heroes, he concludes are now regarded with suspicion as “instruments of propaganda or tools of deception,” yet the world will still long for such stories of man, the maker of great words, the doer of deeds, the figure singular and glorious. As Mr.Jones puts it, “A parable of courage and comradeship. And beneath all these stories, Scott’s pencil marks in the snow.”

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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