The Arctic: Enigmas and Myths


144 pages
Contains Maps, Bibliography
ISBN 1-55002-264-4
DDC 919.804





Reviewed by William A. Waiser

William A. Waiser is a professor of history at the University of
Saskatchewan, and the author of Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History
of Prince Albert National Park and Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of
Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915–1946.


This eclectic collection of essays on Arctic exploration and discovery
opens with an account of popular legends about early northern travel.
The author then turns his attention to historical misconceptions about
Arctic geography and how these ideas affected northern exploration. He
describes, for example, how the notion of an open sea at the top of the
world encouraged explorers to sail defiantly toward the pole, only to be
swallowed up by the ice. He also notes how John Ross’s sighting of
imaginary land at the entrance to Lancaster Sound in 1818 momentarily
stalled the British search for the elusive Northwest Passage; it was an
error that would haunt Ross for the rest of his life.

The most interesting chapters deal with the two most controversial
events in Arctic exploration history: the ill-fated 1845 Franklin
expedition and the Peary–Cook race for the North Pole early in the
20th century. Simpson-Housley suggests that Terror and Erebus, the two
lost ships of the Franklin expedition, might have drifted south in an
ice floe off the coast of Newfoundland in 1851. He also reviews the
heated debate over whether Franklin’s crew engaged in cannibalism (a
theory that has been confirmed by recent site research). The Peary-Cook
feud is dismissed as good drama but bad geography; neither explorer
could have covered the distance to and from the pole in the time

The Arctic: Enigma and Dreams is a provocative collection of essays
best suited to readers with specialized knowledge of the topic.


Simpson-Housley, Paul., “The Arctic: Enigmas and Myths,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 17, 2024,