In popular culture, many of the important Arctic explorers of the past are well known: Bering and Cook early, later Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, and before them, Sir John Franklin.
But have you heard of Robert Walton, Arctic adventurer extraordinaire, who recorded one of the strangest tales ever to come out of the North? Sometime in the 18th century, Walton, an Englishman, a sometime sea captain, embarked on trip toward the North Pole. While transiting one of the ice-clogged channels west of Greenland, he and his crew spotted a dog sled driven by a huge human-like creature, perhaps 8 feet tall; they could not get close enough to hail or see the figure clearly before it disappeared. Not long afterward, Walton and his crew found and rescued an emaciated, nearly frozen man stranded on the ice. Warmed and clothed, the man told Walton the story of his life and how he came to be stranded on a northern ice floe.
A remarkably talented chemist, the stranger sought to show the capabilities of science, and himself, by creating life, a human form. The creature Walton and his men had seen driving a dog sled was that form. The stranger was, of course, Victor Frankenstein, and Robert Walton was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's fictional creation, a character she invented to frame her cutting-edge story.
But if you've only seen the 1931 Boris Karloff classic, or any of the other many screen adaptations, you've likely never heard of Robert Walton and have no idea that Shelley framed her story with an Arctic adventure; they usually don't mention Walton. And the story Shelley put into the mouth of Victor Frankenstein is not the Boris Karloff story. In Shelley's story, which she first wrote when she was 18 years old and later expanded and improved in two revisions, Frankenstein's creature is intelligent, highly articulate and fully emotionally sensitive.
Having fled the laboratory and lived a time in the forest, and having discovered that he is truly hideous in physical appearance due to limitations Frankenstein the chemist had to work with, the creature pleads with his creator to make for him a female companion so he can have the happiness that is the unalienable right of any living being.
At first Frankenstein agrees, motivated partly by murders the creature has committed to show Frankenstein his power and determination. But midway through the work, Frankenstein concludes that the creature really is evil, and that a mate would lead to evil offspring who might eventually threaten the human race. In retaliation, the creature murders Frankenstein's new wife. In a rage of his own revenge, Frankenstein relentlessly chases the creature, who eventually flees toward the Arctic and the North Pole to escape his pursuer. Thus do Walton and his crew see first the creature, and then Frankenstein in the frozen North. This, one won't know unless having read Mary Shelley's work.
Short of that, we have only Boris Karloff and his truncated story, which was adapted from Peggy Webling's 1927 play, based on the Shelley novel and directed for screen by James Whale. It lacks the sensitivity Shelley wove into her creature, and her long discussion, first in Walton's words, then Victor Frankenstein's, and finally the creature's own, about human hubris, the limits of science, and especially, the nature of human morality. Shelley's nuances are profound, but they're lost in the simplified tale of an inarticulate monster, finally burned by villagers.
This raises the fascinating question of how we know what we think we know. If we look closely, very little comes from direct experience. Most of our "knowledge" we glean from what we've heard from others. Innocent enough in the case of Frankenstein, not so innocent in matters consequential.
Whom we believe for our information and ideas makes a great deal of difference. Unless we take time to investigate, if we just accept what we're reading, seeing or hearing at face value, we're at the mercy of whomever we choose to believe. Should we be satisfied with whatever passes before us, or should we ask if there's more to the story, something that might change our understanding completely? It depends entirely on what "knowing" really means to us.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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