Who is the fourth who walks always beside you?

You know a writer has touched on one of your geeky fascinations (obsessions?) when on page 360 of an otherwise decently researched book you jump up and shout “No, no, no–you got it wrong!”

Antarctic exploration is one of my fascinations (some of the research from same wound up in Secret of the Three Treasures), so I knew I had to read Geraldine McCaughran’s The White Darkness. The book and its protagonist are obsessed Antarctic history and with Titus Oates (a member of Scott’s failed polar expedition, famous for the final words “I am just going outside and may be some time”), which I enjoyed. But then I came to this bit, right near the end of the book:

I read it about Shackleton! He and another man rowed all the way from Elephant Island to South Georgia–but landed the wrong side! They had to walk all the way across it–two of them! Exhausted! Lost! Half dead from rowing a thousand miles. They both said afterwards they could sense a third person was with them! Incredible!

At which point I jumped up (well, not literally) and began ranting, because three men crossed South Georgia Island. Three! And they felt like there was a fourth with them, not a third. I remembered that distinctly.

Besides, hadn’t T.S. Eliot used that phantom fourth man in The Wasteland? I googled Eliot’s poem, and turned up the following:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead, up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you …

I stared at the words, wondering whether maybe maybe I’d slipped through to some alternate timeline, one in which only lnhammer and I remembered the old version of history where Shackleton crossed South Georgia with two companions, not one.

But no, I was right–it was Shackleton, Crean, and Worsely who made that journey. Eliot was the one who got it wrong, or else decided to change it.

But maybe it was Eliot’s poem McCaughrean remembered, too?

Later, lnhammer pointed out that Shackleton and his two companions didn’t row, either, but sailed; and I realized the passage implied the men who crossed South Georgia were the only men in the boat; there were six men in that boat, three of whom stayed behind while the other three crossed the island.

All of this is pretty minor in the ultimate scheme of the book, of course, but because it touched on something I knew about, it threw me out of the story–in much the way I was thrown out of March of the Penguins when, over footage of shivering penguins, the narrator told me a blizzard was blowing at the South Pole. lnhammer had to pretty much keep me from jumping out of my seat to correct the narrator there. (Because there are no penguins at the South Pole, and never have been. They’re all closer to the coast, where there’s, like, food.)

This is also the sort of thing that makes me wonder just what I’m getting wrong without knowing it, and in what ways I’m making folks obsessed with the things I don’t know about want throw my books across the room.

As for The White Darkness, I really did pick it up again. There were bits I liked, but at the end of the book my overall reaction was roughly: “Huh.” Shackleton aside, I’m not sure it worked for me, but I’m not sure it didn’t, either.

Anyone else here read it? What did you think?

More from the Karluk

“One night when there was a full moon I went for a walk on the ice and stopped about a hundred yards from the ship. The larger hummocks of ice stood out in all their weird shapes and sizes, casting fantastic shadows in the moonlight. The winds had swept their tops clear of snow, exposing glare-ice, which glistened like giant emeralds. All over the pack, the small lumps of ice scintillated in dazzling brilliance, like diamonds scattered in all directions as far as the eye could see. The stars shone in a cloudless sky, dimmed by the resplendent moon. A faint auroral arch was criss-crossed by shimmering dancing streamers. As I turned round to face the ship, old Karluk seemed to be doing her best to outdo nature. Her deck covering of snow shimmered like tinsel. Every rope and spar was magnified by a fluffy coating of frosted rime. Once again I became aware of what I can only describe as a Presence, which filled me with an exaltation beyond all earthly feeling.”
–William Laird McKinlay, The Last Voyage of the Karluk