Fantastic voyages

September 25th, 2018 by Debbie Benrubi Leave a reply »
The cover page of Aurora Australis, featuring an illustration by George Marston.
The cover page of Aurora Australis, featuring an illustration by George Marston. Houghton Library/Public Domain

Articles about a couple of books caught my eye today. Both feature fantastic voyages, though one was real and one entirely fictional.

The first book, Aurura Australis, was the first ever printed in Antarctica — written, illustrated, AND printed by bored and lonely sailors aboard the Nimrod on the first of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions, in 1908. They printed 100 copies on “whatever they had handy, including old crates of food, cleaned and planed down… (The particular copy up for sale says “OATMEALâ€� on the inside front cover, and is “backed in leather from a horse harness,â€� according to Bonham’s.)”

Nimrod copyright
The copyright page of Aurora Australis. Houghton Library/Public Domain

The expedition artist George Marston illustrated the book. … Shackleton served as editor, and solicited submissions from the crew. He chose to include everything from an interview with an Emperor Penguin to a tongue-in-cheek, faux-Biblical account of the expedition. In one chapter, an anonymous messman details the trials and tribulations of his job. In another, the geologist Douglas Mawson describes an journey to an imaginary place called Bathybia, hidden inside an Antarctic volcano, where fungi grow and temperatures reach a balmy 70 degrees. (You can read the entire digitized book over at

Read more about it at atlas obscura.

It was Marston who made the beautiful paintings you may have seen of Shackleton’s later expedition, that of the Endurance. He was a sensitive artist and evidently a great book designer! How I’d love to see this book up close. Alas, one of only 100 copies made, it is destined for other libraries, expected to fetch between $70,000 and $100,000 at auction.

There’s a new book, though, that I can hardly wait to read. In an excerpt from The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (coming soon!) author Robert Macfarlane muses about Robert Louis Stevenson’s great Treasure Island, a place imagined powerfully and in detail by probably millions of children for more than a century. I know I was one of them! Poring over and over the map in my copy of that ultimate seafaring tale was one of my first experiences in being transported by a book.

Treasure Island
Peaks and pirates … A detail from a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s map by Monro Orr in 1934. Photograph: 14597/The British Library Board

In another excerpt from The Writer’s Map, Harry Potter movie production designer Miraphora Mina wrote of the Marauder’s Map that she created,

Everything was handmade, cut, drawn and delicately sewn and glued. That’s it really: ink, paper and a great deal of care. Through the course of the films I probably made 20 copies as props. I often regretted it being so intricate, but there is no other way to make something that is beautiful and that can honour a book people love so much.

Marauder's Map
Miraphora Mina’s Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

As Macfarlane wrote, nowadays we think tend to think of cartography as a science; but before that, cartography was an art. These two books remind us that creative minds and hands can make maps and paintings and books that launch many a fantastic inner voyage.


Comments are closed.