The theme of the creation of a man in Mary Shelley’s book has profound connections with the myth of Prometheus (as implied by the full title of her book). The myth of Prometheus differs according to classical sources. Prometheus is a rebel. Like Sisyphus (the other classical hero that is heavily referenced in Riding the Ice Wind, see bookmark for page 81), Prometheus is punished re-curringly in hell. Instead of rolling a rock up a mountain, he is placed on a craggy summit where he has an iron wedge driven through his breast, a girdle placed round his hips and his shackled feet with fetters of brass. Zeus then sends an eagle to feast remorselessly on his liver. In some sources, Prometheus’s crime is to have stolen fire from heaven and given it to man. In others, it is to have moulded man from clay and had Eros breathe life into the sculpture. This is where the story of Prometheus captured Mary Shelley’s imagination – and that of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote Prometheus Unbound in response to the classical playwright Aeschylus’s celebrated Prometheus Bound.
The themes of rebellion (in the form of Satan’s expulsion from heaven and Adam’s from the Garden of Eden) and of the creation of a human being are also at the core of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Mary Shelley quotes Milton on the inside front cover of Frankenstein:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me man? Did I solicit thee/ From darkness to promote me?
The theme of expulsion from, and hence the continuing search for an approximation on earth of, Paradise is considered by some to be the source of man’s restlessness. The theme of exile, restlessness and wandering in a search for some fulfilment – a Promised Land that may in fact be located inside our heads rather than in a physical place – is a continuous theme of Riding the Ice Wind (see bookmarks for pages 160 and 181).
Likewise, the figures of Prometheus and Sisyphus graphically represent the particular repetitive torture of Antarctic travel where, each day, the trials of the previous day are relived in agonising monochrome.
Further than this, the themes of creation – of the self as well as of man – are further relevant to Riding the Ice Wind. The figures of Frankenstein, Prometheus and Adam all tie into the individual’s ability to create themselves, to hew, cut and paste their constituent parts together by moulding experience and ambition. The account of traversing the continent, like any journey, has been a song of the self. After all, we can all transform ourselves into what we want to be.