Canada's enduring ghost story, the search for Franklin's remains

Searchers looking for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin are seeking answers to a mystery that has haunted the Canadian imagination and culture, appealing to the creative minds of everyone from writers Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton to folksinger Stan Rogers.

Finding Sir John Franklin's fatal passage in the Canadian imagination

The spirit of Sir John Franklin haunts Canadian culture, and even the country's politics. (Hutton Archive/Getty Images)

In Stan Rogers' much-loved Canadian folk song, Northwest Passage, the hand of the explorer Sir John Franklin is forever enshrined "reaching for the Beaufort Sea."

Most Canadians probably know a bit about how the sad saga of the British naval hero turned out: his two ships beset in the Arctic ice near what is now Nunavut and abandoned, his crew succumbing to cannibalism and the hostile climes, and his ultimate fate still a mystery nearly 170 years later.

Yet, somehow, the Franklin story has become woven into our culture, fiction, poetry and film — perhaps even into our politics. Though that wasn't always the case.

Searching for Franklin

The Canadian government announced on Aug. 23 that it was launching a search for the two ships involved in Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 quest for the Northwest Passage.

For full coverage of the Franklin search, visit cbcnews.ca/franklin.

"It's a long-standing mythology and it's probably found its roots in popular culture before it ended up in a more serious or high-brow or serious literary culture, poetry and drama and so forth," says author Sherrill Grace, a University of British Columbia English professor whose books include Canada and the Idea of North.

Grace credits Rogers' 1981 recording of Northwest Passage with cementing Franklin's place in 20th-century pop culture, a recording that took place only a couple of years before Rogers' own tragic death in an airplane fire in Texas.

"Even now, at my age … I still tear up listening to that" song, says Grace. "I'm in my 60s now, but younger generations have experienced that frisson.

"It's at that level I think that it starts to begin just trickling right through a culture, when somebody does something like that that is moving and poignant and beautiful at a very popular level."

Franklin's saga wasn't always that popular, mind you.

Political attention

John English, the editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, says that while the Franklin story captured the popular imagination in Britain in the 19th century, that wasn't the case in Canada.

"Canada didn't really pay much attention to the Arctic until the 20th century," he says.

Politics triggered that attention, English says, through confrontations over Arctic sovereignty with the U.S., perhaps not unlike the sovereignty overtones overlaying this summer's Canadian search for Franklin's lost ships Erebus and Terror.

Back then — as the 1800s gave way to the 20th century — Canadian history itself started to become fashionable, English says.

"And then [Franklin] flowed into literature in so many ways."

Inspired a long list of writers

The list of Canadians who have found artistic inspiration in the Franklin story reads like a who's who of the cultural world, including poets E.J. Pratt and Gwendolyn MacEwan, and authors Margaret Atwood, Rudy Wiebe, Mordecai Richler and Elizabeth Hay.

"Franklin is one of those touchstone iconic stories and figures," says Grace.

"Pierre Berton wrote about him. Again, it's history at a popular level that every Canadian is going to read.

Elizabeth Hay accepts the Giller Prize for Canadian literature for her book Late Nights on Air in Toronto on Nov. 6, 2007. (J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press)

"They're not necessarily going to go to your Arctic specialist historian but they will read, or we did read, Berton and then something as recent as Elizabeth Hay's wonderful book, the Giller Prize-winning book Late Nights on Air."

As Graces sees it, Franklin was an inevitable inclusion in the Hay book, which was set in the Northwest Territories.

"You couldn't write that kind of a novel set in Yellowknife and not mention Franklin," Grace says. "He comes with the territory. And you don't have to do a lot of explaining."

Grace credits the 1987 publication of Frozen in Time, the book by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, which recounts the excavation of the remains of three members of Franklin's crew, as doing much to boost popular interest in the Franklin story.

In the book are haunting photos of the faces of the sailors exhumed on Beechey Island.

"They ended up in newspapers literally around the world. And there was a children's book produced by that, a film produced by that," says Grace.

"No less an author than Atwood sees this on television, writes a story called 'The Age of Lead,' which is in one of her collections of stories, Wilderness Tips, and so it goes."

A ghost story

But why does it go the way it has? Why does a British sailor lost at sea in the Arctic become such a landmark in Canada's cultural landscape?

"No. 1 — mystery. That is just as old and as widespread as human nature," says Grace.

Franklin is also a ghost story — who doesn't like a good ghost story — and it's a tale set in the hostile yet alluring North, one of this continent's last frontiers.

"The North is mysterious. We think of it as being deadly," says Grace. "We think of it as being remote. We think of it as being a place of adventure, and if the adventure goes wrong and produces mysteries and deaths and ghosts, then, oh boy, I think it's appealing to basic human nature."

For Geiger, the president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the editorial board editor at the Globe and Mail, some of the Franklin appeal lies in the very human desire to discover and explore.

There's also the epic failure of the mission, he says, and some "residual kinds of Victorian strains tied into this as well, the martyrs to scientific inquiry, geographic inquiry."

'Emotional pull'

Geiger has seen his book Frozen in Time, and the sailors' images it published, become inspiration for artists as diverse as heavy metal rockers Iron Maiden (Stranger in a Strange Land) and American folk singer James Taylor (The Frozen Man).

"It's one thing to see a skull. It's compelling, too, of course. But to actually look into the eyes of a member of the Franklin expedition and see their eyelashes, see the eye colour and to realize … some of them were just kids … they died in that place, so far from their home. It does have an emotional pull."

Franklin's popular profile throughout the 20th century seemed to ebb and flow, with Stan Rogers' song and Beattie and Geiger's book being particular touchstones. There's every chance it will rise again.

"We saw it with Owen Beattie," says Grace. "We're going to see it again with the freeing up of the [Northwest] Passage."

But can we ever really know the full Franklin story — even if today's searchers do find a Franklin boat or more bodies? And would we really want to?

"We don't have all the answers," says Grace. "I suspect and I personally hope we never do."

After all, it's far more bewitching to imagine the ghost of an explorer still buffeted by those Arctic currents, the hand still reaching for the Beaufort Sea.


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.