Scott. Shackleton. Palin. Attenborough. Fiennes. Livingstone. Hillary. With stories involving all these famous names and more from the past century or two packed into a single book, The Great Horizon is a great introduction to exploration. Some tales are the iconic ones that turned ordinary men into legends. But there are also lesser-known incidents from the lives of well-known individuals, such as Roald Amundsen’s dramatic escape from the Arctic in 1925, or the many escapades in the life of Henry Morton Stanley beyond simply his presumptuous discovery of Dr Livingstone.
While there are plenty of names that will be familiar, many figures are not exactly household names, such as Sven Hedin, a Swede who enthralled with tales of his explorations in Central Asia (including illegal forays into Tibet), or Hubert Wilkins, an adventurer who repeatedly cheated death from firing squads, cannibals, airplane crashes and polar storms.
It’s also pleasantly refreshing to be not entirely bound to this terrestrial planet, but to have individuals such as Neil Armstrong included. What is space now but humanity’s next ‘great horizon’? Armstrong might be both the first and last big name explorer to the stars, so to speak.
There are some slightly obsessive and repetitive mentions of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS). As explained in the introduction, the archives of the RSGS provided Woolf with an immense quantity of resources for the book, so perhaps she felt it was necessary to mention them in each story if at all possible. Unfortunately they aren’t always the most insightful details, some relationships with the RSGS being very loose and the references therefore quite forced, as though being shoehorned in for the sake of it. Certainly, the very best entries are those utilising the widest variety of sources and opinions. The inclusion of a series of insightful documents, photos and images of historic artefacts, moments in history that help tell the stories of these intrepid individuals, also really help bring these characters to life.