3. The Captain of the Pole-star

The "Hope" (from The Strand Magazine)

3. The Captain of the Pole-star

The Captain of the Pole-star is a gothic tale, penned by Conan Doyle in 1883 and frequently reprinted throughout his life. It is the claustrophobic story of an arctic voyage and the fate of its titular Captain. If you want to avoid spoilers, we recommend you read the story here (https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Captain_of_the_%22Pole-Star%22).

The episode can be heard here, http://doingsofdoyle.podbean.com/.


The Pole-star is a whaling ship, operating late into the Arctic season. Its crew is restive, its captain certain there are whales still to be found. But time is running short, and the ice is closing in.

The story is narrated via the journal of the ship’s young doctor, John McAllister Ray, who charts the vagaries of the weather and the surrounding environment, the moods of the crew, and the erratic mental state of Captain Nicholas Craigie, an experienced whaler who appears to be on the brink of incipient breakdown.

The encroaching ice and unpredictable commander are not the crew’s only concerns: the Pole-star also appears to be haunted. Since leaving Shetland, it has been followed by eerie cries and an occasionally glimpsed presence, a presence which seems closely linked to Captain Craigie.

Trapped in a beautiful but deadly environment, with an unstable captain in the grip of mysterious forces, the doctor and crew can do little but watch, wait and react to events as they unfold.

Writing and publication history

  • Written by Conan Doyle in the latter half of 1882, around the time he relocated to Southsea.
  • ACD received ten guineas from Temple Bar for the story towards the end of 1882 and it was printed in Temple Bar in January 1883.
  • Reprinted in two unofficial collections Dreamland and Ghostland (George Redway, 1887) and Mysteries and Adventures (James Hogg, 1890) before appearing in The Captain of the Polestar and other tales, an official ACD collection, published by Longman’s in 1890.
  • Reprinted frequently throughout ACD’s life.

Biographical details

Literary connections
The shrouded figure at the end of Pym
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797-98).
  • Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838).
  • Jules Verne’s sequel to Pym, An Antarctic Mystery (1897) plus The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1864), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1871).
  • Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1951).
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818).
  • R. M. Ballantyne, The World of Ice (1859).

Contemporary influences:

Ghost stories

Henry Slade

Sherlockian connections

Recommended reading

Next time on the Doings of Doyle…


Image credits: Thanks to Alexis Barquin at The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopaedia for permission to reproduce these images. Please support the encyclopaedia at www.arthur-conan-doyle.com.

Music credit: Sneaky Snitch Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons:  By Attribution 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/