Arctic Fantasies

The region has long been an object of dreams, desire, and misunderstanding

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Flickr/gsfc)
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Flickr/gsfc)

Extreme North: A Cultural History by Bernd Brunner; Norton, 256 pp., $27.95

One summer day in 1836, a French travel writer named Xavier Marmier rode northeast from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, toward the great Geysir, a large geothermal spring known for blasting boiling water as high as 230 feet into the air. Geysir was possibly the first such spring ever discovered by Europeans, and Marmier was one of the first tourists ever to make the long, uncomfortable journey to see it. But Geysir’s eruptions weren’t necessarily predictable, and after two nights spent camping in the cold, waiting for something to happen, Marmier and his companions decided to see if they could help the hot spring along. First, they threw rocks at it. When that didn’t induce an eruption, they drew pistols.

A modern audience might expect Marmier to meet a parable-worthy end as he blasted away, something ironic and scalding and maybe—at a distance of almost two centuries—even a little funny. Instead Geysir erupted, and Marmier returned to Paris where he wrote a book about his experience. In it he described the rugged romance of Iceland and the “poetry” he imagined connecting the island’s otherworldly landscapes to its simple, charming inhabitants.

You must, he wrote, “experience [it] in person in order to be able to feel it.”

Today, Marmier’s words feel like bad ad copy. But as historian Bernd Brunner points out in his new book, Extreme North: A Cultural History, Marmier was what we today would call an influencer, and he was tapping into a mood, a feeling, a vibe that had been slowly growing among educated Europeans. After centuries of gazing southward, toward the classical geographies of the Mediterranean and the Christian ones of Palestine and Jerusalem, 19th-century continentals were in the market for a new direction, some where to focus their longing for romance, nostalgia, and burgeoning wanderlust. North, it turned out, was available.

And yet, which north? What does “extreme north” mean, anyway? For Marmier, a Parisian, it was Iceland. Others agreed, and soon Marmier’s book, Letters on Iceland (1837), grew popular enough to sustain numerous printings. But as Brunner makes clear, north is not so much a specific place as it is an idea, one that is almost always defined by one’s point of origin. In other words, he writes, north lies “very much in the eye of the beholder.”

Still, it helps to have a frame of reference, and for the purposes of his book Brunner has chosen to focus on what north has meant to Europeans. Over many centuries the value and even the location of north have shifted in the continental mind, and one of the pleasures of this book comes in watching Brunner trace that evolution across literature, art, landscapes, and politics, from Scandinavia and Russia to Iceland and the Pole itself.

He begins in the Mediterranean, looking north from the perspective of the Greeks and Romans. To them, the north was brimming with fantastical, immortal giants and real-life barbarians. This tension was amplified as Christianity spread and the colonial order of the Roman Empire collapsed. Early Christians saw north as a region opposed to their Father of Lights, a place of deep winter darkness where specters streamed through the night sky (the aurora borealis) and devils roamed the godless wilderness.

As if to reinforce the point, north was also home to the Vikings, who poured out of the frigid mists bringing violence and strange deities. The Vikings, Brunner shows, were also some of the boldest early explorers. They discovered Iceland and reached Greenland and North America, expanding the boundaries of the known world even as they settled in some of its remotest outposts. Eventually, as Viking identity was absorbed into Christianity and consolidated under various Scandinavian kings, the region became less frightening and more commercially integrated. Winters were still dark, and the cause of the aurora remained a mystery until the early 17th century, when Galileo explained it. But slowly, another quadrant of the north became, to the European mind, more civilized.

For North American readers who may be better acquainted with Alaska and Canada, Extreme North reveals a tangle of forces, desires, and non-Anglo characters involved in the search for maritime passages through the Arctic or to the top of the globe. “It has always been the thirst for knowledge that drove interest in the High North,” Brunner writes, but he downplays a major theme in northern exploration: our insatiable hunger for more resources, land, and riches.

In Europe, as in North America, the quest for wealth reigned supreme. In 1596, Willem Barents, for whom the Barents Sea is named, was among the first explorers to sail in search of a passage over the top of the globe that, he hoped, would lead to China and India. The voyage was funded by a group of Dutch merchants who wanted to break the Portuguese monopoly on trade in the Orient. Barents first discovered the Svalbard Archipelago and then pushed onward despite the gathering ice, apparently driven by a conviction that at higher latitudes the cold gave way to warm, ice-free waters. This belief, Brunner points out, persisted for centuries, luring many ships northward from Europe and North America, more than a few of which would become stuck in the ice, or crushed by it and sunk.

Barents never found what has come to be known as the Northeast Passage. Nearly three centuries passed before Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen managed to drift through it in 1906. By then, north had been radically transformed in the European mind. Mary Shelley had set the finale of Frankenstein in the Arctic. Marmier had written about sniping at Geysir. Their books, along with many others, had fueled a surging interest in the north, especially in Scandinavia.

Brunner reaches deep into the journals, letters, and works of travelers, explorers, poets, and politicians, and these, in his hands, give good voice to events and trends that might otherwise offer a dry march through obscure history. His material, then—like the north itself—brightens by the late 19th century, when European painters, composers, and writers, including Monet and Wagner, were drawing inspiration from northern landscapes and literature.

Steamships had begun offering tours of Norwegian fjords, the Finnish practice of sauna had been discovered, and the once devil-infested forests and mountains had been transformed into virtuous regions, shot through with the endless light of summer and seemingly free of the pestilences of industrialization. No less a personality than Kaiser Wilhelm II made annual pilgrimages to the north aboard his yacht, and Otto von Bismarck wrote that he loved Sweden’s Småland because there, between mountains and forest, he could not be reached by “dispatches, colleagues … [or] the nobility.”

Soon, though, the north became a stage for the darker fantasies of racial theorists, European nationalists, and pro-fascists, all of whom seized on their own ideas of north—its supposed lack of Jews, its freedom from debasing “southern” influences—and sought to transform it for their own purposes. Certain writers and intellectuals, including German linguist Hans Freidrich Karl Günther, Dutchman Herman Wirth, and Italian Julius Cogni, tried to locate the origins of racially superior people in the north. They sifted through Norse runes and sagas looking for the roots of German culture, theorized that Nordic peoples had originated from a northern variety of ape, promoted the idea that Atlantis (said to have been located in the north) was the fount from which the stronger and more beautiful Nordic population had sprung. Germans in particular wanted to see themselves as heirs to a legacy of northern greatness. They were, of course, not alone in subscribing to what Brunner calls the “cult of blondness,” but it was in Nazi Germany that these concepts morphed into state ideology and became a pretext for mass murder.

Brunner closes his book with a discussion of climate change and the new scramble for northern resources. He also points out that white supremacist ideas grounded in the region are still alive and well. In a final unsettling photograph, we see the extreme north embodied in a grinning Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon shaman, perhaps the most widely recognized member of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol. He holds an American flag, wears a horned helmet of the sort commonly (and apparently erroneously) associated with Vikings, and on his bare chest appear large black tattoos, all taken from Norse mythology and widely used by white supremacists.

“The North isn’t something that has existed forever in a specific form,” Brunner writes. “It’s perennially been subject to historical transformation, forever reinvented and reconstructed.”

Listen to the Smarty Pants interview with Bernd Brunner

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Neil Shea’s first book, Frostlines: Dispatches from the New Arctic, will be published next year.  


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