• Searching For the Mythical Viking North of Yore

    Bernd Brunner Considers the Perpetual Reinvention and Reconstruction of the North

    Translated by Jefferson Chase

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    Today, the mythical North remains very much in currency. The slogan “Nordic by Nature,” used, among other things, as the title of a book about Scandinavian cuisine and music, suggests that there is something unspoiled and primeval about the region—even as it echoes the name of a late-20th-century US rap group. The popular winter apparel and outdoor equipment brand the North Face lays implicit claim that its products can withstand the extreme climatic challenges of the uppermost north. The name refers to the north face of the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, which is known for its difficulty as a rock climbing route, but also for being cast in shadow and more prone to frost and lingering ice.

    But where is the North, the oft-invoked “true North,” today? Ultima Thule has been moved to outer space. In 2019, NASA gave that name to an unusual binary object in the Kuiper Belt about four billion miles from Earth—before critics pointed out its dubious past and the space agency renamed it Arrokoth, the Algonquin and Powhatan word for “heaven.”

    Our fascination with the history of northern exploration and the terrors it entailed continued to inform contemporary culture. One common trope is the retelling of real-life 19th-century polar expeditions fictionalized to appeal to current readers’ tastes. For instance, in American author Andrea Barrett’s 1998 novel The Voyage of the Narwhal, a fictional group of adventurers sets off to find Franklin’s lost expedition. The hero, Erasmus Darwin, goes on the voyage to study Arctic flora and fauna, but the ship, the Narwhal, gets frozen in ice, forcing the passengers to spend the winter in the icy North. Eventually, they encounter Inuit who show them the remnants of the lost Franklin expedition.

    While traditionally most explorers of the North, especially prior to the nineteenth century, were men, recently more and more women writers and researchers have ventured there. Among them is British travel writer Sara Wheeler. In The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle (2009), she documents her quest to discover the meaning of “Arctic,” ranging from the minute details to the larger issues like the conditions of the Chukchi in northeastern Russia, “the most brutally dispossessed of circumpolar peoples.”

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    Environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth, in Floating Coast (2019), offers a groundbreaking study of the previous two centuries of material exchanges that have impacted the peoples and animals of the Bering Strait, that complex ecosystem between northeastern Russia and northwestern America, the Arctic and the Pacific Ocean. Focusing on the flow of energy from one form to another, what she calls a “chain of conversions,” Demuth shows how natural resources and political-economical systems are inextricably linked. “We all live in more than one time, even if we are taught to refuse the idea,” she writes.

    Our fascination with the history of northern exploration and the terrors it entailed continued to inform contemporary culture.

    British travel writer Kari Herbert’s book Polar Wives (2020) profiles a cast of women behind some famous Arctic and Antarctic explorers, among them Jane Franklin, Josephine Peary, and Eva Nansen. Herbert elucidates the important role these women, formerly relegated to footnotes, played in the success of their husbands’ endeavors.

    This is by no means a complete enumeration of more recent work on various aspects of the North, but it would be remiss not to mention British writer Colin Thubron, who raised awareness of the vast region between Mongolia and the Arctic and the drive for identity among the Yakut people—“the iron men of Russia’s north” and “a people driven in czarist times from an ancient paganism to a superficial Christianity, then converted to evangelical Communism, then stranded in wilderness.” For his book In Siberia (2009), Thubron traveled the region at a time before record-breaking heat waves, thawing permafrost, and raging wildfires there started to make headlines.

    The British novelist and essayist Joanna Kavenna’s book The Ice Museum (2005) is another example of the imaginative attraction that the North has retained for writers up to the present. Kavenna set out for a long trip across northern Europe to search for the lost, mythic land of Thule, an activity she compares to “rebuilding an ancient temple from a few scattered stones.” She sums the complication: “The uncertain provenance of Thule meant that the word could be used by anyone who found it. It could be tied to any cause, any deranged perspective on the history of the north.”

    When today’s Norwegian explorers head off to nature, they don’t always do so in their own native land. In North America, they retrace the footsteps of Helge Ingstad, who made numerous hunting trips to northern Canada and Alaska, which he documented in his 1933 book The Land of Feast and Famine. His depiction of how he fearlessly survived on his own through four years of trying conditions inspired whole generations of real and would-be adventurers. He also inscribed himself on the map. Ingstad Creek is the name of a small river in northwestern Canada, and Ingstad Mountain is part of the Brooks Range, the highest mountain range in the Arctic Circle. The peak was given this name after lobbying from the Nunamiut people, of whom Ingstad made copious video and audio recordings, preserving their culture, when he visited them in 1950.

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    Ingstad also played a minor role in the history of Norwegian colonialism: In 1931, when Norway occupied an unsettled part of western Greenland, calling it Erik-the-Red and Fritjof-Nansen-Land, Ingstad was named governor. But two years later the International Court of Justice awarded this territory to Denmark, and Norway withdrew from Greenland. Less widely known is the United States’ occupation of Greenland from 1941 to the end of the Second World War to preempt a German invasion.

    Ingstad was a romantic who depicted the North American North as far more pristine than it actually was. The colonialization of the region’s Indigenous people—by the Americans, Russians, and Europeans, who, starting in the mid-18th century, began plundering the region’s resources, seeking whale oil to fuel their lamps, baleen for their wives’ corsets, ivory from walrus tusks, then gold and oil—was already well underway by the time Ingstad visited them. White settlers were already working with and exploiting the Indigenous population, with women from First Nations especially being treated brutally, like slaves. The population of beaver that they hunted for their pelts had been decimated by the early 20th century. It was only with the advent of beaver farms that the creatures living in the wild began to be spared somewhat.

    Agnes Deans Cameron’s previously mentioned account The New North mentions that “the highest price for a silver-pelt ever paid on the London market” was $1,700 and “that it was one of the most beautiful skins seen in the history of the trade, and that it went to the Paris Exposition,” but it is not known how much was paid to the trapper. It was a huge business, and the European market in particular was insatiable: “Of the American silver-fox… black skins have a ready market at from $1,500 to $4,000. They are used for Court robes and by the nobles.”

    Whatever natural resources the physical North has offered or might still offer for exploitation, the imaginary North provides a nearly inexhaustible reservoir of heroes, dramas, and adventure stories. Popular fascination with the Vikings has continued unabated. Remains (or reconstructions) of Viking ships—for example, the 122-foot-long Roskilde 6, discovered in 1997—are attractions that fire the imagination around the world. Scandinavians, of course, play an active role in keeping the mythic North alive.

    The Icelandic town of Hafnarfjörður, for instance, is known for its festival staging of allegedly authentic Viking life. Not without a sense of irony and humor, Icelandic businesspeople frequently invoke the customs of their forefathers and their own “inner Viking” at traditional banquets, where guests don Viking helmets and dine on putrefied shark meat (called hákarl). In this way, clichés about the North in general and Iceland in particular are simultaneously ironized and reinforced.

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    A 1928 English translation of an excerpt from the Poetic Edda reads:

    For good is not, though good it is thought
    mead for the sons of men;
    the deeper he drinks the dimmer grows
    the mind of many a man.
    Drunk I became, dead drunk, forsooth
    in the hall of hoary Fjalar;
    that bout is best from which back fetches
    each man his mind full clear.

    The notion that the climate of the North encourages excessive alcohol consumption remains quite common. Observers as far back as Tacitus remarked that the Germanic tribes had a weakness for drink. And the drunken northlander remains a popular trope to this day, for instance in the popular film comedy 101 Reykjavík by Hallgrímur Helgason (2000). It is often invoked together with unflattering clichés about the food of northern countries.

    Yet, Iceland had a temperance movement, and in the early 20th century, alcohol was completely prohibited, a ban that was only gradually relaxed over the course of decades. While wine was legalized in 1922 and other alcoholic beverages in 1935, the sale of beer with an alcohol content of more than 2.25 percent remained forbidden until 1989, and the state still strictly regulates the sale of all alcohol.

    In Sweden, Norway, and Finland, wine and spirits can only be purchased from the shops operated by the respective state liquor monopolies, although beer or low-alcohol beer can be bought in retail grocery stores. It is beyond dispute that intoxication is part of special celebrations in the North, but that is also the case for many countries elsewhere.

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    A 2018 self-help book written by Chris Shern and Henrik Jeberg, published in English in Denmark and entitled Return of the Vikings, promises to teach the skills of “Nordic Leadership in Times of Extreme Change,” drawing on “the rich legacy” and “deep roots” of the Vikings. In his most recent book, The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World (2021), conservative historian Arthur Herman sets out to explain how the Vikings supposedly shaped Europe and beyond. And not surprisingly, the Norwegian tourist association continues to this day to promote the country by invoking its Viking legacy.

    Former president Donald Trump made headlines in early 2018 when he articulated preference for Norwegians over other non-Nordic and especially non-white peoples. Talking at an official Oval Office meeting about which sort of immigrants the United States should receive, he voiced his contempt for migrants from “shithole countries” in the Carribean, Africa, and South America, remarking, “We should have more people from places like Norway.” Norwegians weren’t particularly amused and rejected his offer. “On behalf of Norway: Thanks, but no thanks,” tweeted Norwegian Conservative Party representative Torbjørn Sætre.

    Trump also praised Finland for assiduously raking its forests as a way of blasting California for having the temerity to be hit by massive wildfires. On the other hand, he criticized Sweden for what he thought were its high crime rates, allegedly after watching a fictional Swedish crime series on TV. But in that instance, too, he blamed the problem solely on immigrants.

    Northern tales of yore remain in high demand. The immense success of the television series Game of Thrones (2011–2019), shot in part in Iceland, speaks for itself. US writer Neil Gaiman, the author of American Gods, once proposed: “The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them.” Gaiman’s work attempts to transport readers back to the past, retelling myths in a form comprehensible to today’s audiences. Gaiman freely admits that there are holes in our knowledge and that much has been lost. He is also well aware that the sagas and Edda were first written down long after Christianity had supplanted the worship of Norse deities. American Gods was inspired by a visit to Iceland. But what needs are serviced by such tales from a world that no longer exists and perhaps never did in the form that we imagine?

    There can be no final verdict on the Vikings. As Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir points out in Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World (2020): “We exoticize them, but upon closer examination, it emerges that we have surprisingly many things in common with the Vikings: like them, we are also living in a time of shifting gender roles, migration, fluctuating economies, new media and technology, and the global flow of goods—a time in which the world changes rapidly and unpredictably. Although we live dramatically different lifestyles, many of the more existential concerns with which we are preoccupied would have been familiar to a Norse person.”

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

    Many contemporary Americans still identify deeply with Scandinavia—this is particularly true in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and northern Illinois. In his 2014 book Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, Eric Dregni writes: “Many Midwesterners refer to themselves as simply ‘Norwegian’ or ‘Finnish,’ not ‘Norwegian American’ or ‘Finnish American,’ even though many have never been to Scandinavia and can’t speak the language. Most are third-, fourth-, or even fifth-generation Scandinavians who can claim whichever of their many different backgrounds they want to be.” There have been state-supported efforts in Minnesota to rebrand the state as “the North” rather than “the Midwest.”

    How does the current affinity for the North compare with the sentimental mindset of the 18th- and 19th-century Romantics? There are no coastlines or mountains anymore that haven’t been measured, nor any Arctic waters that don’t bear traces of contamination from human civilization—plastics in the ocean or acid rain and radiation in the farthest reaches of the North. Travelers to the High North are looking for stillness and long to withdraw from civilization into sparsely settled landscapes and barely altered nature. They aren’t afraid of the darkness in winter.

    Canada, along with the United States (Alaska), Russia, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Iceland, Sweden, and Finland, is one of the circumpolar nations of the world, and it has certainly come a long way since the legendary 1922 film Nanook of the North in recognizing how central its northern regions are to its national and cultural identity. It’s difficult to gauge how much this discussion or negotiation of identity is known beyond Canada, but artists and thinkers have engaged it in a variety of genres. Pianist Glenn Gould’s cryptic sound documentary The Idea of North (1967) layered speaking voices from interviews on top of each other, where every interviewee offered contrasting views of northern Canada. As Gould explained in his introduction:

    I’ve been intrigued for a long time… by the incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga country… I’ve read about it, written about it occasionally, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. But like all but a very few Canadians, I guess, I’ve had no direct confrontation with the northern third of our country. I’ve remained of necessity an outsider, and the North has remained for me a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about sometimes, and, in the end, avoid.

    For Margaret Atwood, “the North focuses our anxieties. Turning to face north, face the north, we enter our own unconscious. Always, in retrospect, the journey north has the quality of dream.” At the same time the Canadian North is an inexhaustible source of artistic inspiration, it’s also a battleground for concrete economic and political interests. In 1999, Nunavut—the newest, northernmost, and largest territory—was declared to belong to the Inuit population and their independent government. Ten years before, Canadian writer Rudy Wiebe included an upside-down map of the North in his collection of essays Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic, offering an Inuit view of the South.

    Canadian geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin, in the early 1960s, coined the term nordicité, coming up with a list of criteria, with the maximum value being reached at the geographical North Pole. Hamelin distinguished between the Extreme North, Far North, Middle North, and Near North and concluded that demographic and economic shifts, together with climate change, had led to a “denorthernization.” The attempt to get a clear grip on what represents the North may be appealing, but Hamelin’s theory is simply too inflexible. The North isn’t something that has existed forever in a specific form. It’s perennially been subject to historical transformation, forever reinvented and reconstructed.


    Excerpted from Extreme North: A Cultural History. Copyright © 2022 by Bernd Brunner, translated by Jefferson Chase. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


    Bernd Brunner
    Bernd Brunner
    Bernd Brunner is an historian, lecturer, and author of many acclaimed books whose work has also appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, the Paris Review, and Aeon, among other outlets. He splits his time between Istanbul and Berlin.

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