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A narrative museum shows the power of the North in the popular imagination

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“Far North: a cultural history”

By Bernd Brunner (translated from German by Jefferson Chase). WW Norton, 2022. 246 pages. $27.95.

The North, author Bernd Brunner tells us, has always had a profound influence on those who live further south. It has been feared, idealized, mythologized and used for political ends. While the historian Brunner focuses his entertaining and thought-provoking cultural history on Germany’s relations with northern Europe – Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland – much of what he has to say can apply to the rest of the circumpolar north.

“Extreme North” opens with a passage about a cabinet of wonders assembled by a Danish medical professor, Ole Worm, in the 17th century. The collection, most of which was later destroyed by fires and dispersal, consisted of unusual northern objects – a stuffed great auk, a narwhal tusk, whale vertebrae, harpoons, a kayak, specimens of plants and fossils. This chapter both establishes an early fascination with the North and sets up the organization of the book – a series of short chapters that each examine, as specimens, an aspect or oddity related to Northern history.

The chapters then loosely follow a chronology – from the earliest Greek and Roman imaginings of a “spooky dark spot” through early polar exploration to romanticized notions and tourist travels to, ultimately, the 20th century adoption of Nordic and Aryan identities in the racist, anti-Semitic ideology of Hitler and other white supremacists.

The North, of course, has always been defined in relation to the South and has fluctuated over time, from Scotland to the English colonies in North America and everywhere beyond the Alps to the outermost islands of the Scandinavia, then to the North Pole itself. It is a space, as Brunner explains, that is “both real and imaginary”, the word itself coming from Indo-German roots for “to the left of the sunrise”. Brunner even argues that Alaska is less northern than southern because it aligns itself politically with Texas and Louisiana’s reliance on fossil fuel mining.

For many centuries the North, with its “unholy North Wind”, has been associated with the devil and all varieties of evil. The Vikings carried out terrifying raids in England and Germany. The Vikings also visited the island which they named Greenland. Sixteenth-century maps showed the North Pole as an open sea with a giant, deadly whirlpool. Although there was no real reason to place north at the top of maps, it eventually became the norm – explained in part by European cartographers wanting to prioritize their own positions in the world. Early maps also depicted a variety of imaginary and frightening sea monsters in northern waters.

The idea that the North Pole might be open water encouraged European explorers to seek first a passage to the Far East and then a passage to the northwest through the summit of Canada. Most of these early expeditions ended, as we know, in disaster, when the ships were trapped in the ice. Soon the “polar oil” values ​​of whales, cod for food, and walrus ivory drove more ships north.

As the North became more widely explored and exploited, its reputation as a dark and evil realm shifted to a more romantic vision, what Brunner calls “the new love affair with the North, a reimagining and a new mind-mapping “. Around 1700, travelers to Lapland noticed the “simple life and kindness” of the Sami. They also marveled at the long days of summer and the “heavenly brilliance” in winter. Explanations about the Northern Lights have been offered; one of a British astronomer’s theories was that the Earth was hollow and that an opening near the North Pole allowed light to stream in from the planet’s core. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who never even traveled north of Latvia, said the North was “where the miracles of our earthly creation are to be seen…those huge masses of beautiful colored tufts of ice, these majestic aurora borealis, marvelous turns of the eye…”

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Russia, meanwhile, has long been considered, at least by the Germans, as a “distant empire of the North”. Siberia, in particular, was largely unknown to the West until Vitus Bering’s two expeditions. Brunner includes several interesting tales of Siberian explorers, including one Kate Marsden who, in 1891, traveled by horse and sleigh through Siberia to examine lepers and search for a medicinal herb she had heard of.

With the exception of the Sami, the “Far North” pays little attention to the indigenous peoples of the North. Brunner examines the history, beginning in the 16th century, of the capture of Inuit to “study” and exhibit them. In a colonial setting, Indigenous peoples were assigned to the Stone Age and said to practice “a primitive stage of human communal life”. As recently as 1896, polar explorer Robert Peary brought six Inuit from Greenland to the Museum of Natural History in New York. Tragically, five of them soon died, probably of tuberculosis. While this part of the story is well known, perhaps fewer readers know that it was esteemed cultural anthropologist Franz Boas who asked Peary to bring the Inuit to the museum and who, according to Brunner, “seems to have been indifferent to the fate of the people so inhumanly and fatally exhibited…”

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Vilhjalmur Stefansson, at the beginning of the 20th century, was the one who understood that the Inuit were superior to the southerners in the life skills appropriate for the North; he preached the importance of adapting to the conditions and rhythms of arctic life rather than fighting them. He took his sunny analysis far beyond survival to propose that the Arctic should become the future repository of resources and the center of an “innovative society”. Fridtjof Nansen was another who believed that the key to human happiness was the simple life of northerners; he recommended the Arctic as “a perfect sanatorium for the nervous and weakened.”

Later chapters of the book bring to light the “abyss of racial science” in which anti-Semites promoted the idea that the “Nordic race”, including the Germans, were superior to others and responsible for the greatest achievements of the western civilization. This pseudoscience was adopted by Adolf Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan and eugenicists for the purposes of hate propaganda. Here, even, the author mentions former President Trump’s stated preference for Norwegian immigrants, as well as a photo of the man who stormed the US Capitol in Viking attire and tattoos related to Norse mythology.

Finally, the author documents how our fascination with the North continues to inform contemporary culture, in literature that tells, sometimes in fictional form, stories of exploration and investigation of environmental issues, and in films and TV series like “Game of Thrones”. Brunner concludes: “Whatever natural resources the physical North has offered or might yet offer for exploitation, the imaginary North provides an almost inexhaustible reservoir of heroes, dramas and stories of adventure.