Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Gazing northward

For various reasons I have decided to look North in my reading this Winter, and with the odd diversion (at present I am also reading the marvellous The Self as a Stranger about the artist Simon Lewty) I have immersed myself in a broad history of this limited geography.  Last night I finished The Ice Museum: Joanna Kavenna's search for the lost land of Thule.  I found it to be an excellent description of her journeys to Shetland, Norway, Germany, Estonia, Iceland, Greenland, and Svalbard examining so many aspects of what Thule was and is to different folks at different times.  She mixes her own encounters with the places themselves and their current tourists and those who work now in each area she visits with the diaries of Victorian travellers, and with explorers' writings.  It is very much a clear-eyed head in the clouds and feet on the ground kind of book which I enjoyed thoroughly.
Towards the end she says:
The dream of Thule - a virginal untouched land - could never breathe and sweat as a crowded hopeless city or a history-strewn landscape could.  Knowledge littered the landscape, changing everything, but it added a world of explorers and travellers and writers and poets to the empty rocks, as well as wars and violence and destruction.
(aerial view of US Military Thule Air Base on Greenland, picture from here)
It could have been a depressing book, starting with the myth-like status of the ancient Greek Pytheas' journey 
(The mythical of Hyyperborea, believed to be on an island called Thule, from here)
through the earnest idealistic endeavours of Nansen and other explorers, and the equally idealistic tourist tours of Victorians, then taking in the Nazi belief that Thule was the origin of the Aryan race, and the less than idealistic facts about the air base, ending with the pessimistic conclusions of the environmental scientists on Svalbard - and along the way noting the rubbish, litter, detritus of human occupation.  But I found it a far from depressing book.  I found it fascinating, providing many images for my mind's eye, knitting strands of varied myth and diverse history with present day experience in layers of contemporaneous thinking, poetry, politics and science, bringing it all up to date to look to the future.
In the penultimate paragraph Kavenna says on her departure from her final visit:
The pragmatic colony of Svalbard was a place where fantasy and beauty existed alongside nervous prophecy.  No one was bellowing certainty from the rocks.  The scientists all said their talk of future destruction might be just another theory.  It might be mocked by later generations as one more dream of the ignorant.  Or it might be an accurate forecast of the coming world.  The future was shrouded in darkness, as the maps once were.  But the rumbling had been heard in the distance, the frozen ocean might one day be nothing more than an old fairytale, a story from a vanished world.


  1. Have you read Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, Olga? It would fit the bill and I think you would enjoy it.

  2. Fascinating this search for the "land' of Thule. I'm more familiar with "Thule" as the people of the Canadian arctic who were the ancestors of the modern Inuit. Sounds like an interesting book indeed.

  3. Eirene, I have Sightlines on my Kindle, but have not got round to it yet.

    Marja-Leena, I had not heard of Thule as being the original Inuit of Arctic Canada, and Canada is not visited in Kavenna's book. But, yes it was a good read for me.

  4. Marja-Leena, it seems that anthropologists named the early peoples who then became Inuit after the mythical Thule. I have skimmed the Wikipedia article, and must pursue this further. Thank you for bringing up the subject.