There’s long been a historical fascination associated with the North. My country, Canada, which has been dubbed the Great White North, understands this mythology quite well. “The North focuses our anxieties,” author Margaret Atwood noted in a 1987 essay. “Turning to face north, face the north, we enter our own unconscious. Always, in retrospect, the journey north has the quality of dream.”
When the journey moved further north, the dreamlike state depicted by Atwood became more mythical and extreme in nature. Scandinavian folklore could seemingly intersect with historical Viking raids, while bitterly cold Arctic temperatures could magically intermingle with seafaring creatures of all shapes and sizes. The curious folks living further south, east, and west likely didn’t know exactly what to think of their northern cousins, no matter how many times they watched the 1922 classic film Nanook of the North.
German author and historian Bernd Brunner, to his credit, has deconstructed and deciphered the all-encompassing northern footprint in Extreme North: A Cultural History. The book, much like its author, has a tendency to bounce around gleefully from subject to subject with a subtle snap of the fingers. While this may seem off-putting and slightly disjointed to some readers, it’s part of a unique charm. Brunner’s fascinating series of historical reflections and personal observations, as translated into English by Jefferson Chase, shines a bright light on the North’s politics, culture, and people. The fine line between fantasy and reality, which has been regularly and inescapably blurred beyond belief, has more clarity than ever before.
Brunner’s starting point is the “cabinet of wonders” possessed by Ole Worm, the Danish physician and natural historian who lived from 1588-1654. He had a “collection of curiosities” from the European High North, famously detailed in the 1655 folio Museum Wormianum. His curiosities included fossils, a miniature polar bear, birds, tortoise shells, skis, jewelry, and harpoons.
The physician also had a narwhal skull “with a long, sharp spiral tusk protruding from the base of the forehead.” Some people in Europe and the Far East believed this skull was “evidence of the existence of unicorns,” while Worm felt “these mythical beasts had been inspired by real, though rare, narwhals in the northern seas.” This countervailing myth gave rise to what Brunner calls the “northern unicorn.”
Only 40 of Worm’s original curiosities still exist today. His personal treasure trove led to our world’s romanticism with all things North. Alas, that loving gaze contained many gaps when it came to knowledge and accuracy.
Plotting the vast northern terrain was certainly shrouded in myth and mystery. Cartographers often included the island of Thule, which became synonymous with the North and the Arctic, even though they didn’t know exactly where it was located. “It was standard practice for them to fill in blank space as best they could,” Brunner wrote, “even in the absence of exact knowledge.” Legendary Flemish cartographer Gerhard Mercator’s depiction of an open North Pole sea was believed by people “up until the nineteenth century,” while fellow Swedish mapmaker Olaus Magnus’s 1539 masterpiece Carta Marina “depicted all manner of sea monsters” in the Nordic countries.
Staying in the watery realm, “the travels of the Vikings and the monks led to cultural exchanges that birthed legends, their mythic imagery mixing fact and fiction.” While the Vikings were depicted as “hulking figures” with a mythological aura of “invincibility,” it appears the seafaring warriors didn’t fit that bill. The average male Viking was apparently 5 feet, 7 inches, while a female Viking was 5 feet, 2 inches. Any belief that “heathen Vikings waged a religious war against Christianity” appears to be unfounded. There’s some evidence they were “fascinated by the figure of Jesus Christ” and may have viewed him in a similar fashion to Norse gods such as Thor and Odin. Female Vikings may have fought in battles, as the “Birka warrior” unearthed in Sweden seems to suggest, and there’s debate whether Viking households were, in fact, egalitarian.
As for Old Norse writings, they inspired the Brothers Grimm to write popular fairy tales, although recent research revealed they also “played a not inconsiderable role in making opposition to Jewish assimilation acceptable in polite society.” Several European thinkers were smitten by Norse mythology, too. German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, inspired by Geneva historian Paul Henri Mallet’s recounting of Scandinavian and Icelandic stories from the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, became convinced the “‘northern air’ … gave the ancient German tribesmen their strength.” German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel sensed a “Germanic feeling for nature” was part of a “northern core,” while his brother, the Orientalist poet August Wilhelm Schlegel, theorized the North was “science, the very picture of strictness and gravity.”
This led to yet another unusual narrative. “The new myth of the lively, invigorating North,” Brunner wrote, “dovetailed with physical and astrological topics popular at the time.” How so? By means of “ideas of ‘astral forces,’ of magnetism, electricity, and phenomena of illumination like the northern lights and the North Star gave the North a mysterious nimbus.”
Extreme North also shows some of the north’s darker realities heading into the 20th century. Books such as Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and Hans Friedrich Karl Gunther’s Racial Science of the German People (1922) advanced the belief in a powerful, superior race of light-skinned and blond-haired people of Aryan and Nordic origin. It certainly motivated Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, an “enthusiastic reader of Grant’s pseudoscientific opus,” who wrote to him in the early 1930s and called his book “my Bible.” Interestingly, Gunther remained in Germany and continued to write well into the 1960s under a couple of pseudonyms. He avoided most discussions about race to protect himself, but he couldn’t help writing on one occasion about the “disappearance of Nordic blood” being a major reason that there’s a “decline in the West.”
The author’s remaining chapters include a sympathetic assessment of the plight of indigenous peoples and how climate change has hurt the Arctic. He speaks fondly of Scandinavia’s social welfare state, believing it “makes many people long to travel north,” but he worries about rising levels of racism and anti-immigrant sentiments in the Nordic countries.
As the book’s tone switches from distinctly sunny to notably gloomy, there’s a sense that Brunner isn’t quite sure what the future holds. Yet much like the narwhal-cum-northern unicorn, the secrets of the North haven’t been completely revealed just yet.
Michael Taube, a columnist for Troy Media and Loonie Politics, was a speechwriter for former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.