Arctic Grail


I picked up Arctic Grail: the Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909, by Pierre Berton, at the library a few weeks ago when I was desperate for more arctic material and my local library (not the most artic-friendly place) was fresh out of primary sources. It’s a thick volume, a lively but reasonably thorough history of the exploration of the Arctic by the many nations who had a hand in doing it. Berton, a Canadian himself, gives a real sense of the personalities involved, and the terrible hardships that had to be overcome by men who were often either insane, unqualified, too romantic, greedy for fame, or occasionally all four. The exploration of the Arctic has had more than its fair share of those who would not learn from experience or native help, those who wanted to learn but were prevented by their military superiors, and those who were simply oblivious. Surely this was also the case in many other arenas of exploration – the South Seas, for instance – but the consequences were, perhaps, not so immediately and obviously fatal.

This book was written in the 1980s, and Berton is very careful to make clear the central, critical role native tribes (such as Esquimaux) played in the discovery of the Northwest Passage and the exploration of the Arctic. He points out over and over again that most Europeans and Americans who arrived in their large wooden ships did not know how to hunt game, and would have died of starvation if they had not had natives to hunt for them. Despite this obvious imbalance of power, the white men refused to learn such simple tricks to stay warm and healthy as ice houses, fur clothes, and dog teams for sledding, and, just as at the South Pole, hundreds died for the cause of remaining true to their European identity. The best of the explorers in this regard were the Norwegians, who were already northerners, already accustomed to cold (and to living with natives – the Laplanders) and were genially prepared to learn whatever might help. They had no stake in retaining any tradition that might hinder their exploration, and so they were generally the most successful in achieving their goals.

One thing that Berton left out of his narrative was any kind of scientific explanation of how cold affects the human body and mind. Hypothermia is a well- documented phenomenon, and as I read this narrative – one wild-eyed explorer after another forsaking his post; taking obviously foolish actions; disobeying orders; committing murder, suicide, cannibalism, bigamy; falsifying his claims to fame – I wondered how much of this insanity was really due to the personalities involved, and how much was due to the conditions of extreme cold. These men had to have a certain personality to want to go, it’s true: a sense of adventure or duty or desire for the north. But once they were there, they were subjected to cold we cannot even imagine, cold that could explode thick metal bolts and freeze alcohol solid and freeze their beards to their clothes. Cold that confused their minds and sapped their will and made them paranoid and afraid. Cold that made them terribly hungry for carbohydrates and gave them sores all over their bodies, cold that wouldn’t let them sleep but made them horribly sleepy, cold that let them ignore it when their fingers froze and fell off. How might that have affected some of the obviously insane decisions they made, like the famous Franklin expedition, which in its last desperate push for help took with it, not supplies, but engraved silverware and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield?  It would have been interesting to see some discussion of that.

In the end, the best part of this book was the sense of the people. Jane Franklin, doggedly searching for her husband long after his terrible death. Ross. Amundsen. The ignominious and grasping Peary. Nansen in his round tub. Elijah Kane. The book is not poetry; it doesn’t give the soul of the Arctic, if so frozen a waste can be said to have a soul. But it gives a wonderful, solid sense of the history, and the faces of the men who mapped it, and I’m glad to have read it. I would recommend it to anyone as interested as I am in this topic.

One thing I wanted to add is that I am a huge fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, and as I read this account, I felt almost as if I were reading some of his source material. The bulk of this exploration takes place after the Napoleonic wars, of course, but it is still the Royal Navy, and while the humor, spirit and music were missing, the same personalities, the same traditions, the same sense of order and necessity and lose-not-a-minute and men trapped together for years whether they like it or not dominated every page. This book reflected certain parts of O’Brian’s work beautifully. I would love to read some other works about exploration now, perhaps the search for the source of the Nile, or Egyptian discoveries. All suggestions welcome!

This entry was posted in History, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Arctic Grail

  1. Pingback: The Ice Master « Shelf Love

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