The Mysterious North

June 6, 2017

The top of the globe has always meant fantasy, myth, adventure. What explains the icy northern grip on our imagination?

The night sky pulses with colour: streaks of viridian, azure, violet and crimson vivid against the bleached land. Leviathans roam the seas, singing in haunting voices, and white bears hunt toothed whales on land and water. Giants make their homes in the mountains; elves and trolls live among the rocks.

Half the year is spent in darkness and perishing cold, bleak and treacherous, the other half in sunlight and warmth, the landscape lush and verdant. Here is a portal to another world. The tribal inhabitants, some more animal than human, live in harmony with their harsh environment, bridle at outside authority, and fight with terrible ferocity. You know this place well. It is the Fantasy North.

You have spent quite a bit of time here over the past few years, perhaps even without trying. The global success of Disney’s Frozen (2013) is only the tip of the iceberg. The trials of the Stark family and the coming battle north of the Wall in the novels of George R R Martin have been followed by tens of millions of readers in dozens of languages since his series A Song of Ice and Fire began publishing in 1996. The television adaptation, Game of Thrones likewise reaches a global audience of millions.

Alongside the trolls of Frozen and the giants and White Walkers of Westeros, Vikings have taken a prominent place on the cultural stage. Since the start of the 21st century, major museum exhibits on early Scandinavian culture have appeared worldwide, from Washington, DC and Berlin to Suzhou in China. Just recently in 2009, Northmen attacked the monasteries of Scotland and Ireland in the animated film The Secret of Kells; reluctant Scandinavian raiders visited northern England in Wells Tower’s book Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned; and a Norse slave sought his destiny against all challenges in Nicolas Winding Refn’s feature film Valhalla Rising.

And then there’s Ragnar Loðbrók and his kinfolk, whose saga has been unfolding in the TV drama Vikings (2013-). Very loosely based on the medieval texts that recount Ragnar’s adventures and those of his illustrious progeny in the 9th century, the History Channel’s show goes to some lengths to convey the strangeness of these pagan northerners, even amid the enveloping foreignness of the medieval period. Both the English and the Northmen speak in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse at times; the rest of the time, they speak in British or Scandinavian-accented English, touched with a hint of archaism. But Ragnar and his fellows have elaborate tattoos and hairstyles.

They have never heard of Rome or Paris. They consult a soothsayer, and make animal and human sacrifices to their gods. How accurate is any of this? Perhaps no less than the medieval sagas themselves. The Ragnar Loðbrók of the 12th-century History of the Danes by Saxo Grammaticus and the 13th-century Icelandic Saga of Ragnar Loðbrók probably bear little resemblance to any historical Ragnar Loðbrók, if he existed at all.

What is it about the current era that draws our gaze towards the top of the globe? Where does our fascination with ‘northernness’ come from? Within Western culture, the North has long been both an imaginary realm and a geographic place. Since the ancient period, it has been a land at the edge of the world, one that exists on its own terms and as a scrim for various fantasies. Many of those fantasies have been preserved intact, in a sort of cultural permafrost that keeps our interest in the North evergreen. But every so often, something stirs.

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To the ancients, the lands of the far north, Hyperborea and Thule, both were and were not real places. They were ‘unknown lands’ (terrae incognitae) in Ptolemaic cartography, as they existed so far away from the Greeks and their neighbours that they were more legendary than real. To the Greek poet Pindar, writing in the 5th century BCE, Hyperborea, the land ‘beyond the north wind’ as its name implies, was a mythical place beyond the reach of ordinary people. Its fortunate inhabitants, untroubled by illness, old age, work or warfare, spent their days feasting and dancing. Perseus and Heracles, both heroes and both sons of the god Zeus, had been able to reach it.

But they were special. Pindar cautioned his fully human audience: ‘[n]either by ship nor on foot would you find the marvellous road to the meeting-place of the Hyperboreans’. We find a contrasting opinion in the markedly prosier testimony of the historian Herodotus, writing at roughly the same time as Pindar. He considered that Hyperborea was a real place, albeit a very distant one. Located far to the north of Scythia or even the Celts, it nevertheless had an unusually temperate climate, where the sun shone all day and night.

Like Hyperborea, Thule was associated with real places as well as imaginary ones. Ancient Greek geographers referred to a now-lost work from the 4th century BCE that placed Thule six days’ sail north of the island of Britain. Later writers, trying to pin down this location – and thus the known limit of the world – identified the Orkney Islands, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Norway all as Thule. Both the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) and the late antique philosopher Boethius (c480-524 CE) referred to Thule as the northwestern limit of the world – beyond lay the terrible unknown. Thule’s significance as a zone both real and imaginary, both at and beyond the margin, became an enduring part of the cultural imagination. Take Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘Dream-Land’ (1844), in which a traveller explains:

I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of space – Out of time.

During the early decades of the Roman Empire, the Greek geographer Strabo (c30 CE), the Roman natural historian Pliny (c77 CE), and the historian Tacitus (c98 CE) all situated Thule beyond Britain, which became part of the Roman Empire in 43 CE. As Rome expanded her boundaries northward, Roman writers drew on preexisting knowledge about the far north and also added new information. According to the historian Tacitus, the island of Britain possessed a moist, temperate climate, fertile soil and long, almost 24-hour days. Some of the northern tribes, the Scoti, strongly resembled the Germanic tribes.

‘The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia [Scotland] point clearly to a German origin,’ wrote Tacitus. The Scoti, along with the Picts, another group that lived in the northern part of Britain, proved indomitable – so aggressive, in fact, that Emperor Hadrian ultimately erected a massive defensive fortification across northern Britain, known as Hadrian’s Wall. It wasn’t enough. Raids and incursions from the north continued, becoming troublesome enough in the 4th century to weigh in the emperor’s decision to withdraw from Britain.

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