“The Far North: A Cultural History”
By Bernd Brunner, translated by Jefferson Chase; WW Norton Company, 2022; 256 pp; $27.95.
The North has occupied the hearts of Europeans since ancient times. For the Greeks, the fabled region of Hyperborea and the mythical northern island of Ultima Thule offered visions of an unspoiled world, purer and closer to nature than they found in the city-states of Mediterranean civilization. The north became terrifying to the Romans, who extended their empire’s influence far away but lived in fear of the tribes pouring in from their wilderness areas. Medieval Europeans lived in fear of the Vikings looting from Scandinavia, but the same region of Europe today is widely considered the most politically progressive and peaceful corner of the world, even if its mythology is Appropriated by Nazi Germany, it continues to inspire the most fervent racist white nationalists on the planet.
It’s a complex history, only a small part of which is summarized above. As the German historian Bernd Brunner argues in The Far North: A Cultural History, even for an author who favors a broader interpretation, it is a still one-sided history.
Let’s first define what this book is not: it is not a cultural history of the North. Brenner himself admits that geographically, what constitutes the North is difficult to define. What may seem self-evident to Alaskans—we live in the North, after all—is a different concept to refugees from Guatemala, or that “North” means nothing more than Texas. If we were to define the north as the arctic and subarctic regions of the planet, however, as Brunner eventually began to do, we still miss the point of this book.
“The Far North” seems to be about the cultural response of Europeans, especially Germans, to the idea of the North. To this end, the northern part of Brenner is mostly Scandinavia (with occasional forays into Iceland). Greenland gets some attention, while Alaska, Canada and Russian Siberia barely deserve a mention. The long history of Aboriginal people is all but ignored and only a few names are listed.
From the start, it seemed unclear to Brenner where he wanted to take the book. He opens and closes it in a cabinet of wonders kept by Dane Ole Worm in the early to mid 17th century. The cabinets are filled with objects collected from the north – including the ivory of the narwhal, which in those days was still evidence of a unicorn – hinting at the wonders to be found along the needle of the compass. Unfortunately, the promise of these miracles never materialized.
The first few sections of the book summarize how cartographers began to consider parts of the planet that remained largely unexplored by Europeans until recent centuries. We learn that even the idea that north should lie on a map or a globe came about over time, and what lies there is the realm of both fantasy and madness for theorists.
Once Europeans set out to fill in the gaps in their maps, Brenner’s narrative picks up pace, and readers join the ranks of explorers, ship captains, naturalists, and eventually tourists traveling north, who often find what they’re looking for thing. That is, a north that reflects their desire for it.
In many ways, the 19th century was the pinnacle of Europe’s flirtation with its northernmost point. Leisure travel by the burgeoning middle class coincided with the popularity of Viking legends, which were seen as indigenous alternatives to the Levantine biblical tales. The north was considered the birthplace of European culture, especially Germanic culture, a misunderstanding that would lead Germany into the abyss in the next century.
Little that Brunner mentions is the enormous effort that Britain put into exploring and mapping the Arctic in particular at the time, and how this often tragic and failed expansion defined “Northern” citizens in the minds of Britain, Canada, and America, They learned to look at the field very differently than the Germans. Not to mention the impact the arrival of Europeans had on indigenous groups in North America, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia. The cultural history of the North is indeed the history of many Norths, often in conflict with each other, and while Brenner pays attention to this fact on a regular basis, most of the time he ignores it.
The book culminates in an examination of how Norse legends were exploited by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi leadership to create the myth of Aryan perfection by finding the common identity that different Germanic peoples sought when united into a unified state. brought together. On this level, Brenner has achieved impressive success. He made clear the Nazis’ racist views of northern culture, noting that “although the Lappish and Eskimos were the inhabitants of the North, Hitler denied at all that they had any capacity to create culture.”
Brunner does not deny this ability of Aboriginal people, but he largely ignores it. He never explored how different people responded to different climates and ecosystems in the North, creating culture in the process.
I don’t want to condemn Brunner’s work, it’s basically good (although the use of the word “Eskimo” is an example of how he still clings to European views). In our current political moment, when misunderstood Norse mythology is once again fueling the fanatical dreams of nationalism, he has an important warning. However, he could have done a better job of refuting this misuse of history and culture had he focused more on the different cultures of the North. To show how Europeans misunderstood and sometimes mistreated the North, he instead reinforced a very narrow concept. A different title or a broader focus would have served the book well. Readers can learn a lot from it, it’s lyrical, and it’s translated. But they won’t do it with an understanding of the history of northern culture. It’s a good book; it’s just not what it appears to be.
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