Book review: A narrative museum displays the power of the North in the popular imagination

Iceland aurora northern lights

“Extreme North: A Cultural History”

By Bernd Brunner (translated from the German by Jefferson Chase). W. W. Norton, 2022. 246 pages. $27.95.

The North, author Bernd Brunner tells us, has always had a profound influence on those who live farther south. It’s been feared, romanticized, mythologized and used for political purposes. While historian Brunner focuses his entertaining and thought-provoking cultural history on Germany’s relationships to the European north — Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland — much of what he has to say can be applied to the rest of the circumpolar north.

“Extreme North” opens with a passage about a cabinet of wonders collected by a Danish professor of medicine, Ole Worm, in the 17th century. The collection, most of which was later lost to fires and dispersal, consisted of unusual objects from the north — a stuffed great auk, a narwhal tusk, whale vertebrae, harpoons, a kayak, plant specimens and fossils. This chapter both establishes an early fascination with the north and sets up the book’s organization — a series of short chapters that each examine, like specimens, one aspect or oddity related to northern history.

The chapters then loosely follow a chronology — from the very early Greek and Roman imaginings of a “phantasmagoric dark spot” through early polar exploration to romanticized notions and touristic travel to, eventually, the 20th century embracement of Nordic and Aryan identities in the racist, antisemitic ideology of Hitler and other white supremacists.

The North, of course, has always been defined in relationship to the south and has fluctuated over time, from Scotland, the English colonies in North America, and anywhere beyond the Alps to the farthest islands of Scandinavia and then the North Pole itself. It is a space, as Brunner explains, that’s “both real and imaginary,” with the word itself coming from Indo-German roots for “left of sunrise.” Brunner even argues that Alaska is less part of the north than of the south because it aligns politically with Texas and Louisiana’s reliance on fossil fuel exploitation.

For many centuries, the North, with its “godless North Wind,” was associated with the devil and all varieties of evil. Vikings carried out terrifying raids in England and Germany. Vikings also made it to the island they named Greenland. Sixteenth-century maps showed the North Pole as an open sea featuring a giant, deadly whirlpool. Although there’s no real reason to situate north at the top of maps, this eventually became the norm — explained in part by European mapmakers wanting to privilege their own positions in the world. Early maps also depicted a variety of imagined and scary sea monsters in northern waters.


The idea that the North Pole might be open water encouraged European explorers to search for a passage first to the Far East and then a northwest passage across the top of Canada. Most of these early expeditions ended, as we know, in disaster, when ships were trapped in ice. Soon, the values of “polar oil” from whales, cod as food, and walrus ivory drove more ships north.

As the North became more widely explored and exploited, its reputation from a dark and evil realm switched to a more romantic vision, what Brunner calls “the new love affair with the north, a reimagination and new mental mapping.” By 1700, travelers to Lapland remarked on the “simple life and kindness” of the Sami. They also marveled at the long summer days and the “heavenly shine” in winter. Explanations for the northern lights were offered; one theorized by a British astronomer was that the Earth was hollow and an opening near the North Pole allowed light to pour out from the planet’s core. German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who never even traveled north of Latvia, declared that the North was “where the miracles of our earthy creation are to be seen ... those huge masses of beautiful colored clumps of ice, those majestic northern lights, wonderful tricks of eye ...”

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Russia, meanwhile, had long been considered, by Germans at least, as a “distant northern empire.” Siberia especially was largely unknown to the West until Vitus Bering’s two expeditions. Brunner includes several interesting narratives about explorers of Siberia, including a Kate Marsden who, in 1891, traveled on horseback and sledge throughout Siberia to examine lepers and look for a medicinal herb she’d heard about.

Except for the Sami, “Extreme North” gives scant attention to Indigenous people of the North. Brunner does examine the history, beginning in the 16th century, of capturing Inuit people to “study” and display. In a colonial framework, Indigenous people were assigned to the Stone Age and said to practice “a primitive stage of human communal life.” As late as 1896 polar explorer Robert Peary brought six Inuit from Greenland to the Museum of Natural History in New York. Tragically, five of them soon died, probably of tuberculosis. While that part of the story may be well known, fewer readers may be aware that it was the esteemed cultural anthropologist Franz Boas who asked Peary to bring the Inuit to the museum and who, Brunner says, “seems to have been indifferent to the fate of the people so inhumanly and fatally put on exhibition ...”

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Vilhjalmur Stefansson, in the early 20th century, was one who understood that Inuit people were superior to southerners in life skills appropriate for the north; he preached the importance of adapting to the conditions and rhythms of Arctic life rather than fighting them. He took his sunny analysis well beyond survival to propose that the Arctic would become the future storehouse of resources and the center of an “innovative society.” Fridtjof Nansen was another who thought that the key to human happiness was the simple life of northern people; he recommended the Arctic as “a perfect sanatorium for nervous and weakened people.”

Later chapters in the book highlight “the abyss of racial science” in which antisemites promoted the idea that the “Nordic race,” including Germans, was superior to others and responsible for Western civilization’s greatest achievements. This pseudoscience was adopted by Adolph Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan, and eugenicists to serve hateful propaganda purposes. Here, even, the author mentions former President Trump’s stated preference for Norwegian immigrants, along with a photo of the man who stormed the U.S. Capitol in Viking garb and tattoos related to Norse mythology.

Finally, the author documents how our fascination with the North continues to inform contemporary culture, in literature that retells, sometimes as fiction, exploration stories and investigates environmental issues, and in movies and TV series like “Game of Thrones.” Brunner concludes, “Whatever natural resources the physical North has offered or might still offer for exploitation, the imaginary North provides a nearly inexhaustible reservoir of heroes, dramas, and adventure stories.”

“Extreme North: A Cultural History,” by Bernd Brunner

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."