History on Ice: Historical Fiction of the Polar Regions

I date my literary interest in the Arctic to Nevil Shute’s An Old Captivity. This time-slip novel about the Viking settlement of Greenland in the tenth century was published in 1940, before I learned to read, so I must have read it somewhat later. From then on the Arctic was in my blood.

Among more recent books on the first settlement in Greenland, Viking: The Green Land by Katie Aiken Ritter (KTOriginals, 2016) is perhaps the most evocative. Tim Leach’s The Smile of the Wolf (Head of Zeus, 2018) gives a chilling description of tenth-century Iceland, the homeland of the Greenland settlers, but this is arguably sub-Arctic. Although the Viking colony in Greenland lasted for 500 years, the later years have attracted comparatively little literary interest. A wonderful exception is Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) written in the style of a Norse saga, setting out her own version of why the colony disappeared in the fifteenth century. The re-colonisation of Greenland in the eighteenth century has attracted even less attention, but there is Kim Leine’s The Prophets of Eternal Fjord (Liveright US, 2015 / Atlantic UK, 2016). It is an exceptionally dark story indeed, with almost every imaginable form of tragedy. For late twentieth century Greenland we have a rare thriller with a female (and half Inuit) protagonist, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (HarperCollins UK, 1993 / Harvill US, 1996) by Peter Hoeg, a tale almost as tragic as its predecessors.

I was in my forties when I first visited Greenland, and it was a pleasant surprise. Greenland really is green, greener than Ireland, at least the parts settled by the Vikings, and I discovered that in most lights icebergs are sapphire blue. The people all seemed happy and regarded having to leave as a great misfortune. I have since visited several other Arctic regions and my experience has never been unenjoyable. However, this has not prevented me from writing a typically tragic Arctic novel, The Frozen Dream (Silverwood, 2015), about one of the earliest disasters in Arctic exploration.

I asked Ian McGuire, author of the dark tale The North Water, about murder on a whaling expedition to Baffin Bay in the 1850s, if it was possible to write a happy novel about the Arctic. He replies, “it’s quite hard to imagine a comedy set in the polar regions, but maybe it’s possible. I’m sure the people who actually live there … have a different and probably less tragic relationship with the landscape.” One novel that he does describe as “frequently funny” is The Balloonist by MacDonald Harris (Allen & Unwin, 1976). Reissued with a foreword by Phillip Pullman (Harry N. Abrams, 2012), it is set in 1897 and based on the ill-fated attempt by the Swedish aeronaut, Salomon Andrée, and his companions to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon. But this, too, is a tragedy, and the humour is black humour born of the hero’s ineptitude and overconfidence.

However, we, the outsiders, need the polar regions to be “tragic.” If they did not exist, we would invent them. Indeed, the Philip Pullman fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (1995-2000) uses Spitsbergen, an island off the coast of Norway, as the entry point into a parallel universe. The climax for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is at the North Pole, a point no one had yet visited when the novel was written. Our fascination mixes awe and horror. From the comfort of our armchairs we identify with the lone individual or tiny group pitted against a weird, hostile environment where even the sea freezes and day and night follow different rules. As Tim Leach puts it, “that is what tends to draw me to a time and place, when I can really see how it is putting pressure on the characters, how it is difficult to live in such a world. Such a world lends itself to complex character choices and dynamic narrative developments.”

Ian McGuire gives a similar explanation for the appeal of the Arctic. “I was attracted to the beauty and strangeness of the landscape, but also to its harshness. If you put people in that extreme environment (especially without the aid of modern technology), then you are inevitably testing them in some way – and that can produce great drama. Will they survive? And, if they do survive, at what cost to themselves or others?”

Francis Spufford gives a masterly analysis of this obsession in I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (Palgrave, 1997). “I may be some time,” were, of course, Captain Oates’s last words when he stepped outside Scott’s tent into the blizzard. Spufford includes all English speakers in his “English” imagination, but the ice enters everybody’s imagination, except perhaps for the people who live in the Arctic.

Readers like stories about polar tragedies, particularly the Franklin Expedition to Arctic Canada in 1845 and Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1912. Each of these has been the subject of many books, notably The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andria Barrett (W.W. Norton, 1998), about one of the expeditions sent to find Franklin, which itself runs into difficulties; The Rifles by William Vollmann (Viking, 1994), concerning a possible reincarnation of Franklin; and The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (Penguin, 1991), which has a less reverential take (actually five different takes) on the Scott tragedy. The first two are included in McGuire’s “top ten” polar novels, while children’s author Catherine Johnson describes Bainbridge’s novel as “absolutely phenomenal.” (1)

Thriller writers love ice and snow. Alistair MacLean is perhaps the best known, with Ice Station Zebra (Doubleday, 1963), one of his four “Arctic Chillers.” However, for me the best Arctic thriller is Kolymsky Heights (St. Martin’s, 1994) by Lionel Davidson. None of these was written as an historical novel, but their Cold War and immediate post-Cold War settings are now very much history.

Arctic literature, fiction, non-fiction and ‘creative non-fiction’ has long been used for a moralistic purpose, to teach us how to behave in extreme adversity. Franklin became an example to the Victorians, and Dickens leaped to his defence when it was reported that his men had resorted to cannibalism. In our own day Brad Borkan (When Your Life Depends On It, co-authored with David Hirzel, Terra Nova, 2017) is busy giving talks to corporate audiences to inspire them with stories of the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration. Nor are children ignored. William Kingston’s Peter the Whaler (1851) was an immensely popular boys’ adventure story in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. It is still a popular subject, and in 2018 Catherine Johnson produced a fictionalised retelling, written for older children, of the story of Matthew Henson, the young black American who went with Peary to the North Pole and maybe got there first (Race to the Frozen North, Barrington Stoke). As a child, Johnson says, “I adored the danger and bravery in polar exploration stories.” When she discovered Mathew Henson, she declares, “I knew it was a story I would never forget – it’s close to unbelievable, and when [my publisher] asked me to choose someone heroic to write about … I knew it would be him.”

Polar historicals are not just historical novels in a polar setting. Not only is it difficult to imagine a comedy with a polar setting, there are very few polar romances with a central female character, even though romances are still a large part of the historical fiction market. Polar historicals are mostly, although not exclusively, action adventures written by men for men. I tried to bridge this divide in The Frozen Dream by having four main characters, two female and two male, telling the story from different viewpoints. The females went North as well as the men. It was not meant to be a feminist book, although some readers thought it so.

Unlike other historicals written with an adventurous readership in mind, polar historicals are seldom about war. There is certainly death, but seldom organised mass slaughter. The violence comes mostly from the environment, and the environment often wins. I asked Catherine Johnson why polar stories appeal to children. She replies, “It’s the danger – it is like going to the moon. And I could never imagine being that cold [but of course that is just what she makes her readers imagine], or the frostbite! The thought of taking your boot off and having your toes crumble away.”

At the summit of Observation Hill in McMurdo Sound in the Antarctic there is a memorial to Scott and his men set up by their colleague, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, author of The Worst Journey in the World (1922), which quotes Tennyson’s lines from Ulysses:

To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield

This is essentially the plot of every novel, but it shines more brightly on ice.


  1. Ian McGuire “Top 10 Arctic Novels.” The Guardian. 17 February 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/17/top-10-arctic-novels/

About the contributor: Edward James’s The Frozen Dream is published by Silverwood Books. See also https://busywords.wordpress.com/the-frozen-dream/

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 89 (August 2019)

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