If you want to know in general what His Dark Materials is about, read chapter 2, “The Idea of North,” in Golden Compass/Northern Lights. The North is not the Arctic, it is conceptual rather than geographic, and a malignant site, although others have been attracted to its pristine quality. The Jordan Scholars fall in the first category, fearing it as the home of vicious armored bears, witches, and vile peoples.
Their stance is Biblical. “Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.” Jeremiah 1:14. See also Isaiah 14:12-19 and Jeremiah 6:1, and 4:6.
This is also part of Scandinavian mythology or folklore. In Robert MacFarlane’s The Underland’s chapter “Red Dancers,” he visits a very remote archipelago north of Norway to see cave paintings. It is a difficult journey, and MacFarlane notes that writer Hein Bjerck says of the artists who made the paintings that visiting the caves were “‘ritual actions,’ journeys to the ‘outer fringe of the human world'” and that some of the traditional names for the spot are “Church-Cave, Hell’s Mouth, Hell’s Hole, Troll’s Eye” (264).
On polar exploration, I recommend The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny. A good deal of it is about Sir John Franklin’s early life, when his qualities of deliberateness and slowness were widely condemned. But they proved needed in the trudge to try to get to the North Pole.
Nadolny’s prose is slow in the way Franklin’s approach to life was, making the book a stylist’s dream, whatever the subject,
What amazes me about polar explorers isn’t their initial voyages, but that once home, they turn around and do it again. The audacity of Vitus Bering’s two expeditions across the whole of Russia to the Pacific is the subject of The Island of Blue Foxes by Stephen R. Brown. The logistics of lugging from St. Petersburg all that was needed to build ships on the Far East coast is mind-boggling. Again, he did it twice.
One of my favorite movies about life on the taiga of Siberia being lived traditionally in contemporary times is Happy People by Wernher Herzog.
As a native Miamian, I had (have?) a romanticized notion of North. I didn’t see snow fall until I was 19, and have never been in snow deeper than 10 inches. But as a child, North was the Other: a place never hot or humid.
Picture: Iceberg in North Star Bay, Greenland. By Jeremy Harbeck – NASA
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