When Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison became Allies

There are two quotations which I think sum up best the characters of armored bear Iorek Byrnison and aëronaut Lee Scoresby. 

When Lyra asks Iorek if he is frightened as they watch witch armies approach Svalbard toward the end of Northern Lights, he responds, “Not yet. When I am I shall master the fear” (NL Chapter 12). He is the ideal warrior, who once he decides that by his own code physical fighting is required, enters it without second-guessing his decision.

Lee Scoresby’s values are similar, as he explains in The Subtle Knife: it”seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it is needed” (p. 403). Together, as Lyra’s allies, they are a formidable team.

How the two met and formed their alliance is the subject of Once Upon a Time in the North, a novella Philip Pullman released in 2008, although it is set some 35 years prior to His Dark Materials.

Looking for work, Scoresby lands in a Muscovy oil town where corrupt officials have seized goods of a schooner captain and where it looks certain that the town will soon be run by a politician who despises armored bears and uses a paid assassin Scoresby bore witness against back in the Dakotas.

Scoresby, never one to avoid a confrontation with evil, takes on the role of ” guardian angel” for the captain, and Iorek offers his services on the grounds the captain’s enemy, the politician who despises bears, “is his enemy too” (51). And thus Iorek pledges his help to Scoresby.

Scoresby is not above spinning a yarn about being the captain’s attorney and fast talking the Customs officer with reference to plausible but fictional laws governing seizure of property. He is as slick a talker as he is fighter, and with Hester’s help, successfully defeats the assassins.

The townspeople prove to be relieved at the defeat of the seemingly popular politician; his stirring up feelings against the bears was aimed at getting into office so he could economically exploit the labor and resources of the town of Novy Odense. Nevertheless, they are happy to see the last of Iorek and Scoresby, who depart via balloon.

  • This is occasion during which Scoresby is given his Winchester in thanks by the captain after a gun battle with the politician’s assassin, whose dæmon is a rattlesnake.
  • Iorek declares Hester to be an Arctic Hare, meaning that Scoresby himself belongs in the Far North.

There are some found materials in the back, which tell us that

  • Lyra’s thesis for her M Phil is in Economic History is on Developments of Patterns of Trade in the European Arctic Region with Particular Reference to Independent Cargo Balloon Carriage (1950-1970).
  • One of her professors is Dr. Polstead (hero of La Belle Sauvage, I bet).
  • Other found bits include an illustration from The Elements of Aerial Navigation, which includes instructions on landing a balloon, and The ‘Shipping World’ Year Book.
  • John Lawrence is the illustrator, and there is a fold-out “board game,” “Peril of the Pole,” along with a spinner and game pieces, a snakes-and-ladders type of game of chance.

Once Upon a Time in the North: His Dark Materials

Skraeling Island

I was looking for something else entirely when I came upon Barry Lopez’s Horizon. Opening it at random I was on Skraeling Island. 

I had worked hard 15 years ago looking for connections between our world and Lyra’s, and thought I’d found what there was to be known of Skraelings. Either there wasn’t much on the web or I should have focused on Norse sagas.

Skraeling Island is about 660 miles nautical  north of the Pole, off the coast of Ellesmere, Canada, where there is evidence of 4000 years of human habitation, including migratory paleoEskimos or Thule habitation 800 years ago, and relics and materials found in Norse excavations. West Greenland can be seen from the East. SW Alaska is 1500 miles west.

A question that may come to unexpected consequences as the poles continue to melt is whether this is evidence of Scandinavian colonization of these remote horizons of Canada or instead of trade in neighboring Greenland.

Lopez is on this archaeological expedition because writing about living in extreme environments is his life’s work, and he speculates on what dealing with the scarcity of resources in a land of such stunning horizons could have been like, if, for example, the dreamscapes of people living through months of darkness would differ, if their shamans would guide them through. Perhaps ceremonies comparable to Navajo Beautyways helped in time of privation to reveal a high level of coherence existing everlastingly as these explorerers lived on the brink of survival in the harshest of lands.

Lopez speculates that the Skraelings’ relationship with the bears was quite complex. They needed their meat and furs, every part of them, to survive. But they respected them. In their isolation they saw the bears as the only other beings able to walk upright. Perhaps they lived in villages, too.

It opens ways of considering how Lee Scoresby of New Denmark [Greenland] fought Skraelings on Nova Zembla. Consider that the original Americans were thought to have arrived via the Bering Strait. As the Paleo-Eskimos came east through New Denmark and on into Muscovy lands, Russian archipelagos, this means peoples of the Old World came to the New, although in our world’s history, a mirror reality says that Europeans coming into New France [Canada] were inhabitants of  the Old World encountering the New.

Ruins on Skraeling Island. Nick Newberry Archive (see below).

Photo from Nick Newberry Archives. For educational purposes only.https://www.newberyphotoarchives.ca/in/photos/15-skraeling-island

Map by Mike O’Rourke. Used for educational purposes only. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-location-of-Skraeling-Island-in-the-Canadian-High-Arctic-Map-by-Mike-ORourke_fig1_264004582

Details below. The island is 7000 ft long y 4600 ft in width and is part of the Queen Elizabeth/Canadian Archipelago

Source: Barry Lopez. Horizon. Chapter “Skraling Island.” pp. 131 – 203. NY: Knopf, 2019.