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The Arctic's Mythic Past

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 20, 2011 03:40 PM

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Nowadays, when we think about the world's arctic zones, we think immediately about global climate change. It wasn't always so, however. As Geoffrey Brackett shows in the newest issue of Terra Incognitae ("The Journal of the Society for the History of Discoveries"), the arctic has a rich symbolic history. In fact, until recent times, the North and South Poles helped us understand our place in a mysterious world -- they were places of mythical power. Brackett's essay, "At the End of the Earth: How Polar Ice and Imagination Shape the World," shows how "myth has been overtaken by science" at the world's polar antipodes.

In the ancient and medieval worlds, Brackett explains, the poles were places of genuine mystery: no one knew what they were like, or even if there was land around them. Early astronomers and geographers like Ptolemy speculated endlessly, and often incorrectly, about what life might be like there. But as Renaissance explorers travelled further to the north and south, knowledge about the poles grew more concrete, and excitement about the idea of polar exploration grew. When Captain James Cook speculated, in 1775, about the possibility of "a large tract of land near the Pole," ordinary people began to dream, Brackett writes, about "a mysterious world just out of reach."

The cultural importance of the poles reached its height in the nineteenth century, especially in Britain. Brackett traces some fascinating polar connections. The astronomer on Captain Cook's "Terra Australia incognita" expedition, William Wales, returned to England to become a schoolteacher; one of his students was the 1o-year-old Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, Brackett suggests, "must have been particularly engrossed by tales of ships surrounded by ice at the end of the world." Coleridge went on to write "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which takes place on an ill-fated voyage to the arctic. He recited the poem to his friend William Godwin; Godwin's daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft, hid under the sofa to listen. When Mary, at age eighteen, ran off with the poet Percy Shelley during the summer of 1816, she wrote Frankenstein. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein tells his story to a ship's captain, Robert Walton, while the ship is ice-bound on an Arctic expedition.

This was the high-point of the Romantic Arctic: never again would the poles signify such a powerful combination of "hubris, danger, and mystery." As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, as polar exploration continued, and as gold was discovered in the Klondike, a new economic relationship to the poles took hold. Jack London's Klondike stories, like "To Build a Fire," portrayed the North as a harsh environment, ruled by the logic of survival of the fittest. Shackleton's expedition to the South Pole retained something of the old Romantic spirit -- but, Brackett writes, innocence had been lost.

These days, it's harder for the polar regions to be mysterious. Driven by feelings of mystery and awe to explore the poles, we have demystified them. And global warming links the poles, disconcertingly, to our day-to-day decisions. "Instead of illustrating some mystery of the gods, the geography of the earth, the Romantic Sublime, or our own psychological weaknesses," Brackett writes, "our journeys to the ends of the earth now reveal recorded evidence of our own lives away from the poles." The poles still retain their mystery, of course. But that mystery is in tension with the concrete facts of ordinary human life.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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