Joanna Kavenna's haunting debut charts her journey in search of the lost island of Thule. First named by the Greek explorer Pytheas who claimed to have discovered a mysterious land north of Scotland in the 4th century BC, "Thule became a symbol of remoteness, of the shadowy world of the north". The lack of knowledge about the island (including its name) offered a fertile space for the imagination, as it became a source of fantasy for artists, scholars and explorers.
Oppressed by modern urban life, Kavenna sets out to visit the places most associated with Thule: the Shetland Islands, Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Greenland and Svalbard (formerly Spitsbergen). Along the way she encounters a compelling cast of characters, from the aged Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who insists on a hug lasting precisely three seconds, to a former president of Estonia. Eleven chapters named after aspects of the Thule legend ("Silence", "Purity" and so on) weave together travelogue, memoir and cultural history.
Kavenna's travels are accompanied by accounts of writers who created stories about Thule, from William Morris to Fridtjof Nansen. The first half of the book recalls recent polar works by authors such as Francis Spufford and Sara Wheeler. But an encounter between W. H. Auden, Alfred Rosenberg and Hermann Goering's brother in an Icelandic hotel introduces a more complex meditation on the place of Thule in the modern imagination.
The chapter "Savages" tells the story of the Thule Society, a meeting point for future National Socialists after the First World War, including Hitler and Rudolf Hess. The society took the romantic idea of a lost land in the north and made it the cradle of German civilisation. Vidkun Quisling, a young assistant of Nansen's, provides a striking link between earlier, more benign exploitations of Thule to promote Norwegian nationalism, and Nazi fantasises of a northern Hyperborean race.
The book's second half exposes a dark story of extremism and exploitation above the Arctic circle, of Krigsbarn (war children of German soldiers and Norwegian mothers) encouraged by Himmler but shunned after 1945, of the displacement of native Inuit by the US military in Greenland and of remorseless environmental decay.
The book presents an ambiguous Thule for the 21st century. In Greenland and Svalbard, Kavenna comes close to her hoped-for communion with nature. Yet commercialisation, exploitation and pollution contaminate this Arcadia.
"I had travelled in search of silence and a retreat from the city... Yet I found history scattered across the plains... Thule was something different.
It contained imperfection and degradation... It expressed compromise and experience."
Thule today expresses "the ambivalence of the human relationship to nature", exemplified in Svalbard by the presence of both a thriving Norwegian coalmining enterprise and a research station investigating the effects of burning fossil fuels.
The Ice Museum stands out from an increasingly crowded field of polar literature. Although it has several maps, the inclusion of illustrations would have added an important dimension. The absence of any indication of the author's sources is a noticeable omission, undermining the utility of the text for academic research.
Max Jones is lecturer in modern British history, Manchester University.
The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule
Author - Joanna Kavenna
Publisher - Viking
Pages - 334
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 670 91395 2