The attraction of poles

Farthest North
December 1, 2000

Ice remains hot at the moment. Duckworth’s publication of Fridtjof Nansen’s Farthest North joins a number of recent editions of the classic texts of polar exploration, including Scott’s Last Journey and Ernest Shackleton’s South . Displays of polar literature are a regular feature of high-street booksellers, while the National Maritime Museum’s new exhibition on the race to the South Pole has been drawing large crowds to Greenwich, in contrast to a rival local attraction.

The forces driving this resurgence of interest in polar exploration and mountaineering are complex. Recent American attention was partly generated by management studies of Shackleton’s compelling style of charismatic leadership. Three forces, though, seem particularly significant. First, the current wave of popular history reflects the affluence, literacy and education of contemporary society. Second, the fascination with figures such as Mallory and Nansen articulates a disenchantment with modern technology and a yearning for straightforward tales of heroic manliness. Finally, the stories of Captain Scott and Co are simply cracking good yarns.

Fridtjof Nansen, born in Christiania (Oslo) in 1861, came to public notice after leading the first recorded crossing of Greenland in 1888. But Nansen’s second Arctic expedition between 1893 and 1896, which he narrates in Farthest North , brought the young Norwegian international fame. Nansen’s proposal to allow his ship to become trapped in the ice off the north coast of Russia and drift across the North Pole was greeted with astonishment. The drift of the Fram , specially built to Nansen’s design to withstand the pressure of the pack ice, finally proved that the North Pole was located on neither an open sea nor a stable icecap, but on a shifting changeable pack.

When he realised the Fram would not drift across the Pole itself, Nansen set out from the ship to establish a new record “farthest North” of latitude 86˚ 10´N, 370km from the Pole. With his companion Hjalmar Johansen, Nansen spent over a year away from the ship before reaching safety at the camp of another explorer, Frederick Jackson, in Franz Josef Land.

First published in English in February 1897, Farthest North proved an instant bestseller, fully justifying the publisher Constable’s £10,000 advance (around £500,000 in present terms). Nansen’s narrative retains its appeal. The immediacy of the diary form in which the majority of the book is written immerses the reader in the uncertain world of the polar explorer, in thrall to the capricious character of ice. Nansen’s daring, ingenuity and resilience continue to inspire, and Farthest North remains a testament to a lost world, before scientific research and heroic adventure were compartmentalised.

Max Jones is director of studies in history, Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Farthest North

Author - Fridtjof Nansen
ISBN - 0 7156 3031 8
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £25.00
Pages - 508

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