In 1577, a group of English explorers found a dead unicorn on the western shore of what is now called Baffin Island. They were delighted with their find, even though the giant fish stretched on the beach didn’t resemble the traditional unicorn of folklore. The maps that guided their expedition had prepared them for an Arctic world full of magic and monsters; clearly, the fish on the beach fell into the latter category, and since it possessed a horn, what could it be but a unicorn? However, some of the crew members questioned whether the fish-like “Sea Unicorn” possessed the same qualities as the land variety. A quick-witted sailor devised a test to end the debate: he caught a couple of spiders in the ship’s hold and rammed them into the broken tip of the whale’s horn. The spiders died, to the great delight of the explorers. Here, at the very edge of the known world, they had discovered one of the great treasures of the Elizabethan age: a magical horn that could cure all poisons and bring death to venomous creatures.
From a twenty-first century perspective, what is surprising about the accounts of sixteenth century Arctic explorers is not that they believed the Arctic was a magical landscape, but that their beliefs have persisted for so long. Even today, you can find conspiracy theorists who believe that the Arctic harbors alien spacecraft, for example, or that an international military alliance has covered up the existence of a tropical island at the South Pole. For SF writers, the Arctic and its stories have been an ongoing source of inspiration. This essay argues that the imaginary Arctic has served as a repository for fantastic possibilities from ancient to modern times. Ancient Greeks, Gothic novelists, Nazi mystics, and contemporary television shows (as well as many others) all seem to agree that the Arctic is a space where the impossible might come true.
The Arctic’s fantastic reputation began with the ancient Greeks, who noticed that the “Arktos” constellation (now called the “Great Bear”), circled the northern sky without setting. The Greeks considered this a bizarre way for stars to behave, and they thought that the lands beneath the Arktos constellation were probably as strange as the stars that circled above them.
Greeks who collected travelers’ tales about the mysterious northern lands soon determined that the arctic lay above the source of the north wind, and thus enjoyed a pleasant climate. The land was allegedly populated by an equally pleasant race of people, the Hyperboreans. Life in the Arctic was so easy that the Hyperboreans were basically immortal. They spent their lives singing, dancing, and eating. Unfortunately, even paradise has its downside: after about a thousand years of partying, the Hyperboreans had lost all interest in music and food. They strung flowers around their necks and drowned themselves out of sheer boredom.
Greek travelers’ tales weren’t just limited to stories about the mass suicide of mythical civilizations, however. Around 330 BC, an astronomer called Pytheas supposedly sailed north of Britain and discovered a land called Thule, where the sun was visible at midnight on the summer solstice. When he tried to sail north of Thule, he encountered an impassable barrier he called the “sea lung” and was forced to turn back. Pytheas added Thule and its dangerous sea lung—thought by modern scholars to be drifting sea ice—to the maps of the ancient world, where it soon passed into legend. For centuries, “Thule” became the shorthand for the mysterious regions of the North, where peculiar sea lungs and Hyperborean paradises awaited bold explorers.
Medieval English explorers added their own travels, mixed with a healthy dose of garbled Norse mythology, to the mix. In addition to tropical lands of plenty, the Arctic was soon known as the land of pygmies, and had a coastline plagued by giant whirlpools. In 1569, Flemish geographer Gerhard Mercator put medieval polar knowledge to work in a very influential map, which depicted not only the complex coastlines of the Open Polar Sea, but also a strange “black rock” that was Mercator claimed stood at the pole itself. This was the map that guided Elizabethan explorers on their quests into Arctic territories.
By the time England launched its 1577 Arctic expedition, the northlands were widely thought to be habitable territory worthy of annexation. Elizabeth I summoned her court astrologer and learned advisor, John Dee, and told him to come up with an argument for British sovereignty in the Arctic. Dee obliged her with a report that dated England’s Arctic claims back to King Arthur. When he wasn’t pulling swords out of stones and dispatching knights to slay dragons, King Arthur apparently mounted expeditions to the Arctic. Dee claimed that Arthur “even unto the North Pole . . . did extend his Jurisdiction: And sent Colonies thither” (qtd. in McGhee 28).
Sadly, however, the Elizabethan expeditions failed to profit from their adventures. The crops the sailors planted died in the icy blasts of the Arctic winter, and gold mines they established on Baffin Island produced only useless rock. In hindsight, however, Dee’s “Arthurian” Arctic claim would prove important to world history: it fueled further Elizabethan exploration of the north and helped legitimize English settlement in North America.
By the time the next wave of exploration came round, England’s Arthurian claims to the Arctic had fallen by the wayside, but the mystique of the polar regions remained. In 1817 England renewed its Arctic ambitions when whalers’ reports indicated that the icy barrier around the pole was melting. The Admiralty gave Sir John Ross command over the first major English Arctic expedition of the nineteenth century, which set sail from London in April 1818. Although the Ross expedition failed to discover either a Northwest Passage or an Open Polar Sea, discussion surrounding the planning, departure, and subsequent adventures of the expedition reignited English interest in the Arctic.
With public interest in the polar regions at a new high, fiction-writers stepped in to speculate on what the explorers would find in the north. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably the most famous Arctic novel of 1818, begins with the departure of an ill-fated polar expedition. “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation,” Captain Walton declares in the novel’s opening chapter, “I will put some trust in preceding navigators . . . there snow and frost are banished, and sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe” (3).
While Walton never does reach the Pole, he does get his share of marvels in the forms of amateur polar-travelers Victor Frankenstein (the original mad scientist) and his murderous Creature. At the end of the novel, Frankenstein’s Creature takes off for the North Pole, supposedly to commit suicide, but Shelley deliberately leaves the monster’s final fate unresolved.
While Frankenstein is often credited with being the first science fiction novel, few modern readers realize that its SF elements go far beyond Frankenstein’s corpse-raising experiments. At the time Shelley was writing, English explorers had not yet mounted a modern expedition to the pole, nor had they used dog sleds or the other methods of travel she describes. For all Shelley and her contemporaries knew, the pole could very well be the tropical paradise Walton envisions. But in describing the outer polar regions as a desolation of ice best crossed by dog sled, Shelley predicted the future of Arctic exploration with surprising accuracy.
With Britain back in the Arctic game, it didn’t take long before America also began to mount expeditions to the polar territories, and American SF authors followed suit. Twenty years after the publication of Frankenstein, a travel narrative appeared claiming to recount the adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a stowaway whose macabre misadventures had landed him on a tropical island in the Open Polar Sea of Antarctica. Chased by cannibals and tormented by the weird cries of strange penguins, Pym made his way to the South Pole, where he was promptly sucked down a giant polar hole into. . . .
But here, to everyone’s disappointment, the narrative broke off.
Notwithstanding the question of how a manuscript last seen accompanying its author to the center of the earth ended up in the hands of American publishers, some readers considered Pym’s description of the Antarctic plausible enough to warrant a revision of world maps. Unfortunately, Pym’s narrative was actually a work of fiction, invented by an imaginative author by the name of Edgar Allen Poe.
Although Pym is not one of Poe’s most famous works, it proved popular enough to survive and inspire other SF authors. H.P. Lovecraft wrote At the Mountains of Madness as a loose sequel to Pym, and his invention of Antarctic “shoggoths” went a long way towards explaining why poor Arthur Gordon Pym was so terrified of penguins.
At the time that Lovecraft was writing, the poles had finally been reached and documented, and no tropical islands, gigantic holes, or mysterious “black rock” had been found. But the polar regions’ magical reputation proved extraordinarily resilient, and it took on new life with the rise of Nazism.
In 1912, a group of German mystics founded the Thule Society. Inspired, perhaps, by Friedrich Nietzsche’s identification of northern supermen with the legendary Hyperboreans of the arctic, the Thule Society traced their order back to the ancient island of Thule. Like Atlantis, this advanced civilization had supposedly perished when the island sank into the ocean, leaving their Aryan descendents stranded on a southern continent populated by Jews and other racially-inferior creatures. Luckily, some of Thule’s secrets were accessible to members of the Thule Society, and they hoped to use their knowledge to re-establish Aryan supremacy over the globe. The Thule Society became a reliable source of the radical recruits who would help Adolf Hitler form the National Socialist Party, and its terminology continues to surface in modern white-supremacist magazines like Thule.
Nazism’s connection to the mystical Arctic spaces was revised following the Second World War, when Flying Saucers editor Ray Palmer wrote an article linking the Arctic to the relatively new phenomenon of UFO sightings. Strange as it may seem to those of us raised with the concept of little green men, early discussion of UFOs often assumed that flying saucers and their ilk were the experimental war planes of undefeated Nazis, hiding in some as-yet undetected portion of the globe. The Arctic quickly became a prime candidate in this mythos: after all, if you were Adolf Hitler, where would you hide? South America? Or the traditional dwelling place of racially-superior mystics?
Clearly (according to Palmer), the Nazi UFOs were based somewhere in the Arctic. In fact, they were probably hidden inside the giant polar hole described by people like Edgar Allen Poe. This conspiracy theory received a boost with the publication of a “secret log” supposedly kept by Admiral Byrd during his transarctic flight on February 2, 1947. According to the secret log (generally believed to be a hoax), Byrd was forced to land in the tropical Arctic by Nazi flying saucers, and then interrogated by Aryan space aliens, who persuaded him to enter into a conspiracy to protect their secret Arctic paradise. Different versions of this story exist, some of which also include a secret American military operation aimed at wiping out an Antarctic Nazi colony, but in all of them we can see the vestiges of earlier polar legends.
Although most speculative fiction writers have preferred alien UFOs to the Nazi variety, polar regions have continued to crop up in stories of government conspiracies and hidden spacecraft. In John Carpenter’s The Thing, for example, Antarctic researchers stumble across a UFO frozen in pack ice, and learn too late one of the most important rules of arctic survival: never defrost a UFO you find hidden in pack ice. In The X-Files movie, intrepid FBI agents Mulder and Scully make a similar discovery when they come across a UFO buried in Antarctica, although, being the stars of an ongoing TV series, they manage to survive quite a bit longer than the researchers in The Thing.
The tropical aspects of Arctic legends appear far less often in modern speculative fiction. However, Lost, the new, genre-bending TV series that made a splashy debut last season, could possibly be a throwback to the age-old stories of the Hyperborean Arctic. Lost follows the survivors of a plane crash that has left them stranded on a mysterious tropical island patrolled by polar bears and invisible monsters. An old distress signal speaks of a “black rock,” and concrete bunkers hidden in the jungle provide evidence of a possible government conspiracy. Meanwhile, the survivors fear to put a raft to sea in southern winds, for fear of drifting to Antarctica. After reviewing the little information the survivors have gathered about the island, conspiracy theorists and Elizabeathan explorers would probably conclude that they were already in Antarctica, and would be better off staying put.
Regardless of whether or not Lost turns out to have anything to do with the Arctic, it seems likely that the polar regions will continue to play a role in speculative fiction. Although much of the Arctic’s romance is now overshadowed by the even more remote (and therefore even more mysterious) regions of space, the Arctic provides not only an earth-based location for speculative plotting, but a well-established tradition for authors to draw upon.
Bibliography / Further reading
McGhee, Robert. The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2004.
Poe, Edgar Allen. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Ed. Richard Kopley. New York: Penguin: 1999.
Pratt, David. Exploring Theosophy.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1992.
Spufford, Francis. I May be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination. New York: St. Martin’s Press 1997.
Vaughan, Richard. The Arctic: A History. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1994.