The Imaginary Arctic
'Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen is one of the paradigmatic narratives of northward journey. Once the heroine has reached the utter north to attempt the rescue of her friend who has been kidnapped by the Snow Queen, she comes to the ice palace, which is the epicentre of frost and cold. Ice, glass and mirrors interchange and duplicate throughout the story of The Snow Queen. A splinter of mirror-glass from the distorting mirror of an evil magician enters the heart of the innocent child, Kay. At once the sliver of glass takes on the property of ice..."'
The Snow Queen's palace is described in the book as a place as cold and bleak as one could imagine:
"The walls of the palace were formed of the driven snow, its doors and windows of the cutting winds; there were a hundred halls, the largest of them many miles in extent, all illuminated by the Northern Lights; all alike vast, empty, icily cold, and dazzlingly white ... The Snow Queen when at home, always sat in the centre of this lake."
Such journeys North to rescue friends feature in many stories. Lyra makes the journey in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (1995, Scholastic Books. Filmed as The Golden Compass) to Svalbard, home to armoured polar bears and the setting for grisly experiments, to attempt to rescue her abducted friend Roger Parslow. And in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis (first published in 1950) Edmund is abducted by the White Witch in the magical land of Narnia which is trapped in a permanent state of winter. Superman retreats to his Fortress of Solitude, and dark threats to mankind are contained within the polar ice in The Thing, Ice Station Zebra and X-files.
The Golden Compass
The Arctic and stories of heroes
The Arctic's remoteness and harshness lends itself to great stories of bravery, told by returning adventurers. Alex's expeditions, in particular the 2011 journey to obtain the material and declare the new nation, mimics some of the endeavors of sailors and explorers from the last few hundred years, and like their stories of adventures in far away places, is itself open to embellishment, misunderstandings and myth-making. The Arctic seems to create fictions out of facts.
In his youth, Horatio Nelson was a midshipman on Carcass, a Royal Navy expedition to reach the North Pole. They landed on Svalbard where Nelson was apparently attacked and fought off a polar bear.
'The account of the plucky little sailor engaging in full-frontal combat with a monster bear has played an important role in the sedulous creation of the Nelson legend and its knightly progression towards apotheosis at Trafalgar. A fixated public endlessly recycled the image of the encounter (still do): Landseer engraved it [see below], Southey [Nelson's biographer] populised it, souvenir manufacturers stamped it on plates and pamphleteers, novelists and poets enshrined it in prose and verse. The Eagle comic worked it up for schoolboys of the 1950s and in the 1980s Ladybird immortalised it for the succeeding generation... Nelson is not a figure whose accomplishments require embellishment. Yes the Arctic even fictionalises him. The truth was that he wanted to give his father a bearskin. When his flinlock musket flashed in the pan, he slunk back to the waiting Carcass.' From Sara Wheeler, The Magnetic North, 2009.