The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule

The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule

by Joanna Kavenna

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A legend, a land once seen and then lost forever, Thule was a place beyond the edge of the maps, a mystery for thousands of years. And to the Nazis, Thule was an icy Eden, birthplace of Nordic “purity.” In this exquisitely written narrative, Joanna Kavenna wanders in search of Thule, to Shetland, Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Greenland, and Svalbard,


A legend, a land once seen and then lost forever, Thule was a place beyond the edge of the maps, a mystery for thousands of years. And to the Nazis, Thule was an icy Eden, birthplace of Nordic “purity.” In this exquisitely written narrative, Joanna Kavenna wanders in search of Thule, to Shetland, Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Greenland, and Svalbard, unearthing the philosophers, poets, and explorers who claimed Thule for themselves, from Richard Francis Burton to Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Marked by breathtaking snowscapes, haunting literature, and the cold specter of past tragedies, this is a wondrous blend of travel writing and detective work that is impossible to set down. RVIEW: Thule, real or not, is ripe and beguiling material for a literary and geographic adventurer, and Kavenna is formidable on both fronts. . . . Highly cerebral, erudite, refreshing. (The New York Times Book Review)

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A suspenseful history of a unique intersection of poetry and geography. (San Francisco Chronicle)

A beautiful prose poem to an elusive idea. (Chicago Tribune)

…a wonderful mixture of the exact and the fanciful (The New York Review of Books)

In one of his poems, Edgar Allan Poe alludes to "an ultimate dim Thule," a realm that his readers might recognize as a vaporous, icy land beyond the borders of any sea charts. For centuries, writers, mythmakers, and travelers have speculated and sometime ventured into this distant Arctic mystery. In The Ice Museum, British journalist Joanna Kavenna journeys to Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Greenland, and Svalbard in search of her own ultimate Thule. Her suave blend of travelogue and cultural history gives this book both a strong personal feel and a broader significance.
The New Yorker
In this historical travelogue, Kavenna sets out in search of the quasi-mythical land of Thule, which the Greek explorer Pytheas, in the fourth century B.C., claimed to have reached by sailing north for six days from Britain, then the boundary of the known world. In the following centuries, Arctic voyagers christened each successive discovery—from Shetland and Norway to Svalbard—Thule. But the word also became synonymous with the idea of the far north, a “blank white space” to be filled with fears and fantasies of the unknown. For the Romans, who believed that nothing was out of their reach, it was the farthest outpost of their empire; for the Victorians, it was Poe’s “wild weird clime”; and for certain Nazis it was a lost Aryan homeland. As she travels, Kavenna ponders the two millennia in which the myth thrived, a time before the entire globe was mapped, and when “its edges were vague, falling into shadows.”
Florence Williams
Although her writing can be prim (the glacier's edge "declined onto the mud plains," and "by morning I am tired and unkempt"), Kavenna makes no apologies for being erudite — and in an age of flippant, self-indulgent travelogues, this in itself is refreshing. She gives us only as much of her reactions and background, including short scenes from an idyllic country childhood, as we need to know in order to understand her nostalgia for wilderness and reverie. Her quest is less about a place than about a metaphor.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The fourth-century B.C. Greek explorer Pytheas claimed to have sailed six days from Scotland and discovered a land he named Thule. From Pytheas's brief, oft-disputed account of a land of short winter days where the sea turned into a viscous mass sprang an entire mythology of a magical, northern realm hidden beyond the edges of civilization. Kavenna's discursive book takes a thoughtful stroll through the different myths of Thule, examining how it became symbolic of everything from the Victorians' lost Arcadia to a polluted fantasy of racial purity for the proto-Nazi Thule Society. Kavenna, who's written for the Guardian and other British papers, follows the mark of Thule from the beer halls of Munich to the imagined Thules of the Shetland Islands, Iceland, Greenland and beyond. While frequently rhapsodic in regard to the epic landscapes, Kavenna resists the urge to attach too much import to her travels, not forcing the mythological on the everyday (unlike many Thule hunters, including fantasist Richard Burton). Although Kavenna's voyages don't solve the mystery as such, they provide fodder for a bracing account of humankind's dream of exploration and of the explorers "determined to discover, to shade in the blanks on the maps." (Feb. 6) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"What had happened . . . to the idea of remoteness, the sense of magisterial nature embodied in the word 'Thule'?" asks British journalist Kavenna, who went to find out. Ultima Thule: a glazed landscape pure and haunting, a northerly myth, frozen in silence, strange and disconcerting, far and gone. Pytheas said he had been there, Pliny the Elder felt free to describe it, Strabo had nothing but scorn to heap upon the notion, the Venerable Bede figured it was Iceland. Thule was the pea under Kavenna's mattress; she longed to seek out "the consolations of a perfect view, the tranquility of slowness." But where was Thule? The author followed many wayward suggestions: to Norway and Shetland and Iceland, Estonia, Greenland and Spitsbergen. She is a chromatic, poised writer with an eye for evocative images. In Oslo she heard "atonal bells striking eight outside"; in the Shetlands she "found a gate singing in the wind, and an oval-shaped ruin a few feet high." She journeyed to Iceland, where the Victorians encountered "the devil holes, the sulphur pots, the lairs of Beelzebub," and to the Norwegian archipelago of Spitsbergen, a two-tone frieze of rock and ice. She inhaled explorers, writers and politicos-Fridtjof Nansen, Halld-r Laxness and Vidkun Quisling, for starters-as she took the measure of the Thule Society (a group also concerned with racial purity) and the bleached unknowingness of the Thule Air Base, a Cold War relic in a long line of pretenders stealing a vibrant name for political purposes. For Kavenna, Thule will always be an ancient fragment of desire and unease, a play of colors on the ice, beautiful and silent. A lambent chronicle of wandering north and encountering an old ideabrought forcibly into a new age.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.64(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Ice Museum

By Joanna Kavenna

Viking Adult

ISBN: 0-670-03473-8

Chapter One

Seen from above, the ice sounds a ceaseless warning. A vicious blankness emanates from the white expanse below. The shadow of the plane falls on fleeting clouds. The ice smothers forests and mountains under a thick pall. Nothing moves across the whiteness.

The plane is drifting downwards, falling towards the glazed countryside. The ice looks like silence, like the physical embodiment of nothingness. A paradox, a symbol expressing the inexpressible; here is the vivid realisation of absence. As the plane descends, the warning sounds insistently: LEAVE. A single syllable resounding across the smothered land. No point in coming here. The country is closed for the ice deluge, to be opened in the spring. The plane is plunging through a white sky, into banks of drifting cloud. The trees below are bleached, their branches bent under the weight of the snow. As the plane skids across the runway the trees blur into lines of whiteness.

Shaking their heads, the passengers disembark. A pale sun shines onto the rigid arms of the trees. I step slowly onto the frost-coated runway. A thick wind blasts at my body, forcing me to bend against it. A woman is signalling frantically, pointing at a bus. We all board, obediently.

In an icy landscape, it is hard to discern distance and gradient. Complex layers of vegetation are simplified into one dense line of thick snow-bound forest. Only the most violent features of thelandscape remain - the most jagged and strange. Trees seem to be locked in the ice, bowed by the weight of their casing, like statues struggling to become free of a block of stone. The sun trembles above the horizon, casting squat shadows on the snow, waiting to sink into darkness again. When darkness comes, the ice shines under a bright moon.

The ice land is an anonymous world, the trees stripped of colour. The fjord is frozen, the trees are silver splinters; it is almost dark, though the day is hardly half way through.

I was travelling through northern lands, compelled by the endless indeterminacy of a myth: the land of Thule - the most northerly place in the ancient world. Before the regions north of Britain were mapped, there was a dream of a silent place, where the inhabitants lived under darkened skies through the winter, and enjoyed constant sunshine in the summer. Thule was seen once, described in opaque prose, and never identified with any certainty again. It became a mystery land, at the edge of the frozen ocean.

A Greek explorer, Pytheas, began the story: he claimed to have reached Thule in the 4th Century BC. He had sailed from the sun-drenched city of Marseilles to Britain. He sailed up to the north of Scotland, and then sailed onwards for about six days into the remote reaches of the ocean, until he sighted a land called Thule. There, so the story goes, the inhabitants showed him where the sun set on the shortest day and rose again soon after. In the winter, the land was plunged into darkness. Near Thule, the sea began to thicken, and Pytheas saw the sea, sky and land merging into a viscous mass, rising and falling with the motion of the waves. He turned away from the seething semi-solid ocean, and sailed back to Marseilles.

Mist, sea and land, a frozen ocean, a midnight sun in the summer, a twilight sky throughout the winter. Pytheas's account of his journey was lost, and no one could decide where Thule might have been. It left the story of Thule as a tantalising glimpse of a distant land. It was an empty page, its silent rocks inviting interpretation. With each new discovery in the north the name of Thule was evoked. The Romans reached the north of Britain, and claimed they had conquered Thule. Strabo scoffed at the idea of Thule, at the credentials of Pytheas; but Virgil imagined Augustus worshipped as a god, even in farthest Thule. Later, Procopius thought Thule was in Scandinavia, and wrote garbled anthropology about the Thulitae. The Venerable Bede called Iceland Thule; the medieval clerics described Thule as a place where the sun never shone, and the ice became as hard as crystal, so the inhabitants could make a fire above it. Petrarch mused on where it might be; Mercator fixed Thule at Iceland. Christopher Columbus claimed he had been there, long before he arrived in America. As the lands of the North were mapped, the name of Thule was moved around, from Iceland to Norway, from northern Britain to the tip of Greenland. Northerly latitude was enough, a midnight sun and a frozen ocean still more persuasive.

Nothing could be known for certain about Thule, and so the word was drawn into imaginative histories, rhetorical speeches, poems and novels and explorers' accounts. It was worshipped and parodied, cited in stanzas and drawn into rhetorical phrases. A long line of philosophers, poets, advocates and detractors referred fleetingly to Thule, from Boethius to Percy Bysshe Shelley. They cast it in a cameo, adding the word to a line of their prose or verse, using it to evoke pallour and the North. Alexander Pope wrote a slapstick interlude in The Dunciad, in which a fire was extinguished with a dank and clammy page of a poem about Thule. Charlotte Bronte put Thule into a gothic scene, as Jane Eyre sits, abandoned by her relatives, dreaming alone on a rain-drenched afternoon. She is reading a book about the Arctic; a reference to the lonely rocks of Thule propels her into a wild transport, as she conjures the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with 'the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space, - that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigors of extreme cold.' Thule was the symbol for all of this, Bronte thought, all these dreams of beauty and fears of desolation. From Julius Caesar to Edgar Allen Poe, Thule suggested cold silent plains, the blank spaces of the remote northern lands, awaiting discovery and interpretation. '... To the west, to Hesperian darkness, and the shores of barbarian Thule,' wrote William Godwin, in Things as They Are. 'A wild weird clime,' Poe called it, a land on the way to Night, a strange unworldly place.

Thule was entwined with thousands of years of fantasies about what might lie beyond the edges of the maps. As the maps came to cover the world, Thule was bound up with the crusades of modern exploration. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, as more and more travellers set off for the remote north, Thule recurred in explorers' accounts: Fridtjof Nansen from Norway, Richard Francis Burton from Britain, Vilhjalmur Stefansson from Canada, Knud Rasmussen from Denmark all sounded the cry Thule, as they travelled across the Arctic. Imaginative explorers filled in the blank moment of arrival with a devout incantation. Where the ice stretched away, and the birds plunged and dived, crying into the cold air, the explorers remembered Thule, pinning the word to the empty wilderness.


Excerpted from The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
A suspenseful history of a unique intersection of poetry and geography. (San Francisco Chronicle)

A beautiful prose poem to an elusive idea. (Chicago Tribune)

…a wonderful mixture of the exact and the fanciful (The New York Review of Books)

Meet the Author

Joanna Kavenna has written for The New York Review of Books, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The London Review of Books, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement, among other publications. She currently holds a writing fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge.

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