Sara Wheeler

The iceman cometh

True North: Travels in Arctic Europe, by Gavin Francis<br /> <br type="_moz" />

True North: Travels in Arctic Europe, by Gavin Francis

This is an old-fashioned travel book of the linear variety. Roaming the northern fringes of Europe with a tent and a nose for a story, Scottish doctor Gavin Francis looks beyond the icebergs and the stunted willow seeking ‘a back country of the imagination where myth and reality intertwined’. Beginning at Unst, the northernmost of the Shetlands, Francis sets out to ‘follow a route that Europeans had taken towards what they once saw as the very limits of the world’. Heading by ferry to the Faroes, he continues to Iceland, Greenland, the snowy hinterland of Scandinavian Finnmark, and finally Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago that includes Spitzbergen.

The format is simple: a well-whipped blend of history and travelogue. For his central theme, Francis homes in on the role northernmost Europe has played as the focus for human voyages and dreams, and as such, True North is a journey through time as much as space. Taking an impressionistic, as opposed to comprehensive, approach, the author marches through the chronology, picking off the choicest vignettes to create a panorama of Arctic Europe from about 1000 to 1500, with interludes from later centuries. Along the way he pauses to dilate on — among other topics — the tricks of translating the eight-line drottkvaett stanza of the sagas; the 15th-century slave trade in Icelandic children (most of the poor buggers ended up in and around Bristol, Hull and Lynn); the migrations of the Saami; and the origins of the half-man, half-spirit qivitoqs who lurks on the top of Greenlandic mountains.

A vibrant cast of walk-on parts includes Herodotus, the Czech playwright, Karel Capek, who took refuge in Lapland in the 1930s, and Fridtjof Nansen, the polar explorer’s polar explorer.

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