Extreme North: A Cultural History by Bernd Brunner (Translated from German by Jefferson Chase) - review by Philip Parker

Philip Parker

Land of Rune Yodelling

Extreme North: A Cultural History


W W Norton 225pp £21.99

Natural historian, physician, antiquary and professor of Greek, Ole Worm was a 17th-century intellectual magpie. This engaging Danish polymath had a very particular fixation. He assembled every rock fragment, every specimen, every antiquity he could get his hands on from the ‘north’. The resulting collection, the highlights of which included a ‘unicorn’ horn (which Worm himself more prosaically identified as a narwhal tusk) and a stuffed great auk, which in life he had kept as a pet, was displayed in his Copenhagen house, one of Europe’s first examples of a cabinet of curiosities. The fruits of early modern scholars’ desires to collect and make (often vain) attempts to classify and to reflect on the wonders of nature, cabinets of curiosities were often riotous mixtures of the bizarre and the instructive.

Bernd Brunner’s Extreme North is in many ways a tribute to Worm’s collection: the author uses the engraving of the Museum Wormianum commissioned by Worm’s son after his father’s death from plague as his jumping-off point. Brunner’s own cabinet of curiosities offers both a delightful series of vignettes of the north, including Mary Wollstonecraft’s description of the perpetual summer light as the ‘noon of the night’, and a gallery of the preconceptions and agendas which successive visitors have carried with them. The north, it seems, is as much about what visitors took to the region as what they actually found there.

For Brunner’s parade of notable travellers, which includes the pioneer of scientific classification Linnaeus, the poet W H Auden and the designer William Morris (the last two of whom had a particular affinity for Iceland), the first question was what exactly was meant by ‘north’. At a banal

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