Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by Glyn Williams - review by Roland Huntford

Roland Huntford

The Icemen Cometh

Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 439pp £25

In British Arctic exploration, the hunt for the Northwest Passage became a repository of sentimental heroics, which masked its prosaic origin. It began as the search for a short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific through North America in order to break the Spanish and Portuguese grip on trade with the Orient along southerly routes. Eventually it became a fabled quest. It produced a literature of its own, to which Arctic Labyrinth is the most recent addition.

For his history of the Passage, Glyn Williams has skilfully woven a clear narrative out of a tangled tale, with just the right amount of historical context. Unusually for writers in the field, he is remarkably dispassionate, with the occasional caustic touch. Of the various expeditions, he remarks

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