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In search of a land that may not exist

On a 'faintly foolish' quest for a mythic site, a writer visits all the coldest places in Europe.

By Randy Dotinga / February 14, 2006



The ancient Arctic land called Thule may not actually exist, but that hasn't stopped generations from trying to find it.

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For centuries, daredevil explorers searched for Thule in frozen locales from Greenland to the far northern stretches of Norway. Well-heeled Victorians endured endless steamship voyages to poke around Iceland. Even the Nazis joined the hunt, with one of their most feverish partisans claiming to find the fatherland's heritage in Thule's supposed Aryan past.

And then there are the many authors and poets - including Edgar Allen Poe and Charlotte Brontë - who dwell on Thule, fascinated by its remoteness and strangeness, a northern landscape of ice and mystery.

In her captivating book The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, British author Joanna Kavenna brings the Thule myth to life, seamlessly combining elements of travelogue, detective story, and history book.

Don't be alarmed if you've never heard of Thule. It's more well-known in Europe than in the United States, and even across the pond the word probably rarely crosses anyone's lips. But Thule is far from forgotten.

The whole story begins back in the 4th century BC, when a Greek explorer named Pytheas claimed to have discovered the most northerly land in the world, which he named Thule. North of France, north of Britain, it was near a frozen ocean and home to inhabitants accustomed to seasons of eternal light and darkness.

"Thule was seen once, described in opaque prose, and never identified with any certainty again," Kavenna writes. "It became a mystery land, standing by a cold sea. A land at the edge of the maps."

But where is Thule? Doing a "faintly foolish thing," Ms. Kavenna quits her job and explores the frigid tundra of northern Europe, visiting every place that's been accused of being Thule. Her mission: find its meaning, if not its location.

"From the age of modern exploration to the contemporary age of mass travel, Thule had lingered on, a potent symbol of empty lands and silence," she writes. "But what had happened, I started to think, to the idea of remoteness, the sense of magisterial nature embodied in the word 'Thule'?... what had happened to a dream of a pure place, a place apart from the ambiguities of the world below?"

Armed with intense curiosity, Kavenna struggles to get onto Greenland's US-run Thule Air Base, joins the gregarious locals at the Thule Bar in Scotland's Shetland Islands, and drinks coffee with the former president of Estonia, who somehow manages to find connections between Thule, his country's national character, and a long-ago meteorite landfall.

At times, readers may get lost in the book's countless references to explorers and historical figures, and Kavenna's eternal search for meaning can be rough sledding. But even for readers to whom the mythological subject matter seems just a bit too ethereal, there is still plenty to appreciate.

Oddly enough, the people who populate the book are even more fascinating than the chilly locations.

There's the famous Norwegian explorer who lives an extraordinary life but whose eyes in photographs reveal "a despair barely contained."

Then there's the brittle Norwegian woman who tells Kavenna of the prejudices facing her and others born to collaborators who made intimate connections with Nazi occupiers. Add to that a pair of chic 30-something Estonians, one bemoaning the younger generation and the other persuasively claiming to have been trained by the Russians to infiltrate American high society with his perfect English accent.

Other highlights include those zany Victorians, tromping around the Arctic Circle with names like Mrs. Alec Tweedie, and an evocative list of figures from Icelandic sagas, including Grim Ketilsson Hairy-Cheeks and poets named Audun the Uninspired and Eyvind the Plagiarist.

One of the most intriguing characters is the young author herself, an intense and otherworldly scholar who even as a child dreamed of the North Pole and memorized the names of explorers: "There was something in the stillness of the ice which gripped me, stillness like suspense, an empty stage ready at any moment for the grand entrance of another explorer, struggling against the snow."

Kavenna's love of the Arctic, seemingly the most unlovable of places, gives heart and warmth to "The Ice Museum." It's hard to imagine a more enchanting tour guide or, for that matter, a more exotic trip.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer based in San Diego.

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