Out of this fairy world, in course of time, the calm and sober lines of the northern landscape appeared. With unspeakable labour the eye of man has forced its way gradually towards the north, over mountains and forests, and tundra, onward through the mists along the vacant shores of the polar sea—the vast stillness, where so much struggle and suffering, so many bitter failures, so many proud victories, have vanished without a trace, muffled beneath the mantle of snow.
When our thoughts go back through the ages in a waking dream, an endless procession passes before us—like a single mighty epic of the human mind’s power of devotion to an idea, right or wrong—a procession of struggling, frost-covered figures in heavy clothes, some erect and powerful, others weak and bent so that they can scarcely drag themselves along before the sledges, many of them emaciated and dying of hunger, cold and scurvy; but all looking out before them towards the unknown, beyond the sunset, where the goal of their struggle is to be found.
We see a Pytheas, intelligent and courageous, steering northward from the Pillars of Hercules for the discovery of Britain and Northern Europe; we see hardy Vikings, with an Ottar, a Leif Ericson at their head, sailing in undecked boats across the ocean into ice and tempest and clearing the mists from an unseen world; we see a Davis, a Baffin forcing their way to the north-west and opening up new routes, while a Hudson, unconquered by ice and winter, finds a lonely grave on a deserted shore, a victim of shabby pilfering. We see the bright form of a Parry surpassing all as he forces himself on; a Nordenskiöld, broad-shouldered and confident, leading the way to new visions; a Toll mysteriously disappearing in the drifting ice. We see men driven to despair, shooting and eating each other; but at the same time we see noble figures, like a De Long, trying to save their journals from destruction, until they sink and die.
Midway in the procession comes a long file of a hundred and thirty men hauling heavy boats and sledges back to the south, but they are falling in their tracks; one after another they lie there, marking the line of route with their corpses—they are Franklin’s men.
After the memory of its existence had practically passed away, it was again one of our countrymen who, on behalf of a Norwegian company, founded the second European settlement of the country.
It is poor, this land of the Eskimo, which we have taken from him; it has neither timber nor gold to offer us—it is naked, lonely, like no other land inhabited of man. But in all its naked poverty, how beautiful it is! If Norway is glorious, Greenland is in truth no less so. When one has once seen it, how dear to him is its recollection! I do not know if others feel as I do, but for me it is touched with all the dream-like beauty of the fairyland of my childish imagination. It seems as though I there found our own Norwegian scenery repeated in still nobler, purer forms.
It is strong and wild, this Nature, like a saga of antiquity carven in ice and stone, yet with moods of lyric delicacy and refinement. It is like cold steel with the shimmering colours of a sunlit cloud playing through it.
When I see glaciers and ice-mountains, my thoughts fly to Greenland where the glaciers are vaster than anywhere else, where the ice-mountains jut into a sea covered with icebergs and drift-ice. When I hear loud encomiums on the progress of our society, its great men and their great deeds, my thoughts revert to the boundless snow-fields stretching white and serene in an unbroken sweep from sea to sea, high over what have once been fruitful valleys and mountains. Some day, perhaps, a similar snow-field will cover us all.
Ages passed—deep was the silence.
Then, in the dawn of history, far away in the south, the awakening spirit of man reared its head on high and gazed over the earth. To the south it encountered warmth, to the north, cold; and behind the boundaries of the unknown it placed in imagination the twin kingdoms of consuming heat and of deadly cold.
But the limits of the unknown had to recede step by step before the ever-increasing yearning after light and knowledge of the human mind, till they made a stand in the north at the threshold of Nature’s great Ice Temple of the polar regions with their endless silence.
Up to this point no insuperable obstacles had opposed the progress of the advancing hosts, which confidently proceeded on their way. But here the ramparts of ice and the long darkness of winter brought them to bay. Host after host marched on towards the north, only to suffer defeat. Fresh ranks stood ever ready to advance over the bodies of their predecessors. Shrouded in fog lay the mythic land of Nivlheim, where the “Rimturser”1 carried on their wild gambols.
Why did we continually return to the attack? There in the darkness and cold stood Helheim, where the death-goddess held her sway; there lay Nåstrand, the shore of corpses. Thither, where no living being could draw breath, thither troop after troop made its way. To what end? Was it to bring home the dead, as did Hermod when he rode after Baldur? No! It was simply to satisfy man’s thirst for knowledge. Nowhere, in truth, has knowledge been purchased at greater cost of privation and suffering. But the spirit of mankind will never rest till every spot of these regions has been trodden by the foot of man, till every enigma has been solved.
Minute by minute, degree by degree, we have stolen forward, with painful effort. Slowly the day has approached; even now we are but in its early dawn; darkness still broods over vast tracts around the Pole.
Our ancestors, the old Vikings, were the first Arctic voyagers. It has been said that their expeditions to the frozen sea were of no moment, as they have left no enduring marks behind them. This, however, is scarcely correct. Just as surely as the whalers of our age, in their persistent struggles with ice and sea, form our outposts of investigation up in the north, so were the old Northmen, with Eric the Red, Leif, and others at their head, the pioneers of the polar expeditions of future generations.