Winter comes but nearly all the year to the city of Tromsø, a wind-lashed port standing precariously on the western coast of Norway, 69.7 degrees North – beyond the Arctic Circle. The inhabitants are proud of their small city, inaccurately called the ‘Paris of the North’ or, more realistically, ‘the Gateway to the Arctic’. It’s a quiet place, bleached by the cold, where everything flaunts its latitude, from the Arctic Hotel to the Arctic Cathedral. The landscape is beautiful and severe: vast grey slabs of rock slamming into the ocean, decorated with swirls of thick mist and dustings of snow. It’s dark most of the time, and when the sun does appear, it’s an anaemic blur, too sickly to drag itself above the horizon for long.
I arrive on a plane from Oslo, swooping low over the mountains. The road from the airport winds up and down a hill, past sparse clusters of trees and houses coloured with a variety of wood stains – yellow, green and red. The fjord is overcast, and the mountains rise bleakly above. I pass a series of dirty houses, their windows blank. Tromsø’s centre consists of a main street – dotted with wooden houses and dull concrete high-rise hotels – some arterial roads running down to the harbour and a large wooden church. Parts of the harbour struggle to appear quaint, but most of it is stoically functional, serving lumbering ferries and trawlers.
I’ve come to this frozen town because of the Norwegian explorer, scientist and Nobel Prizewinner Fridtjof Nansen: a key figure in a book I am writing about ideas of Nordic purity and the myth of Ultima Thule. Thule was the ‘most northerly land’ of classical antiquity, a mysterious place, untouched by humans, where immortal tribes were thought to live. Nansen intertwined the Thule myth with his writings on Polar exploration, and later wrote a book suggesting that Norway was Thule. Within a few years of its publication, however, the Thule myth had been adopted by proto-Nazis in Germany, including Hitler and Alfred Rosenberg. The Thule Society was convened in 1919; its rituals included telepathic communication with Nordic immortals. Nansen certainly wasn’t a crypto-Fascist, but his ideas about Nordic purity were irreparably tainted by the Thule Society; ‘Thule’ now serves as Internet-Fascist shorthand for ideas of Aryan supremacy and the pure North.
The sun is sinking slowly towards the fjord as I arrive, not long after lunchtime, at the Ishavshotel (Arctic Hotel), which stands by the quayside, disguising its opulence behind a grimy orange exterior. At first glance, it looks like a harbour office, crammed with maritime bureaucrats handing out mooring permits to trawler captains. But the interior lavishly mingles Russian and Scandinavian decor – gold furnishings and St Petersburg glitz with touches of Nordic sail loft. From my room I can see across the fjord towards the Arctic Cathedral, which looks like an immense pile of blocks of ice. The hotel dining-room curves towards the sea, and a long table offers herring, salmon, eggs, vegetables and cold meat. Above the smörgåsbord, there’s a mural of splashy images of people fishing, whaling, sealing and reindeer herding. These, now variously imperilled, are the traditional trades of northern Norway. Fishing stocks are low; reindeer herders have been threatened with legal action by landowners who resent the migrant hordes; bans on whale exports left the whaling ships abandoned – in July whale meat was exported (to Iceland) for the first time since 1998. The ban, Norway argues, is unfair on the whalers whose livelihood depends on exports. They also say that the minke whale population is not endangered.
Vol. 24 No. 23 · 28 November 2002
From Göran Nilsson
Joanna Griffiths (LRB, 31 October) gives us a vivid picture of Tromsø, the place where Fridtjof Nansen located the Ultima Thule of ancient myth. She may not believe in those myths, but she does seem to subscribe to more recent ones, claiming that Norway ‘gained independence from Sweden in 1905, after centuries of colonisation’. The truth is that Norway’s centuries of colonisation essentially ended in 1814, when Norway became a free country with the most democratic constitution in Europe and acquired its own government, parliament, currency, civil laws, national defence, customs administration and so on. Whatever dependence on Sweden remained disappeared finally in 1905, when Norway chose its own king (from Denmark) and took control of its own foreign policy. Before then, in the Swedish-Norwegian Union of 1814, the two countries shared the same king (originally the French upstart Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who never bothered to learn Swedish). Their common foreign policy was handled by the Swedish Cabinet (where the Norwegians had a say from 1835 onwards). The Norwegian Left (Venstre) achieved the most in the struggle for democracy, fostering an ultranationalism (norsknorskhet) which couldn’t stand the least encroachment on national sovereignty. In the 1870s, the famous writer B. Bjørnsson was outraged when he discovered that the union flag (a mix of 50 per cent yellow-blue and 50 per cent red-white-blue, generally known as ‘the mish-mash’) in fact favoured Sweden: the blue and yellow were nearer the flagpole and therefore more distinguished in heraldic terms. That said, it is doubtful that Nansen’s Thule theory was ‘a patriot’s gift to the new nation’ as Griffiths maintains. In fact, it’s the other way round: Nansen’s theory should be seen as the fruit of an overheated nationalistic climate in Norway between 1880 and 1905. On the other hand, the political tensions between Sweden and Norway did not seriously impede a close cultural collaboration under the banner of Scandinavianism. Frithiof’s Saga, which Roald Amundsen kept with him on his travels, was written by the Swedish poet Esaias Tegnér, and consequently recited in Swedish by Nansen.
University of Linköping, Sweden
Vol. 24 No. 24 · 12 December 2002
From Robert Lipton
Joanna Griffiths’s Diary (LRB, 31 October) presented a glum view of Tromsø. Her descriptions are filled with error and, at best, convey only part of the story. Tromsø was considered the Paris of the North not because of some deluded civic sense of physical similarity, as Griffiths implies, but because at the end of the 19th century the city was wealthy enough, from trade and fishing, for women frequently to import the ‘latest’ Paris fashions. In her final paragraph, Griffiths describes herself looking across the fjord to the lights of Tromsø, but this is impossible from the airport. The city centre is on the other side of the hill: she was most probably seeing the lights of the island of Kvaloya, a growing suburb across the sound from Tromsø island. More important, she failed to mention that Tromsø is the regional centre for the northern part of Norway, home to one of four national universities and a very large medical centre, with one of the highest densities of PhDs and MDs in Europe.
Griffiths clearly travelled to Tromsø when the light was fading in late autumn or just returning in the late winter, seasons of very changeable weather. Her descriptions of the ‘battened down houses’ do not tally with my experience of houses with beautiful, open interiors and spectacular views. Sometimes Tromsø is ‘wind-lashed’; sometimes during the summer you might have weeks of round-the-clock sunshine and temperatures of 25°C. During the admittedly long winter, the Gulf Stream ensures that the temperature rarely strays much beyond a few degrees above or below zero. The -10ºC she claims as hardly exceptional, is, in fact, exceptional. I spent almost four years in Tromsø, and I, too, have ‘issues’ with the city, but it is also one of the most enchantingly beautiful and unpredictable places I have known.
Vol. 25 No. 1 · 2 January 2003
From Joanna Griffiths
Robert Lipton (Letters, 12 December 2002) has misunderstood me. I certainly don’t have ‘issues’ with Tromsø – the landscape is staggeringly beautiful, as I said in my first paragraph. As for my ‘error-filled’ descriptions, I suggest that Lipton make sure he understands what subjective writing is, and why an LRB Diary is unlikely to push the same buttons as the Rough Guide to Scandinavia. On the matter of Tromsø as the Paris of the North, there are a host of reasons why this label might have been applied to the town in the late 19th century, including Francophonia (which survives in words such as trottoir and jetée) and the general snazzy cosmopolitanism of the place. My point was that it is now and was then an old travellers’ cliché.
Goran Nilsson (Letters, 28 November 2002) levelled a charge of myth-making at my article, but his own account presents a Swedo-centric myth about the significance of the events of 1814. He argues that ‘Norway’s centuries of colonisation essentially ended in 1814, when Norway became a free country with the most democratic Constitution in Europe,’ though the final severance from Sweden took place in 1905. A briefing published by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, entitled ‘1814: A Year of Challenge’, suggests that the events of 1814 began a period of suspense-laden optimism for the Norwegians. After the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Sweden was granted Norway, which had been united with Denmark. Norway, the Swedish King Carl XIII proclaimed, would remain its own country, free to manage its own affairs, with its own National Assembly and taxation rights. But, on 17 May 1814, while Sweden was busy fighting Napoleon, a Constitution was passed in Norway and a nephew of the Danish King, Prince Christian Frederik, was elected king: 17 May is still celebrated as Norway’s national day.
Shortly after the passing of this Constitution, Sweden undemocratically decided to bring Norway into line by attacking it. The briefing continues: ‘At the end of July, the Swedes attacked. They immediately advanced on all fronts. The Norwegian forces were also poorly commanded, and King Christian Frederik showed little of the vigour he had shown earlier.’ In the ensuing peace negotiations, Christian Frederik promised to leave Norway and Sweden promised to acknowledge the 1814 Constitution. Carl XIII became the new King of Norway. The briefing concludes: ‘Even though Norwegian independence was to hang in the air for some time, what happened in 1814 was that the Norwegian state’s rights had taken an enormous leap forward … The Constitution had institutionalised national rights, which were to pave the way for the later dissolution of Norway’s union with Sweden and the establishment of a modern parliamentary democracy.’ In other words, it was only at the point of the dissolution of Norway’s union with Sweden in 1905 that a ‘modern parliamentary democracy’ could be established.
St Antony’s College, Oxford