Joanna Kavenna

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.

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