Baby, It’s Cold Outside

As if for the convenience of poets, the pronunciation is flexible. Ultima Thule. This is Thule rhyming with truly, but you also sometimes hear it as a monosyllable, echoing fool.

Truly foolish, in any event, were some of the historical attempts to locate Ultima Thule, which dictionaries define, again with flexibility, as either the most northerly of inhabited lands or a remote goal or territory. The term’s origins are appropriately confusing and obscure. In the fourth century BCE, a Greek explorer named Pytheas reportedly reached, some six days’ sail north of Scotland, a land whose cold-inured inhabitants lived beside a thick, slushy sea. He’d found Thule. As our knowledge of the Arctic solidified, over the centuries, this mysterious place and people, elusive as the northern lights, shimmered off into myth.

Regardless of how reliable Pytheas’ account was (and there’s nothing to say it wasn’t an outright fabrication), its hold on the European imagination was potent and perdurable. It inspired Virgil, Petrarch, Pope, Charlotte Brontë, Melville, Poe, Hardy—as well as a host of proto-Nazis in Weimar Germany, beguiled by notions of an Aryanism purified by distance and cold. Christopher Columbus, evidently not content with only one New World, claimed to have visited Thule. If he’s taken at his word, he was one lucky man. Some of those who set out to actualize a legend, sailing off into the bone-cold reaches of the north Atlantic, did not return. For them, Ultima Thule turned out to be a fatal fable.

Joanna Kavenna’s The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule investigates the lore of Ultima Thule historically, chiefly through scholarship, and geographically, through her plucky wanderings in Nordic lands. Her pilgrimage begins in Scotland, and takes her to Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, and—well above the Arctic Circle—Svalbard, the fjord-cut archipelago that used to be known as Spitsbergen.

As befits a book spun around a dim and nebulous bit of travelers’ lore, The Ice Museum is a somewhat loose and anecdotal account. Part of Thule’s appeal for Kavenna is the fervor with which various partisans will announce that they’ve pinpointed at long last, with ineluctable logic and certainty, the true terminus of Pytheas’ journeyings. The Icelanders, the Norwegians, the Estonians—each have categorically asserted that their land once represented the edge of the earth.

Ultima Thule is, then, a sort of chilly, buttoned-up counterpart to lost Atlantis—which was a land, or so it has come down to us from Hollywood, all but destined to drown itself through sheer licentiousness and corruption. By contrast, it’s hard to picture a cadre of studio executives green-lighting a steamy costume drama set among the world’s northernmost people.

A North-Pole-centered map, such as is found opposite the title page of Kavenna’s book, makes clear what your standard equator-centered Mercator projection obscures: while a big beetling chunk of Greenland overhangs the Arctic Circle, as does a substantial fringe of Russia, the Arctic is mostly a vast dark watery sinkhole—concealed by a sort of manhole cover of ice.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.