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Published: 24 Mar, 2017

Once dangerous, now under threat – and where have millions of people gone?

NEWS It is cold, bare and desolate. Never-ending winter. Not a human being in sight, albeit occasionally a polar bear. Or a penguin. That’s the image of the Arctic that is etched to the retinas (or may it be consciousness) of far too many observers.

Heidi Hansson.
Photo: Mattias Pettersson.

This image is one-sided as millions of people in thousands of communities live in the Arctic region. It is also teeming with untruths (as there are no penguins) and seemingly unchanging. Even despite clear evidence of the ice melting.

“Old tales have survived, they have no ‘sell-by date’,” says Heidi Hansson, professor in English literature at Umeå University, who has studied in particular how the Arctic has been portrayed in literature, theatre and popular culture.

“Take for instance how Hans Christian Andersen’s story on The Snow Queen from 1845 was first resurrected in C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from 1950, and then returned again in the Disney production Frozen in 2013. 

Teckning av Snödrottningen
The Lady of the Arctic awaiting conquest; a literal illustration of gendered personifications of the Arctic.
Photo from British satire magazine  Punch, 1875.

A cold and evil witch to subdue. A cold and callous princess that needs to be brought back to life. Particularly in old literature, the Arctic has often been portrayed as female. Her antagonist has been a male conqueror and the meeting between the two has been a male test of courage and power – just like many expeditions to both the North and the South Poles, in which heroes have been famed.

The Arctic was often portrayed as desolate, and without people. This is something Heidi Hansson and her research colleagues in language and literature observed in their work on the project Foreign North. Outside Perspectives on the Nordic North at the beginning of the 21st century, and also in conjunction with the International Polar Year 2007–2008.

“We soon realised that the missing piece in Arctic contexts were human dimensions. We musn’t forget that the Arctic has always been inhabited – unlike Antarctica.”

Not by a plenitude of adventurers, but by hunters and fishermen, farmers and entrepreneurs, families, children and ... researchers. As well as by many others

“Nevertheless, the old image of a clean and untouched fairy landscape is still used in contemporary nature depictions on how the civilisation is forcing itself upon the region, on melting glaciers, and threats to polar bear existence. That’s why it’s important to study and scrutinise these images in order to bring about change,” declares Heidi Hansson.

“It’s sad and counterproductive that this discourse is maintained – even in a country like Sweden – about an area that has always been inhabited and now undeniably is a part of modern society.”

Bergsvandring utanför Tromsø.
Mountain hike outside Tromsø.  
Photo: Gunnar Hildonen, Flickr.

With these prevailing stereotypes, it becomes challenging to see the Arctic as an area capable of change. The Arctic instead becomes an area where natural resources are being harvested, however the region itself provides no potential for development.

“Be that as it may, some new literature genres are actually emerging on the Arctic at present. Nowadays, it’s not just adventure stories where humans meet nature, but also detective stories – a more social genre where humans meet humans,” suggests Heidi Hansson and points out that the key concept of detective stories always circles around a violation of the law – which implies that there is a society with common laws to follow.

A reasonably new genre is ‘cli-fi’ or climate fiction. Some examples are more realistic and can cover researchers trying to save the world, whereas others are dystopic stories depicting the apocalypse, and where the Arctic often poses as the last outpost. Both forms are direct literary reactions to the climate threat – speculations or interventions – aimed to influence its audience.

One example is Ian McEwan’s book Solar from 2010, but there are many others such as the Siberian Wild West depiction Far North from 2009 by Marcel Theroux, or popular culture novels such as Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising from 2012 about eco-terrorism.

“Norwegian author Monica Kristensen Solås has written books that are set on Svalbard, for instance Hollendergraven from 2007. Scottish author Julie Bertagna has also written a trio of juvenile novels set out in Greenland, on a fictitious island after the polar ices had melted and the world had been flooded.

Affisch för filmen Sameblod.
Lene Cecilia Sparrok as Elle Marja in the film Sami Blood byAmanda Kernell.

“A relatively new addition are films, such as Sami Blood, with a clear inside perspective both in terms of production and storytelling,” says Heidi Hansson and draws parallels to the term ‘arcticity’, which is a word she has started using for things that are not directly linked to the Arctic, but still establishes arctic perspectives. Not seldom in a way that puts the Northern or Arctic into a ‘package’, without high demands for authenticity.

Heidi herself has never felt particularly ‘arctic’, despite having grown up in the North – in Umeå to be precise. This is much due to what was actually portrayed, not least in children’s literature, and its few similarities to reality in a Northern town.

“On the other hand, I’m not as intrigued by reality as much as by what the images portray, those created by ourselves. And in this era of post-truths, these things are highly topical. Particularly when strong images are often interpreted as more true than reality itself,” says Heidi Hansson.

Read an additional interview with Heidi Hansson

Text: Michael Nordvall
Translation: Anna Lawrence

Editor: Anna Lawrence