A Fabulous Kingdom: The Exploration of the Arctic

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9780195123821: A Fabulous Kingdom: The Exploration of the Arctic

Inconstant and forbidding, the arctic lured misguided voyagers into the cold for centuries--pushing them beyond the limits of their knowledge, technology, and stamina. A Fabulous Kingdom: Tales of the Arctic charts these quests and the eventual race for the North Pole in unprecedented detail, chronicling the lives and misconceptions that would eventually throw light on this "magical realm" of sunless winters.
Setting the scene with an explanation of the arctic region's geography, geology, and climate, the authors present the physical and ideological barriers that faced early sailors traveling into the uncharted arctic realm. They then follow the explorers and the evolution of the arctic mission, from the early journeys of Viking Ottar, who rounded the North Cape ca. 870, to northern European expeditions in search of a Northwest or Northeast passage to the riches of sixteenth century Asia. The progressive exploits and findings of Martin Frobisher, John Davis, Henry Hudson, and William Edward Parry fueled the public's fascination with this new world of ice. Yet with the ill-fated voyage of Sir John Franklin, nations abandoned their belief in the arctic as the way to wealth. Henceforth, it would be private funding and personal motives that would lead English, Scandinavian, and American men with a redefined purpose: to reach the North Pole.
With a fascinating account of nineteenth and twentieth century exploration and the longstanding myth of an open polar sea, the authors reconsider the achievements of the conventional arctic pioneers--Frederick Cook, Robert Peary, and Richard Bird. Moreover, they consider the consequences and rewards of human ambition and our perilous desire to conquer the unknown.

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Review:

Travelers from more southerly climes have been trying to unlock the secrets of the far north for centuries, a quest that continues to the present day and that has given birth to countless books.

In A Fabulous Kingdom, a strong addition to that library, engineering scholar Charles Officer and science writer Jake Page trace the history of Arctic exploration to its origins in antiquity, when Greek and Roman travelers returned home with tales of a "monster-bearing Ocean" full of ice islands, strange animals, and terrifying astronomical phenomena. Those tales were often dismissed, even then, as fabrications of the first order, but they remained current centuries later, when European explorers sought to chart the earth on spherical maps that would point a course to Asia by way of the fabled Northwest Passage. Armed with modern scientific equipment but not much more solid information than their ancient counterparts, 19th-century explorers such as Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (who is little known outside his native Sweden but, Officer and Page write, was the John Glenn of his day) and the ill-fated Charles Francis Hall (whose Polaris expedition is the subject of two recent books but is more effectively summarized here) helped effect the discovery of that sea route, but at the cost of hundreds of lives.

Today, write the authors, "the greatest interest in the Arctic is as a vital region for environmental research," bringing still more travelers to the distant north. They are returning with stories, too, and Officer and Page end their well-written survey with those explorers' warnings that the Arctic and its peoples merit both protection and respect. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:


Charles Officer received his Ph.D from Columbia University and is a Research Professor in the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. He is the author of several books, including Tales of the Earth: Paroxysms and Perturbations of the Blue Planet (along with Jake Page, OUP).
Jake Page is a freelance science writer, essayist and novelist, who has written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, Reader's Digest, and many other magazines. He is the author of several books, including A Certain Malice.

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