In November’s National Geographic Traveller I learn that the best advice to offer someone who needs to fit a definition of the sublime into one sentence and then move on from it is “don’t”.



There’s a frequently quoted section at the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the narrator describes his childhood fascination with the unexplored places of the world, represented on maps as “blank spaces … white patch[es] to dream gloriously over”. Over time, as we have learnt more about the world, those white patches have been filled in so that little of the earth is left unknown.

For most of us there are still at least two big white patches on the globe. The polar regions, both Arctic and Antarctic, are usually depicted this way on regular maps as well as the maps in our heads. Even now, with all the tools to find out at our disposal most of us know little about the physical geography of these regions, except that there’s a lot of ice and snow.

And so for centuries stories of explorers to the far north or far south have gripped us because they carry the sense of going off into the unknown. European sailors who travelled north often did so in hopes of finding “the Northwest passage”, a shortcut to the other side of the world. One such explorer in fiction is Robert Walton in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Walton’s ship rescues the stranded scientist Victor Frankenstein as it attempts to navigate the ice of the far north. Through a series of letters to his sister he tells the story, not only of his own frustrated quest, but of Frankenstein and the creature he has brought into the world.

Exploring the far north had a solid, practical advantage; the commercial possibilities of the Northwest passage were end enough in themselves. The farthest south was a different matter. When Captain James Cook crossed the Antarctic circle and reached the island of South Georgia in the late eighteenth century he does not appear to have been impressed with his discovery. He described the land as “doomed by nature to perpetual frigidness” and concluded that if there was land further south “the world will not be benefited by it”.

Cook was probably right about the impractical nature of exploration to the Antarctic. But practicality had little to do with the fascination that the Polar Regions would have for Europeans. Mary Shelley’s Robert Walton may be on an eminently sensible mission, but when he speaks of the far north it is in terms of sheer romance, “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?”

In large part this fascination was aesthetic. The eighteenth century was also the time when philosophers like Edmund Burke were discussing the quality of the Sublime in nature – a quality not necessarily beautiful, but inspiring awe or even terror. The bleak frigidity and extreme climate of the polar regions were a wonderful example of this. And so we have the horrors of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, about a nightmarish voyage to the south. The young heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre never leaves her own country, but she dreams of the “death-white realms” of the Arctic. And of course Robert Walton’s romantic dreams come face to face with the horror of what Frankenstein has done.

Then there are the writers who focus more on the potential for terror in these bleak regions than on their beauty. Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket puts its titular character through all sorts of terrifying ordeals, including ghost ships, cannibalism and an island of evil savages. But the final horror is left unspoken. In the dreamlike final sections of the book Pym and his companions sail further south towards what appears to be an immense cataract. They see before them “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men” – and there the novel ends.

Rather less restrained than Poe is the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. It’s obvious in Lovecraft’s 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness that he’s familiar with Poe’s novel – his story makes more than one reference to it. Lovecraft’s characters are on an exploratory mission to the Antarctic, where they not only find evidence of a city much older than anything humanity can claim, but discover that some elements of this civilisation still live. Lovecraft often describes the landscape of Antarctica by making reference to the weird beauty of Nicholas Roerich’s Asian paintings. Unlike Poe, Lovecraft describes his monsters in detail – and they are no less alarming for all that they are slightly ridiculous.  Like him, though, he chooses not to describe the final horror. As the men leave the area by plane one of them looks back and sees behind the mountains something that drives him insane. The one hint we’re given is that whatever this was, the powerful inhabitants of the city feared it too. Now that men are exploring the continent, Lovecraft implies, it’s only a matter of time before this terror is unleashed.

I recently discovered the English writer Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Time, a history of his country’s fascination with the vast frozen regions of the south and the far north. Spufford ends the main part of his wonderful, scholarly account with the death of Captain Scott in 1912. But as long as the Antarctic remains part-mystery, and as long as we continue to be awed by vast and empty spaces, I suspect the poles will enthrall us, in life and in fiction.


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