The Last Viking

By Stephen R. Bown

The arctic was the final frontier of the age of exploration, and Roald Amundsen, arguably the greatest of all polar explorers, knew it. Aware that the window for achieving greatness was closing quickly he pursued the Triple Crown with professional and single-minded determination, and his accomplishments speak for themselves: first to traverse the Northwest Passage, first to reach the South Pole, and almost certainly first to reach the North Pole too.

Being first matters for explorers, since there are no medals, or distinctions of any kind, for being second. “Why should anybody want to go to a place where somebody else had already been?” Amundsen once asked, and claimed to be glad that he had not been born later, because then the only place left for him to go would have been the moon.

Stephen Bown, author of a number of popular histories, has drawn a portrait of the Norwegian explorer as a public man, “a large-canvas story of Amundsen’s life and times rather than a meditation on his character.” Such an approach makes sense given how sketchy our information is on Amundsen’s personal life (he carried on a number of affairs with married women that he kept quiet about), or about matters like his physical and mental health (he died as part of a search and rescue operation, and his body was never recovered). And so Bown relies heavily on Amundsen’s own published accounts of his adventures, supplemented by contemporary newspaper reports. Readers can expect a good read, with less of the usual emphasis on the “race” with Scott to the South Pole and more on Amundsen’s later years, but there are no new revelations and nothing much in the way of fresh insight or interpretation.

That said, it is a wonderful story, especially for armchair explorers. Amundsen, in Bown’s words, “packed more travel, excitement, danger, tragedy, pathos and triumph into his fifty-six years than seems possible.” In addition to all of the elements of high adventure (plain crashes, polar bear maulings, and the like), Amundsen’s story also has a heroic, larger-than-life scale. The various identifications made of Amundsen as the Flying Dutchman, the Napoleon of the Poles, and the last of the Vikings, point to his status as someone belonging to an earlier era. His never-ending, desperate struggles to find enough money to fund his next expedition seem almost unfair, as though beneath him. And while his motivations were murky and conflicted, his achievements remain all but impossible to duplicate today.

Finally, Amundsen is an interesting, if difficult, character to meditate on, especially with regard to his deeply ambivalent attitude toward fame. Though it’s hard not to feel that the public man was all there was, and that even he realized this in the end. With no new worlds to conquer there was nothing left to live for, leading to a resigned finale that has a fitting, fatalistic tinge.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, October 2012.