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Literary Denmark: A Kingdom of Islands and Oceans

In the Kingdom of Denmark, the second stop of her literary tour of the Arctic, Margaret Williams, managing director of World Wildlife Fund’s U.S. Arctic program, discovers the splendor of ice and the history of strained cultural relations.

Written by Margaret Williams Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A view of Qaanaaq, Greenland.WWF/Mette Frost

As the managing director of the U.S. Arctic Program at WWF, I’ve had the good fortune to travel in the Arctic, visiting urban centers and rural communities, as well as some very remote and wild natural areas. Recently I’ve been asking my friends and colleagues from the circumpolar region to recommend books that in some way typify their countries’ history and culture.

For this edition, we travel to the Kingdom of Denmark, which has a rich literary heritage familiar to many. Henrik Ibsen’s Victorian-era play “A Doll’s House” tested social norms about marriage and feminism, the texts of existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard have been taught in university philosophy courses around the world, and many children have been raised on Hans Christian Andersen, best known for his fairytales: “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and many others.

But perhaps Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, are not as well known to most. Both are island nations, but where one is enormous – the world’s largest island – the other is a collection of islands so small that “at no time are you more than 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the ocean,” boasts the Faroe Islands’ tourist board.

A boat prepares to depart from Qaanaaq, Greenland. (WWF/Mette Frost)

A boat prepares to depart from Qaanaaq, Greenland. (WWF/Mette Frost)

I was drawn to the maritime culture of the Faroes and to the Inuit heritage of Greenland. After poring over a list of potential books, I selected “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” “The Lost Musicians” and “Arctic Wars” for their linguistic and cultural relevance, as well as their perspective on how contemporary struggles have shaped, and continue to shape, the Kingdom of Denmark.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

One recent Saturday morning, I was relieved to see a dreary, rainy sky outside: It would be the perfect day to continue reading “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” by Peter Høeg. I had fallen asleep reading it on a flight home and could hardly wait to pick it up again. The book is a riveting adventure and mystery, but it’s also a love story – for a man, for a remarkable boy and for Greenland and a traditional way of life.

The story begins in Greenland, where Smilla, short for Smillaaraq, is being raised by her mother to hunt, travel by dogsled and to value, above all else, the space and freedom of the land and sea. Smilla’s mother can shoot a falcon in flight and has arms as “broad and hard as a paddle.” In Smilla she sees a powerful ability to read the snow and ice, a critical skill for the family’s survival.

I was reminded of the first time I traveled on the sea ice, guided by two Chukchi friends, hunters who navigated the ridges and openings of the ice with the ease of a New Yorker negotiating the city subway. They showed me that the sea ice was not a harsh and lifeless place, but a beautiful and dynamic ecosystem, pushed and pulled by winds above and the ocean below, creating habitats for numerous Arctic wildlife species and a hunting ground for Indigenous peoples.

As an adult, following years of snow and ice research, Smilla moves into an affordable housing building in Copenhagen. When young Isaiah, a neighbor and a Greenlander, is found dead in the snow, having jumped or fallen from the roof of a warehouse, Smilla suspects foul play and begins digging for information. Soon she is sucked into a vortex of ambition, greed and corruption. To find answers, she poses as a crew member on board an icebreaker bound for Greenland, where she uncovers another murder and finds her own life in danger.

It’s a riveting story, but it is Høeg’s descriptions of snow and ice that made me wistful for my time on the sea ice. “The clouds and the sea glide together in a curtain of heavy gray silk. The water grows viscous and tinged with pink, like a liqueur of wild berries. A blue fog of frost smoke detaches itself from the surface of the water and drifts across the mirror. Then the water solidifies. Up out of the dark sea the cold now pulls a rose garden, a white blanket of ice blossoms formed from salt and frozen drops of water.”

Ice from Eqi near Ilulissat, Greenland. (WWF/Mette Frost)

Ice from Eqi near Ilulissat, Greenland. (WWF/Mette Frost)

The Lost Musicians

While I have yet to step foot on the Faroe Islands, I daydream of doing so. “Even from a distance the rocky Faroes begin to exert their power over the imagination. No one can sail past them with indifference. Like a jumble of broken and tilted layer cakes, like a mad dream, or like a setting for some Sinbadian adventure, they rise from the sea as a unique landmark midway between the Shetland Isles and Iceland,” writes Hedin Bronner in his book “Three Faroese Novelists.”

William Heinesen is one of the authors included in Bronner’s tribute. As a boy, Heinesen explored the steep cliffs of the island of Vågø, one of the 14 islands that make up the Faroese archipelago. The forces of nature that shaped his childhood are strongly portrayed in the book.

“The Lost Musicians” is set in Torshavn, Heinesen’s home town and the capital of the Faroe Islands, in the early 20th century. Here, three brothers – Kornelius, Moritz and Sirius – sons of a church sexton and harp maker, eke out a living while pursuing their real passions, the creation of music and poetry. But the brothers are caught in a town – and time – overshadowed by Mr. Ankerson, the domineering leader of a local branch of the Christian temperance society, who, like a pit bull, charges into other families’ affairs to set “stray” behaviors on a new – and narrow – path.

Mr. Ankerson’s religious fervor boils over when his illegitimate son arrives in Torshavn. To his dismay, and village gossips’ delight, the much-anticipated welcome becomes a horrible embarrassment – the young man is muddy, rumpled and “drunk to the gills.”

One can read “The Lost Musicians” incisively, finding allegorical references to the arrival of the prodigal son and exploring the author’s perhaps cynical views of Christianity. But the story is also entertaining. The theatrics of village life in the Faroe Islands play out like a dramatic soap opera.

Leading sled dogs on a ride from Qaanaaq to Siorapaluk. (WWF/Mette Frost)

Leading sled dogs on a ride from Qaanaaq to Siorapaluk. (WWF/Mette Frost)

Arctic Wars: Animal Rights, Endangered Peoples

The book is a measured and well-written overview of the conflicts that have arisen over subsistence hunting. For those seeking to learn more about some of the flash points in the arena of wildlife management, “Arctic Wars” is an intelligent presentation. Whether or not you agree with author Finn Lynge, if you intend to work in the Arctic, understanding this history is paramount.

A fishing boat makes its way through heavy ice in Greenland. (WWF/Mette Frost)

A fishing boat makes its way through heavy ice in Greenland. (WWF/Mette Frost)

Lynge was born in Greenland, served as a Catholic priest and later became a member of Greenland’s parliament. He was an outspoken voice on the need for Westerners to respect cultural values of Inuit, including the practice of subsistence hunting. In “Arctic Wars,” Lynge reflects on Western attitudes toward traditional ways of life in the Arctic by exploring cultural misunderstanding and intransigence. Lynge also describes the movement of Indigenous peoples to insert a strong voice into politics and policies regarding management of land, resources and governance itself.

Although the book is now more than 20 years old, Lynge’s comments on the loss of connection to the land continue to resonate as climate change and globalization expedite a new wave of industrialization in the Arctic. In his view, “these movements are indicative of a growing alienation from the realities of nature and that they are – for a number of reasons – unsustainable in the long run.”

This commentary is part of an ongoing series about literature from around the Arctic. Read about the rugged lands and independent people of Iceland, and come back for more book reviews later this summer.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply.

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