Human beings are pulled in every cardinal direction. American pioneers went west in search of new lives and golden opportunity. Hippies and their countercultural heirs look eastward for enlightenment. Snowbirds—retirees from Canada and the upper reaches of the United States—fly south to skip winter. But for some the pull is profoundly northward, into peculiarly merciless and unforgiving territory. Not even Santa Claus is on safe ground.
In The Golden Compass—the first volume of Philip Pullman’s mesmerizing fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials—the action moves inexorably northward, as the book’s tween heroine, Lyra Belacqua, pursues her scientist father, Lord Asriel, to an icy abyss that is metaphysical as well as topographical. Asriel breaks open a path between their world and a parallel universe by manipulating the aurora borealis. (The book’s British title, perhaps more apt, was Northern Lights.) As we discover in the second volume, The Subtle Knife (1997), this cosmic tinkering will trigger ecological cataclysm: “It was,” Pullman writes, “as if the earth itself, the permafrost, were slowly awakening from a long dream of being frozen.”
Pullman’s vision of radical environmental disruption caused by human interference finds all-too-real parallels in today’s climate change. Our permafrost too is thawing, causing trees in boreal forests to tilt “drunkenly” and releasing the greenhouse gas methane at rates that may accelerate global warming. More alarming, Arctic sea ice—the northern ice cap that cools the earth by reflecting sunlight and that keeps oceanic currents flowing in predictable ways—keeps shrinking, threatening weather systems across the planet.
Although it guides Lyra Belacqua on her dangerous journeys, her titular golden compass is no ordinary navigational device. This instrument, called an alethiometer, is a complex clockwork of dials, needles and symbols, and its purpose is not to gauge geographical direction but to reveal hidden truths to anyone schooled in interpreting it. That young Lyra can instantly do so foretells the messianic role she’ll ultimately play in Philip Pullman’s trilogy.
Curiously, real-world magnetic compasses, invented in ancient China, were used for fortune-telling long before ship captains and explorers used them. As a lodestar, the magnetic compass is imperfect, since its needle points not to the true north of earth’s rotational axis but to the north pole of earth’s magnetic field, which is hundreds of miles from true north. That divergence produces a paradoxical effect: If you were to stand with a compass at the north pole, its needle would point toward Canada—i.e., south. What’s weirder, the axis of the earth’s magnetic field, created by our planet’s molten core, continually moves, and its charge occasionally flips, with north becoming south and vice versa.
As everyone knows, Santa Claus lives at the north pole, along with Mrs. Claus, a crew of industrious elves and a smallish herd of flying reindeer. The location of Santa’s domicile and workshop was first publicly disclosed in an 1866 Christmas cartoon for Harper’s Weekly by American cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose drawings of St. Nick’s red-cheeked jollity helped define Santa’s image, today used extensively by corporations such as Coca-Cola.
There’s long been controversy, however, over whether the north pole that Santa inhabits is the geographic or the magnetic pole. In either case, Santa may want to check Craigslist for alternate lodging and workspace. The geographic north pole lies in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, which is fine so long as a sturdy polar ice cap persists. But if, as some predict, summer Arctic sea ice disappears as a result of global warming, Santa will be sunk. Meanwhile, the magnetic north pole, which in the mid-19th century was located on land in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, keeps shifting position; it’s now far out to sea, moving quickly away from Canada and toward Russia. How long will it be before Canada declares Santa’s official postal code—H0H 0H0—defunct?
On her perilous journey north, Golden Compass heroine Lyra befriends a big white talking bear named Iorek Byrnison. Iorek’s the rightful heir to the throne of Svalbard, the far-north kingdom of the Panserbjørner—the armored bears. When Lyra meets up with Iorek, he’s living in drunken, abject exile in a miserable Lapland town. Wily Lyra ultimately helps him regain his crown, and Iorek reciprocates by repeatedly coming to her rescue.
The white bears of Philip Pullman’s fantasy are, of course, modeled on the (nonspeaking) polar bears that roam the actual Arctic. Pullman fans delight in the author’s clever reworkings of real-world phenomena, and the Panserbjørner (whose name comes from the Norwegian for “armored bears”) are particularly interesting in this regard. Polar bears are mostly solitary and are infrequently aggressive toward one another, but Panserbjørner are a tight-knit, fiercely brawling lot. And the Panserbjørner are even bigger than real polar bears, which are the largest carnivores on land. The armored bears’ breathtaking stature and physical might are wonderfully captured in the 2007 film adaptation of The Golden Compass, whose fight-to-the-death scene between Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) and the usurper Iofur Raknison is a thrilling moment in an otherwise flaccid flick.
Polar bears, apex predators of the Arctic, are extremely well suited to their environment—a range including the northern reaches of Alaska, Greenland, Canada and Siberia, as well as the Svalbard archipelago (Norwegian-owned islands whose name Philip Pullman pinched for the realm of armored bears in his Golden Compass). Polar bears’ double-layered fur and thick blubber protect them from the region’s subzero cold. Their huge paws effectively distribute their weight—which in an adult male can be more than 1,500 pounds—when walking across ice, and the paws’ size and webbing make the bears formidable swimmers. And their acute sense of smell enables them to locate prey a kilometer away.
Unfortunately, this superb habitat adaptation may prove their undoing. Polar bears’ diet is narrow: They’re almost solely carnivorous, and they eat mostly seals (and the occasional walrus), which they hunt from the sea ice that historically covered large portions of their territory for months each year. As the ice diminishes, forming later in fall and melting earlier in spring, it’s becoming more difficult for the bears to obtain food. Several polar bear populations have declined, and it’s possible that global warming will lead to the extinction of these majestic creatures.
On some people, the north exerts a magnetism beyond the literal tug of the magnetic north pole. In her masterpiece of nature writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), Annie Dillard refers to this profound north-seeking wanderlust as “northing”—a desire for “a reduction, a shedding, a sloughing off.” That need to encounter primal existence in a relative void may be part of what drove early polar explorers northward into the Arctic (or southward into the Antarctic, which is every bit as forbidding). And it seems, likewise, to have compelled the foolhardy journey, in 1992, of Christopher McCandless into the Alaskan wilderness—an odyssey related by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild (and in Sean Penn’s 2007 film adaptation starring Emile Hirsch as McCandless). Krakauer portrays McCandless as an ostensibly directionless young man, a charming but fundamentally asocial wanderer whose internal compass is trained strictly north: He must go to Alaska, and he must venture into that wild alone. It’s a marvelous quest for manhood and spiritual awakening. It is also fatal, and both the book and the film leave you with mixed feelings about McCandless’s strange accomplishment.
Christopher McCandless starved to death in the Alaskan wild. His condition may have been worsened by his having eaten a poisonous plant or seeds contaminated by toxic mold. For many, the unnamed protagonist of Jack London’s 1908 short story “To Build a Fire” remains the most compelling cultural reference point for dying alone in the northern wilderness. But food scarcity and life-threatening cold are hardly the only perils the far north presents. One may, for example, be ripped apart by a pack of wolves—the danger confronted by Alaskan plane-crash survivors in the 2012 thriller The Grey.
Or one may have a nasty run-in with the people who come from the land of the ice and snow. Historically, bloodthirsty northern barbarians are epitomized by the Vikings—Scandinavian warriors whose berserk ferocity terrorized the rest of Europe from the eighth through the 11th centuries. The Vikings find a rough analog in the Wildlings of George R.R. Martin’s novel series A Song of Ice and Fire and the Game of Thrones TV series based on it. Of all the un- and semi-tamed races that populate Martin’s fantasy, these “people beyond the [northern] Wall” are a particularly brutish bunch.
In fiction the north harbors many terrors. Dan Simmons even titled his 2007 novel about the Northwest Passage The Terror. In The Golden Compass, Svalbard isn’t just the homeland of armored bears; it’s also the domain of cliff-ghasts—shrieking, stinking, winged monsters that inhabit sheer bluffs and that, in one of the novel’s scariest episodes, attack the heroine and her companions when they travel into that harsh northern region. Likewise in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire: The Wildlings of the far north may be an unkempt, fearsome lot, but they’re not half as frightening as the Others—called the White Walkers in the HBO series Game of Thrones. The 700-foot-high Wall that stretches across northern Westeros was constructed, 8,000 years before the series’s action opens, to keep these horrific beings out. And no wonder, for they do worse than merely kill their victims. They turn them into blue-eyed, nearly indomitable zombies, which Martin, borrowing an ancient Scandinavian word for mischievous or malevolent supernatural creatures, calls wights. As the hair-raising first moments of Game of Thrones (season 1, episode 1) make clear, you really, really don’t want to meet up with the White Walkers.