East of the Great Glacier

Photo of a valley on Greenland

Helge Ingstad was a Norwegian explorer, lawyer, trapper and author of popular travel books, one of which I have recently finished. The book I read, East of the Great Glacier, takes place during an expedition to East Greenland in 1932-1933 which Helge Ingstad led.

As far as I understand it, the political background to the expedition was that Norway wanted to annex this uninhabited part of northeast Greenland and another part in the south. The contested regions had historically often been used by Norwegian fishers and hunters and Norway claimed that these parts were terra nullius and free for the taking. Denmark on the other hand argued that all of Greenland was under Danish jurisdiction. Ingstad and his expedition was on northeast Greenland to strengthen the Norwegian claim and to prepare for future use of the land by arranging infrastructure (hunting cabins). While they were on Greenland the case was taken to the Permanent Court of International Justice where Norway lost and subsequently withdrew its claim. (Why have no-one told me this story before!?!)

Anyway, the political situation may have been the reason for the expedition but it only plays a minor role in the book. Instead we follow the expedition through good times and bad. Ingstad is an excellent writer who mixes descriptions of the daily life of the expedition with intelligent comments on the landscape around him and all of it is filled with a contagious love for the Arctic. If you are interested in Arctic literature I recommend it.

20 thoughts on “East of the Great Glacier

  1. Sounds fascinating. And I’m always intrigued by books that take me to other places and other times. Will add to my TBR mountain. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The history of this conflict goes back a long way. If one accepts the sagas, Iceland and Greenland were both primarily settled by Norwegians. Iceland formed its own independent government, a commonwealth that had no executive! What sort of government the few settlers had on Greenland, I’m not sure.

    In 1262-66, the Kingdom of Norway extended its suzerainty over Iceland after that country had fallen into chaos due to civil wars. Then, thanks to dynastic marriages and the threat of the Hanseatic League, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden united under a common monarchy which was Danish in origin, in 1397; this is called the Union of Kalmar.

    The Union broke up in the 1500s, with Sweden going its own way. Norway and Iceland remained under Danish control. Norway was in theory a separate kingdom but was dominated by Danish interests. By this time, all contact with the Norse settlements on Greenland was being lost as they died out. Because it was on the wrong side in the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark lost Norway to Sweden in 1815. Norway finally peacefully ceded from Sweden in 1905. (How peaceful was this? The Swedes gave the Norwegians the right to name the Nobel Peace Prize winner!)

    Denmark (then including Norway) asserted claims to Greenland in the 1700s. When Noway was separated from Denmark and merged with Sweden, Denmark retained the claim to Greenland. Once they reasserted their independence in 1905, the Norwegians no doubt felt they had been cheated of a rightful claim to Greenland. Hence the political conflict you describe above.

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    1. Thank you for adding some historical context for my non-Scandinavian readers.

      (Although I should add that the division of the Nobel prizes between Stockholm and Oslo was arranged already in Alfred Nobel’s will).

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  3. I’ve heard little bits of this information here and there, but it’s interesting to hear that Greenland has been so contested in the past! I don’t know much about the history of the Scandinavian countries (do Greenland and Iceland count?). Now I want to learn more! Do you have other books you’d recommend? In fact… do you recommend East of the Great Glacier?

    (I found this post thanks to the Sunday Exchange on Pages Unbound. Thank you for sharing!)

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    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      Scandinavia is Sweden, Norway and mainland Denmark. If you want to include Iceland and Finland as well as Greenland and the Faroe Islands (the latter two Danish territories) you should talk about the Nordic countries. In English those terms are often used interchangeably but that is not strictly correct.

      I do recommend East of the Great Glacier but only if you are interested in reading about travels in the Arctic, the political background was only briefly mentioned as the reason for the expedition.

      Any specific period or country you are interested in? I don’t know of any general introduction to Nordic history, though it may exist, so unless you are more specific you will only get recommendations of things I find interesting…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for the clarification! I will admit, my American education isn’t always the most “strictly correct”. You nailed it.

        I am all about hearing what things you find interested! I’d rather read a good book than a specific topic. Non-fiction or fiction; I’ll take it. Thank you!

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      2. I’m mostly reading fiction so I’m sticking to that but I’ve included some classics that stay close to the historical realities.

        Authors I personally recommend:
        Per Anders Fogelström (Sweden): City of my dreams: First book in a series describing the lives of generations of common people in Stockholm from mid-19th century and until 1968.
        Tove Jansson (Finland), best known for The Moomins (great also for adults) but my favourite is The Summer Book which is adult fiction.
        Astrid Lindgren, Sweden’s most loved author. Wrote almost exclusively children’s books but there’s much to read beyond Pipi Longstocking. My recommendations for adults (although these are primarily aimed at a MG audience) would be Ronia the Robber’s Daughter or The Brother’s Lionheart. Swedes tend to assume that everyone has read and loves Astrid Lindgren.
        Anne Ragde (Norway), loved her novel Berlin Poplars.

        My favourite Danish book doesn’t seem to have been translated into English but I guess Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen would be a good choice for Denmark. From Sápmi (the Sami cultural region spanning the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland + NW Russia) Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (poet) has been translated into English. Niviaq Korneliussen (Greenland) debut sounds great and is about to be translated into English but I haven’t read it yet. Unfortunately I have no suggestions from the Faroe islands.

        Classics I should have read but haven’t:
        The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg (Sweden). About the emigration from Sweden to America. First book in a series. I have read and enjoyed other novels by Moberg but not this one.
        Unknown Soldiers by Väinö Linna (Finland). About soldiers in Finland during the 1941-1944 war.
        Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (Norway). Another series, this one takes place in 14th century Norway. It won her the Nobel prize in Literature.
        All these are major classics which I want to read but haven’t yet.

        The Nordic Council’s literature prize is also an excellent resource. Every year the Nordic countries and territories nominate novels so both the nominations and the winners are worth looking at.

        The Eddas (Iceland and Norway). From what i’ve heard Neil Gaiman’s retelling is good (Norse Gods). If you want a taste of the Poetic Edda but not read all of it, Völuspá is the most important part.
        Kalevala (Finland).

        Liked by 1 person

      3. THIS IS AMAZING. Thank you SOOOO much! I definitely went down a rabbit hole based on your recommendations and I now have a huge list of Scandanavian authors and their works to read. Thank you! In fact, the Goodreads shelf I just made “From IReadThatInABook” is now the biggest of shelves with recommendations from blogger friends. XD

        I guess this means you’re my friend now. 🙂 I look forward to learning!

        Liked by 1 person

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