Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon
The Norwegian American
Before even opening Michael Engelhard’s 2017 book, Ice Bear, the reader knows they’re in for an adventure. The large-format book, published by University of Washington Press, is itself a beautiful thing. The cover image is an excerpt of contemporary naturalist painter Walton Ford’s 2006 work, Novaya Zemlya Still Life—1596, depicting a great polar bear, its mouth slightly agape and its paw atop a jawless human skull surrounded by sundry items strewn haphazardly about: a candle, an hourglass, a smattering of playing cards, an ivory pipe. In the background, the leaning mast of a shipwreck is visible, and beyond that icebergs in a dark, Arctic sea.
The cover is a wonderful “foretaste of the feast to come,” to borrow from the liturgy, as the book is a rich, startling, and thorough exploration of the mysterious and unsettling relationship between humans and the most elusive of apex predators, Ursus maritimus, the polar bear, called “ice bear” in many languages, including Norwegian (isbjørn).
Each chapter of Ice Bear takes on a different but related aspect of the cultural reality of the white-furred “hypercarnivore” of the high north. I say “cultural” reality, because one of Engelhard’s important points is that we still know less than we think about the actual life of this elusive creature. So much of our relationship to the polar bear is born of human exploitation of its body, image, and symbolism. About the bear itself, as it lives on its own terms, we know surprisingly little. And in the context of climate change, those very terms are under threat.
The book opens with a discussion of the ways the idea of the polar bear has been employed—by politicians, protesters, marketers, authors, poets, and zoos—along with the ever-evolving scientific understanding of the animal. From there, Engelhard traces the changing image of the white bear as it has appeared in many different cultural contexts through the ages, beginning, surprisingly, with seventh-century Japan, where the first ever mention of the polar bear in cultural documents describes a regional governor who presented the Japanese empress with two living “white bears” after campaigning in the North.
Engelhard’s discussion then explores the ways that human attitudes toward and assumptions about the polar bear have shifted over time, transforming it from a larger-than-life man-hunting monster to the pinnacle of the trophy hunter’s accomplishments.
Indeed, the narratives that were passed down in the earlier European encounters with polar bears were quite horrific. Not uncommon were descriptions like those in the accounts of Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz’s travels around Novaya Zemlya in search of the Northwest Passage from Scandinavia to Alaska. One such description depicts man-bear encounter where the “beare at the first faling upon the man, bit his head in sunder, and suckt out his blood.” This event gave rise to the book’s cover art.
Engelhard’s chapters follow the depictions of the polar bear from such narrative accounts to poetry to carvings and other works of art by Inuit and other Arctic peoples to hockey mascots to films to the polar bear’s use as an image of masculinity. And, to my mind, he does all this without seeming disorganized or scattered: the book retains cohesion to the end.
Moreover, Engelhard himself embodies what the book does best: bridges the gap between academic and popular understandings. He is trained as an anthropologist and has done research in the Arctic, but his primary occupation is wilderness guiding in Arctic Alaska. His book shows well the thoroughness and exacting competence of his research, as well as his knack for speaking to a broad and curious audience.
Ice Bear is so much more than simply a good book about polar bears. It is also, more quietly, a history of the Arctic itself—a history of the ways that this remote region has long enraptured the human imagination all over the world, the ways that we have turned to it, without knowing much at all, to wonder—almost like we do of outer space—what’s out there?
Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon is available in bookstores and online at UW Press (uwapress.uw.edu/book/9780295999227/ice-bear). It retails for $29.95.
This article originally appeared in the March 6, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.