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Norway's Reluctant Hero

Arctic Passage homepage

For one man to have conquered the Northwest Passage, the North Magnetic Pole, and the South Pole is almost beyond imagination, yet Roald Amundsen accomplished all three in less than 10 years in the early 20th century. What enabled this unassuming Norwegian to achieve such feats? In this interview, the noted polar historian Roland Huntford says it was something—indeed, many things—in the Norwegian character that made Amundsen the man to secure some of the final trophies in the race to explore the planet. "After him, what's left?" says Huntford. "Only the moon."

A youthful ambition

NOVA: For 400 years men had thrown themselves at this challenge of the Northwest Passage. When Amundsen was a child in the 1870s, how was this epic place and challenge viewed?

Huntford: In Amundsen's day, the challenge of the Northwest Passage was in a sense the beginning of modern times. It was one of the last of the great geographic goals, and it ushered in the last chapter of the final discovery of the Earth.

NOVA: For a boy like Amundsen, how much of an iconic story was the Franklin disaster?

Huntford: The Franklin story was one of these romantic tales that has the power to grip people, especially adolescents and, dare I say it, women, because it had this wonderful sense of self-sacrifice. Amundsen reacted to this in the way you would expect. He says in his autobiography that he was so inspired that he too wanted to suffer for a cause in the frozen north. He had the insight, though, to understand in retrospect that this was very much part of adolescent mania.

However, it wasn't the ultimate disaster of Franklin that he was talking about. He was talking about the other expeditions, where Franklin survived and discovered parts of northern Canada and had earned the sobriquet of "The Man Who Ate His Boots."

NOVA: What was this mini polar academy he set up for himself as a young man? What does it tell you about who he was?

Huntford: Amundsen's childhood and adolescence tell you a great deal about what he was. One of the things you have to understand is that Amundsen's psychology is one that is very strange to Anglo-Saxons. He is the typical great man from a small country. So he has this feeling all the time of being, as one of the Norwegian poets put it, "like an eagle in a cage that can't get out."

I think that Amundsen had this sense of inner greatness from childhood, and he was subconsciously looking for a challenge. Consider where he was living: in a sparsely populated country where natural and untamed country was outside your door. It was natural for him to look to the great outdoors for the challenge that would drive him. And he grew up when modern skiing was being developed in Norway, so from childhood he was always running around on his skis, usually in almost deserted country. He could go skiing for an afternoon after school and perhaps not see another human being. This led naturally to an interest in the Arctic.

Why the Arctic? Well, Amundsen's feelings really expressed something that was going on in Scandinavia in general, Norway in particular. The country was looking for some great deed to do.

NOVA: What was he doing during that time, do you think? What physical tasks was he giving himself?

Huntford: Amundsen seemed to be preparing himself for great things in the Arctic from a very young age. This is quite extraordinary, because in any country in any age, it's very rare to find a person who is preparing himself for his life's work practically from childhood. However, there is an illuminating comparison, and that is the artist. If you take the great artists of the Renaissance in Italy, they were preparing themselves from childhood.

“There is no virtue in suffering, and the real hero avoids suffering.”

The comparison is apt, because Amundsen was an artist in action. He had the psyche and personality of an artist, and his work was his exploration. Like a real artist, he was virtually free of personal egotism: he wanted his work to be admired, not his person.

In Nansen's footsteps

NOVA: What was so revolutionary about what his countryman the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen was doing?

Huntford: Of course, even artists have to have a model, and one of Amundsen's great models was Nansen, who basically founded modern polar exploration. Nansen revolutionized modern exploration by turning it into a matter of technique and technology. The heart of that revolution was the application of skis to polar exploration.

If Amundsen is to be believed, the incident that inspired him to become a polar explorer and indeed to be the first man to navigate the Northwest Passage on one keel was when Nansen returned to Oslo in 1889 after his first crossing of Greenland, which he had accomplished in 1888. The first crossing of Greenland was another of these last great geographical goals, and what Nansen had done there was to show that crossing Greenland—in fact, polar exploration—was no big deal. It was just another ski tour.

This leads to another very interesting difference between Amundsen and explorers from other countries. Nansen was a hero, and, of course, Amundsen also wanted to be a hero. (This is not inconsistent with his being an artist; you can be a hero and an artist.) But what kind of hero?

The English hero, particularly Franklin, is the romantic hero, and it is always associated with suffering. But the kind of hero that Nansen was, the kind of hero that Amundsen aspired to be, and the kind of heroism that is embedded in the Scandinavian psyche, is the diametric opposite. The hero is the survivor. It's the Homeric hero, in the wonderful opening words of the Odyssey: "Tell me, o muse, of the man of many wiles."

That kind of hero is the man who doesn't punish himself but uses his cunning and his intelligence to avoid trouble. There is no virtue in suffering, and the real hero avoids suffering. A later explorer put it this way, that "adventure" is a sign of incompetence. This just about sums up what Amundsen and his kind were and were not.

Working with nature

NOVA: There's also a difference in the attitude to nature that this new school of exploration exemplifies, isn't that right?

Huntford: Yes, it's another very important aspect of Amundsen, his attitude to nature. Whereas the English attitude—and, in fact, that in most other countries—is that man is outside nature, the Scandinavian view is that man is part of nature. Nature is not an enemy to be conquered. Rather she is a phenomenon that is neither good nor bad; you simply have to know how to work with her.

The English explorers, for example, regarded nature as an enemy to be fought as if in war, whereas the Scandinavians felt nature is a friend with whom you must ally yourself. Admittedly, she is a founding member of the Dirty Tricks Brigade, but nonetheless you must learn to work with her. This was the great lesson that Nansen taught, because his great innovation on the first crossing of Greenland was to work with nature. This comes very naturally to a skier, because the skier has to work with the snow, so he has an unadorned connection with nature.

The other thing that Nansen launched was the concept of the small expedition. He only had five companions with him on the Greenland crossing. This was the diametric opposite of what Western polar exploration was up till then—safety in numbers. Nansen proved that it was better to have fewer people because, first of all, it was easier to lead a small group. Secondly, the possibilities of tension within the group were reduced. Finally, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate a sense of identity with nature if you are in a large group of human beings.

NOVA: Was Nansen's position, then, the polar opposite of the idea expressed in Victorian paintings—of man commanding the landscape?

Huntford: If you look at Victorian paintings, you will find that when you have pictures of the natural world, men dominate. You have a huge figure of a man in the foreground, as if he is commanding the natural world. The Norwegian artists took entirely the opposite view. When you have people, they are tiny in comparison with the enormous landscape around them.

“Norwegian explorers are always looking for the silver lining, even if it is the sun shining for a nanosecond in a blizzard.”

This has lasted to our day. I saw an amateur photograph not long ago that consisted mostly of snow-covered mountains; in fact, the photograph was a mass of white snow. The only relief was a ski track, and at the end of the ski track was a tiny, tiny dot, which on closer inspection turned out to be a skier. The title of that picture was simply "The Human Insect." To me that expresses the Scandinavian attitude to nature in a way that no words can.

In other words, you have a proper respect for nature. And the other side of it is, you are never surprised by any dirty trick that she plays on you. Again this is the diametric opposite of the English in particular, who expect nature always to do their bidding and always to produce good weather. Amundsen and his kind would regard good weather simply as a bonus in an otherwise unforgiving world.

NOVA: Is the lesson here that in these two attitudes toward nature, one plans for success while the other plans for failure?

Huntford: Whereas the English kind, if you like, plans for success and is surprised when things don't happen as you plan, the psychology of a man like Amundsen would be neutral. He planned neither for failure nor for success; he planned simply to do what nature allows him. This is a fundamental difference.

And it has a very interesting corollary. When you look at the reports of English polar exploration, they always feature the horrendous difficulties and setbacks they had, and there never seems to be any bright spot. But if you read Amundsen and the Norwegian explorers carefully, they're always looking for the silver lining, even if it is the sun shining for a nanosecond in a blizzard.

Size Matters

NOVA: So how did he apply Nansen's concept of smallness to his assault on the Northwest Passage?

Huntford: The smallness was in two parts. First of all, he wanted a small group of men, carefully selected and, as far as he could ensure, psychologically compatible with one another. The other question was the ship. His reading told him that the waters of the Northwest Passage were foul and full of shoals, therefore there was safety in smallness. You had to have a small craft with a shallow draught that if necessary could be "walked" or otherwise manhandled. That is why he settled on this wonderful ship the Gjøa, which came from the herring fisheries of western Norway and was only 47 tons. She was basically a small yacht.

He'd also learned the value of smallness from two other sources. One was his background both as a skipper in the Norwegian merchant fleet and in the particular society of Norway that he came from. These produced very good leaders of small groups, and Amundsen, having great insight, understood that he could not lead large numbers. His metier was to lead small groups.

He would have also learned this from another stage of his preparation. He went up to northern Norway and talked to the whaling and sealing skippers up there. These were absolutely, in every fiber of their being, the apostles of smallness. They were great individualists, and they worked in small groups.

NOVA: So when they slipped out that night at midnight at the start of the expedition, what were the hazards that faced them, the nature of what lay ahead?

Huntford: Amundsen was very conscious at all times of the risks he was facing. He never underestimated the risks. For that reason, he had a superstitious distaste of making a fuss on departure. He was afraid of tempting fate, so he left in what was perhaps a rather operatic way, at midnight, not far from mid-summer's day. He slipped away from an obscure jetty and sailed down the fjord to his expedition. We mustn't forget that his finances were a little less than organized, and he had to get away from his creditors. Nonetheless, what he was really concerned about was not celebrating before he'd succeeded.

Paying historic debts

NOVA: When he reached Beechey Island [where Franklin overwintered in 1845-46 and where three of his men were buried], how much do you think he was sensing all that had gone before in that landscape and the cost of error or a misguided scheme?

“This is proverbial in their culture: to turn back with an unaccomplished errand is the ultimate horror.”

Huntford: When he came to Beechey Island, Amundsen says he sat out in the night meditating about these people who had paid with their lives. He was not afraid of sharing their fate, because he believed that he was of a different kind. But he was very, very conscious of paying his historic debts. That's why he always used to say he was not going to accomplish the Northwest Passage, he was going to complete the Northwest Passage, which other people had pioneered before him.

This notion of paying your historic debts is the key to his attitude, because I think he felt that if he had not paid that debt, if he had not sat there in the Arctic night and meditated, then things would have gone ill with him, because he would have been overconfident and boastful.

NOVA: What was it like for him when he ran aground off King William Island? That must have been a terrifying moment.

Huntford: When the Gjøa, shallow of draught as she was, ran aground on an uncharted shoal, it was probably the most terrifying and doom-laden moment of the whole expedition. They had to throw valuable cargo overboard, but Amundsen's real feeling was not one of fear. It was one of fury with himself, because that incident of running aground was his fault, as he freely admitted. He should have been sailing with one man in the crow's nest and another in the chains continually sounding.

He was worried that he'd have to turn back with an unaccomplished errand—which, incidentally, is one of the worst things that a Norwegian could know. This is proverbial in their culture: to turn back with an unaccomplished errand is the ultimate horror. But the dominant feeling was self-anger, self-contempt, and when they finally got through, which they did by a combination of using the wind and tide and current and all the tricks that a sailor knows, he then says never again will he sail those waters without one man in the crow's nest and another sounding.

Learning from the Inuit

NOVA: Later, when he encountered the Inuit, what did he see around him? What would he have realized he was witnessing at that moment?

Huntford: That first moment when he met those Eskimos was a moment of tremendous emotional turmoil, because he'd prepared himself—he'd tried to learn some of the Inuit language—but suddenly he was brought face to face with these people. On the one hand it was the realization of a wish. On the other it was both confusion, because of meeting somebody of a completely different kind, and a bit of fear, because he had no illusions, and the Inuit can be violent—history tells you this. So he was in a state of total confusion.

NOVA: After the initial shock, though, what did he begin to understand? What was the importance of the skills he began to get the Inuit to teach him?

Huntford: After his original confusion, Amundsen proceeded to accomplish a plan that he'd conceived when he first thought of going on the Northwest Passage, and that was he wanted to learn all he could about survival and travel in the polar region from the Inuit. He very soon simply used them as technical teachers, because he had discerned that the polar Inuit were a highly technological tribe, and he knew that polar travel was a highly technological occupation. This was his real university, and the Inuit were his professors.

Now, he had brought with him two very important technical devices. The one was the ski, which is a highly technological object. The other was the primus stove, which was a comparatively recent invention, a Swedish invention. This was the invention that extended the range of unsupported travel, and therefore was the one that in a sense founded modern exploratory travel.

But that's about all. What he had to learn from the Inuit was how to travel with dogs and sledges, and especially how to dress for a cold climate. On that last point he rapidly discovered that all preconceived ideas from civilization were wrong. You didn't need piles of tight, thick, warm clothing. What you needed were loose garments, which enabled the air to circulate. What he learned from the Inuit was that the enemy in polar regions is not cold but warmth. You must never sweat, because that is the enemy of survival.

You must have continual air circulation, which not only is a very good insulator, but it dries you, so you don't get clammy. If you get clammy by sweat, all your insulation is destroyed. There he learned something that the English explorers had never understood, because when you read their reports, they say how the Inuit are lazy and they never listen to orders. Amundsen discovered they're not lazy, they just don't hurry. They don't hurry because if you hurry, you sweat. If you sweat, your garments become wet and you become cold.

Another thing he learned was how to travel in very, very cold conditions. One of the peculiarities of snow is that below a temperature of about -40°C it becomes rather hard to make anything slide. But the Inuit knew how to deal with this. They would coat the runners of their sledges with water, sprayed on in such a way that it formed an elastic layer of ice, and on that you can even travel on sand, which is what that kind of drift snow's like anyway.

NOVA: Amundsen was not only learning for himself but recording, like an anthropologist.

Huntford: Yes. He began by observing the Inuit, or living with them, to learn from them. But at a certain point he crossed over to an academic interest in their whole culture, and he turned into an anthropologist. Most of his observations of the Inuit, oddly enough, were not utilitarian; he was just recording their culture. He turned out to have a natural gift for anthropology, because he could empathize with these—for want of a better word—primitive people.

“He rushed up on deck, saw this ship bearing down on him, and realized he had accomplished the Northwest Passage.”

I think this illuminates another very important aspect of Amundsen's personality. He was one of those people who is never quite at home in civilization. They have to get out of civilization, and in a way they have much more in common with these primitive tribes.

NOVA: Do you think he opened a Pandora's box that led to this population changing in a way that could never be reversed?

Huntford: Amundsen understood instinctively and regretfully, in a way that most professional anthropologists do not seem to understand, that by the mere fact of observing people, you change their nature. He was fully conscious that by his contact with the Inuit, there was change, in fact, in two directions. They had definitely changed him for the rest of his life, but in the same way, he understood that he was destroying their life not only by bringing civilized artifacts but by the sheer contact, because you cannot be in contact with human beings, at whatever level, without changing them. He understood that he was beginning a process that was going to lead to the destruction of their culture.

A battle won

NOVA: So when his men sighted the whaler and he realized he'd accomplished the Passage, that must have been an enormous moment for him. How would you characterize that moment of drama?

Huntford: Well, when they came out into the fairway, which had been reached from the west, he had accomplished the Northwest Passage. But it didn't really sink in until the moment when he was resting in his cabin, and he heard the clatter of feet on deck and the people came down shouting "Vessel in sight! Vessel in sight!" He rushed up on deck, saw this ship bearing down on him, and realized he had accomplished the Northwest Passage.

However, it wasn't pleasure that filled him, it was fear, because he knew that the most dangerous thing that can happen to you is to have your wishes granted, because you're going to have to pay for it. So it was a tumultuous vortex of emotion. One thinks of the Duke of Wellington's saying, "Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won." So it was a very, very ambiguous moment.

There is another aspect to this, I think. There is a conflict within Norwegian society, always has been. On the one hand, there is a great admiration for conspicuous achievement; it's a cultivation of individuality that is rarely found in other societies. But at the same time, there is a jealousy and a mistrust of anything beyond the mediocre. This has been noticed by their own writers; in fact, Ibsen puts it very neatly in one of his plays. He says that the Norwegians can only unite on one thing, and that is every great man must be toppled and stoned.

NOVA: So in a broad context, what did it mean to have accomplished the Northwest Passage?

Huntford: The Northwest Passage ushered in the last chapter of terrestrial discovery. It was, in fact, the last step before the leap into space. When Amundsen set out on the Northwest Passage, he was a transitional character. He was helping to close the chapter of terrestrial exploration and open the space era. After him, what's left? Only the moon.

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Roald Amundsen, in Alaska, about 1925


Like many a Renaissance artist, Amundsen began readying himself for his life's work while still quite young, Huntford says.

Young Nansen

The celebrated Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen was a great inspiration to the young Amundsen.

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"Admittedly, she is a founding member of the Dirty Tricks Brigade," Roland Huntford (above) says of Nature, "but nonetheless you must learn to work with her."

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To some, the idea of trying to conquer the Northwest Passage in a vessel as small as the Gjøa (above) must have seemed at best foolish, at worst lunatic. Yet in the end, the choice proved quite shrewd.

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Three graves

Graves of three of Franklin's men who died on Beechey Island, where the expedition overwintered in 1845-46

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Amundsen in ice

How to properly clothe oneself for frigid polar temperatures is just one of many survival tips that Amundsen, here seen in the Antarctic, borrowed from the Inuit.

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The great Norwegian poet and dramatist Henrik Ibsen once wrote that the only thing his countrymen can agree on is that all great men must be toppled and stoned.

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Arctic Passage

Back to the Arctic Passage homepage for more features on the Franklin and Amundsen expeditions.

Interview conducted in London in spring 2004 by Louise Osmond, producer of "Northwest Passage" (the British version of "Arctic Passage", originally produced by Channel 4 in England), and edited by Peter Tyson, editor in chief of NOVA online

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