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Reaching the North Pole

Biography of Roald Amundsen, Hero of the Arctic

Dec. 4, 2012
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Stephen Bown’s The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen (Da Capo) illustrates how Roald Amundsen took the reigns as one of the most crucial figures during the heroic age of Arctic exploration, standing far above any of his contemporaries and remembered as one of the greatest explorers ever to live. Bown’s full-bodied tale does not simply concentrate on his achievements as “The Napoleon of the Poles” but delves further into Amundsen’s life, highlighting the lifelong preparations the explorer made during his younger years leading up to his famous geographical feats. 

Using newfound information regarding Amundsen’s expeditions, the author breaks down the Norwegian explorer’s career into five categories: west, south, east, north, and, ominously, lost. Each section presents one of Amundsen’s adventures, seamlessly connected into one coherent story. The book provides detailed insights into the preparations and human elements involved in surveying arctic regions.  Using actual diary entries from the Arctic expeditions to chilling effect, Bown makes the reader feel as though they have embarked on a journey through the world’s harshest climates and inhospitable lands. 

Although The Last Viking begins with Amundsen’s unsuccessful Belgian Antarctic Expedition, the explorer’s newfound regard for Inuit ingenuity foreshadows how he would later use native technology to successfully conquer unknown territory. Amundsen made great use of dogs, skis, and Inuit winter wear during the first successful voyage through the Northwest Passage, a path connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as on his other expeditions to the North and South Poles.  Amundsen’s interactions with native peoples led to his lifelong respect and admiration for the Inuit, so much so that he even fostered two young Inuit girls.

Along with the acceptance of native technology, Bown argues that it was Amundsen’s natural leadership skills that allowed him to survey mysterious territories. This led him to become one of the first national heroes of newly independent Norway.  Amundsen’s instinctual leadership abilities and knack for intense, detailed planning allowed him and his crews to pursue adventures that left many other explorers in need of rescue or dead.

Amundsen was known as a hard-nosed, almost aristocratic leader, but with an undying reverence for his crew.  While his men held Amundsen in a high regard, the Arctic conqueror was often the center of controversy. He befriended those who were loyal to him, but did not often go out of his way to better his public image.  Much of the explorer’s life saw financial turmoil, regardless of the sizable inheritance he had received, and, at times, he even deceived those who were financially backing his expeditions, further deteriorating his reputation.  During his well-guarded private life, he often enjoyed the company of married women, spurring scandalous affairs.  He also did his best to avoid debt collectors seeking repayment for the expensive traveler’s bills accrued from trips to new lands. 

During his life, he saw international fame and notoriety, but money and public recognition were never his main objectives. In fact, scientific research probably failed to make Amundsen’s priority list as well, but one thing remained: his constant desire for a new adventure.  Amundsen died in true heroic fashion, attempting to rescue a rival explorer in the place that he loved and became most accustomed to. He lived a life suited for the pages of an adventure novel. Bown’s new biography reads as such. 



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