The Strange vision of the North in Canada- a lecture

I’ve been sharing lectures from my course on Canadian folklore in literature and art. Today’s lecture is a little different because I talk about the north more broadly in Canada’s artistic culture. Please feel free to use and edit this lecture however you may want for your own classes. As you can see, I have not edited out personal references or asides, so you’ll need to make this your own.

As I say in the lecture, this is a topic that has been covered extensively, but I haven’t tried to engage with that literature here. For anyone interested in a deeper dive, please read what I consider to be the definitive work on the topic:

Grace, Sherrill. Canada and the Idea of North. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

Shawn Smallman

Northern Supernatural

Skogtroll/Forest Troll. Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain], 1906, via Wikimedia Commons
Every Halloween I do a post on global folklore or an international mystery, from a haunted building in Hong Kong, to the mystery of the ghost ship Baltimore. This year I’m doing some additional posts on this theme, because I want to share a wonderful BBC podcast, the Supernatural North. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough travels to Norway to look at how the weird in the North has haunted the European imagination. Along the way, she explores everything from a Sami shamanic drum made by a Californian (with an image of a surfer) to the witch trials of 18th century Finmark. What is impressive about the story she tells is how stories from this area with a relatively low population have shaped modern fantasy literature from the trolls in the Lord of the Rings to the White Walkers in the Game of Thrones. But these stories live on not only in literature but also popular memory. One Norwegian community is haunted by the history of the tragic 17th century witch trials in Finmark. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough described an unsettling visit to a public art work built to commemorate those who were burned at the stake. You have to admire the work of someone who has been knighted with a walrus penis bone, and who is on the trail of a Norse Arctic explorer.(1)

After listening to the podcast, you might wish to watch the 2010 movie Troll Hunter, which the podcast suggests built carefully upon actual traditions. It’s also very funny, and doesn’t have too much gore, despite some twists. There’s nothing worse (spoiler alert) than a rabid troll. …

Global Warming and the Arctic

By U.S. State Department [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For those of us living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States or Canada, it’s hard to believe that this was an unusually warm year. We had one winter storm after another sweep through the region, and the same was true far north into British Columbia. Still, most of the United States this year was unusually warm. More seriously, much of the Arctic experienced record heat this year. Although they published their article in November 2016, I think it’s worth reading Chris Mooney and Jason Samenow’s work, “The North Pole is an insane 36 degrees warmer than normal as winter descends,” in the Washington Post. The temperature data, history of sea ice cover and map provide powerful evidence for the profound changes taking place in the Arctic now.

Prof. Smallman


The art of Strange Things Done

I love mystery novels, and northern mysteries in particular. My sister, Ellen Wild, has a new book Strange Things Done coming out this September. The lead character of the novel is Jo Silver; after a body is found in the Yukon river, she is drawn into a mystery that leads her to fear for her own life. You can hear about the local reaction to the body’s discovery in this brief video. I love the visual look of the website for the book, with the superimposed photos of an old Yukon building and a cemetery. This aesthetic carries through to the trailer for the book, which she filmed in the Yukon. The imagery -the woman’s hair in the river, the ice, Brandy Zdan’s music, the quirky northern bar, the barking dog- create an atmospheric glimpse of a town with secrets. Think a northern Twin Peaks. The book already has won an impressive set of awards:

2015 Unhanged Arthur Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel ― Winner
2014 Telegraph/Harvill Secker Crime Competition ― Shortlisted
2014 Southwest Writers Annual Novel Writing Contest ― Silver Winner
2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award ― Longlisted

You can find preorder the book (in the United States for October 18, 2016 or Canada for September 24, 2016) before “the freeze-up hits and the roads close.”

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Strange Things Done, quote by Ian Hamilton

Global Warming in the Arctic

Topographic map of the Arctic by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at
Topographic map of the Arctic by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at

Many people are aware that the Arctic is disproportionately impacted by Global Warming. I recently came across a web article titled “These infographics show how doomed the Arctic really is.” The graphs do convey in a powerful manner the rapidity with which climate change is transforming the region, particularly by melting the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean. The particular danger is that there are positive feedback loops associated with climate change in the Arctic. When ice is replaced open water, it changes the albedo of the ocean surface, so that much more heat is absorbed. Significantly, when permafrost melts it releases significant amounts of methane. Accordingly, the Arctic not only witnesses temperatures that are rising much more quickly than at southerly latitudes, but also the region itself may particularly contribute to the planet’s temperature rise. For more articles on global warming and climate change on the blog, click here.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Canada’s Project Habbakuk: the Strangest Military Technology ever

"Ice Wall" by CNaene at
“Ice Wall” by CNaene at

Military history is filled with strange ideas, which are often created out of extreme necessity. Sometimes they work, such as Hannibal’s ruse of tying torches to the horns of cattle, in order to mislead the Roman army regarding the direction his forces were moving. More often they fail. Still, of all the strange, mad ideas in military history, none was ever so odd as Project Habbakuk. During World War Two, the survival of Britain depended upon victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. An island nation, Britain could not obtain the raw materials and food that it needed to survive if it could not defeat German submarines. As the sea battle moved to a moment of crisis, a strange man of questionable genius named Geoffrey Pyke conceived the idea of building warships out of ice. As bizarre as the idea sounded, a memo on the idea was brought to Churchill in December 1942. He loved the concept and and ordered that research on the project move forward.

It soon became clear that ice was an unsuitable building material. Fortunately, scientists soon learned that by mixing wood pulp with ice an incredibly strong material could be created, which would also resist melting. The plan was to create an immense aircraft carrier, many times larger than any other in existence, out of this new material. According to L.D. Cross (Code Name Habbakuk, p. 52) it would have reached two million tons, and have stretched more than the length of two football fields. Its sheer mass would have helped –at least in theory– to make the ship unsinkable. The work of of designing and building the ship was given to Canada, although Canadian Prime Minister McKenzie King thought, as revealed in his famous diaries, that this was “another of those mad, wild schemes (that started) with a couple of crazy men in England” (L.D. Cross, Code Name Habbakuk, 63). Nonetheless, the government decided to build a small prototype on Patricia Lake in Alberta, Canada. Of course, in practice the idea was impossibly complex, and by 1943 Britain had nearly won the Battle of the Atlantic. The project was finally abandoned in December 1943. …

Lost Franklin Expedition Found

John Rae, the great explorer, who learned the fate of the Franklin expedition from the Inuit.
John Rae, the great explorer, who learned the fate of the Franklin expedition from the Inuit.

In all the annals of Arctic exploration, there is no disappearance so famous as that of the lost Franklin Expedition. In 1845 Captain John Franklin led 128 men and two ships to search for the North West passage to Asia through the Arctic. Not a single man survived to be seen again. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the British admiralty and Lady Franklin sent out expedition after expedition to find out the fate of lost ships. In the end, it was an explorer on land, John Rae, who learned from the Inuit that the ships had sunk, and that the men had been so starving during their escape overland that they had resorted to cannibalism. For this discovery, he was ostracized by many of his peers, because Victorian gentleman would never eat one other; as such, he had insulted the dead.

This history has become part of Canadian identity. It’s a staple in Canadian literature and poetry, as Margaret Atwood discussed in her book, Strange Things. Stan Rodgers, the great Canadian folk singer, sang about Franklin in his iconic song the Northwest Passage. The only traces of what happened from the crew were two notes left in a cairn, miraculously discovered in the high Arctic. What happened to the crew after they left this record in April 1848? …

New Discoveries

"Big Glacier" by porbital at
“Big Glacier” by porbital at

It’s all too easy to believe that everything worth discovering has already been found, and that the age of exploration is over. But some recent discoveries make the point that it’s still possible to uncover something new. In Canada, Adam Shoalts discovered seven waterfalls while traveling on the Again River. In one case, he discovered the waterfall by hurtling over it, a roughly 40 foot drop. One photo of his canoe makes it clear how lucky he was to have survived. A number of people have argued that other travelers had encountered these waterfalls. It is difficult to imagine that the First Nations in this region, in particular the Moose Cree in the Western James Bay area, were not familiar with these obstacles to navigation. I sometimes suspect that during the height of the fur trade they may have had a better geographical knowledge of northern rivers than exists even now. Nonetheless, none of these waterfalls were on any map. As Shoalts told the BBC in an interview: “There’s still a lot of work left to be done. That’s reality,” said Shoalts. “Canada’s so vast. Even if I do this the rest of my life, all my work would still only be a drop in the bucket. We don’t know the world nearly as well as we think we do.” …

The Globalized Arctic

Image of Polar Bear thanks to

This month’s issue of National Geographic has an article, “Vikings and Native Americans,” which focuses on archaeologist Patricia Sutherland’s work on Viking sites in the Canadian Arctic, particularly at Tanfield Valley. Sutherland has found a number of sites in the Arctic that contain Viking items. Other lines of evidence now suggest that there was a long trading relationship between the Dorset peoples of the Canadian Arctic and the Viking settlements in Greenland. These exchanges may have included genes, as is suggested by evidence for First Nation’s ancestry amongst a small number of modern Icelanders. The most likely explanation was that a Native American women came to Iceland around 1000 AD, about the time that the Norse first traveled to the New World.  Peter Schledermann’s chapter, “Ellesmere: Vikings in the Far North,” in Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga details other evidence that the Norse traders left in the Canadian High Arctic. …

Privacy & Cookies: This site uses cookies. See our Privacy Policy for details. By continuing to use this website, you agree to their use. If you do not consent, click here to opt out of Google Analytics.