Book Review: The Last Viking

5172b28do5mlBrown, Stephen. The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen (400 pages, Kindle Edition).

Brown takes the reader along as the unseen passenger on Amundsen’s various adventures: his most famous trek to the South Pole, but also the Northwest Passage, the Northeast Passage, and the dirigible flyover of the North Pole.

The portrait of Amundsen as “the last Viking” seems to be an apt one: the conqueror of lands, the indomitable explorer, the strange mixture of harshness and costly loyalty are all on display.

The thought struck me while reading The Last Viking: Amundsen seems a lot like Doug Wilson’s description of Beowulf. Beowulf, Wilson argues, is presented by the anonymous author as the pinnacle of the old pagan ways, the best the unbelieving world has to offer. Even so, Beowulf is not enough; his flaws and mortality cannot win every battle. The unstated assumption by Beowulf’s presumably Christian author is that there is One greater than Beowulf, whose missionaries would have arrived about the time it was written.

Amundsen seems to fit the Beowulf mold, having all the worldly admirable qualities still in esteem even today. He’s the self-made man who accomplished the goals he set for himself in childhood. He’s popular and aloof. He’s fiercely loyal–even at great personal cost–but not afraid to blast those who betray him. His affairs with married women (both requited and unrequited) happen on his timetable between expeditions. He’s an international hero at times and an international heel.

But the cracks in Amundsen’s armor are telling: once he had conquered both Poles, he was too old to explore anymore. The purpose of his life, his childhood dream, was now in the past. What more was there to do? Brown notes that he spent more time on ice or in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York than his “home” outside Oslo.

It was not Brown’s intention to do so, but in seeing the highs and lows of “the last Viking,” we see the emptiness of worldly pursuits. As John Newton puts it,

Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show.

What did it profit Amundsen to gain the top of the world (or the bottom), only to lose his soul? What did he gain from international fame? from the unrequited love of Elizabeth Bennett? from the pettiness of his feuds with brothers and the British? from having his name and flag at the Poles, only for his heart to be frozen harder than the (Ant)Arctic ice?

The balm for Amundsen’s worldliness is the rest of the verse from Newton:

Solid joys and lasting treasures
None but Zion’s children know.

Amundsen is rightly lauded for his resourcefulness, his loyalty, his respect for indigenous cultures, and for accomplishing what no one else had done. But Brown does us a great service by showing (however unwittingly) the emptiness of Amundsen’s life; may we turn away from “boasted pomp and show” to “solid joys and lasting pleasures”–those lavished by Zion’s King, the Lord Jesus.

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