Review: The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen

Book by Stephen Bown

Before Norwegian Roald Amundsen came around, no human had ever set sight on the South or North Poles. Amundsen was born in 1872 and decided as a young man he wanted to be a hero. In the course of his life as a death-defying adventurer, he sailed through the Northwest Passage, rode a dog sled to the South Pole and flew over the North Pole, all to the delight of an enraptured global audience. He died at 55 on a foolhardy impromptu flight to rescue a stranded foe in the Arctic, not long after he told a journalist that he had achieved all his dreams: “There is nothing left for me to do.”

Bown draws on extensive research and access to the personal journals of Amundsen and his travel companions to paint rich and gripping accounts of his perilous voyages. These are often marvellously entertaining. At times the biography can seem overly reverent, but it becomes clear that Bown simply intends a robust defence of his subject’s fading and embattled legacy.

Amundsen defied the odds through obsessive preparation and innovation. He adopted Inuit clothing and igloo techniques, designed his own snow goggles, and even contemplated using polar bears to pull his sled (a plan wisely abandoned a few years before he was mauled by one of the toothy white giants). That he survived as long as he did was a miracle, but he made much of his own luck.

Amundsen cared nothing for money—it was simply a means for adventure—but he needed a lot of it. He spent his inheritance on his first boat, and even then he literally fled his creditors as he set sail. His multi-year-long expeditions were expensive, so he learned to leverage his celebrity into a fortune. He sold news as a commodity and sponsored the products of his patrons. He went on lucrative lecture tours, which he viewed as a tiresome necessity despite the public adulation. A spendthrift on dreams, he was a tireless fundraiser. He died bankrupt, missions accomplished.

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Review: The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen

  1. That is the worst review of a great man that I have ever had the misfortune to read.
    If this is what passes now, for review, or citicism, or journalism, we are in deep literary trouble now and in the future.
    The result, I suppose, of the twittering classes.

    • Bill, happy to hear why you thought the review was so bad. If you have a moment, please let me know at andrewsniderman@gmail.com.

      • I am the author of The Last Viking, and I thought the review was a good short summary of Amundsen’s achievements and what I hoped to achieve with the book. I especially enjoyed the conclusion: “A spendthrift on dreams, he was a tireless fundraiser. He died bankrupt, missions accomplished.”

  2. Mr Sniderman shows a limited understanding of Norwegian personality and of the social of setting of Amundsen’s times. He was not an adventurer, no more than was my own father Henry Larsen (also Norwegian born), the next man to captain a ship through the Northwest passage 40 years later and the first to complete the more northerly passage. Amundsen’s preparation was not obsessive nor in any manner excessive, but carefully based on research and planning. My father spent 35 years in or associated intimately with the Arctic and its people. When today so many “adventurer’s” make their various ways through once treacherous routes it is easy to undervalue the achievements those who went before. Amundsen was my father’s hero as a 7 year old boy and remained so throughout his life, and not without good reason.

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