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The Idea of North

While a compass might tell us which direction we are going, there is really only one direction to which it ever points: north. North is the ultimate point of orientation, but it is also a celebrated destination for the adventurous, the curious, the solitary, and the foolhardy. In this fascinating book—updated in this accessible, pocket edition—Peter Davidson explores the concept of “north” through its many manifestations in painting, legend, and literature.
Arctic bound, Davidson takes the reader on a journey from the heart of society to the most far-flung outposts of human geography, packing in our rucksacks a treasure trove of stories and artworks, from the Icelandic Sagas to Nabokov’s snowy kingdom of Zembla, from Hans Christian Andersen’s forbidding Snow Queen to the works of artists such as Eric Ravilious, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Andy Goldsworthy. He celebrates the different ways our artists and writers have illuminated our relationship with the earth’s most dangerous and austere terrain. Through Davidson’s astonishing but inviting erudition, we ultimately come to see north as a permanent goal, frozen forever on a horizon we never seem to quite reach. 

272 pages | 22 halftones | 5 x 7 3/4 | © 2016

History: General History

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“The nearer he gets to the North of England and Scotland the more deeply felt his writing becomes . . . marvelously sensitive.”

London Review of Books

“[The north] is roamed in fascinating, suggestive fashion. . . . Davidson is as interested in writing about snow sculptures and seventeenth-century paintings of the arctic as he is about Auden, and his reading of the imaginary land of Zembla in Nabokov’s Pale Fire as an eternal, symbolic north is highly evocative . . . [a] lovely book.”


“From the Old Norse sagas to the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen, from the films of Bergman to the paintings of Eric Ravilious, from Nabakov’s Zembla to Simon Armitage’s Yorkshire, [Davidson] finds that the north is a breeding ground for ghosts, a place of exile and punishment, the antithesis of the human. Yet its bleak landscapes have inspired poetry of great beauty: ice, crystal, diamond, and glass all blur in recurring images. . . . Davidson never lets his learning cloud his enthusiasm for this wide and protean subject and his writing shares the awe of the poets who preceded him on this journey.”


“Beside being a discriminating critic, Davidson has an arrestingly personal voice. . . . The Idea of North is one of those books that have you making a long list of references you want to follow.”


“This is a book about poetry, myth, and art, and the myriad ways in which artists, poets, and explorers have filtered the north’s stark natural splendor through their imaginations. . . . Davidson has compiled an extraordinary catalog of the shapes the north has taken in the minds of humans . . . a work of genuine erudition, guiding readers northward out of their home ground and into unknown territory.”


“There are indeed a lot of norths to cover, and the charm of the book is it exhaustiveness, zooming into a variety of touchstones to show how they’ve influenced global culture in sly, often surprising ways . . . Davidson’s north is an enormous, challenging land: humbling, shifting, austere, empty, fragile, desolate, desolating, marginal, authentic—a place, as Davidson perfectly puts it, forever suffused with ‘absolute, difficult beauty.”

Ruminator Review

“Mesmerising cultural history . . . Davidson’s style achieves a lyric expression of phrase. In several passages of personal recollection . . . he achieves a marvel of descriptiveness that is moving as well as expressive.”


“[A] delightful work . . . beautifully written . . . an esoteric but important gem; original treasure from the north.”

Herald (Glasgow)

“An interesting meditation.”

Times Literary Supplement

“Provocative . . . Davidson’s evocative prose and sensitive analyses of an impressive range of sources heighten the reader’s appreciation of the rich complexity of humanity’s imagined Norths.”

Times Higher Education Supplement

“A masterpiece . . . The Idea of North reminded me of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory in taking a vast and shifting subject and reducing it to clarity, radically changing the way we look at a history. . . . It is hard to imagine writing a better book within the terms Davidson has set for himself . . . beyond being merely clever or wise: a beautiful book. He ends with a magnificent couple of pages entitled ‘Keeping the Twilight,’ a description, from his study, of the fading hours of the northern winter day. His last two sentences are perfect abstract expressionist description of North.”

Scottish Review of Books

“[A] gifted prose writer.”

Scotland on Sunday

“A masterpice. . . . It's the kind of book which provokes the gasp of recognition at concepts one has often groped for but never managed to articulate.”

Scottish Sunday Herald

“This book is not just about the north; it is a plea for the north, a moving description of what it has given and still offers us.”


“A truly stunning assessment of the concept of ‘north’ in literature, legend, history, and the psyche of ‘Northern’ people. . . . Davidson writes with an incredible sense of place.”

Aberdeen Evening Express

“One of the most beautiful books I’ve read . . . Davidson’s taste is both baroque and ascetic; his prose is correspondingly extravagant and refined. This is cultural history at its very best, unfolding new maps of imagination.”

Alexandra Harris, author of Weatherland

Table of Contents

Introduction: True North
I Histories
                Ideas of North from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century
                Treasures and Marvels of the North
II Imaginations of North
                Ice and Glass │ The North in the 1930s: Auden and Ravilious
Imagined Northern Territories │ Northern Summer
Northern Exile │ Revenants
III Topographies
                Scandinavia │ Japan and China │ Canada │ Britain
                Epilogue: Keeping the Twilight
Photographic Acknowledgements

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