The (Formerly) Frozen North is a selection of traditional tales gathered in Greenland, on Baffin Island and in Labrador by Danish explorers Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen in the early 20th century and by the American Lawrence Millman in the 1970s and 80s. Their retelling has been further informed by the writings of 19th and 20th century explorers. The stories reflect the animistic beliefs of the Inuit and Innu peoples and are populated by shamans, shapeshifters, talking animals, spirits and, of course, people. Some explain how the world came to be as it is, while others describe events, real or imagined, which happened in the past. According to Freuchen, who took an Inuit wife and lived among her people in Greenland for many years, the Inuit had no concept of fiction – all the old stories were as true as an account from a neighbour of a recent hunting trip.
Until the mid-20th century the Inuit would be naked or near-naked in their tent, hut or igloo in order to get temporary relief from the lice with which they were plagued. The family group lived in one room and everything happened there. The sun set in the autumn and did not rise again until spring. On occasion it would be impossible to go outside. Privacy was not an option. The stories are very matter of fact with regard to bodily functions, sexual activity, and the need to survive in a hostile environment without the sense of revulsion or salaciousness they might elicit from Europeans. They are littered with bodily fluids, faecal matter, cannibalism and weird sex, often with animals. Western audiences often laugh, perhaps not knowing how else to respond, and it is tempting, when telling them, to play to this, but I believe they are best delivered deadpan. Any humour is in the ear of the listener. Some stories the Inuit, too, would no doubt have found funny, others perhaps not.
If I speak of the Inuit in the past tense it is because theirs is a culture which has all but disappeared since the end of the Second World War. A combination of colonialism, technological advancement, religious conversion and climate change has made their world a thing of the past. These stories provide a fascinating, and entertaining, insight into Inuit life and belief.
Jonathan Lambert is a one-time minor league rock musician who became a composer for theatre and other media. He has at various times worked at the British Museum, managed a West End cinema, played sax in a jazz trio and delivered artisan bread in a tiny Fiat. He studied archaeology at Lancaster and music technology in Utrecht. In 2013 he established Hare Moon Storytelling Camp, a small festival in Cambridgeshire, now an annual event, which hosts the cream of Britain’s performance storytellers. His first solo show, Dark Matters, concerns the mediaeval Devil while at the other extreme his new show, The Heart of the Castle, (a collaboration with children’s author and paper engineer John O’Leary) is a feel-good multimedia production for families.
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