The adventurous life of Roald Amundsen

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First aired on The Homestretch (14/11/12)

Polar explorer Roald Amundsen has been the subject of a number of books -- there's even an autobiography -- but Canmore, Alberta author Stephen R. Bown felt there was more to be told. In his latest book, The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen, he reveals the private side of a man whose exploits made him a household name in the early 20th century.

In a recent interview on Calgary's The Homestretch, Bown explained why he wanted to write the biography. "Personally, I just find it extremely fascinating, all these people, 100 years ago, venturing off into areas of the world where no one had ever been before," he said.


Bown was drawn to Amundsen in particular because of his interest in the Northwest Passage. Amundsen was the first to sail through the Passage, between 1903 and 1906. But he's best known for winning the race to the South Pole.

Bown pointed out that the story has been told mostly by British writers, and they have tended to set it up as a "good guy versus bad guy scenario." The famous British commander, Robert Falcon Scott, who was Amundsen's rival and perished on the Antarctic expedition, is cast as the good guy. "Amundsen is often presented as this dastardly, dour, humourless fellow, ruthlessly driving his men to reach the Pole, and someone who cared about absolutely nothing other than his victory," Bown said.

Bown felt this was a misrepresentation, and he wanted to set the record straight with his book. He describes Amundsen as someone who "never stopped adventuring." Winning the race to the South Pole made him famous. He travelled all around the world, and became well known on the lecture circuit in the U.S. But Amundsen wasn't content to rest on his laurels. "He didn't settle down, he was always planning his next expedition," Bown said.

In the course of his research, Bown came across more than 400 New York Times articles, mostly Q&As and profiles, that revealed a new side to the Norwegian adventurer's personality. "He was charming and eccentric, a fantastic storyteller."

When asked what drove Amundsen and his fellow explorers, Bown suggested that it was "the idea of venturing off into the unknown and returning as the hero, the person who brings back the new information." He likened it to the immigrant story, albeit a more extreme version of it. "Think of people travelling all over the world, moving to new countries," he said. At the time, the North and South poles were the unknown regions. "It was the final frontier, as space is now."

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