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the flight of the eagle

9 february 2007

I first learned about Per Olof Sundman's novel The Flight of the Eagle several years ago when I was teaching a course on historical novels and films about the 19th century. The Flight of the Eagle had been filmed in 1982, and is by all accounts the Citizen Kane of Swedish Arctic balloon expedition movies. That claim is hard to check, because the film is not on video in the U.S. But I recently found a copy of Sundman's out-of-print novel in a paperback-book exchange, and if the film compares well to its source, it's very good indeed.

The Flight of the Eagle is narrated in terse, matter-of-fact short paragraphs by Knut Fraenkel, the youngest and least-experienced of S. A. Andrée's balloon crew. I should mention here that Sundman's novel is based closely on the facts of Andrée's 1897 expedition. Andrée, a Swedish patent engineer, had developed some expertise as a balloonist. In the Arctic mania of the 1890s, Andrée's approach was original. Instead of trying to walk or ski to the Pole, or be pulled there by dogs, or to emulate Fridtjof Nansen's brazen technique of freezing himself into the pack ice in the doughty ship Fram in hopes of drifting over the Pole, Andrée would simply wait (at a base on Danskøya, just off the northwest coast of Spitzbergen) until a strong south wind came up and carried his huge, semi-dirigible hydrogen balloon and its three crew members across the top of the world.

If you have never heard of Andrée, Fraenkel, and their companion Nils Strindberg, you can probably guess the outcome: the Eagle never got near the Pole, settling onto the pack ice less than three days after takeoff. But if it were the spring of 1897, you'd have heard of them; for considerably more than fifteen minutes, the three Swedish aeronauts were the world's most famous explorers. Media frenzy had surrounded a failed attempt to launch the Eagle in 1896, and even more frenzy attended the 1897 launch. Strindberg was a cousin of Sweden's greatest playwright, and the mission's reserve member, Vilhelm Swedenborg, was a descendant of Sweden's greatest philosopher. This was the A-List of Swedish manhood, preparing to claim the North Pole.

The first half of Sundman's novel describes the hype; the second half describes the doomed voyage. Weighed down by freezing drizzle, its steering mechanisms gone haywire, the Eagle never had a chance. But the three aeronauts were prepared for a long trek home. They had packed sledges and a kit for a lightweight boat. After landing in mid-July 1897, they hauled and rowed across the broken pack ice of the Polar Sea, eventually fetching up at a desert island off the northeast of Spitzbergen. There, quite suddenly, all three men died, despite shelter, fuel, and ample provisions.

The deaths of Andrée's team were for a long while a mystery, till physician E. A. Tryde established convincingly that the cause was trichinosis, brought on by eating polar bear. Sundman presents Tryde's theory in an introduction, because the aeronauts, believing themselves exempt from most communicable diseases in the sterile Arctic and well-provided against scurvy, were themselves unable to account for the ravaging illness that first weakened and then killed them. The story of the trek southward becomes all the more poignant, as Andrée and his men enjoy the tenderloin of bear that will be their nemesis in the long run, and then succumb to debilitating symptoms that leave them haggard and querulous.

The recriminations that Sundman imagines in young Fraenkel's mouth are terribly sad, but the spirit of adventure in The Flight of the Eagle is quite indomitable. All three men realize, in Sundman's telling, that they are likely to be sacrificial pioneers, lessons for the next generation of explorers rather than the heroes of their own. In the event, even their bodies were not discovered till 1930, long after repeated conquests of both Poles. But the failure of the Andrée expedition cannot be seen as futile. Like Mallory on Everest, the Swedish team went aloft because the challenge was there, and they faced it with great courage and resourcefulness.

Sundman, Per Olof. The Flight of the Eagle. [Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd, 1967.] Translated by Mary Sandbach. 1970. New York: Pantheon, 1983.