The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Giant of the North: Pokings Round the Pole (1882)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Giant of the North: Pokings Round the Pole was written by R.M. Ballantyne. Ballantyne (1825-1894) was a popular and prolific author of children’s books, one of the foremost examples, with Mayne Reid (see: War Life), Frederick Marryat (see: Masterman Ready) and G.A. Henty, of Victorian Boy’s Own adventure fiction. Ballantyne is not much read today, for reasons which are apparent in The Coral Island entry, but in his time he was a popular author, lecturer, shameless self-promoter, and humbug.
Chingatok is an “Eskimo of the Arctic regions.” He is a giant, although a realistic one:
Chingatok was a real man of moderate size not more than seven feet two in his sealskin boots with a lithe, handsome figure, immense chest and shoulders, a gentle disposition, and a fine, though flattish countenance, which was sometimes grave with thought, at other times rippling with fun....when he was merely a big boy that is, bigger than the largest man of his tribe he went out with the other braves to hunt and fish, and signalised himself by the reckless manner in which he would attack the polar bear single handed; but when he reached his full height and breadth he gave up reckless acts, restrained his tendency to display his great strength, and became unusually modest and thoughtful, even pensive, for an Eskimo.1
He grows into a young man so well respected by the other Inuit of his tribe that although he is not his tribe’s chief he is treated as such. Chingatok and his people live in northern Greenland, along the coast, and make a living in the usual Inuit fashion by hunting and fishing. Chingatok is affectionate to his mother, his father being entirely absent, and to his wife and children, who only appear near the end of the novel.
One day a British ship appears. Captain Vance, an explorer, is piloting the Whitebear in a quest to find the North Pole. Accompanying him are a hardy crew of sailors, including Vance's friends Leo and Alf, Vance's son Benjy, and their servant “Butterball,” a freed slave (and racist stereotype). The Whitebear runs aground after being trapped in an ice flow, and most of the crew decides to return home. Chingatok helps Captain Vance and his men survive and eventually reach the North Pole, although not after the de rigueur series of adventures and mishaps: polar bears, icebergs, “hyperborean” wild swans, and walruses the size of small elephants.
The Giant of the North is moderately interesting. Ballantyne does a decent job of sketching Chingatok's character. He is often childlike but can be thoughtful and even philosophical, and is generally a good person as well as a fierce fighter and hunter. The Inuit are similarly childlike and innocent, but Ballantyne also shows them to be morally superior in some ways to the Europeans. Ballantyne in fact stresses this on more than one occasion with comments like
Thus did Amalatok resolve to go to war for “worse than Nort [sic] Pole--for nothing”--It may not be inappropriate here to point out that Eskimo savages are sometimes equaled, if not surpassed, in this respect, by civilised and even Christian nations.2
Ballantyne repeats this in a later passage:
“The insult,” said Grabantak, “could only be washed out in blood!”
Strange, that simple savages of the far north should hold to that ridiculous doctrine. We had imagined that it was confined entirely to those further south, whose minds have been more or less warped by civilised usage.3
Ballantyne’s approach to the Inuit is benignly racist, a Boy’s Own version of the Rousseauian Noble Savage myth, but the criticisms he voices about “Christian nations” are more than just perfunctory. Ballantyne was a strong advocate of Muscular Christianity, the mid-century Victorian movement that perceived British youths’ view of faith as failing and weak and advocated to renew the youths’ faith by combining faith with physical, adventurous, masculine activities such as sports and empire-making. But Ballantyne’s work advocated a particular brand of evangelical Christianity which was at odds with the more bloody and aggressive aspects of the imperial and colonizing project. In practice this meant that in novels like The Giant of the North Ballantyne promoted a generalized imperial mission–the preferred inscribed narrative of The Giant of the North is that the British are more advanced in every way than Chingatok’s Inuit, and thus their mission and behavior are just–while simultaneously condemning the harsher behavior of nations “warped by civilised usage.” “Civilised,” in this case, is the key: Muscular Christianity of Ballantyne’s sort saw modern civilization as decadent and its inhabitants as both physically and morally weak (see: Fin-de-Siècle Unease), and only followers of Muscular Christianity as having overcome this weakness. Which is how Ballantyne can simultaneously condemn “civilised usage” and promote the imperialistic spread of British culture.
Captain Vance, a typical British boys’ fiction explorer, is egalitarian and fair to Chingatok, who he treats with as much respect as could be expected in a children’s adventure novel of the time. Modern readers are not likely to find Captain Vance’s son Benjy nearly so sympathetic, however. Like Jack Harkaway (see: Jack Harkaway’s Adventures), Benjy is given to playing “pranks” which Ballantyne’s audience no doubt found hilarious but which the modern audience is likely to find sadistic, at least. To Benjy, firing the Whitebear’s cannons just to frighten Chingatok’s people is hilarious fun, and he greatly enjoys laughing at them as they flee. Benjy is reprehensible, and unfortunately Ballantyne seems to wholeheartedly approve of him. The modern reader is forced to wonder at the degree of sadism in Ballantyne’s work (also see The Coral Island for more of the same) and in the Jack Harkaway adventures and to conclude that there was something deeply twisted in nineteenth-century British youth, that they enjoyed this sort of thing.
The unfortunate presence of Benjy aside, The Giant of the North is mostly enjoyable. Ballantyne’s style is serviceable, but the novel has a good pace and includes a balance of adventure and (one-dimensional) characterization. As he did in The Coral Island and The Gorilla Hunters, Ballantyne includes a great deal of information on the flora and fauna of the Arctic regions in The Giant of the North. But The Giant of the North is missing the didacticism which marred the two Peterkin Grey novels, and flows more smoothly. On the whole, The Giant of the North is much better than it could have been and can be read with enjoyment by modern readers.
Print: R.M. Ballantyne, The Giant of the North. London: Dodo Press, 2007.
1 R.M. Ballantyne, The Giant of the North (Toronto: Musson, 1882), 4.
2 Ballantyne, The Giant of the North, 231.
3 Ballantyne, The Giant of the North, 298.