There is a peculiar characteristic about the ice-bound regions of the world that renders them absolutely fantastic, absolutely fascinating, and absolutely forbidding. Hoary mountains, glacial vistas, snowy deserts, solid waters, fluid fires of aurora-borealis, and air that is too cold to breathe all give the distinct impression that men ought not to keep company with such august presences. Yet, there will always be some mysterious, mad reason why the holy places of Coleridge’s pleasure-dome were savage caves of ice. It could be the reason why the Vikings imagined that the first man was fashioned out of a glacier instead of the earth. Such a reason might explain why the hostility of the polar elements is the very thing that makes them irresistible. Somehow their unmerciful aspect reflects majesty, the divine—and it is terrifying.
Appreciating these qualities requires an experience beyond the range of literature, but sometimes literature must suffice. Jack London’s mesmerizing masterpiece “To Build a Fire” is a work that captures something of why the icy parts of the earth are the natural expressions of the truth that fear leads to wisdom, and that only fools despise such instruction and such wisdom. And a truly fearful tale it is too; one that turns a reader’s face into what Robert Service called a “map of horror.”
Written in 1908, “To Build a Fire” is as cruel as an icepick, delivered with the straightforward severity of a death sentence that marches with a creeping, inevitable doom, relentless as frost. It follows a nameless man traveling by foot through the frozen tundra of the Yukon to a claim where his companions await him at camp. It was a cold, clear, sunless day that wore the gloom of a pall. The man had made perilous journeys before, but he was a newcomer on that northern