“When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire”. In abrupt sentences, as stark as the icy landscape in which it’s set, Jack London tells the story of a prospector walking a deserted trail over a frozen river in the Yukon gold-fields.
It’s cold – so cold that spit freezes before it hits the ground, and any area of nose or cheek left uncovered goes numb. Accompanied only by his husky dog, ignoring the advice of the old-timers that at fifty below, you should not travel alone, the man falls into one of the deadly ‘traps’ set by the extreme cold, and with feet soaked in icy water, is suddenly dependent for his life upon the ability of unresponsive and quickly freezing fingers to complete the simple task of striking a match. It’s a gripping battle.
I love this story: you can’t help willing the man not to drop his last matches in the snow as you feel his limbs slowly freezing. There are echoes of London’s own extraordinary life-story here: he himself joined the gold rush to the Klondike in 1897, and saw landscapes like these first hand. But this is more than a simple adventure story. London pits his protagonist against the elements, but the man has no chance of winning against forces so enormous and desolate. In such extreme cold, the body itself becomes no more than a set of mechanisms, puny and ineffectual against the ice. It’s not just snow he’s up against, it’s the universe, as the “cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet”. And the universe will always win.
There’s an added layer of interest here for writers too, because the best-known version of the story is actually a re-draft of a piece London had published six years previously, early in his career. Comparing the versions is fascinating: the first is a simple man-against-nature adventure story, well-told but ultimately thin on character and theme and lacking in literary stickiness. Given six years to develop as a writer, London takes the same tale and turns it into a stark musing on man’s place in nature.