Bam ba-bat-dat-da dat-dat-da… So, Canada! Ten provinces, three territories, two official languages and one Queen, God save her. Land of mounted police and maple syrup and igloos and the Aurora Borealis. Second largest country in the world, well done indeed. A Mari Usque Ad Mari, eh? Very proud of your Romans in Canada. Proud people in general. Used to be a federal dominion, but now you have a prime minister, very good. And cannibals. Very strong tradition of cannibalism in Canada. What? It's true.
Canada prides itself on welcoming everybody. It says so at the airport. But you don't, do you. No brochures for visiting cannibals when you fly in. Those seem like the wrong people to aggravate.
"Hello, good day, welcome to Toronto. How can I help you?"
"Yes, please, I'm looking for the cannibal bars."
"I'm sorry, excuse me?"
"Cannibal bars. Came highly recommended in Frommers."
"Ah, no, I'm sorry, we don't really have any of those here."
"Come on, mate, you don't have to be coy."
"I really don't know what you're talking about. We have a lovely waterfront, though. Would you like a brochure?"
"Listen, I'm ravenous! They made me eat food on that airplane."
Oh dear. (Never… lead… with that joke… again.)
Polar bears are in Canada. You have the Polar Bear Capital of the World, don't you. On the shores of the Hudson Bay, in Churchill, Manitoba. Polar bears just stroll right through town. They made a documentary about it. There's a jail for polar bears in Churchill. Your constables must be very brave. "Sorry, mate, no outside food in the restaurant. Sanitation code says so. No, it still counts if you killed that seal yourself. Come on, finish your drink and move along."
Because there are only two things that polar bears really care about, you see, and those two things are Christmas and Coca-Cola. It's a good idea to carry spare bottles of the stuff when you're in Churchill, just in case. Have to watch yourself, though. They're man-eaters, polar bears. Yes, only known predators of man in the animal kingdom. People can't really eat them, which seems unfair. This is a true fact — polar bear flesh has to be prepared a very specific way, otherwise you get trichinosis, which, if you're not up on your parasites, is caused by a worm that burrows into your intestines and makes itself cozy inside these cysts all throughout your body. Not very comfortable, being full of worms. Not very comfortable being torn apart either. Polar bears are easy to get away from, though. If you're ever being menaced by a polar bear, you can just point behind it and go "Father Christmas!" and the polar bear will turn around every time. I read it in a brochure.
But yes, it all started with the Northwest Passage. It's real now. Didn't used to be. Hundreds of years, Europeans coming over in boats, going, "Fuck's sake, China must be around here somewhere!" As they so often do. The Hyperboreans did it, and the Greeks were very glad to see them finally leave. Before them were the Mediboreans, who were a little bit more outgoing but always ended up alone in a corner at parties, and before them were the Partydroneans, who could babble on about fuck all when they were drunk but otherwise were pretty solid.
Then came the Vikings, who had an imperative! For it was written in the great Saga of Niflbjrnnisson, "Thou shalt—" (Niflbjrnnisson worked for Marvel Comics) "Thou shalt be the first men to set foot on far distant lands certainly not inhabited by anyone else first, else everyone back home should know you are a patsy." Every Viking got a copy of that with their longships, which came in kits, along with five hundred planks of untreated flat-packed wood, two hundred and twenty-seven screws, pegs and odds of varying shapes and sizes, a complimentary jar of lingonberry jam, sixteen pages of Keith Haring cartoons, where the only text was the same disclaimers in twenty-eight different languages, and one fucking useless miniature allen wrench.
Back then Vikings were known for their tempers. And wouldn't you be? "All right, all right, all right! We have four pegs and two screws leftover. Who did their part wrong? Come on, hands up. This thing has to go on the water, you know!"
"Ah, Hrothgar, you sure you got the longship?"
"Course I did! Says right here on the instructions, 'Löngg.' It's the one with the shelves built into the side. We established that the first time we had to take it apart."
"I dunno. It just seems a bit…"
"What? Seems a bit what, Snorri?"
Stab! "Forty-three hours it took to set that up! We're going out in this whether you lot like it or not! Now shut up and get rid of all these boxes."
Yet it all seemed to work for them. First they terrorized all of Europe, sacking Ireland, pillaging in Britain, playing chicken with the Russians. And then they heard the siren call of the waves and struck out west. Colonized Iceland! Settled Greenland! Made it all the way to Newfoundland before landing at L'Anse Aux Meadows and realizing the French had beat them to it. That must have been fun.
"Haha, we've done it! I, Great Hrothgar, with the aid of Odin All-Father and Mighty-Hammered Thor, have led us to a new shore in a distant land, untouched by humans. Over the whale-road we have come in our ship — to this completely uninhabited place, which I hereby name Vinland! Look! These magnificent beaches, this pristine forest, this fertile farmland ready — ready to be — tilled — excuse me, who're you?"
"Bonjour. My name is Jean-Pierre. Welcome to L'Anse Aux Meadows!"
"Lance what? You're mistaken, we're in Vinland."
"Ah, no. This name, you clearly can see it is French."
"L'Anse Aux, oui!"
"No no, this here is Vinland! This is a Viking place!"
"Ahaha, you Scandinavian sorts. So provincial and charming! Come, forget all that. We are having an orgy in the vineyard. Have you ever experienced paté d'otarie?"
"No. We were just about to go kill a boar with our hands and eat it raw."
"Oho, á la tartare?"
"No! It's — that's how they do it in Valhalla! Look, how the hell did you get here?"
"Relax! We are Norman! We are countrymen, ah? You and I, we are the same!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You know! Norman, Norse! It's all in a book somewhere. Come, have some wine!"
"Wine and orgies would be pretty nice, Hrothgar."
"Shut up, Elgfrothi. Look, we're Vikings! Let's just kill the bastard! His blood will claim Vinland as ours once and for all!"
"Eh bien, I will smoke a cigarette while you bicker. Just mind the Inuit when you are done."
"They frog friends of yours? We'll kill them too!"
"Then I suppose no one will tell you about the man-eating white bears."
"You did not know about this?"
"What are we, psychic? No human beings have ever seen this place before. We set foot on new lands ready to be conquered!"
"Yes, well, introduce yourselves to the Inuit while you are here. They have this place, ah, how do you say, figured out."
"Shut up, will you? For fuck's sake, we're Viking explorers! We were supposed to be here first!" Stab.
"Oh very nice, no orgy now. What're we going to eat? What, stop looking at me like that."
So the Vikings didn't stick around in North America for very long. But maybe it was for the best. See, all this was happening during a little blurp called the Medieval Warming Period. The North Atlantic areas had a spike in temperatures, which led people to think that Greenland was a pretty swell place to live for a couple hundred years. So the Vikings are getting all domestic, tilling their fields, drinking their mead, reading Lord of the Rings to each other, when all of a sudden, boom. Who drops by but the Little Ice Age, who's a bit tetchy about his nickname and decides he's gonna show all the other climate patterns who's who. The Little Ice Age proceeds to go on a six hundred-year bender, while the rest of the world freezes its bollocks off. Not very pleasant, as you might imagine. Even the Vikings got fed up with it. "To hell with this!" they said. "We're going back to Europe to get Christianized." The longships, however, were a bit of a problem, as they had all been sold once the Vikings got married. Couldn't even keep them in the garage. They had to go out and find them used on Craigslist. That was a real mess.
It's all a bit of bad timing, though, isn't it. Little Ice Age should have been in his football hooligan stage in the Twentieth Century. Might have been good at keeping the Nazis down. They were exploring too, you see. Not just for the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, but for the Land of Thule, Atlantis of the Aryan Master Fuckheads. This is true — Hitler had all these mystics he kept around, for when he wasn't trying to figure out how to kill everyone, and some of them were obsessed with finding their way to this place. And they would say, "Mein Führer! We have spent the past seventeen years consulting runes and communing with Norse spirits. It is time to seek out the Übermenschen of Thule."
"Thule, you have mentioned this place to me. And what is it again these Übermenschen will do for the Reich?"
"Ah, they are beings of great power! Connected to the cosmos by psychic and technological prowess the likes of which have been hidden for millennia! The Greeks called them the Hyperboreans."
"No no, it's okay. They're all quite Aryan. You can read about them in this brochure. It's very thorough."
"Hmm. The Arctic. Isn't there an Ice Age going on up there?"
"Yes, but nothing to worry about, it's just a little one."
"Who said that?! Who said that!? Come on, say it to my face!" Smash! Bam! Stomp! Plllbpt. No more Third Reich. Problem solved.
The Vikings never ate people. Not in Canada, anyway. The English did, though. It was the Northwest Passage made them do it. This is what kept happening: someone would approach the investors, or sometimes the royals, and say, "Awfully inconvenient, all that land between here and India, don't you think?"
And the investors, played here by James Mason, would say, "Yes, by gosh, that's true. No one seems to know how to avoid the Americas. It's really such a bother."
And the intrepid Englishmen would say, "Ah, but you see, it's all a matter of perspective. Magellan, he went around the bottom. Too much land down there, and awfully chilly to boot."
"What are you proposing, exactly?"
"Right over the top, right here. See, I've drawn a line. It's all islands up there. Once we hit the Northwest Passage, fwoosh! Right down to China and India. We'd be there and back in no time."
"How marvelous! I can't believe no one's done it before."
"Oh yeah. And it's much cheaper than going the long way round. We're also pretty sure there's gold there."
"Dear me. In that case, here, have all this year's profits. Do come back soon and tell us all about it. I'm sure you'll have a lovely time."
And so the intrepid Englishmen would pile into their ships and sail merrily away. And why shouldn't they? They were the English sea dogs! They'd crushed the Spanish, smashed the Portuguese, and totally ignored the French! There was nobody to touch English sea power, and by God and country, nothing would stop the advance of the British ship! Except once they got to Canada they would get stuck, you see. Because in between all those islands it wasn't so much water as solid ice, which somehow they hadn't been counting on, and thanks to some more brilliant timing, they'd get trapped in some bay or inlet and then it was time for the long Arctic winter.
They did try and avoid the inevitable for a bit, obviously. Hunting was clearly a possibility. Seals, very tasty if you can catch them. Walrus, kind of an easy target, one might think. Caribou, kind of like reindeer, familiar enough. Even ptarmigan might have been good game. But no, as it turned out, the most attractive option (beyond spitting the fellow who kept whining that he'd been promised curry) was to try and shoot the polar bears. And even when the first five or six guys got laid up with trichinosis, nobody thought it might be a good idea to explore other options. Pretty soon the Inuit were coming over and banging on the ship's door, going, "Come on, we know you're in there! No use pretending!"
"What? Who is that?"
"We're the Inuit, mate. We live here. Listen, stop shooting the bloody bears."
"Oh yeah? Or what?"
"What do you mean, or what? Just stop! They're man-eaters. Only known predator of human beings."
"Really? And who told you that?"
"Some transvestite, I don't know. Point is, they keep coming round for us. So knock it off!"
"But we're starving! If we can't eat the polar bears, what can we eat?"
"Depends? On what? You're in no position to bargain. We've got naval supremacy!"
"Yeah, I can see that. Listen, you might be reasonable people. Maybe we can agree on something. Got anything you can trade?"
"Are you kidding? Who d'you think you're talking to? Of course we've got things to trade. What a stupid thing to ask."
"Go on then."
"Well, we've got… linens, fans, mosquito nets, citronella candles, a very nice portrait of the Queen and a whole bunch of tobacco seeds."
Which is how you end up eating half your crew.
That would never happen today, of course. Global warming means cannibalism is only a hobby now, instead of a necessity. All those polar ice caps melting away. At least it made the Northwest Passage real! You can just plow on through between the hemispheres now. Don't even need an icebreaker. Not so good for the wildlife, though, climate change. The bears keep wandering into Churchill and moping around in bars, reduced to drinking Diet Coke and remembering the glory days. It's all very depressing when you consider that polar bears helped keep Nazis out of America. Americans, you're welcome.
Yes, the year was 1940, and things were looking pretty grim in the North Atlantic. Hitler was all over Europe, the Battle of Britain was getting a little one-sided and Hitler's Nazi fuckhead mystics were all aflutter, which can't be good.
"Mein Führer! Mein Führer! We have had a breakthrough. We have now the perfect opportunity to make contact with the Übermenschen of Thule."
"Thule? Bah! I have no time for Thule. Can't you see I'm bombing the crap out of London right now?"
"Plus it is right on the way to an overland route to North America."
"An overland route, you say?"
"Yes, right over the North Pole. But we're in rather a hurry, so a U-boat might be good just so we can get to Thule more quickly."
"If it is an overland route, why not go over land? Speak!"
"Cosmic power! Aryan gods! The trade-off is much better! Give us a U-boat, we'll come back over land… if the Übermenschen of Thule don't fly us back themselves."
"Well, all right. But don't be too long! And if anyone gives you trouble, shoot them."
So the Nazis set out in their U-boat across the Atlantic Ocean. But the secret got out! And the American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, got hold of it, from the United States Caribou Corps, those other unsung heroes. So he rang up Winston Churchill, because he was courteous and selfless like that. "Hello, Winston. How's it going over there?"
"It's a little hot, Franklin. The bloody Luftwaffe keep bombing my cities, the nasty buggers."
"Wow, sounds like a real pickle. Say, I don't suppose you could help us out with something, could you?"
"Help you out? We're fighting Nazis with pots and pans over here!"
"That may be so, but we've just had word that Hitler's going to try and invade Canada."
"Canada? A federal dominion of the Crown?"
"The same. Word is they'll come from the north. Are you going to let that stand?"
"Well, we're a bit preoccupied at the moment, I'm afraid."
"We'll send you tanks."
"Yes, and more cutlery."
"Look, I'm just trying to help you out! We've got our own troubles. There must be something you can do."
"Well, all right. For Canada." So — this is a little-known fact — Winston himself shipped out to farthest Manitoba. And he called a conclave of the polar bears, as one of the lesser rights of the Dukes of Marlborough, and he made there what some say was the greatest speech of his long and storied career. "Bears," he said, in his most Churchillian voice, but since I'm not good at that one he'll be played by Sean Connery, "bears, our great enemy approaches even now these shores. The German must not be allowed purchase in Manitoba! We shall defend our islands, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets—"
"Hang on. We've heard this one already."
"Yeah, out with it! Tell us what you really want."
"All right, I'll give it to you straight. The Nazis are coming. And they're headed straight for Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. of A."
"!! Surely not!"
"Yes, the Nazis are coming right over the North Pole… to seize the Coca-Cola factories and destroy the secret recipe."
"The North Pole? But — no!"
"Yes. It's true. No one's heard from Santa in weeks."
At which point Churchill quickly hightailed it back to the Blitz, which, it appeared, was somewhat safer. Meanwhile, the Nazi U-boats had just landed on the coast of fuck all, where they were greeted with a wondrous sight.
"Heil Hitler! What's this? You look like you just came from Woodstock or something."
"I'm Great Hrothgar, and this is my crew. Who the bloody hell are you?"
"We are magicians in the employ of Adolf Hitler, leader of the Third Reich, on a quest for the Hyperboreans!"
"What? What for?"
"Their godlike Aryan power. What else would we come here for?"
"Well, you can fucking have it, mate. We're through with this place. Bloody freezing up here, and not even anyplace new left."
"Excuse me, is that a longboat you're dragging behind you?"
"The box said so. We're gonna burn the thing and ride narwhals back to Europe."
"Might we relieve you of it?"
"…We were looking forward to burning it."
"Why don't you take this submarine back? We won't be needing it."
"Really? That's novel. Yeah, all right. Watch out for the French when you get there."
"The French? Oho, no trouble at all, my friend. (What a piece of luck this is! The Übermenschen will surely recognize us as one of them now!) Right, who knows how to work this thing?"
And so the Nazis found themselves riding the old whale-road themselves, just the way the Sagas of Niflbjrnnisson said… with lots of leaks and suspiciously wobbly sides. "Crap, does anyone know what this pile of little pegs is for? There are like twenty of them and I can't find any holes!"
"No need, my friend, no need. Here we come to the shore now. My life's work, finally coming to fruition! Look at that! The Übermenschen are all waiting for us on the beach. Magnificent, just magnificent. Look how tall they are! And full-body fur coats! That's how a man should dress, all in white. Magnificent. Oh look, they're waving at us!"
"Are… are they charging? Shit, they're in the water!"
"Turn it around! Turn it around! Not Übermenschen! Schnell, schnell!"
"The — fucking steering wheel! It's off! It's full of holes without pegs!"
And that's why Churchill, Manitoba, is full of polar bears, in tribute to that great moment of human-polar bear cooperation.
They're eating each other now, though. It's true. Very sad. Which just goes to show you, Canada is no place for patsies.