A runaway boy befriends a polar bear that’s being transported from Norway to London in this lyrical and timeless adventure story about freedom, captivity, and finding a family.
The polar bear is a royal bear, a gift from the King of Norway to the King of England. The first time Arthur encounters the bear, he is shoved in her cage as payback for stealing food. Restless and deadly, the bear terrifies him. Yet, strangely, she doesn’t harm him—though she has attacked anyone else who comes near. That makes Arthur valuable to the doctor in charge of getting the bear safely to London. So Arthur, who has run away from home, finds himself taking care of a polar bear on a ship to England.
Tasked with feeding and cleaning up after the bear, Arthur’s fears slowly lessen as he begins to feel a connection to this bear, who like him, has been cut off from her family. But the journey holds many dangers, and Arthur knows his own freedom–perhaps even his life—depends on keeping the bear from harm. When pirates attack and the ship founders, Arthur must make a choice—does he do everything he can to save himself, or does he help the bear to find freedom?
Based on the real story of a polar bear that lived in the Tower of London, this story is also a touching account of the bond between a boy and a bear.
A note from the author
Every once in a while, while reading just for fun, I stumble across something irresistible—something I know I want to write about, even if I have no idea where to begin. This happened to me a number of years ago when I read Daniel Hahn‘s The Tower Menagerie. Turns out, in the old days, kings used to give one another animals. In England, these royal gifts were kept in a special place in the Tower of London—the menagerie. There was an elephant from the King of France. There were five camels from the King of Spain. There were three lions from the Holy Roman Emperor. Over the centuries, the menagerie grew to include porcupines, eagles, tigers, wolves, leopards, owls, rhinos, monkeys, a grizzly bear, and many other exotic animals.
My favorite of them all is the polar bear that was given to King Henry III of England by King Haakon IV of Norway in 1252. Apparently, because of the cost to feed the bear, he or she was allowed to swim in the Thames River just outside the Tower, and fish for salmon. Better yet, the bear’s keeper apparently went into the river as well, wearing some sort of “thick wrap” provided by the sheriffs of the Tower.
The fact that the citizens of London in the thirteenth century were treated to the sight of a polar bear swimming in the Thames River just got me. It took a long time for the shape of the story to unfold, but eventually I came to this: We know, more or less, what happened to the bear at the Tower. But who was the keeper who came with the bear from Norway? And how did keeper and bear travel to England? And if the keeper actually swam in the river with the bear… There must have been some kind of unusual bond between them. How did that come about?
Journey of the Pale Bear is my imagined answer to those questions.
I did a lot of research, much of it reading books and articles about the past, which I love. But the most fun of all was an up-close, exclusive encounter with the magnificent Conrad and Tasul, two of the oldest polar bears then living, at the Oregon Zoo.