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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Jack London, To Build a Fire

(illustration shared from Distinctly Montana)
no copyright infringement intended

The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow. North and south, unbroken white, save for a dark hair-line: the trail... two tiny gray spots, a man, and a dog. The dog, a big native husky, the proper wolf-dog... The man, a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, without imagination, quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances... Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero... He turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland... Now and then he would recall the warnings of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek. He had ignored these warnings, and now it was too late.

Jack London wrote two versions of To Build a Fire. The first version was published in 1902. The second came in 1908 (published in The Century Magazine V.76 August that year). There are differences between the two versions, and the lovers of London's stories enjoy reading the two things in parallel to discuss the distinctions.

The story is told by London in his usual down to the fact style, without embellishing or excusing the man for his bad decisions; but building this way two unforgettable portraits: one of what we name implacable fatality, a day that had broken cold and gray, with no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky - a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark; and a portrait of what we name human greatness - majesty of man in challenging the nature, challenging life and death, throughout attempts and failures, desperate fight for survival and ultimate defeat. A last panic, and then, the decision to meet death with dignity: he was bound to freeze anyway, and he might as well take it decently. And the dog crept close to the man and caught the scent of death, then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.

You can read the story here:

Several short movies are based on this story, directed by Claude Autant-Lara (1930), David Cobham (1969), Luca Armenia (2003), Dave Main and Mark Dissette (2008), and Alexander Raye Pimentel (2011).

To Build a Fire, 1969
director: David Cobham
narrator: Orson Wells
starring Ian Hogg
(video by David Cobham)

(Jack London)




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