Thursday, January 12, 2006

Heinrich Harrer - author of SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET

Heinrich Harrer, the climber and author of SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET died this week. His book, which describes how he mentored the young Dalai Lama (which subsequently awakened western interest in the land of Tibet), was later made into a film starring Brad Pitt. This interesting BBC website article provides details of his extraordinary life, but what it doesn't mention is the little-known fact that Heinrich Harrer was the son-in-law of another extraordinary man - Alfred Wegener. However, although the two men had much in common - a love of climbing and conquering hardships that most of us can hardly imagine - I don't think they ever met. Alfred Wegener's youngest daughter, Lotte, was still a young child when her father died and presumably she met Heinrich Harrer much later.

The wives and families of famous adventurers are rarely mentioned or considered, but I think their hardships and mental endurance may equal and sometimes surpass that of their more famous relatives. Lotte's mother, Else Wegener, must have suffered considerable anguish both while her husband was making his important discoveries in Greenland, and also when she was eventually widowed at an early age with three young children (and two elderly parents). Then within a couple of years her eldest daughter, Hilde, died too, which must have been extremely hard to bear. When just a few years later her youngest daughter married another risk-taker and she had to help look after yet more (temporarily) fatherless children she must have pondered on the tendency of history to repeat itself.

Else Wegener was an accomplished writer and translator of books herself and wrote two interesting biographies of her husband and her father, Vladimir Köppen, who was an eminent meteorologist. She also helped her husband in some of his work, for instance interpreting the dialect of local people for her husband when he was interviewing them - he used their reports to predict where a meteorite had impacted.

When Heinrich Harrer returned from Tibet she was in her fifties, and I hope that from then on her life was easier. As it turned out she had many years to go and only died fairly recently - in the early 1990s aged 100.


Blogger DC Peaches said...


Sat Jan 14, 04:55:00 am  
Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

So Clare, have you read Seven Years in Tibet? I've neither seen the movie nor read the book, though I belong to several online Buddhist groups, and I've heard both there and in Patrick French's Tibet, Tibet that the film is wildly inaccurate. I'm curious if the book was this way as well, or if Hollywood did their typical Hollywood thing and disregarded "accuracy" in place of "close-ups of Brad Pitt."

Wed Jan 18, 09:07:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason - I've heard the film is rubbish too, and my brother, who is really into climbing, which is where I get my information from, says that Harrer's second book THE WHITE SPIDER is his better book, in fact raves about it - apparently that time in Tibet gave him some sort of metaphysical take on life.

Thu Jan 19, 10:08:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am very happy to find you. I chose Wegener for my History Fair topic in 7th grade. An interview with an expert on the topic would be very helpful for me. The History Fair theme for this year is "Taking a Stand." My question for you is: What actions did Wegener take to publicize and defend his theory?
Christian Peper
Alpine, Utah, USA

Sat Jan 21, 07:26:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Christian: good choice of topic! Wegener didn't much publicise and defend his theory in the modern sense. There were no advertising campaigns or dramatic scenes. He just quietly gathered his evidence year upon year convinced he would be believed in the end because he knew he was right.

At first he told people about his ideas in conferences. Then he wrote books and papers. Some people believed his hypothesis on continental drift and some people did not. The people that didn't believe him sometimes made fun of him but he just ignored them when they did. If people were making sensible arguments he used to sometimes write letters back putting forward his point of view and he also wrote papers arguing with them and presenting his own view. These sort of papers are called 'rhetoric'.
He also kept writing his book THE ORIGIN OF THE CONTINENTS AND THE OCEANS, one edition after the other, collecting all the information that people sent him that supported his idea that continents had drifted apart. In the end there were 4 editions, each one much thicker than the last. These were translated into many foreign languages including English which publicised his views so that in the end most geologists and geographers all over the world knew about them. They were also discussed in big conferences in New York and in England but Wegener didn't go to these.

And that was about it, really. He knew he didn't have to try too hard to convince people because he knew they would come to realise he was right (in some ways) in the end.

Hope this helps.

Sat Jan 21, 08:10:00 pm  

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