The season of winter is often overshadowed in literature by the festival of Christmas. Poets celebrate the coming of flowers in spring, the sun of summer and the leaves of autumn but by the time we get to winter, all eyes tend to be on the big holiday. A few years ago, I wrote a post on my Top Ten Summers in Fiction – summer is an often wild time in the fictional world, with heat used by many as an excuse to discard all rules. What about winter though? After Father Christmas and the presents, what does the coldest season symbolise in stories?
As everyone knows, Moomins typically hibernate through winter. Imagine Moomintroll’s frustration therefore when he wakes up and finds himself unable to sleep. Moominland Midwinter is very different in tone to the previous books and as a child, I found it incredibly sad. Moomintroll is very lonely for much of the story, feeling out of place and even scared. The characters who he meets are very different to those he is used to and there is a recurring theme of characters feeling disconnected. There’s the over-enthusiastic Hemulen (very different to all of his relatives) who wants to have Sorry-oo the dog as his companion, but Sorry-oo longs to be with the wolves, but then when he finds them he discovers that they are not like him. Even the Groke, object of so many people’s fears, turns out to want warmth and connection. Then there’s the Lady of the Cold who could come at any time and you’d better be sure not to look her in the eye. Luckily, Too-ticky is able to teach Moomintroll how to survive and even see the beauty in the season but Moominland Midwinter is a far more off-putting than its springtime counterpart.
Sooner or later, the Starks are always right. Winter does come and when it does, you’d better be somewhere else. In the world of Westeros, a season can last a decade and the longer the summer, the longer the winter to come. As the country descends into anarchy and civil war with the War of the Five Kings, we gradually realise that they are fighting the wrong enemy. The land Beyond The Wall has terrors more dreadful than anything any Lannister army can bring forth. Winter here is not just a season but a force of malevolence with the power to crush all that is good beneath its heel. The Iron Throne is only a distraction.
For me, The Long Winter is Wilder’s true masterpiece. The television series has led to many people mistaking the story as wholesome frontier fun – there’s a lot more at stake. The Ingalls family are trying to hold down a claim but when an elderly Native American comes into town to warn the settlers that every twenty-one years a hard winter is had, they decide they have to listen. So begins seven months of heavy, heavy snow – railroad blocked, no food getting through, constant sub-zero temperatures, howling wind. In the beginning, the family sit together and sing in the evenings and as time goes on, they simply huddle in silence. Kerosene runs out, so does the grain. They use coffee to make bread. One day Laura steels herself and asks Ma if they will starve. While many have accused Wilder of using her daughter as a ghost-writer, others have pointed out how far The Long Winter reads as a survivor account. The prose becomes dream-like towards the end, with experts saying this mirrors how someone experiencing malnutrition would be feeling. The Long Winter is a book that sends a real shiver down the spine.
The Dark is Rising
The Dark is Rising is a horribly underappreciated series – each episode is individually superb but my favourite is the titular second book in the sequence. Will Stanton is about to have his eleventh birthday on December 21 and he wants more than anything to have some snow. When he wakes up that day however, he finds that although snow has fallen, the world has also transformed in a different, far more sinister way. His family will not wake up and when he goes outside, the snow has covered all the countryside around him and the houses and farms which had been there before have been replaced by dense forest. Turning eleven marks the moment when Will becomes one of the Old Ones, a race of people dedicated to stop the Dark overcoming the Light. The coming of the snow, of winter, marks the moment of Will’s lost innocence. Like Moomintroll, Will is now forced to make his way without the protection of his family – he is all on his own now.
Lyra travels North with the Gyptians on a mission to rescue the children who have been taken by Gobblers, which turns out to mean the General Oblation Board. They arrive in the Arctic and have to engage Iorek Byrnison, an armoured bear, to help them reach their destination. The description of the furs and skins always stuck in my mind, but most particularly how during their journey, Lyra discovers poor Tony Makarios. This is a young boy who has been cut from his daemon, his soul, and then dumped to die by the Gobblers. Lyra tries to keep him safe, to get him somewhere warm and is then devastated by the child’s death. Here again, the chill of the setting reflects the horror of what she has witnessed. What has previously been a high adventure is suddenly revealed to have incredible stakes. The Northern Lights sees Lyra lose her innocence, discover the truth about her parents and decide ultimately to rely upon herself. Had Pullman used a more summery setting, it is unlikely that the book would have been quite so striking.
The Tenderness of Wolves
Much was made at the time of its release of how this book’s author had struggled with agoraphobia at the time of writing, using research in London’s libraries and never actually travelling to Canada. I would always argue that a writer of fiction can write about whatever their imagination takes them to, whether they have been there or not, but The Tenderness of Wolves is nonetheless a truly remarkable achievement. The body of a fur trader has been found and the search is on to discover who killed him. Mrs Ross is sure that it is not her son who is guilty, but others are less sure and so a party sets out to find Francis Ross. It would be a mistake however to dismiss the story as a whodunnit with a number of side-plots which are equally compelling. There is the tale of the two sisters Amy and Eve lost many years ago in the woods, one of whom makes a reappearance during the search. They also encounter runaways from a religious community, others lost in the snow. Penney creates a vast and empty world of snowy nothingness, the chill of its silence as the travellers tramp through it glimmering from the page. And then by contrast, the warmth of the tent as one character battles to keep from freezing and is invited to put their hands in the armpits of their companion …
Another pick from a frontier – does the New World perhaps do winter best? Mabel and Jack are a childless couple trying to connect in the wilds of Alaska. Trying to set aside their sadness, they build a snowman together, but then it disappears and with it goes the hat and mittens they had used to decorate it. Soon they begin to glimpse something scampering by their house. The story is clearly derived from the old fairytale of the child who came and went with the seasons but Ivey has moved it into the real world. This is a true tale for winter though, full of the silences that would come between two people trapped in doors by the cold weather. Winter here has given them time to think over what they do not have and somehow or other, it also brings them that which they want.
Nordic-Noir here – Maija, her husband and two daughters are seeking a fresh start. Instead, they get a ‘wolf winter’, a term which refers to the coming of a winter of unparalleled cruelty and one that reminds us that we are ‘mortal and and alone.’ A man lies dead and the wolves are blamed, but Maija points out that were that truly the case, the wounds would not be quite so clean. The icy grip of the season tightens on the people of Blackasen, tempers shorten and suspicion grows as it becomes clear that everyone has something to hide. It was interesting to read in the afterword that Ekbäck had drafted the book four times, once set in 2005, another in 1930, then in 1865 before finally settling with 1717. This is less historical fiction than it is a battle to retain one’s self in a landscape in which everything is set against you.
The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Narnia is in a state of eternal winter when the Pevensie children first set foot there, a season created by the White Witch. The image of the four siblings emerging from the wardrobe in those big fur coats is one that has always stuck in my mind, but so too does the White Witch’s horror when her dwarf coachman is forced to tell her that the thaw has set in. Unlike various of the other literary winters, the Narnian animals never seem to doubt that the world will come good again and that Aslan will save them. The winter here is far more picturesque, with convenient paths and handy places to hide in a tight spot. The Oxford Story Museum had a Narnia in Winter room and it was a glorious place to visit and connect with one’s inner child.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow
More Nordic noir here with Miss Smilla investigating the death of her six year-old neighbour who died falling off a roof and whose death she feels sure was not accidental. Smilla has a feeling for snow and recognises that the child’s footprints on the roof show someone running rather than playing. She is the true queen of winter, contemplating the season on a borderline philosophical level. The novel is often disorientating in how it takes in Greenlander culture, ice theory and then switches back to considering loneliness and independence. Like so many of the other books on the list, the isolation of the key characters is mirrored by their setting. Winter here is almost a state of being, of understanding and communicating with the surroundings.
The Virgin in the Ice
Brother Cadfael is fighting crime in the winter time in this, my very favourite of the series. Two children have gone missing and given the political climate (the Stephen-Matilda conflict), everyone is very concerned. Although this book is set in Britain, there is snow aplenty and various characters are caught and required to beg shelter on the road rather than risk freezing. The young woman found dead in the frozen pond is the true tragedy of the story and it will take all of Cadfael’s medieval forensic skills to understand what became of her. The abbey at Shrewsbury though is well able to offer sanctuary to those fleeing the cold and Brother Cadfael will always have a warm place by the fire for a weary traveller.
My memories of this book go back to very early childhood but watching the television animation this Christmas, I was reminded of just how beautiful it truly is. Raymond Briggs emphasises not the darkness or the terror which is so common to winter-centric stories but rather the beauty. The Boy invites the Snowman into his home, they play together, they dress up and share jokes. They go back outside and the Snowman shows the Boy how to fly. Yet at the heart of the story is the message that winter is transient and fleeting, that we must hold on tight and enjoy it while it is here since when it is gone, we will have a long time to wait for it to come back again.
A look at the literature seems to reveal that winter is a tough time to be alive – I wish everyone a very Happy New Year and advise them to bundle up against the cold and remember that spring is not so very far away.