Always Winter and Never Christmas? Some Thoughts on Snow, Springtime, and Fantasy Literature

According to the calendar, the vernal equinox is coming soon, March 20. The Auditors of Time just decreed that we must all surrender an hour of our lives (they do promise to give it back in the fall), and I’ve already heard spring peepers singing for all they are worth. However, we currently are having a snowstorm here in western North Carolina, so those poor peepers are, as my dad would say, now “peepingReal-Life 'Narnia' inspired author | ITALY Magazine through glass,” and the single digit temperature and sub-zero windchill are enough to make a person look twice at the calendar to see if spring is around the corner or on another continent. As I frequently point out to my fellow residents of the mountains during this time of year, “Appalachian Spring” is not just a musical composition; it is a specific species of cruel joke. It’s rather like that feeling when, well before the end of the book or film, our heroes have slain the monster and we, savvy story-consumers that we are, know that the monster is NOT in fact dead, or the monster has a baby, a mate, a scary parent, or a whole monster army in reserve. Thus, the howling winds outside and the freshly cut daffodils inside (I cut them just before the snow) have reminded me of some thoughts I have long been pondering about the way seasons, particularly winter and spring, work in fantasy literature and how the treatment of those seasons is often an indication of the worldviews of authors and of the directions their tales will take.

So join me after the jump as we ponder some fantastic thoughts and decide if “winter is coming” or if, in fact, “This is no thaw. This is spring.”

Human beings are closely attun27 Planting by the Signs ideas | moon garden, garden calendar, moon phasesed to the seasons, whether we admit it or not. Those of us who are northern hemisphere gardeners have already been ogling the seed catalogs for months or even placing orders. As a devoted old-timer, I carefully consult my Old Farmer’s Almanac to make sure I have all my seedlings started and my garden preparations completed at the right times. But the seasons still have a powerful effect, even on those of us who come no closer to gardening than the produce section at the market, or who only know the seasons because of the decorations on display a few aisles past that produce.

Many people suffer from SADD, a specific form of depression that is seasonal. With longer hours of darkness and colder weather in the winter, it is not surprising that humans find their mental health affected. Long before we had professionals to diagnose us with such disorders, humans knew there was something ominous about winter. They told stories about terrifying frost giants or beautifully chilly snow queens, stories whose echoes continue today.  They could have guessed, long before John Keats wrote “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” that nothing good was going to happen to a knight “alone and palely loitering” because “the sedge has withered from the lake” and “no birds sing.” Storytellers have always sort of known that spring, despite the mud and increased amount of required outdA Midsummer Night's Dream - Titania and Oberonoor labor, was something to be craved, just as those spring peepers make a sound that creates a primal joy in many humans, myself included.

Thus, when spring doesn’t come, or comes late, or at the wrong time, we recognize a dissonance that reflects something more serious than delaying planting some potatoes. The disruption of seasons is a motif that storytellers have used to great effect. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the quarrel of Titania and Oberon, king and queen of the fairies and powerful nature spirits, has caused serious disruption to the seasons. At the beginning of the play, among other problems with nature, spring and winter are not occurring at their normal times, causing humans to be upset. By the end of the play, when the fairies have settled their custody dispute (through Oberon’s trick with a love flower and a donkey-headed wannabe actor of room-temperature intelligence), all is restored, and, like any good comedy, the play ends with happy resolutions for everyone. A more recent example comes from the first book of Robert Jordan’s enormous Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World. Just in case readers don’t get the hint that all is not well in Jordan’s far flung fictional world, the first book begins with a late spring, with confused and frustrated farmers concerned over the fact that the normal signs of spring, growing plants, warmer weather, migrating birds, have not arrived by their usual time.

Harry Potter Christmas TreeIn the Hogwarts Adventures, the weather often portends the events that will unfold, most particularly with the presence of the Dementors, who make even a sunny day cold and dreary. Winter is not always a bleak time in the Wizarding World, however, primarily because of each  story’s full-circle seasonal cycle and the annual celebration of Christmas. Whether it involves a glorious tree in the great hall of Hogwarts, a cozy gathering with the Weasleys, or even a chilly tent and the return of a wayward friend, Christmas always comes, just the same.

A winter without Christmas, though, is a sure sign that all is not well, and it is the most distinguishing characteristic of the rule of Jadis the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. While the beautiful snowy forest of Narnia is lovely, it is also dangerous. C.S. Lewis had long carried in his head many of the images that eventually became the Narnia stories. Two, which strongly reflect Lewis’sMr. Tumnus' Toasty Muffin Bread: Baking Inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia - The Fantasy Network News childhood love of “northerness,” are the image of the queen on the sledge and the image of the faun, his arms laden with packages, beneath a lamppost. Both images are snowy ones, and although the scences that evolved from those images are enchanting ones, they are also scenes fraught with danger. The White Witch, of course, is a terrifying murderer and usurper, her sledge and box of Turkish Delight the Narnian equivalents of a suspicious van and the offer of candy to an unwary child. Mr. Tumnus with his parcels is charming, of course, but he, too, is a kidnapper, and only because he chooses to disobey his orders is Lucy able to travel back through the wardrobe. By blending beauty with danger, Lewis captured not just his own response to the ambiance of the North, but also the very real attributes of winter, especially a winter without Christmas.

Once Aslan returns to Narnia, so does Christmas, as the arrival of Father Christmas indicates winter has been redeemed and the seasonsThe ultimate Balle-Leaper — art-of-narnia: Father Christmas by Deborah Maze ... will now function in their normal patterns. The evidence that Father Christmas has gifted Narnians with food and gifts is a blow to Jadis. Then, the arrival of spring, with the melting snow and blooming flowers, infuriates and frightens The White Witch, who knows her power is crumbling, even before one of her followers says, “This is no thaw. This is spring.”   After the defeat of the Witch, the seasons return to their normal cycles, and even centuries later, during the reign of King Caspian, snow is an occasion for dancing and celebration during the Great Snow Dance. The lovely winter event, with dancing fauns and dryads and synchronized snowball-throwing dwarves, shows that winter is not, in and of itself, bad.

A similar treatment of winter can be found in Tone Almhjell’s lovely novel The Twistrose Key, whose  story takes place in a single, prolonged winter night in a magical world, peopled with talking creatures who were pets before their deaths in our world. Yet, it is a beautiful winter night, with a starry sky, warm fires, and plates of waffles, a reminder of the beauties of winter when all is right with the world.

However, some authors build worlds where all is not right, where all can never be right, with the seasons or anything else. The result is a story like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels, adapted into the popular Game of Thrones television series. Martin’s world is one of instability, with long, unpredictable seasons that reflect the bleak tone and the mercurial machinations of the characters. I have tried to like the books andA Song of Ice and Fire - Wikipedia show, but the very tagline, “Winter is Coming,” made the world of Westeros far from endearing for me. There is still the possibility that Westeros may have some hope; the long-promised last novel, if it is ever published, is titled A Dream of Spring. But, in the meantime, it  remains a world that is complex and carefully woven but nonetheless unrelentingly dreary.

Rather than bemoaning the oncoming onslaught of winter, I find myself drawn instead to the declaration of the promise of spring, to the cycles that tell us that yes, winter is coming, and then, spring, and fall, and winter again. It is one of the many reasons I love living in my Appalachian mountains, which often resemble Narnia, both in the winter and in the other seasons. As I grouse about the arbitrary time change and plot my garden, I also enjoy ruminating on how the intricate dance of the seasons is so beautifully connected to literature and to faith. There is something wonderful about living in a place with four distinct seasons and commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ in the spring, when the very earth tells of death and rebirth. Perhaps, that hope, that promise, is what really makes Narnia different than Westeros, and what reminds us that there may, in fact, soon be a thaw coming to end winter.

Thoughts? Comments? Offers to shovel the driveway?


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