Is This Just Fantasy?: A Winter Wonderland
When asked about my favorite season, I consistently respond with a classic cop-out: I like all of them, each for their own unique reasons. But to be honest, winter might edge a bit ahead of the others in my heart. There’s just something special about winter–something almost magical.
Having grown up in northeastern Pennsylvania, I have a fairly specific vision of winter. Winter means brisk wind whipping at the windows and thick, warm sweaters. Winter is spicy, sweet gingerbread cookies baking in the oven and hot cocoa steaming in a favorite mug. And of course, winter means snow–preferably in fairly large quantities. However, winter also immediately brings to mind a few of my favorite fantasy novels; this season features prominently in a range of fantasy novels in ways that the other seasons do not. So, what is it about winter that makes it so well suited to fantasy fiction?
In contemplating winter’s peculiar magic, I came up with a few aspects that might explain the season’s appeal–especially as a setting and theme in fantasy fiction. Winter is a time of transition–of change and transformation. Winter weather can transform a landscape in less than a hour, creating a glittering, icy wonderland. Winter also acts as a time of critical transformation for the natural world; animals and vegetation go into hibernation, resting for a spring rebirth. As Allison Tran pointed out in her post on winter solstice reading last year, this season also signals a shift in the daily balance of light and dark; the winter solstice occurs on the shortest day and the longest night of the year. In cultures around the world, the solstice and the arrival of a colder, darker time of year herald a variety of special celebrations or rituals.
It feels inevitable that any discussion about winter themed fantasy fiction simply must begin with Susan Cooper’s 1974 Newbery Honor novel, The Dark Is Rising. The second book in Cooper’s 2012 Margaret A. Edwards Award winning series of the same title, The Dark Is Rising not only features a snowy landscape and light & dark imagery; the narrative actually intertwines with events specific to late December. On Midwinter Day, Will Stanton turns eleven and learns that he is the last of the Old Ones, powerful immortals dedicated to protecting the world by holding back universal evil forces known as the Dark. But before Will can even begin to adjust to this shocking news, he immediately begins his first quest: collecting the six magical Signs and helping hold back the Dark as it gathers its strength and rises during the twelve long days of Christmas. The Dark’s rising power manifests in the mundane world as an increasingly dangerous snowstorm. There’s simply no more appropriate novel to read in late December.
While they may not appear to have much in common, Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver (2010 Best Books for Young Adults, 2010 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, & 2011 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) fits the winter season almost as perfectly as The Dark Is Rising. Grace has always been fascinated by the wolves dwelling in the woods behind her home. As a kid, she survived the pack’s attack through the intervention of a particular yellow-eyed wolf. While tensions rise following an apparent wolf attack on a local boy, Grace finds an injured and fairly naked boy on her door step–a boy with familiar yellow eyes. His name is Sam; he spends most of the year as a wolf but as the temperature climbs, he gets a few warm months as a human. However, Sam and Grace have barely met before it becomes clear that Sam, like his pack mates, is losing his grip on humanity. As in The Dark Is Rising, the shift in seasons and winter’s treacherous power are integrated into the mythology and narrative; the changing temperature is recorded at the beginning of each chapter, reminding the reader of the weather’s influence on Sam and Grace’s lives.
Like Grace and Sam, the characters in Edith Pattou’s East (2004 Best Books for Young Adults) face beastly transformations and a wild frozen landscape. Rose dreamed of adventure, longing to see the great world beyond her family’s tiny farm in Njord. But when her chance for an adventure arrives, it isn’t anything like her dreams. Her family is about to lose their farm and her sweet older sister falls horribly ill. Then one night, there is a knock at the door. A huge white bear comes in from the snow and promises the family riches and health–in exchange for Rose. So Rose leaves her home on the back of the white bear and begins a quest larger than she’d ever imagined, traveling through ice and snow, east of the sun and west of the moon. Between the ice palaces, immense arctic tundras, and an enchanted polar bear prince, this retelling of a Norwegian folk tale is an ideal winter read for fairy tale fans.
Phillip Pullman’s now classic The Golden Compass also incorporates a snowy adventure to a cold and dangerous climate–and some highly powerful polar bears. Like Rose, Lyra Belacqua dreamed of thrilling escapades exploring the world beyond the walls of Jordan College, Oxford with her shape-shifting daemon companion Pan by her side. Then her Uncle Asriel the explorer arrives in Oxford and suddenly Lyra is plunged into an epic struggle spanning countries–and even worlds. As she travels to the frozen and hostile North among witches, gypsies, and armored bears, Lyra must face terrible truths–about her world, her parentage, and her destiny. This first novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy is an excellent novel to curl up with on a winter’s night, both for its snowy setting and its absorbing world building and compulsively readable story.
What are your favorite wintery fantasy novels?
Which books do you like to pull off the shelf and enjoy with cup of cocoa on a snowy day?