Seven Great Winters in World Literature and Cinema

written by Clara Godwin-Suttie 

 Have you ever considered how an experience that almost everyone deals with can be seen constantly in the same way or through many different lenses? For some, winter is death: think of Game of Thrones, The Revenant, Snowpiercer, or the Ice Planet Hoth from Star Wars. For others, cold periods offer festivities – regardless of faith, people like to celebrate in the cold. Perhaps they can find something to look forward to when they cannot enjoy their usual activities. Hanukkah is the celebration of warmth and light and extra rations in December. We know that summer is coming after the solstice, celebrated by Druids, and Christmas was assigned a date close by to offer a rival celebration. Then there’s the understanding that winter only works when there’s a little treat, like Lucy from The Chronicles of Narnia sounding horrified at the prospect of eternal winter but no Christmas. Perhaps the lack of warmth and plenty leaves room for mystery, like Lucy Gray’s poem or the sinister North from the His Dark Materials trilogy. Our understanding of what winter constitutes is pretty much the same: sparse food and cold nights, but our reaction to it in media and folklore is so different. 

Always winter but never Christmas
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

When we were less discerning of heavy religious overtones in literature, many of us enjoyed the classic children’s stories in The Chronicles of Narnia. The image of Lucy standing by a lamppost in a snowstorm before being rescued by Mr. Tumnus is one of the most iconic winter scenes in literature history. Yet, while the children seem happy to run around, have a snowball fight, and wrap up in fur coats that aren’t technically stolen, it’s evident that this weather has been sent to punish the residents of Narnia by the White Witch. Lucy’s incredulous comment that it’s always winter but never Christmas in Narnia indicates the hope the festival brought to C.S. Lewis. Father Christmas’s visit and the ice melting are signs that Aslan is back and the evil magic is broken. 

 I am the fire that burns against the cold
A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

Perhaps you, like me, read The Chronicles of Narnia as a child and graduated to other fantasy novels as you grew older. Lord of the Rings, written by C.S. Lewis’ friend Tolkien, became a genre-defining book that led to the creation of Westeros from the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Although we’re still waiting for the final books, the TV show wrapped up to general dismay back in 2019. The series starts with men being killed by ice demons, and throughout the novels, the unnatural season and their effect on human lives are explored thoroughly. Whether it’s cannibalism, suicide to save resources, or regional snobbery, winter is a traumatic experience that shapes all of the lives of those in the North. The motto of the most essential northern house – Winter is Coming – is both a warning and a call to action. We hope that when the time comes, the squabbling kings and queens will leave the Game of Thrones and work to defeat winter. 

 The Storm Came on Before Its Time
Lucy Gray by William Wordsworth

Have you ever stood in a snowy field and felt inexplicably creeped out? Sure, during the daytime, it’s fun to go sledding or have a snowball fight, but the eerie way it never quite gets dark is unsettling. What’s beneath the snow? What is it hiding and preserving? Wordsworth’s poem gets into the mystery of winter. It tells of a young woman who leaves her parent’s house during a snowstorm and vanishes. Here, winter isn’t evil or a force to be overcome: it’s mysterious and speaks to loss and confusion. Wordsworth was apparently inspired by a true story his sister told him. However, there, the fate of Lucy Gray was less ambiguous. The poem also inspired Susanne Collins to write her Hunger Games prequel, A Ballard of Snakes and Songbirds, where one of the main characters is named Lucy Gray… perhaps giving a clue to her eventual fate. 

 They tell me this is cold. I don’t know what cold is because I don’t freeze
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

If you found the Christianity in The Chronicles of Narnia a little hard to deal with, you may have found solace in His Dark Materials. Functioning as a children’s fantasy book and a critique of Catholicism, this trilogy documents the adventures of Lyra Belacqua. The first novel, Northern Lights, mainly focuses on Lyra’s attempts to get to the mysterious North to save her friend. While there, she has to protect herself from the cold weather of the area and the deeper, much more sinister emotional ice of the adults who refuse to support or love the children or their daemons. 

 Spring is the time of plans and projects
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

We couldn’t avoid including Russia in this list, could we? Russian perception of winter is very different from other places in the world because of the length and extremity of conditions, as well as differences in culture and language. Many readers, therefore, avoid Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but if you can navigate the complex plots, endless names and nicknames, and the sheer length of the texts, you’ll find something extremely rewarding. Anna Karenina is widely considered one of the best Russian novels, and the characters work through social, political, and economic issues with the background of the area’s physical coldness and the people’s emotional chill. 

 We didn’t freeze to death, but we didn’t have time to be thankful
Snowpiercer by Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette, and others

 What do France, South Korea, the Czech Republic, and the US have in common? On the surface, not much. But they all recognize the problems that will come with climate change and have worked together on the Snowpiercer series. Originally conceived as a comic, adapted into a film and then a television series starring the gorgeous Daveed Diggs and directed by Oscar-winning Bong Joon-ho, the Snowpiercer property explores life onboard a train after an apocalyptic winter. I always liked traveling on the trans-Siberian Express, but this is the dark sister. Snowpiercer discusses class, exploitation, survival, and horror, and it’s set against the ironic background that the hideous winter was created to prevent global warming. Perhaps banning private jets would be better… 

 Soon the first snow will fall, and the hunt for the killer begins
The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Let’s finish off with a thoroughly silly interpretation of winter. The Snowman is a 2017 murder mystery film based on a book from the Harry Hole series by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo. The book was well received, translated into English, and published internationally. It’s dreadful. There are five red herrings, the worst sex scenes I’ve ever read, and just awful prose. I could excuse the latter due to translation, but it’s not exactly the best basis for a film. The reason that the property is called The Snowman is because the killer cuts off the heads of women and sticks them onto snowmen. He also writes letters to “Mister Policeman” and signs off with a childish snowman drawing. It’s not quite the stupidest thing I’ve ever encountered, but it’s got to be close… In fairness, I should say that some people claim that Nesbo was satirical, but the humor was lost in translation from Norwegian and then as a film adaptation. 

 Well,  winter is complicated. For some, it’s inconvenient, especially if you’re trying to work or go about your everyday life. For others, winter is a joy, filled with snowball fights, festivities, and cozy evenings with warm cocoa. Some find the unstoppable force of the cold to be a reminder of human fragility and the eerie, lingering secrets. This has been the case in literature and cinema, and if you go further back, in myths, legends, and ceremonies. We might enjoy the books and films above, but if you want more, consider researching Sami and Innuk’s stories. It’s all there to help you through the cold and comfort or disturb you as you decide. 

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