Now that it is almost October it’s impossible for me to keep those famous, ominous words, first uttered in book one of George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, out of my mind: ‘Winter is coming’. The landscape of A Game of Thrones is irresistibly marked by the clash between winter and summer, warmth and cold, ice and fire. The freezing lands beyond The Wall contrast sharply with the sun-kissed southern lands of Westeros, which end ultimately in the desert principality of Dorne. This climatic imagery reaches its critical point when the imprisoned Davos Seaworth is informed by the red priestess Melisandre of Asshai that their entire world and all its people is no more than the mortal battleground between two gods whose conflict is everywhere and everlasting. On one side is R’hllor, the Lord of Light, the Heart of Fire, the God of Flame and Shadow. Against him stands the Great Other whose name may not be spoken, the Lord of Darkness, the Soul of Ice, the God of Night and Terror. They are opposites who present all men with a choice between light and dark, good and evil, death and life. But by no means is this a concept that is new to fantasy novels. Again and again, the cold lands of the north and the winter season are associated with death and darkness, while it is in the warmer southern lands and summertime that life and joy abide. In Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Sturmspeik in the northernmost part of the world of Osten Ard is the forbidding fortress of the undead Storm King and his minions; the bleak wasteland known as The Blight is the domain of the Dark One, Robert Jordan’s principal villain in The Wheel of Time; and the witch-realm of Angmar in the north of Middle Earth is home to Tolkien’s Witch King, chieftain of the Ringwraiths who serve the Dark Lord Sauron. What is it that has lodged such dread of the perils of snow and ice in the minds of generations of storytellers?
The Norse people and their myths may provide one explanation. The Vikings came out of the frozen lands of northern Europe – Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden – seeking wealth and conflict. Theirs was a society of rugged and enduring men and women, who revered bloody-handed gods and valued courage and action above all other virtues. For two hundred years, they raided and plundered the coasts of Europe, raping, murdering, exacting harsh tributes, sacking monasteries and putting entire towns and villages to the torch. They bestrode history like demons from the ice, their axe-wielding beserkers and canny battle leaders inspiring fear and awe wherever they went and leaving a legacy that has lasted over a thousand years. Their gods were as bloody and brutal as they often were, from grim Odin – Lord of the Slain – to the cruel and capricious Loki, the god of chaos and deceit. The Norse myths also present a perpetual struggle between what to them represented the forces of good and evil: on one side were the gods and heroes, who would, in the fated final battle of Ragnarok, fight their mortal foes the giants of Jotunheim. The Norsemen and their colourful culture have been copied again and again in fantasy: Viking analogues appear in the work of Tad Williams (Rimmersmen), George R R Martin (Ironmen) and Robin Hobb (Red Ship Raiders). Even Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan are basically ‘Vikings of the plains’, with a culture and language to match.
The clash of seasons mirroring the conflict between good and evil is by no means limited to Norse mythology, however. In Persian culture the night starting winter is called Yalda (meaning ‘birth’) and it has been celebrated for thousands of years. It is referred to as the eve of the birth of Mithras, the god who symbolised light, goodness and strength on earth. By the whiteness of winter, the Sun rises again to fade away in the darkness of the long night (Yalda). It is also believed that the last day of winter, which is the first day of spring (also known as Nowrouz), is the day that good will overcome evil. In Greek mythology, Hades kidnapped Persephone to be his wife. Zeus ordered Hades to return her to Demeter, the goddess of the earth and her mother. However, Hades tricked Persephone into eating the food of the dead, so Zeus decreed that Persephone would spend six months with Demeter and six months with Hades. During the time her daughter is with Hades, Demeter became depressed and caused winter. In Welsh mythology, Gwyn ap Nudd abducted a maiden named Creidylad. On May Day, her lover, Gwythr ap Greidawl, fought Gwyn to win her back. The battle between them represented the contest between summer and winter.
Or perhaps the explanation is simpler than that – perhaps the hostile nature of the polar regions and the winter season provides reason enough for its constant association with darkness, death and evil. Marrow-chilling conditions, deadly hazards and other dangers threaten explorers of chilly northern climes. A wintry grave awaits those who venture forth unprepared, whether travelling through polar regions, frozen mountains, icy wastes or frost-glazed dungeons deep beneath the ice. This alone has provided inspiration for numerous authors. The conditions, hazards and effects of these frigid zones vary in time and severity, depending upon the specific cause and location of the given frostfell, and therefore, the possibilities are seemingly limitless. It is obvious that Susan Dexter, in creating the kingdom of Nimir, the Ice Lord, in The Winter King’s War, drew heavily on real world polar environments; as did Robin Hobb in writing of the realm of the Pale Woman on the frozen isle of Aslevjal in Fool’s Fate and Guy Gavriel Kay in his creation of the dread fortress of Starkadh, stronghold of the dark god Rakoth Maugrim in The Darkest Road. All of these otherwise wildly different antagonists are united by their malice and as such it seems somehow fitting that they each call such bleak and unfriendly environments their homes.
Then there is the fact that winter, the season that typically begins with the winter solstice and ends with the vernal equinox, has become inextricably associated with decay and death. Many plants and animals enter a state of low or even suspended life functions. Not until the onset of spring do these flora and fauna return to active life and the entire biosphere seems to come alive at the same time. An extreme drop in world-wide temperatures marks an ice age, when vegetation, wildlife and intelligent civilisations suffer from unending wintry conditions. Only those creatures most suited to life in extreme cold or those possessing great adaptability and ingenuity have any chance of surviving through an ice age, which may last anywhere from a few years to countless millennia, depending upon the specific climatological and magical factors impacting a particular world. In fantasy fiction this is reflected by tales of lands or seas that remain frozen permanently because of some unknown or unremembered calamity or a powerful, now-lost magic. The most famous example, of course, is the Hundred Year Winter in C S Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, when the entire land of Narnia is plunged into an unending ice age by the spell of the evil White Witch. A more sophisticated, science fiction take on the concept, however, is Brian Aldiss’s monumental Helliconia trilogy, which tells of a planet where seasons can naturally last for centuries (George R R Martin ‘borrows’ this superb idea in A Song of Ice and Fire).
Ultimately, then, winter is a season of concealment and revelation. When the snows come, they obscure the outlines of the land itself, providing a softer surface that conceals the many individual variations underneath. But at the same time, winter is a season of dead grass and leafless trees. Forests seem stricken to their skeletons, and are no protection against the cold wind. In winter, all the glory of the seasons fades to nothing, nowhere to be seen, and snow hides the ground. But do not forget that life is still there, waiting beneath the earth where it can’t be disturbed, and, as the story goes, when the lion shakes his mane, it will be spring again.