Winter Wonderland? Gethen and Narnia: the Lands of Perpetual Winter

I recently went on a cruise to Bermuda.

It was awful.

This was partially due to the incessant swaying of the boat, the boredom that resulted from the lack of wi-fi (a cruel and unusual punishment by anyone’s standards), and my entire extended family being stuck on a seemingly smaller-by-the-day boat together.

But probably the single greatest factor in why the vacation was so awful was the heat. Bermuda in August is almost unbelievably hot. I am not meant to exist in such temperatures.

Eternal seasons have a long history in speculative fiction. There are the more modern interpretations, such as the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. However, classic speculative fiction has Gethen from The Left Hand of Darkness and Narnia circa The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Two worlds embroiled in an endless winter. In honour of the cold I craved while in Bermuda , I thought it would be fun to compare these two lands of perpetual winter.

I’m not trying to imply that Gethen and Narnia share many similarities. Anyone who has read them both knows we are dealing with two wildly different works of speculative fiction. However, that’s the fun of comparing things when you don’t have a grade on the line.

The planet Gethen (also known as Winter) is in the middle of an ice age. That’s their status quo. Their entire civilization has evolved in the midst of this ice age, and their entire culture reflects the harsh climate they live in. However, that is not to say they don’t like it. The genius of Le Guin is to show us the beauty of winter, which is so easy to forget. The majestic might of the Gobrin Ice is breathtaking. Le Guin describes it as “that magnificent and unspeakable desolation”. Anyone who has seen glaciers knows exactly what she means.

That’s really the amazing thing about The Left Hand of Darkness. The people of Gethen aren’t suffering under the conditions they live in. On the contrary, the language is very specifically chosen to portray the cold in a positive fashion. Estraven is described as being “slick and cold as ice”. Heat is seen as a positive thing for Gendry Ai, who is not a native of Gethen and to whom the cold is always a threat. He mentions responding to Estraven’s authority “as surely as I do the warmth of the sun”.

Since their technology has been designed to function best in the cold, Gethenians get upset when the temperature warms up, because it makes it much more difficult to travel due to the slushy conditions.

At one point in the novel, Estraven writes of the possibility that the climate will one day reach higher temperatures due to a greenhouse gas-like effect. His response is not one of sadness, because he lives in an earlier, more inhospitable time. On the contrary, he states “I am glad I shall not be present”.

In Narnia, cold is profoundly unnatural. If you are comfortable in the cold, it’s a sign you don’t belong. The eternal winter is caused by the magic wielded by the “Queen” of Narnia, the White Witch. This tyrannical and evil ruler has placed a spell on Narnia to make it “always winter and never Christmas”. One can only presume because she likes everyone to be miserable. I joke, I’m sure there’s some sort of magical reason related to maintaining her strength that requires her to make it always winter in Narnia. It’s just very convenient that everyone is reminded of what a despot she is every time they open their door.

As in Left Hand of Darkness, language is very carefully chosen here to associate the White Witch with cold and darkness and Aslan with spring and light. The coming of Aslan to Narnia heralds the return of spring. In a memorable passage in the book the Witch is forced to walk through mud because the spring is thawing everything the closer she gets to Aslan. Part of the reason the winter is so unnatural to Narnia is that, like Genly Ai, the White Witch is a foreigner. In fact, she isn’t from Narnia at all. She came from another world entirely. Genly Ai, uncomfortable in the cold, has to adapt to the world he has come to.

The White Witch, on the other hand, comes to Narnia and adapts its weather to suit her. Even though they are both foreigners, Genly Ai and the White Witch are diametrically opposed. Genly Ai’s entire mission throughout the novel is to act as an “Envoy” to Gethen. He wishes to incorporate Gethen into the “Ekumen”, a sort of confederation of planets. The White Witch’s purpose, however, is conquest. These are two very different options for exploring a new habitat.

Traditionally the cold,  harsh nature of winter has led authors to associate it with evil in their books, as is the case in Lewis’ Narnia. But after my Bermuda experience I have to side with the inhabitants of Gethen. I do prefer the cold. Hopefully more authors will take their cues from Le Guin and turn the stereotype on its head, exploring winter as the more preferable environment.

 -contributed by Lara Thompson


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