We’re Walking in the Air: Tracing the Snowy Tracks of Sentient Snowmen

We’re walking in the air, we’re floating in the moonlit sky.”

(“Walking in the Air” from The Snowman, 1982)

From The Snowman (1978, 1982), the classic short read that has adorned coffee tables for decades, to the surprisingly heartwarming Jack Frost (1998), and even to Doctor Who (2012), snowmen have been depicted as living, breathing, sentient beings for longer than we might think.

So how did this come about?

Well, shockingly enough, it didn’t all start with Frosty.

An earlier recorded case of sentient snowmen is the German short Der Schneemann (“The Snowman”), which was created under the Nazi regime in 1944 (and is now available on Youtube for all to enjoy). Running just under thirteen minutes in length, it tells the story of a snowman who comes to life, becomes determined to see the month of July, and waits out those long months in a fridgeuntil, at last, he gets a taste of the sweet summer days he so longed for.

This portrayal of a snowman enraptured by the wonders of life—a carrot for his nose and a big grin on his face—is likely very familiar to you.

Frosty the Snowman, is a fairytale, they say.

He was made of snow, but the children know he came to life one day”

(Frosty the Snowman, 1950)

This classic song was recorded by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys just over sixty-five years ago, and still remains popular today. It was through this song that most people became familiar with Frosty’s story: he comes to life with a magic hat, cheerfully roams the town with the children, and eventually flees with a promise to be back someday.

Curiously, the original song never mentions Christmas, despite its contemporary association with the holiday.

Frosty the Snowman was made into a storybook that same year, and the beloved snowman started appearing on screens just a few years later in 1954, perhaps the most renowned adaptation being the Frosty the Snowman Christmas special that aired on CBS on December 7, 1969.

Skipping ahead a few more years, we arrive at Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman (1978), a charming picture book with no words at all. It tells the story of a boy who meets a curious snowman, come to life at midnight on a cold winter’s day, and explores the world with himuntil the next morning, when the snowman melts away under the sun.

The Snowman was adapted as a twenty-six minute short in 1982 and was nominated for an Academy Award. This short is just as wordless as the book on which it is based, featuring just one song with lyrics: the haunting “Walking in the Air” by Howard Blake, which plays as the boy and the snowman soar over the dark winter landscape.

(Many of you may not know that an equally delightful sequel—The Snowman and the Snowdog—was released in 2012, with many of the original team having taken part in its creation.)

While Frosty and its many derivations leave the ending ambiguous as to where he goes, The Snowman, as well as its sequel thirty years later, beautifully illustrate the tragic and inevitable fate of any being created from snow.

Nowadays, it is not difficult to see sentient snowmen portrayed in various forms of media.

You may have spotted a familiar carrot-nosed figure in Phineas and Ferb’s Christmas Vacation!, or cheered on the quirky Olaf in the 2013 film Frozen.

A significant portion of sentient snowmen tend to be depicted in a manner that resembles the friendly, lovable Frosty: one who trots to and fro, inspiring smiles on the faces of children everywhere.

Sometimes, however, the storyline can be a tad unusual.

Take the movie Jack Frost (1998), for example, wherein a fatherkilled in a car accidentis resurrected in the form of a snowman by his grieving son. Despite being a box office flop, this rather unconventional movie still uses the image of a snowman as a symbol of joy, friendship, and love to tell its story.

However, not all snowmen have good intentions.

Now, what are you? Eh? A flock of space crystals. A swarm!

But the snowmen are foot soldiers. Mindless predators.”

(The Doctor, The Snowmen, Doctor Who Christmas Special 2012)

In Doctor Who’s Christmas special, snowmen are terrifying, sharp-toothed villains (whose faces might give you nightmares) that appear by the hoards at your feet, conjured simply by thought.

You’ve also likely seen an advertisement for the 2014 Nissan Rogue in which angry snowmen, armed to the buttons with shovels and crowbars and snowballs, mow down crowds of screaming people with their attacks, their power unmatched and undefeatableunless, of course, you’re in a sturdy Nissan Rogue.

There have been a significant number of snowmen that go against the Frosty stereotype, the ones listed above being just a small sample. Can you think of any others?

Something about a smiling—or in some cases, a snarling—semi-humanoid figure that we create with our own two gloved hands seems to captivate us. It’s magical enough to make the imagination come alive and to warm (or stop!) our hearts in the coldest of times.

-Contributed by Sophie Cho

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Just Peace: Ambitious Politics in Doctor Who

Spec Doctor Who
Illustration by Stephanie Gao

Yes, in this post I will be discussing specific scenes. Yes, there will be spoilers.

Doctor Who is an awesome show; you don’t need me to tell you that. Full of action, sci-fi, and a dash of romance, it has captivated viewers over many generations. Even if you aren’t interested in any of these aspects of the show—which I honestly can’t imagine to be the case—Doctor Who also provides a different angle of interest. It is a clever show that uses elements from history and gestures towards real world political tensions with relevance and tact.

At the heart of the show lies the figure of the Doctor: a powerful, mostly benevolent, and ageless (no, really, the production team has messed up the details of his age frequently) Time Lord. The Doctor is arguably the most important symbol created by the franchise. He roams freely across the universe, engaging in conflict with various malevolent alien species and humans who seek to do harm to others.

One of the Doctor’s most formidable enemies is also one the show’s greatest political statements. The Daleks are aliens that see themselves as a superior race and seek to exterminate other species. They originated in the 60s, borne out of a decade where the tensions of World War II were still resonant and frightening. The characterization of the Daleks as having an ideology comparable to Nazism allows the viewers to breathe a sigh of relief when the Doctor destroys them to protect humanity. Confrontation between the Doctor and the Daleks also represents the destruction of one ideology at the hands of another. This political statement that has its roots in the Cold War, and the strong message that the United Kingdom wanted to send to potential aggressors.

Vigilantism often falls within the patch of grey between clearly defined categories of good and bad. Though the Doctor doles out justice without authorization, he mostly manages to lean closer to the good. Before the Doctor condemns the villainous groups, he listens to eyewitness accounts of the horrors committed and uses historical and factual evidence. He also attempts to rehabilitate the villains before using irreversible force, as seen in his actions in the season 4 finale, “Journey’s End”, where he attempts to engage the Daleks in dialogue before blowing up their spaceship.

The Doctor is representative of the reality of how politics can and often does play out. Even in our world, states with more power and resources engage in treaties of protection with states lacking in these things, similar to how the Doctor offers protection to alien or human societies and the universe as a whole. Before engaging in combat or war, the Doctor insists that every measure be taken to minimize causalities and engage in peaceful mediation. The aforementioned episode was written in 2008, a time of fierce combat in the Middle East, which the United Kingdom, through NATO, participated in.

Doctor Who is also highly political in its treatment of sex and race. It features Captain Jack, a multi-sexual character with varying interests, and Martha Jones, a black female character who challenges viewers to face Britain’s troubling racist past when the character journeys to the Victorian era and encounters an obvious lack of basic human respect, to say the least. Doctor Who brings issues of race and sexual identity to the forefront when it features these characters in important roles within the Doctor’s life and allows for positive discourse on their unique qualities through the Doctor’s unquestioned acceptance of them.

While watching the show, I’ve often been fascinated by the nature of this fictional world. It depicts a version of our world that is resilient, as it is constantly assailed by species beyond human understanding, and yet manages to maintain its dignity, hope, and the will to fight. In light of the recent attacks on societies by terrorist and extremist groups, these are qualities that we should adopt and remember as our own. While I’ve seen no evidence of the Doctor being present in our world, may the political ideals of justice and peace that he embodies live and thrive.

-Contributed by Molly Cong

Impractical Immortality: Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

holy grail
Image from moviepilot.com

Well, do you? Really?

The idea of immortality, in one form or another, comes up frequently in speculative fiction: elves, Timelords, divine beings, cursed humans, and undying monsters are all easy to find between pages and on screens. Immortality is often a flexible concept, ranging from gods that are all-powerful and cannot die but can—with the right spell, artifact or leverage with another rival god—be subdued, to creatures that can be slain but never fall prey to disease or the ravages of time. The latter includes Tolkien’s eternally beautiful elves and the sometimes benevolent—but usually malicious—Immortals of author Tamara Pierce’s fantasy kingdom Tortal.

Freedom from mortality may sound appealing to some of us, but as a wise wizard once said, “Humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.” Immortality is easily one of the worst things that heroes and villains have ever sought after.

For starters—there’s a catch. Always. Immortality comes at a price.

Sometimes the magic that makes you immortal also makes you susceptible to other, unfriendly forms of magic, or you find yourself unable to leave the cloister that the Sangrael is housed in, lest you lose all that you’ve gained. Maybe you get eternal life, but not eternal youth with it. I’m sure the Greek goddess Iris’ lover, who was granted the former but not the latter, would have much to say on the subject.

It is also likely that your immortality is dependent on you having your magic McGuffin on or near your person at all times, meaning that you’re at a disadvantage in life. Your magic ring or medal will be stolen, I promise you. It’s only a matter of time. In this case, the price of immortality is a life of looking over your shoulder, guarding your prize because your eternal life depends on it.

In other cases, the cost of immortality is too hideous to contemplate. Aloysius Crumrin, the aged warlock in the Courtney Crumrin comic series, is offered eternal life by an old flame—in the form of vampirism. He turns immortal life down but does accept her last elixir vitae; the potion lets him live a little longer despite his wasting illness. “Do I want to know what’s in it?” he asks the vampire. “No,” is her firm reply, and seeing as she herself keeps living by draining the life of others, it’s for the best that Aloysius doesn’t question her further.

And of course you’ll be lonely. How could you not be? You’ll outlive everyone you love.

In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother, Mandy, tells her goddaughter Ella that the Faeries tend to earn the ire of even their dearest human companions: “We’re immortal. That gets them mad…. [your mother] wouldn’t speak to me for a year when her father died.” The benefit of living to see a whole family line grow is somewhat tempered by knowing that you will have to bury them all.

Similarly, Skysong, the baby dragon who is born in Tortal away from other dragons and is raised by human mages, will outlive her guardian and all the mortal animals who become her friends.

And speaking of being lonely, it must be said that Captain America—who managed to survive a crash landing in the Arctic and being frozen there back during World War II—is starting to look very lonely, having outlived most of his comrades. He is stuck existing in a world that he doesn’t really belong to.

Even if you do your best to fit in the world you find yourself in, you won’t. Yuta, the protagonist of a manga series called Mermaid Saga, tries to live like a normal man after gaining immortality. But his wife can hardly fail to notice that, though she grows old over the years, he remains the young man she married. “I’m afraid of you,” she tells him. And who could blame her?

Finally, just what are you going to do with all that time?

Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged devotes himself to insulting everyone, forever. If that sounds lame, consider that living forever will leave you running out of hobbies soon enough. You will run out of places to see and things to do because you will simply have too much time on your hands. If you have no plan, you’re doomed.

All that can truly occupy the immortal is watching history being made. This is a dubious prospect; ask the elves of Middle Earth. They never fail to seem jaded about the decisions made over the years, or the doings of the mortals around them. Elvenkind has simply seen too much to fully trust any other race; they remember too much.

Watching eras pass is bad enough, but living through them is much worse. Yuta lives through feudal wars, famine, the bombings of World War II, and murderous multigenerational feuds among those he befriends. Madame Xanadu loses her young lover in the witch-burning fervour of the Spanish Inquisition. And Wolverine seems to do nothing but get caught up in somebody’s war. For every triumph of humanity there are a dozen failures. History is a harsh place to live.

Take the Fame lyric “I’m gonna  live forever” literally and what you have is masochistic madness.

In the genres that ask “what if…?” any exploration of immortality yields fascinating answers. The concept of immortality and the presence of immortal characters in fiction forces us to take a long look at the way we live our lives. An immortal traveler who has seen far too much once said that “A longer life isn’t always a better one.”

What happens if you do away with mortality, a fundamental part of our humanity ? Nothing that we would ever really want.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker