From this weekend’s column.
Once I’d decided this book and this movie had a lot in common, more and more came to seem worthy of comment. I’m thinking for example, of the parallel scenes between Anna and Hans in the movie and Tamlorn and his attendants in the book, where both are about to go into the fortresses of the dangerous women they call family, and both reassure their worried companions that this woman would never hurt them. Of course, Tamlorn’s visit occurs at the end of the book and he knows Sybel well; Anna can’t really make that claim to knowledge of Elsa, to whom she’s barely spoken since the two were young. That Anna turns out to be wrong is one of the things about Frozen that I liked very much;* that we trust people at all is so often portrayed as proof that they will justify that trust, here people can be ‘good’, whatever that means, without necessarily being safe, hurt can be unintentional or even (in Sybel’s case) intentional; we can love people and not want to hurt them, and do so anyway. (In Frozen, less explicitly, this principle is also evident in some of the most terrible parenting ever).
There’s a moment part of the way into the recent Disney movie Frozen, in which Elsa, one of its protagonists, leaves her kingdom after being shunned for her (ice- and snow-producing) powers. What starts off as the flight of an outcast becomes something more powerful as Elsa decides to embrace her powers, accept her apart-ness from her people, and build herself a magnificent fortress of ice in which to live alone. You can’t help suspecting that this spectacular edifice was put in for its impressive 3D potential, but there’s something appealing in Elsa’s remote, cold sanctuary.
Of course, Elsa doesn’t really want to be there; her grief almost turns her evil (and puts her in a sexy dress, which is almost as bad) and at the end she is re-integrated into her kingdom. She’s not, as her sister Anna (who the movie would have you believe is its real heroine) happily paired off, at least.
And recently I read for the first time Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. McKillip’s heroine, Sybel, lives for most of her life in a similar fortress on a mountain (one considerably greener than Elsa’s), with only the titular beasts for company. She does not miss people, never having lived among them. But people arrive, in the form of a child whom she must care for, a king, and an attractive young man, and she is drawn into their world.
There’s very little about the plot of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld to justify the way it lingers (and its winning of the first World Fantasy Award in 1975). But Sybel’s interactions with the world of which she must now become a part have a detachedness to them, a standing apart and commenting on this society even as she tries to seem part of it. Atop Eld Mountain Sybel was cut off from the world; now that she walks in the world she is still remote. Which is not the same thing as unfeeling, as she finds when she first experiences real, terrible anger.
That I watched Frozen and read McKillip’s book in the same month is coincidence, but read together the two work strangely well. Sybel is constantly described in terms invoking the cold; “ice-white Lady” with hair “silver as snow”, “and then you melt and slip cold through my fingers”. And both stories are about anger, though Disney lacks the visual vocabulary that allows us a glimpse of Sybel’s impersonal, almost inhuman wrath.
Eld Mountain is cool and green, the house is of “white, polished stone” and feels like something out of legend, one of those distant images from shared story. At points I’m not sure that The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a novel at all; with its lists of names (Sybel calls the beasts to her with her knowledge of their true names) and abundance of interchangeable princes it would make for a satisfying saga, merciless and impersonal and so, somehow, the better able to speak of the most primal of emotions. Like Frozen’s Elsa, Sybel will be led by her anger into doing something unforgivable—though unlike her, she will do it deliberately and with full awareness of its repercussions. But the narrative, as detached from Sybel’s story as it sometimes feels Sybel is to the world, merely states the fact. As if this were simply something that happened, as if it wasn’t up to the book, or to us, to redeem Sybel or not.
Frozen ends with Elsa having tamed her powers and returned to her responsibilities as queen. Perhaps this is a happy ending, and conjuring up frozen ponds for her subjects to skate on is more satisfying than architectural marvels of ice. I’m less certain about the happiness of Sybel’s marriage and declared intentions towards motherhood. But once they come down from their mountain sanctuaries, I’m not sure they can go back and that itself feels like a loss.
*It almost makes up for the bit where Anna declares that “nobody” really wants to be alone and is by implication proved right.