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"but WET nonetheless": Talking ABOUT the Weather

By mid February, the winter was coming to an end on Berk, and the snowy season had turned into the rainy season. It was the kind of weather where your clothes never got dry, no matter what. Hiccup would hang up his sodden tunic on a chair in front of the fire before going to bed at night, and in the morning it would still be wet – warm and wet rather than cold and wet, but WET nonetheless. (Cowell 82)

Over the last year, the weather has lost some of its appeal as THE small talk topic. But it’s still there, right next to jabs, lockdown, and – in my line of work – the ups and downs of online teaching. But maybe we should cut the weather some slack: it’s more than a convenient introduction for all the five-minute conversations we don’t have (and miss?) during the pandemic.

Throughout literary history, the weather often has had a rather specific role to play:

Heartache? Rain.

Revenge? Thunderstorm.

Happy ending? Sunset. (Shouldn’t it be a sunrise? Hm. Maybe tells us something about the way we perceive romantic relationships once they are “settled.” Haven’t researched it, but this last one is probably rather modern, I’d imagine. Something to do with films?)

Rather than being a superficial small talk topic, a filler, when we don’t know what else to say, the weather becomes a metaphor – often a dead one, yes, but still – and a catalyst for inner emotion and turmoil. Especially turmoil. What happens on the inside becomes visible on the outside. On the big scale. Representation at its best. (I don’t know about you, but my emotional state and the weather have never yet lined up. Dramatic situation? Sunshine. Best days of my life? I don’t remember – the weather didn’t seem important somehow.)

A few examples?

Here’s a rather famous one by Chaucer:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote When April with its sweet-smelling showers The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, Has pierced the drought of March to the root, And bathed every veyne in swich licour And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid Of which vertu engendred is the flour; By which power the flower is created; Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth When the West Wind also with its sweet breath, Inspired hath in every holt and heeth In every wood and field has breathed life into The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne The tender new leaves, and the young sun Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne, Has run half its course in Aries, And smale foweles maken melodye, And small fowls make melody, That slepen al the nyght with open ye Those that sleep all the night with open eyes (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages), (So Nature incites them in their hearts), Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, Then folk long to go on pilgrimages, And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, And professional pilgrims to seek foreign shores, To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; To distant shrines, known in various lands;

It’s all about beginnings: the beginning of the (seasonal) year, the beginning of the book, the beginning of the pilgrimage. The mood is in the weather: “(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages).” “Inspired” to go on a journey by the new spring life surrounding them, “folk” (that’s the non-professionals) and “palmeres” start their “pilgrimages.” Inside and outside align. (There’s also a bit of rain there, “shoures soote” that “bathe[…]” and hence empower the "flour.")

Moving on from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (late 14th century), here’s the next famous dead male white writer who uses the weather to make a point about what a character is feeling:

Storm still. Enter LEAR and FOOL. LEAR Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! Your cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks! (Shakespeare 3.2.1-3)

Need I say more?

More modern examples? Children’s literature examples? The grey, rainy weather in Sven Nordqvist’s Stackars Pettson (1991; strangely translated into English as Findus Goes Fishing – which loses out entirely on the equally alliterative drama of ‘Poor Pettson’!), or the moment in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) in which Rat and Mole find the lost baby otter in the company of Pan:

'Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. 'Are you afraid?' 'Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. 'Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!' Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship. Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden rim showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn. (Grahame chapter 7)

Grahame gets the thing with the sunrise right – hope, awe and all.

But despite (or because?) of all of these examples, that’s not really what I want to think about today. What I want to think about is this: if (outer) representations of the weather are often connected to representations of inner emotion – does tone play a role as well? Is there, for example, such a thing as an ironical approach to the weather? See opening quote (late, I know). Instances in which the weather is just that – the weather, no more or less fancy metaphor involved – and what matters is the way characters and/or narrators talk about it?

Let’s have another look at the opening example from Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon (2003):

By mid February, the winter was coming to an end on Berk, and the snowy season had turned into the rainy season. It was the kind of weather where your clothes never got dry, no matter what. Hiccup would hang up his sodden tunic on a chair in front of the fire before going to bed at night, and in the morning it would still be wet – warm and wet rather than cold and wet, but WET nonetheless. (Cowell 82)

Here, the weather is not a metaphor (as far as I can see), it’s a circumstance. Living in and through the rough conditions on Berk, “snowy” to “rainy season” (not much like the spring described by Chaucer), is simply a fact of life Hiccup has to put up with. He may not like it – and this may, of course, affect his emotional state – but the weather is not caused by Hiccup’s feelings, it’s not a representative externalised expression of his inner emotional landscape. Neither is the older version of Hiccup – who’s the narrator of the story (see Cowell 1) – merely telling the reader about the weather in a matter-of-fact fashion: his tone is dry (“no matter what”; no pun intended – is “dry” metaphorical here?) and ironic (“warm and wet rather than cold and wet, but WET nonetheless”), creating a distancing effect. Attitude is what counts here.

So maybe that’s one of the reasons why we (used to) like to talk about the weather – and why Corona does as a topic as well: it’s a general topic, one that concerns us all and one we cannot influence – what really matters, though, isn’t at all the weather as such, but our tone, our attitude, the way we speak about it.

Just a thought.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “General Prologue.” The Canterbury Tales, Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website,

Cowell, Cressida. How to Train Your Dragon. 2003. Little Brown and Company, 2010.

Grahame, Kenneth. “VII. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” The Wind in the Willows. 1908.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1603-1606. Edited by R. A. Foakes, Bloomsbury, 2015.

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