The Many-Coloured Coat of Coldness
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1991), Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995): winter has come to stay in fantasy literature. But winter – without “Christmas” (Lewis 23) – is just one side of coldness. In the symbolic language of literature, it often represents an externalisation of some inner turmoil, a want of warmth, life, attention, celebration, love. Coldness does not only concern temperature, it also clearly concerns character: “void of ardour, warmth, or intensity of feeling; lacking enthusiasm, heartiness, or zeal; indifferent, apathetic” (OED, “cold, adj.” II.7.a.). Cold characters can create wintry microcosm within stories, freezing confidence, halting action, creating distance. These characters tend to be indifferent, aloof, cruel even. Sometimes coldness acts as protection, sometimes as punishment. It implies control and the inability to connect as well as react emotionally.
Mrs Coulter in Northern Lights, for one, turns out to be as cool as her name implies. At first the book’s girl heroine, Lyra – another telling name –, is blinded by the “glamour” (Pullman 67) that surrounds her new ‘adoptive’ mother. Then, she gets to know the real woman behind the beautiful mask who does not hesitate to use violence to achiever her goals:
“Lyra, if you behave in this coarse and vulgar way we shall have a confrontation, which I will win. [C]ontrol that unpleasant frown. Never slam a door again in my hearing or out of it. Now the first guests will be arriving in a couple of minutes, and they are going to find you perfectly behaved, sweet, charming, innocent, attentive, delightful in every way.” (88)
All things that do not come naturally to the “half-wild” (67) child. Mrs Coulter makes the girl “kiss” (88) her by way of consolation, and the smell of her skin is “scented, but somehow metallic” (88) – reminiscent of a machine in human form, coldness incorporated.
Child care and coldness, then, do not go well together. Or so it might seem. Another adoptive mother effectively contrasts this idea: Marilla Cuthbert in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1911) is a woman who accidentally attains the care of the eleven-year-old titular character. In opposition to Anne’s fanciful nature (herein lies the fantasy connection), Marilla is a rational, matter-of-fact creature. She plainly refuses, for example, to be called “aunt” by the girl: “I’m not your aunt and I don’t believe in calling people names that don’t belong to them” (Montgomery 50). Anne is not happy with this answer:
“But we could imagine you were my aunt.” “I couldn’t,” said Marilla grimly. “Do you never imagine things to be different from what they really are?” asked Anne wide-eyed. “No.” (50)
Presbyterian, monosyllabic, unimaginative, “grim[…]” Marilla has, especially at the beginning of the novel, a coldness about her:
Marilla was a tall, thin woman, with angles and without curves; her dark hair showed some gray streaks and was always twisted up in a hard little knot behind with two wire hairpins stuck aggressively though it. She looked like a woman of narrow experience and rigid conscience, which she was[.]” (10)
Quite a contrast to the “beautiful and young” (Pullman 66) Mrs Coulter, Marilla’s outer appearance is revealing – rather than concealing – her character. Her no-nonsense approach to life is mirrored in the way she wears her hair. She is hardened by experience, detached from Anne’s youthful enthusiasm about pretty much everything. Thus, she plays a role that is traditionally given to grown-ups in children’s and young adult literature, her coldness in stark contrast with the young protagonist’s intense emotional world.
What makes Marilla different from these conventionally cold adult characters, though, is that she changes across the novel. From the very beginning, she is not without a potential for humour: “there was a saving something about her mouth which, if it had ever been so slightly developed, might have been considered indicative of a sense of humour” (10). This particular character trait “develop[s]” throughout the novel and consequentially softens Marilla and thus eventually “sav[es]” her – also in a Christian sense: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Her humour further creates a connection between her and the reader as they watch Anne “get[…] into scrapes” (128) through Marilla’s laughing eyes. Until Anne enters her life, Marilla’s coldness effectively protects her from the world, but her icy armour proves not to be impenetrable after all; as winter does summer, she continually balances Anne’s enthusiasm and emotionality with her dry humour and down-to-earth views.
Cold characters feature prominently in (children’s) literature – they tend to be rational, somewhat detached and “void of emotion” (OED, “cold, adj.” II.7.d.), as both Mrs. Coulter and Marilla are or, at least, seem to be. But coldness is not necessarily an inherent character trait, it can be acquired by experience and used as a protective shield as it is in Marilla’s case, the core underneath being quite soft. Coldness, then, differs. And what is more, cold characters tend to contrast and counterbalance ‘warm’ ones, who are emotional, imaginative, and fully involved in life. Thus, they can create a potent equilibrium, potentially granting both the opportunity to grow from rigid type into lifelike character.
The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. Edited by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, OUP, 2008.
“cold, adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/36101. Accessed 25 April 2019.
Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 1950. Harper, 2009.
Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables. 1911. Norton, 2007.
Pullman, Philip. Northern Lights. 1995. Scholastic, 2011.