Winter is coming. December 21 marks the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere, and that means we’re in for several months of stormy weather, shorter days, and frigid temperatures.
It can be hard to adjust to this time of year. It often seems barren, harsh, and lonely: leafless trees, ice-covered landscapes, more time confined to the indoors. But winter is also full of its own kind of beauty if you know where to look for it.
Aside from the holidays, which are often the main reason people find enjoyment in this time of year, winter as a season has plenty of its own to enjoy. Snow transforms landscapes into otherworldly places to explore via skis or snowshoes and marvel at the power of nature. Bundling up and taking a walk on a sunny winter day has a certain freshness to it; the air smells clean and the sun feels even better when it warms your skin from the cold air. Winter is also the perfect season to spend more time curled up in front of a fire with a warm drink and a good book.
To help you get in the cold-weather spirit, here are five stories—novels and poems—that explore the sometimes moody, always powerful, and awe-inspiring beauty of winter.
1.) The Golden Compass
Author: Philip Pullman
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Similar to: Other classic works of fantasy that are labeled for young adults but delve into themes that are darker and more adult than typical YA fare, like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Sabriel by Garth Nix.
Though the story begins in Oxford, it soon travels north to the arctic, where young Lyra Belacqua joins an expedition to locate missing children and find out what the kidnappers want with them. The story is full of magic, from witches to animal daemons that exist as outward manifestations of humans’ souls, but the heart of the tale is in how it makes the northern world come alive. Real-life features of the arctic become magical ones: polar bears don armor and fight for kingship, and the aurora reveals a hidden city within its shimmering depths. The descriptions of the characters’ journey turns the snowy, icy landscape into a fairytale land, one full of both mesmerizing beauty and unspeakable danger.
2.) Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Author: Robert Frost
Genre: Mid-Century Poetry
Similar to: Classic poetry from other American writers, such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and other poets who lived in and wrote about New England and nature, like Mary Oliver.
This classic poem is written in Frost’s signature style: straightforward and observational but containing deeper meanings upon subsequent readings. Its subject is a quiet moment when a rider stops to observe a snowy forest on his way home at night. The poem amplifies a simple moment to one of contrasts: the mildly agitated horse with the still winter night, the peaceful temptation of the woods with the rider’s need to return home. It examines the beauty of a solitary moment in time while also highlighting the necessity for shelter, to return to a warm home and fire rather than linger in the lovely but not-quite-comforting natural world. The poem’s repetition of the last line, “And miles to go before I sleep,” suggests two meanings: the first is literal, that the rider has miles to travel before he can rest, and the second suggests a broader interpretation: that of the rider having long distances to travel and important things he can do before he can assume his final resting place in the likes of the snowy woods.
3.) The Snow Child
Author: Eowyn Ivey
Genre: Magical Realism
Similar to: Other novels that incorporate elements of magical realism or have a fairytale-like quality to them, such as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.
Set in the harsh solitude of the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s, this novel seems at first like a simple, realistic look at the daily realities of life in a remote area: the loneliness, the fight to survive, the independence. And it depicts all of those things well—but it’s also so much more than that. The childless couple at the center of the story soon start seeing a young girl frolicking around the forest. They’re intrigued by her mysterious, unexpected presence, partly because they have long wanted a child but cannot have one. As the girl slowly befriends them, they have an inkling that she isn’t a normal child: she seems, in some ways, to be part of winter itself. If you want to read a story that both captures the struggle for survival that winter presents and reminds you of magical childhood memories of playing in the snow, this is the book for you.
4.) The Darkling Thrush
Author: Thomas Hardy
Genre: Late Victorian Poetry
Similar to: Hardy’s fellow Late Victorian poets who had a taste for melancholy, such as Matthew Arnold and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
This poem explores the drearier, darker side of winter, employing a common metaphor of winter as death itself. Using vivid imagery, Hardy compares the lifeless landscape to a more internal sense of hopelessness. Then, amidst this landscape, an old thrush begins to sing. The jubilant song contrasts with the starkness of winter in a way that evokes emotion in the speaker, who at the end of the poem sees in the bird a glimmer of hope where there was none before while still recognizing that he cannot yet identify what exactly that hope is. The poem is a good reminder that even in times when we feel defeated—or simply demoralized by a long, cold winter—there will always be something good in the future, even if we can’t see it yet.
Author: Anna Kavan
Similar to: Other novels that employ use of surrealist techniques to displace the reader, such as The Castle by Franz Kafka, or short stories by surrealist writers like Leonora Carrington.
For something a little darker that showcases winter’s harshness in symbolic ways, this novel is a good pick. It focuses on an unnamed narrator’s obsessive journey to find a woman with snow-white skin and silver hair. All around him, the world succumbs to the destructive powers of giant walls of ice; as the ice keeps closing in, it becomes clear that the world is ending in another ice age. With a frozen world as a backdrop, the novel explores themes like obsession and possession, violence against women, and the trauma that results. It isn’t an easy read, given the surreal nature of the storytelling and even the prose itself, but it’s full of wintery imagery and makes for a one-of-a-kind reading experience.