I live in a cold part of the world, so you might think that at this time of the year I’d be looking for escape in stories set in the tropics. But I find the books that bring me joy in the winter tend to be set in this season, in the Middle Ages in Europe.
One of them is Connie Willis’s 1992 time-travel novel, Doomsday Book. Another is Umberto Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose, published in 1980.
I say “books”, but one of them is a play: The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman, published in 1966. The 1968 film version, starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, is one of the best movies ever made. (There’s also a later version with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, two fine actors, but it can’t hold a candle to the first). The published play makes excellent reading; every line of dialogue is perfect, and the stage directions bring an extra joy you can’t get without reading the original.
ELEANOR: (Surveying the holly.) I’d say that’s all the jollying this room can stand.
The play describes King Henry II of England and his fractious family, when they gather for Christmas in northern France in 1183. The season is there in the title, and it refers both to the literal setting and to the stage of Henry’s life.
When you live in a cold place, it become an undeniable presence in your life. Even if, in our time, it only means taking an extra few minutes to dress to go out, or scraping your car windshield, or wiping your fogged glasses when you step onto the bus, it can be a bit exhausting. Life in the winter comes with tiny but constant reminders that we survive in nature by dint of Promethean ingenuity.
Medieval stories set in cold places let us examine that relationship with the cold in a less complex way: there’s a border between the silver world outside, and the golden world within, lit by torches and great big fires.
ELEANOR: (Holding her, rocking her gently, singing softly.) The Christmas wine will make you warm — Don’t shiver, child.
ALAIS: I’m not.
ELEANOR: The Christmas logs will glow. There’s Christmas cheer and comfort here — Is that you crying?
In The Lion in Winter, warmth is love and youth; cold is old age, cynicism and hard hearts.
ELEANOR: […] (At the brazier, spreading her hands over it.) It’s cold. I can’t feel anything. (Huddling close to the coals.) Not anything at all. (Hugging herself, arms around tight.) We couldn’t go back, could we, Henry?
Cold plays a similar function in Doomsday Book, which is set partly in 1348, the year of the Black Death in England. The time-traveling protagonist, Kivrin, watches a funeral of someone she cared about. It’s a very cold day, early in the New Year, and the men burying the body puff “out great clouds of condensation.” Willis writes that “the sight of their white breath infuriated Kivrin. She doesn’t weigh anything, she thought bitterly.”
Cold is associated with death and aging in The Name of the Rose, too.
“Where are the snows of yesteryear?” asks Adso, the narrator of The Name of the Rose, as he approaches death. “It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches. I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about.”
But Adso describes the passion and lust of his younger days using words of heat and fire: “igneous ardor”, “shining fire” — and then he muses about how fire can be used as a metaphor for both sin and love of God.
Eco’s reasons for setting The Name of the Rose in northern Italy at the end of November were partly pragmatic. He was writing the kind of historical fiction that the reader can imagine might have happened, so had to fit the story he wanted to tell into a setting that would let him tell it, without any inconvenient facts getting in the way. (It’s a struggle familiar to all writers of historical fiction).
He tells us, in his Postscript to The Name of the Rose, that the book had to be earlier than December, because it assumes that something that actually happened in December 1327 is about to happen but hasn’t happened yet. But he also wanted a vat of pigs’ blood for his plot. “And why did I need this? Because the second trumpet of the Apocalypse says … I could not change the Apocalypse, after all; it was a part of this world. Now, it so happens (I made inquiries) that pigs are not slaughtered until cold weather comes, and November might be too early — unless I situated the abbey in the mountains, so there would already be snow.”
So, the season was a technical solution to the requirements of the plot. But beyond that, it provides a certain mood and aesthetic.
My favorite carol describes a medieval king looking out on the silver world, “when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.” Anyone who’s ever found themselves alone in a silent field of white snow knows that eerie sense of being out of time. It’s a mood that lends itself to historical or time-travel fiction.
“It was a beautiful morning at the end of November,” Adso begins his tale. “During the night it had snowed, but only a little, and the earth was covered with a cool blanket no more than three fingers high.”
The colors of the European winter landscape, the whites and browns and golds, recall manuscripts. Both The Name of the Rose and Doomsday Book are about making records, about the partly futile but never worthless effort to preserve important things.
The sounds of winter are key to these settings too: the way that snow can make everything seem muffled, and the way that sounds in that silent landscape carry strangely far. Bells ring throughout Doomsday Book, and the faint sound of a bell in the distance heralds the climax near the end.
It echoes the opening of the story, when Kivrin arrives in a medieval winter and makes her first report to her colleagues in the future: “The bells died away slowly, the bell from Oxford leading the way again, though, impossibly, its sound hung longer on the air than any of the others. The sky turned violet-blue, and a star came out in the southeast. Kivrin’s hands were still folded in prayer. ‘It’s beautiful here.’”
Kate Heartfield’s first novel, Armed in Her Fashion, is coming from ChiZine Publications in May 2018. It’s a historical fantasy set in 14th-century Flanders. She’s also writing an interactive novel for Choice of Games, inspired by The Canterbury Tales. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Liminal Stories and elsewhere. She lives in Canada. Website: heartfieldfiction.com. Twitter: @kateheartfield.com