Winter Is Coming: Climate, Morality, and Whiteness

I recently started re-reading A Game of Thrones, which means I’ve had the Stark words lodged in my head more than usual. Winter is coming. Also, I looked outside, and as frost starts to coat the grass in the morning, Ned might have a point.

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A Song of Ice and Fire is always heavy-handed with its climate metaphors, but it is not alone in ascribing certain moral values to different weather patterns. H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe placed their monstrous horrors beneath the ice, and C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien show a preference for temperate climes while fearing the tropics.

While superficially harmless, there begins to be a clear pattern that uses climate, particularly this kind of temperate climate marked by warm summers and cold winters, as a shorthand to remind the reader of certain parts of the United States and Europe. By continually centering this one ecological structure, authors, intentionally or otherwise, privilege a kind of Anglo-American whiteness, culturally as well as physically. The underlying message, therefore, is one of white supremacy, particularly Anglo supremacy.

We should start in Winterfell. Despite the series’ famously disjointed seasons, Winterfell still sees its share of snowy days, even in long summers. The North offers comforting warmth, with just enough weather to ensure a hearty people. By putting his protagonists here, George R. R. Martin taps into the long tradition of homelands which feel suspiciously like the British Isles, and the TV characters get accents to match.

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That is 100% a moor behind him. It’s England.

The North is far from perfect, but most of its people have a guileless, noble nature compared to their counterparts further south. While other kingdoms make peace with their conquerors, we are constantly reminded that “the North remembers”. There are certainly wicked men in the North too, but they are usurpers (Bolton) or intruders (Frey). As the scattered Starks pursue their quests, they all wistfully look north, and home.

But the North does not go to the pole. Instead, the Wall marks a line between the rugged and civilized North and the barbarians and horrors beyond. The wildlings are vicious, the giants bellow and pillage, and the horrible White Walkers raise the dead. This breaks the simpler association of virtue and winter, to make it clear that the North’s value is that it is familiar, not that it is cold. By drawing this line, Martin gives away the common bias in fantasy novels of what, exactly, home is supposed to look like. The advance of the White Walkers signals the invasion of a different kind of winter in the North, and the disruption of its familiar climate.

This pattern is mimicked by earlier writers. H.P. Lovecraft’s heroes are New Englanders, like himself, who enter into misfortune when they change climates, either warmer, to the jungle, or colder, to the ice caps. Lovecraft imagines a world of horrors but somehow avoids placing any of them in the northern United States, Canada, or Europe. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allen Poe does likewise, giving away the hero’s temperate home in the very title, before launching him to peril first in the tropics, then in Antarctica. He somehow misses anything in between. For these two authors, who have famously racist world views, climate seems to cohere very closely to their own perceptions of racial hierarchies.

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C.S. Lewis is subtler, but plays the same game. When the Pevensie children come to Narnia, the climate has already changed; its temperate airs replaced by a monstrous winter created by the White Witch. Her defeat restores the “normal”, British climate, like in Winterfell. When they explore the world in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we see the tropics, which of course, lack Narnian morality. By the end of the series, Narnia is invaded by the depraved, southern Calormenes, whose name is derived from the Latin word for “heat”. They are, therefore, brutal stereotypes of African or Middle Eastern cultures. Like Poe and Lovecraft, he regards foreigners from warm climates as inherently suspect. J. R. R. Tolkien’s depiction of the Shire and Mordor matches the pattern once again: heroes are from Northern European climates, villains from the tropics. The racist element is barely subtext.

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He’s not making you work for it.

Unsurprisingly, this pattern is far rarer among authors who lack an attachment to Anglo-American whiteness. Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon cheerily starts his heroes in a warm desert, with occasional hints at the unpleasantness in colder lands abroad. N. K. Jemisin’s Killing Moon feels no need to brace its protagonists with wintry nights. G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen is likewise.

These stories mostly avoid the trope, but only fleetingly explicitly subvert it. Yes, there may be brief digs, such as Ahmed’s lawless “Braxony,” (a portmanteau, perhaps, of Britain and Saxony), but rarer are stories where tropical heroes depart from their summery homes to seek their fortunes among barbarous taiga and pine trees. More commonly, the pseudo-Britains are simply ignored.

An intriguing counterexample is the lore of World of Warcraft, which for parts of its storyline upends our Tolkienian expectations by positioning the orcs and their allies as the heroes, against an evil human menace. Prince Arthas, later the Lich King, steadily becomes more and more evil as he ventures further and further north. Though his transformation is completed in the Lovecraftian tundras, he was corrupted, first and foremost, in the British-inspired realms of Azeroth. He returns there to spread his plague, meaning that this terrain is coded as evil: in contrast to the warm, Orcish homelands in Kalimdor, which are more commonly desert or jungle. The world here is constantly shifting, and the Horde is rarely clearly morally superior to the Alliance. But the series still persistently doubts humans and elves, and their very European homelands, in comparison to other races and their southern climes.

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While much of this could be attributed to a kind of laziness, as Anglo-American authors design their characters’ homelands by looking out the window, there is an insidious effect as well. American readers are already poised to see deserts and jungles as war zones, given our memories of Iraq and Vietnam. Marking these as foreign, even in fantasy stories, worsens the problem. It encourages readers to see these places as the Other, or as temporary. Daenerys may have learned something in hot Essos, but ultimately, her storyline will bring her home to Westeros, where the real action is. Meereen appears to become a forgotten foreign adventure, rather than a purposeful setting for anyone other than the white Queen of Dragons.

Obviously, this is a trope that predates the Cold War, but it already interplayed with earlier imperialism, with Tolkien and Lewis implicitly glamorizing the British Empire at the expense of its subjects. Martin and others repeated this for the United States—will the 21st century find a way to push back?


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2 thoughts on “Winter Is Coming: Climate, Morality, and Whiteness

  1. I broadly agree with your observations, with one very large exception: there is decadence in good ol’ New England in Lovecraft as well–Innsmouth, Arkham, Dunwich, and all of these places have their own hidden supernatural menaces, and all are in an imaginary New England (or, in some of his stories, the barbarous climes of New York, which Lovecraft loathed). While R’lyeh and Cthulhu (worshipped by Eskimos, Cajuns, and Pacific Islanders alike–now there’s intercultural cooperation for you!) and the Mountains of Madness are in the South Pacific and Antarctica respectively, there are other horrors to be found closer-to-home (where the “disgusting foreigners” are the Italians, the Irish, the Catholics, the Jews, and others rather than “exotic” foreigners…to the WASP culture of Lovecraft, the Irish and the Italians didn’t qualify as “white,” and certainly the Jews weren’t, either).

  2. I like your post, but on this one I think you are reaching just a bit. Instead of those authors equating Anglo-American white as always good, I think there is older influences from eras when there was more racism, but in this modern age it gets more into civilized vs uncivilized conditions. Western writers are familar most with their own cultures and see them as civilized. Our exposure, even in current events, to deserts and jungles bring to our attention nasty insurgencies, primitive living conditions, and religious tyrannies. I think it is to easy to equate the two trends in minds of people looking for flaws.

    And just fore the record in World of Warcraft both the Alliance and the Horde have their questionable members, far more the Horde than the Alliance. Arthus rage and transformation in becoming the Lich King was outside authorized Alliance actions, and was portrayed in Warcraft 3.

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