“I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”
~ Dylan Thomas
Now that the thermometer has popped into the nineties a couple times, it’s summer. Forget the calendar. There’s sunshine and languid afternoons and a blessed freedom to do nothing, to expect nothing. It’s an ideal moment for a tribute to Raymond Briggs’s exquisite picture book, The Snowman (1978).
And when I say picture book, I mean picture book, for Briggs tells an emotionally rich tale without a single word. It’s the tale of a boy and his snowman — their friendship and adventures — and it’s related through a series of deceptively simple drawings. Despite their plainness and subdued colors, those drawings convey a narrative depth that is profoundly moving, and they subtly induce the reader to concoct and supply the missing dialogue — either silently in our heads or, as you’d find with your youngest readers, out loud. It’s a turnabout from what usually happens with storytelling, where words come first and mental images follow. To enter the world of The Snowman is to enter a world in which words are blessedly optional — a rare treat in our noisy age.
In 1982, Briggs’s genius on the page was more or less faithfully translated to the screen in an Oscar-nominated Christmas classic. Ironically, it’s the film’s yuletide theme that constitutes the “less” part of that translation, for there’s no Santa or Christmas tree in The Snowman book. In fact, the author has complained that the holiday special completely obscures his book’s themes of life and loss, death and grief. “The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die,” Briggs has said. “There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.”
Even so, the animated feature does fundamentally follow the book’s tacit storytelling approach. The wintry escapade is marvelously related by means of a gentle quickening of Briggs’s artwork, and then his art is seamlessly integrated with a similarly gentle score by Howard Blake. There are only two verbal exceptions. The first is the author’s placid introductory voiceover. “The whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness,” Briggs murmurs as he tramps across a frozen landscape. “It was a magical day, and it was on that day I made the Snowman.” (Later editions of the film replace Briggs with David Bowie doing a riff on the author’s preamble. Stick with the original.)
The second exception is “Walking in the Air,” a lilting, lyrical song — almost a hymn — that attends a spectacular flight sequence. Performed by a St. Paul’s Cathedral choir boy, Peter Auty, the song is lovely and unobtrusive — a delicate and welcome departure from the mute narrative. Auty’s voice is pure and ethereal, and he trills his Rs as he would for a Cambridge Lessons and Carols service. It’s a numinous performance, and it has been looping in the back of my thoughts of late, prompting this tribute.
But why now? Why snow and snowmen in this season of swimsuits and sunscreen? It can’t be a latent winter-envy, because I love summer’s heat and humidity, and I start eagerly looking forward to it as soon as January rears its ugly wind-chill head.
Wisely, I turned to Katharine, my twelve-year-old, for insight. “Do you know that Christmas video, The Snowman?”
“Of course,” she replied.
“What do you remember about it?” I asked. “What do you remember liking about it?”
Kath didn’t hesitate. “I like the monologue at the beginning,” she said (I nodded in agreement), “and the music. It’s so peaceful, and the music and pictures go together.” She elaborated further. “It’s like that scene in Ernest and Celestine, where Ernest plays the violin and Celestine draws the seasons.”
She was referring to another family favorite, a 2012 French production about a kindly bear and an artistic mouse. It, too, was nominated for an Academy Award, and it, too, tells a story of friendship and adventure.
I hunted it down in our DVD collection and fast-forwarded it to the scene Kath mentioned. The snow is piled high outside, and Celestine is painting her vision of the scene on cloth. She holds up the completed work to Ernest and announces, “Now I present to you ‘winter.’” Ernest smiles, lifts the violin to his chin, and replies, “If it was a song, it would sound just like this.”
Ernest and Celestine is far from being wordless like The Snowman, but for the duration of this particular scene, it perfectly captures the same spirit – just as Katharine suggested. Celestine’s creative two-dimensional interpretation of winter, followed by additional painted images of spring and summer, are simultaneously expressed by Ernest’s impromptu accompaniment. No speech is necessary. The passage of time and the contentment of a close relationship are more than adequately communicated by the shared and integrated media. There’s grace and peace.
It’s the grace and peace that I associate with summer’s slowness and calm. Like Brigg’s snow story, and the wordless interlude of Ernest and Celestine, summer fosters leisurely quiet and reflection. It’s a lifegiving opportunity for wonder and basking in presence. When time and duty allow in the months ahead, shut out the streaming noise, and join me in giving in to the season. The adventure of rumination awaits.