We’re Walking in the Air

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The first time I ever watched The Snowman, an animated version of Raymond Briggs’ picture book with no words, it was on a laserdisc at school and I’m fairly certain we watched it during recess on a day when it was determined too cold to play outside. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, an age when I still believed in Santa in spite of my suspicions that he was perhaps a lie after all. The Snowman haunted me that day we watched it at school, because in spite of depicting the very kinds of magic I indulged in as a kid, it also hinted at the inevitable disillusionment that lay ahead of me.

Just before my husband and I began our doctoral programs (and simultaneously began having children), we spent a couple of weeks touring England, spending a few days in Keswick, a small city in the Lake District, at a bed and breakfast just up the road from where Coleridge had lived. One afternoon, while rambling about the town between hikes, we tripped upon the Derwent Pencil Museum, home of the largest colored pencil in the world, and manufacturer of the same colored pencils that artists used to animate Briggs’ The Snowman (the museum has a special viewing room that plays the cartoon on repeat). Dave and I purchased a box of watercolor pencils and spent the rest of the evening drawing and chatting from a shared bench on the shore of Derwentwater.

It was a very bright moment in the center of a darker time for me. I was full-fledged in a faith crisis, exacerbated in part by obsessively reading snatches of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the bookstores we browsed (it had just come out a year earlier), as well as a visit to the British Museum where I saw Paleolithic-era stone chopping tools fashioned by early humans nearly two million years ago. I could not get “two million years ago” out of my head, and while I had always prided myself on being a religious person who could reconcile my faith in God with my belief in science, I was suddenly realizing how difficult it was to place the Adam and Eve Genesis story with these Olduvai chopping tools. Maybe the Biblical timeline is off, I thought. But I was still shaken.

It was poignant to me that Dave and I would trip across The Snowman by accident this way, because it made me feel strangely, mournfully comforted in the same way I felt as a grade-schooler watching for the first time. Having watched it again with my three children earlier this week, here’s what I’ve noticed about the film that strikes me as important and meaningful:

    • Up until the snowman’s flight, the story is stereotypically juvenile—what would a young boy do if his snowman came to life? Watch television with him and then dress him up in his father’s clothes, of course. But in the moment that the snowman takes the boy’s hand and they begin to fly, the tone shifts dramatically, and this is somehow no longer just a cartoon for children. Aside from the spoken prologue to the film (which varies depending on the version you see), the snowman’s flight is the only part of the short film with words. (Please watch the video clip with the sound on, because the song is so much more haunting than you remember it.)
  • “We’re Walking in the Air” was performed by Peter Auty, then a 13-year-old choir boy. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the animation, because Auty’s voice is both childlike and sophisticated. The song’s tone is more nostalgic than playful—even as a kid, I acknowledged that it made me feel multiple feelings at once, and that I was somehow both very, very happy and simultaneously unutterably sad. It transforms the story from an airy kid’s cartoon to something far more important. I’ve never been able to listen to it without getting emotional, because it makes me feel very young and very old all at once. It is a song about faith and not wanting to let go: “We’re holding very tight / I’m riding in the midnight blue / I’m finding I can fly so high above with you.”
  • And yet, the best part of the song’s accompanied animation is that the snowman and the boy are only met with real-world wonders on their journey: they fly over towns, over forests, they are nearly struck by a whale’s tale. They fly into the aurora borealis. Even though the snowman and the boy will visit with Santa and dance with other snowmen in the next scene, “Walking in the Air” is the true climax of the film. In the years after I saw The Snowman as a child, I could only ever remember it as “that cartoon where the boy and the snowman fly.”
  • At the end of The Polar Express, the child is left with a bell that only people (read: children) who believe can hear. Dave and I have expressed to each other our shared frustration with this story, although we still read it to our kids. It makes maturation and disillusionment seem like terrible, cynical things—that true faith or magic can only be experienced by children and we will all grow out of it, sooner or later. In The Snowman, the story ends with the boy going outside the next morning and weeping over his melted friend. It’s still a tragic ending, but what strikes me about how it is different than The Polar Express is that there is no suggestion that the snowman could have stayed alive if only the boy believed it hard enough—the snowman melted in spite of the boy’s faith. But the true wonders that he saw: the whale, the aurora borealis, the earth itself—all of those things continue to exist as real and fantastic and awesome things.
  • And I guess the reason I love The Snowman so much is that the final message seems to be that the real wonders of the world continue to exist even after the snowman has melted. One does not need to believe in magic and fantasies in order to experience wonder, for there are already real wonders around us, swimming in our oceans and dancing in our skies. My faith continues to change day by day, and I am still reconciling narratives I believe with narratives I want to believe. What I am most grateful for, however, is my ability now to look with wonder—instead of fear—at two-million-year-old manmade tools, because I have allowed certain assumptions I drew from the Genesis story to melt in the morning sun. It turns out that there is just as much of the wonderful and the fantastic on the other side of disillusionment, and my faith, though altered, is richer and fuller than it once was.

Comments

  1. Thank you. This captures so much, so beautifully. This was just what I needed today and gave me a taste of the Christmas spirit that I’d been lacking.

  2. Thanks for this. Loved The Snowman. And especially the David Bowie intro — in that there’s a little of the sense of the grown-up wistfully looking back at childish beliefs and magic. I’ve loved watching this with my kids over the years.

  3. This is profound and beautiful, Emily. And it gets to something that has become a core part of mature faith for me: the capacity for wonder–the ability to be surprised by the natural world, by people, by ideas. To me, this is part of the “hope” of “faith, hope, and charity.” And losing the capacity for wonder is the same thing as losing one’s faith. This, incidentally, is how I knew that my faith crisis was over. And Richard Dawkins had something to do with that too. Not _The God Delusion_, which I read long after resolving these issues for myself, but _The Selfish Gene_, which was the first book that I ever read that flat-out amazed me with the explanatory power of scientific ideas. That book rekindled the wonder that I thought I had lost and made me realize that “Scientist God” was a much more amazing, wonderful, mysterious creature than the “Magic God” I had believed in before. And I have been able to continue to have faith in Scientist God long after my faith in Magic God melted like a Snowman.

    Thanks for the wonderful, as in “full of wonder,” post.

  4. Mike, yes, that’s exactly it: my idea of hope or “mature faith” is “the capacity for wonder—the ability to be surprised by the natural world, by people, by ideas.” Well put. I’m really pleased, too, that Dawkins’ book produced some of that wonder for you. I’ve wanted to read Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, because my understanding of it is that it is a book full of wonder about nature. I think I’m finally ready for it.

  5. I’ve never seen “The Snowman”, but I know the song through Nightwish. Pretty song, even by a metal band.

  6. I love your description of “Walking in the Air”: “The song’s tone is more nostalgic than playful—even as a kid, I acknowledged that it made me feel multiple feelings at once, and that I was somehow both very, very happy and simultaneously unutterably sad. It transforms the story from an airy kid’s cartoon to something far more important.”

    I hadn’t ever thought about it in this much depth, but I think you’ve put your finger on at least part of why I enjoy The Snowman so much. Excellent post!

  7. I had the same kind of exposure to The Snowman. (It’s partially integrated into a George Winston piano album, although I can’t remember which at the moment.) Similar, the Lake District, Keswick, and the Derwentwater (I had a traumatic moment on Catbells there), so it was a pleasure to read this. I also write a lot about science and religion.