Spoiler disclaimer: The following blog post discusses the movie Frozen II, and thus contains a few spoilers (and one major plot twist). In my opinion, even knowing these plot points doesn’t make that much of a difference (and I also don’t think that the plot makes very much sense anyway), and watching it for the themes after having read this blog post also has its advantages. Continue at your own discretion!
The animated Disney movies Frozen and Frozen II are extremely well-known and delight a worldwide audience with their (sometimes annoyingly) catchy songs and cute (or rather merch-selling) sidekicks. A very short summary of both movies will follow later, but what is important to know for now is that the Northuldra, an indigenous group that appears in Frozen II, are heavily inspired by the Sámi – with their consent. This seems generous and nice (or absolutely necessary, depending on whom you ask), but their consent was only given after a controversy following the first movie, where one character is implied to be Sámi (or Sámi-inspired) although the Northuldra weren’t yet introduced and mentioning or crediting the Sámi had been completely neglected. So for the sequel, an agreement between the Sámi council and Walt Disney Animation Studios was made, and it states that Disney would officially be allowed to represent the Sámi culture respectfully (and with input from a few Sámi representatives). In turn, Disney was required to produce a North Sámi language version of Frozen II, which is a hugely important milestone for that language community .
More on the modern Sámi can be found in this blog post.
In Frozen, young princess Elsa has magic powers and difficulties controlling them — an inconvenient combination — especially if no one is supposed to know about her powers. When she accidentally freezes the whole kingdom in a moment of distress, she escapes, and her sister Anna sets off to save everyone. Naturally (as this is a Disney movie), all ends well, and Anna and Elsa restore the kingdom through the power of love. In the sequel — Frozen II — Elsa and her friends from the first movie follow the mysterious call of a mysterious voice to a mysteriously enchanted forest locked in mist, where they meet the indigenous Northuldra. There, Elsa and Anna need to learn about the colonial doings of their ancestors and the truth of their kingdom in hopes of saving it and freeing the forest. As you can see, Frozen II touches on some quite surprising and weighty topics for a children’s movie.
The Outside Perspective
Neither Old Norse sources on Sámi, nor the first part of Frozen II tell a story from the perspective of the Sámi or the Northuldra. Disney itself has a sort of outside perspective (definitely on Sámi issues, arguably on the Northuldra as well, since they are Disney-created, but Sámi-inspired). This, of course, has a huge impact on how they are presented and what insights the narrator provides into their culture.
The Old Norse sources are a handful of sentences from different sagas of Icelanders and from the Heimskringla. Because it would be too much for this blog post, I’m not going into the issue of treating “the Heimskringla” as one text . So instead of considering the snippets of texts as being coherent and stemming from one author (whatever that means in the context of Old Norse literature anyway), I will treat them as individual pieces of Old Norse literature. The people that are being described in these Old Norse sources are called Finnar. Who exactly was really meant by that word is not entirely clear, but the term supposedly covers both Sámi and Finns, and the primary sources don’t seem to see the two groups as separate.
The Old Norse sources show a very negative picture of the Finnar and their magic is usually something bad. In Frozen II, the narrator never directly attacks the Northuldra. Only when it becomes very clear that we are receiving an embedded narrative by a colonizer (i. e. an Arendellian like Elsa’s and Anna’s father), do we get a glimpse of negativity. Obviously Disney would not want to be caught dead making any negative statements about the Sámi-inspired Northuldra after the previous issues with their portrayal of Indigenous cultures [3, 4]. This is where it gets convoluted.
Although the Frozen Sisters‘ father is not an authorial narrator, he has the power to distance the audience from the Northuldra. How is this possible? Through the magic of point of view. The audience usually sticks with the narrator, because that is where the action happens. If Old Pa Frozen (Agnarr, the narrator) is from Arendelle, then the Kingdom of Arendelle is The Place To Be. Anything that is not Arendelle, is on the outside. So when Father Frozen tells a story about “Far away, as North as we can go” (Frozen II 00:02:02), we are told to take a look far away from the center of where we are sitting with Icey Pop Dicey. We are being told about…the periphery.
The center, Arendelle, is where the rulers are, where the money is, where „civilization“ is and where decisions are made. The periphery is not separate from the center, though. Actually, they couldn’t exist without each other. Decisions made in the center also affect the periphery, which is a more rural and „wild“ area.
And who lives in this mysterious periphery? The Northuldra. Now, the Arendellians and the Northuldra are placed in an “us versus them”-dichotomy throughout the movie. One example of that would be when Father Frost says “[t]heir ways were so different from ours” (Frozen II 00:02:38) when telling his daughter a bedtime story. In the same story, the Arendellians were “charmed” (Frozen II 00:03:09) by the Northuldra (fun!). Overall, it sounds like the Arendellians didn’t do anything bad, and all of a sudden, the Northuldra attacked the Arendellians (not fun!) “They were attacking us. It was a brutal battle” (Frozen II 00:03:42). This makes no sense to the children, who seem to sense some sort of issue in this depiction of the Northuldra “Why did the Northuldra attack us anyway? Who attacks people who give them gifts?” (Frozen II 00:05:26). But the audience is left with a bitter, one-sided taste of who the Northuldra truly are from the colonizer’s point of view. They do get a voice later in the movie, but it does not really do them justice.
In our Old Norse sources, we are stuck with one perspective as well. This has an influence on the way the Finnar and the Northuldra are described and stereotyped. Both Frozen II and the Old Norse sources stand in the same „chain of reception“ (or call it „chain of unfortunate representation“, if you prefer), which started at least as early as the 1st century AD with Cornelius Tacitus‘ Germania. In this chain, stereotypes are established, portrayed and perpetuated. After the Old Norse sources, there are maps, ethnographic descriptions, travel accounts, children’s books and finally, Frozen II. I couldn’t find anything on the sources Disney used (the documentary series „Into the Unknown: Making Frozen II“ only covers the last year of production), but I would be very surprised if Disney directly used the Old Norse sources. They do still fall into the trap of using these same old (really old!) stereotypes, though, especially those about (drumroll for the next chapter!) magic and nature.
Magic and Nature
Both Hermann Pálsson and Sirpa Aalto (a review of one of her texts can be found here) point out that Finnar are usually described in connection to magic, witchcraft, and nature (Hermann Pálsson, Sirpa Aalto “Alienness in Heimskringla” 2). These attributes and abilities are used to split people into groups, which is called Othering. The Other are then usually excluded and dehumanized. Often, the magic skills themselves have a connection to nature or involve changing the weather or having power over nature. In chapter 8 of the Saga Ólafs hins Helga Haraldssonar, there is a scene where
“Þeir Finnar gerðu um nóttina œðiveðr með fjölkyngi ok storm sjávar”“During the night the Lapps caused furious weather by magic, and a storm at sea”, translation from Finlay 8
These powers inspire fear in the Norsemen (Hermann Pálsson 50). A similar connection between Northuldra, magic, and nature is also quite obvious in Frozen II. Their close connection to nature gives them magical powers, they live in and with the enchanted forest, attribute memory to a river and at least a couple of them understand reindeer. There are five spirits mentioned. Here are the first four (impressively, at least three of which have already been turned into merchandise):
- The Nokk (a water-horse)
- Bruni (an adorable salamander that represents fire)
- Gale (a gust of wind that represents air)
- Earth Giants (guess what they represent!)
The fifth spirit is the one to rule them all. It is “said to be a bridge between us and the magic of nature” (Frozen II 00:44:51) and turns out to be a connection between the Northuldra and Arendellians as well — spoiler: the fifth spirit is Elsa (and possibly also Anna, though this is not entirely clear). Elsa also literally rules them all, as she manages to tame the spirits after they got enraged at the fight between Arendellians and Northuldra. I have no idea how the fifth spirit counts as a separate one (Elsa represents ice and snow, which is literally just frozen water), but here we are.
As a side note: the ancestry of Elsa and Anna, being both Arendellian and Northuldra, legitimizes them ruling both parts of the kingdom, not unlike some Old Norse sources that ascribe a mixed heritage (sometimes Finnar and Norse, sometimes human and supernatural) to the earliest kings.
The North and the Supernatural
Not all Others are the same degree of Otherness. There is a spectrum from center to the periphery and beyond. But then again, it all depends on the point of view. Seen from Southern and central Scandinavia, the North of Scandinavia is already mythical. Hermann Pálsson and Sirpa Aalto mention the Finnar being described as wizards and semi-mythical beings, from a perspective that has its basis in the center. But it goes even further than that. Sometimes, beings from parts of the world even more North than Northern Scandinavia are mentioned, and they are even more mythical and supernatural, for example in the story of Nór. Nór is a mythical being whose magic is even more powerful than that of the Finnar (Hermann Pálsson 52). The Giants are supposed to be from the North as well (Hermann Pálsson 51), and they are, naturally, less human than humans. This means that the spectrum of Otherness starts at the center with humans, then moves to the slightly less „human“ Finnar in the periphery and finally to the Giants.
More on supernatural Otherness can be found in this blog post.
In Frozen II, the Northuldra are in the North in the enchanted forest, but there are even more magical creatures further in the North — earth giants. One could even go as far as to say they are supernatural. Even the magical Northuldra fear the supernatural earth giants. And they are coming for the Northuldra from up North. In other words: The Other (earth giants) from the periphery (Far, Far Up North) are threatening the center (the Northuldra).
And finally, all the way to the North, there is Athohallan, the river that contains memory and truth, and is even more supernatural than the earth giants. It is also the source of (at least some of) the magic and contains memories in a magical way. Therefore, Athohallan is basically the ultimate non-human and the ultimate supernatural Other, and as such it is situated as far in the periphery up North as can be.
Later in the movie, Anna makes the decision that the dam must be broken to both figuratively and literally (which doesn’t happen, but should have!) wash away the colonizer’s power and free the forest. She then leads the earth giants to the dam and tricks them into throwing giant rocks at it to destroy it. The Northuldra cannot destroy the colonizers‘ grip. Not even the more supernatural beings (the earth giants) can do it without a less magical, less supernatural, less peripheral being (Anna) tricking them into doing it. This does not feel emancipatory and makes Anna look like she has a white savior complex.
So what do we do with that? It’s tragic to see that the stereotypes and tropes used to describe (made-up) indigenous people are the same as they were for actual indigenous people centuries ago. The way the Northuldra live in Frozen II is not too far off from how many still imagine indigenous people, even though this does not match reality at all. Movies like Frozen II reinforce these stereotypes by romanticizing them, which is one of the issues with this Disneyfication. Critical voices from the Sámi communities about Frozen II have often been silenced .
Something really struck me, but only when re-watching Frozen II. When the statue of Elsa’s parents (their Arendellian father and a Northuldra mother) holding hands as children is revealed, the sentence “Our lands and people, now connected by love” is uttered (Frozen II 01:29:28). Recent events have given this scene new meaning, and not a necessarily positive one to say the least. The decolonizing-protests and tearing down of statues [6, 7] in the real world makes the (former?) colonizers in Frozen II putting up a statue of themselves with a (former?) colonialized subject to emphasize their unity sound forced. A formerly colonized group of people should never have to unite with its former colonizer for the sake of peace and love. Their voices should be heard and their suffering and heritage should not be washed over with promises of unity. The statue celebrates the Arendellian father who knew the truth, but did not do anything to put it right, and the Northuldra mother, who did not tell her children about their heritage. With this statue, the Northuldra are symbolically brought to the center, but they actually continue living in the periphery, while the Arendellians stay in the center, and the groups only interact through Elsa and Anna, even though they now all have the freedom to live the way they want to.
Personally, I am left with the question of what would have happened if the Sámi council had not agreed to sign the contract with Disney or if they had asked for different conditions, since the power dynamic between the Walt Disney Animation Studios and the Sámi council looks questionable at best.
- Aalto, Sirpa. „Categorizing Otherness in Heimskringla“. The Fantastic in Old Norse/-Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint papers of The Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August 2006, edited by John McKinnell, Bd. 1. Durham 2006, pp. 81-98.
- — „Alienness in Heimskringla. Special Emphasis on the Finnar“. Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages, edited by Rudolf Simek and Judith Meurer, Universität Bonn, 2003, pp. 1-7.
- Frozen II. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2019.
- Hermann Pálsson. “The Sami People in Old Norse Literature”. Nordlit, nr. 5 (January 1999), pp. 29–53.
- Saga Ólafs hins Helga Haraldssonar. Edited by N. Linder and H. A. Haggson, Schultz 1869-1872.
- Snorri Sturluson, Alison Finlay, and Anthony Faulkes. Heimskringla. London: Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2011.