Tarjei Vesaas

The Ice Palace

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The Ice Palace Summary

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The Ice Palace (Is-Slottet) is a young adult coming of age novel written in 1963 by Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas and translated to English by Elizabeth Rokkan. The story focuses on the sudden, powerful friendship of two eleven-year-old girls, Unn and Siss, and the devastating effect of Unn’s abrupt disappearance. Vesaas is known for his lyrical, modernist writing style which incorporates both verse and prose. Simple yet vivid descriptions of the Scandinavian landscape combine with metaphor and symbolism to illustrate profound themes of guilt, death, loss, and friendship. Novelist Doris Lessing praised The Ice Palace, writing, “It is unique. It is unforgettable. It is extraordinary.” The Ice Palace is considered a classic of Norwegian literature.

Unn is the new girl at an isolated, rural Scandinavian school. Her unmarried mother recently died, and she does not know her father. Unn holds herself apart from the other students, declining to join their social group even when she is invited, simply answering, “I can’t.” Siss, an outgoing, popular student leader, respects the strength of Unn’s aloneness, and is excited and intrigued by something intangible about Unn’s “aura.” When Unn sends Siss a note saying she must meet her, Siss is thrilled.

On a dark, early winter evening, Siss walks to Unn’s house, a small cottage she shares with her Auntie. Auntie is good-natured and has good standing in the small community but is known as someone who keeps to herself.

Unn takes Siss to her room. Together, the girls look into a mirror and see “four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again.” Unn suggests they undress, and Siss agrees until they both stand “shining” on the floor. The girls realize how similar they are to each other. Unn then says that she is cold, and the two get dressed again, leaving Siss feeling confused and disappointed. Unn shows Siss a picture of the father she has never met, declaring she is not sure if she’ll go to heaven. Unn also tells Siss that she has a secret she wants to share. Although the two girls have overcome their initial awkwardness and immediately bonded as friends, the swift intimacy makes Siss uncomfortable. She is afraid to hear Unn’s secret, thinking “What might not Unn say?” Siss announces she must leave and runs home.

The next day, worried that she has embarrassed, or scared Siss, Unn cannot face seeing her at school. Instead, she leaves the cottage and decides to explore the Ice Palace. Here, the narrative changes from what is primarily Siss’s third-person point of view to that of Unn. The “home of the cold,” the Ice Palace, is a series of thick ice caves formed around a waterfall. Unn, captivated by its colors and weird beauty, penetrates deeper and deeper into the Ice Palace through an “enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually.” Vesaas’s description of Unn’s exploration takes on erotic overtones. Unn dies in the Ice Palace, and her last word is “Siss.”

The community searches futilely for Unn, asking Siss many questions since she was the last person to see Unn. Siss doesn’t have any answers, she only knows that Unn had a secret she never shared. Siss is overwhelmed by the unfair loss of Unn, and the sharp end of their short-lived but intense friendship. She thinks she sees Unn’s face deep in the ice of the Ice Palace, looking out through the ice wall. Siss erects a barrier around herself as winter strengthens, making a vow to the dead girl, “Promise in deepest snow from Siss to Unn: I promise to think about no one but you.” Siss identifies with Unn. She gives up her leadership role to another student and becomes a loner like Unn as a way of preserving the dead girl’s memory. When their teacher tries to give Unn’s empty desk away, Siss argues, “If her place isn’t here, she’ll never come back!” Siss wants to make sure everyone remembers Unn.

Adults and the other children treat Siss kindly and protectively as she grieves. Winter gradually gives way to spring and Siss thaws in the face of the kindness of her friends and attention from a boy she likes. Siss goes to visit Unn’s Auntie, who is moving away from the community. Auntie frees Siss from her vow to Unn.

With the coming of spring, the river melts and the Ice Palace, too, crumbles and disappears one night, along with Unn’s secret: “Now the palace, with all its secrets, goes into the waterfall. There is a violent struggle and then it has gone.” Siss worries that no one is thinking about Unn anymore, but her mother tells her that she is the one who can think about Unn all the time. Siss feels as if she has been “given a great gift,” and is able to move on to adolescence and towards adulthood.

Vesaas defied convention by writing The Ice Palace in Nynorsk rather than Bokmål, the Danish-influenced, written standard for the Norwegian language. Vesaas was purportedly considered for a Nobel Prize for Literature for The Ice Palace in 1964, and the book won the Nordic Council Award in 1963.