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Tarjei Vesaas: Is-slottet (The Ice Palace)

Siss is an eleven year old girl and the leader of her peers at her school. A new girl comes to the school – Unn – who keeps herself to herself and won’t join in with Siss and her crowd, even when asked to. Siss feels that Unn has some power over her, though she cannot explain what. One day Unn says she wants to meet Siss and they go to Unn’s house. Unn lives with her aunt, her mother having died and her father, who never married her mother, having disappeared. Unn tells Siss that she has a secret but will not impart it. Nevertheless, it seems that they will become good friends.

The next day, however, instead of going to school Unn decides to go to the ice palace. This is a frozen waterfall, where all the schoolchildren are planning to go but, for some reason, she wishes to go before she goes with Siss. She is attracted to the magical formations of the ice and penetrates more and more into the ice rooms created in the waterfall, there to stay, never to exit. Once she is missed, a massive search party goes and looks for her but they are hampered by the newly formed snow. The adults seem to be aware that there is some secret between her and Unn but she will not reveal it. However, near the ice palace she believes she sees Unn. What the secret is is that Siss has vowed to be Unn’s friend forever. Eventually, the search party goes to the ice palace but are unable to find Unn.

Siss now remains apart from the other schoolchildren, barely speaking to them or to her parents. Like Unn, she keeps separate, feeling that she has to be loyal to Unn. The other children try to bring her back but they are unable to do so. Eventually, the search for Unn is called off and, somewhat later, the distraught aunt sells her house and plans to leave. When a new girl arrives at the school, Siss, still keeping to her promise, joins in with the schoolchildren on a ski trip to the now melting ice palace. Again Siss thinks she sees Unn but realises it is her imagination. The ice cracks but the palace only falls apart at night when everyone is asleep. Siss has kept her promise.

Once again, Vesaas tells a story of great feeling that a mere plot summary cannot convey. The bond between the two girls, even if they have only effectively known each other for a short while and Siss’ faithfulness to Unn and her memory, even after her death, are superbly portrayed by Vesaas. As in his other books, the world of children is a completely separate world from that of adults and one which adults cannot hope to penetrate or understand. The symbolism of the ice palace and Unn’s difficult journey to its centre only reinforce this.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Gylendal
First published in English in 1966 by Peter Owen
Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan