(This post contains spoilers. Go watch "Frozen II" before you read it)
Introduction and thesis
Frozen 2 is out now, and given this blog's history with the first movie, it was perhaps inevitable that I write on it. While the general consensus is that this sequel is quite good, there is nevertheless a persistent criticism which says that the movie is muddled and confusing in its mythology and exposition. Now, while I can see that the movie perhaps tried to do a little too much, I disagree that the mythology is fundamentally inconsistent or messy: A proper understanding of the movie's mythos will clear up most confusions, answer many persistent questions, and reveal the coherent center that holds it all together. My goal here is to explain that mythology.
Let us start from the bottom up: when we consider the hierarchy of magical power in the "Frozen" universe, we get something like this, from the lowest to the highest:
1. Ordinary people and beings: in increasing order, these are the Arendellians and Anna, the Northuldra, and the Trolls and Grandpabbie. Now, some of these have some knowledge of magic, and can take advantage of it in their surroundings. Grandpabbie can even manipulate it to some extent. But none of them seem to be inherently magical by their nature, like...
2. The four elemental spirits: they represent and control their corresponding elements in their local surrounding. King Agnarr, in telling his story of the Enchanted Forest, says that they are the most powerful of the spirits - but of course, his knowledge, especially at this time, is quite limited. They are certainly powerful, but they need to be brought in alignment with...
3. Elsa, as the Fifth Spirit: she tames the four elemental spirits, and serves as the bridge between humans and the magic of nature. But the source of her power is...
4. Ahtohallan: Ahtohallan is stated to be the source of all magic (including Elsa's), hold the answers and the path, and where "all is found". The power here is such that it can even freeze a post-"Show Yourself" Elsa, who is otherwise clearly the most powerful being in the "Frozen" universe.
This much is all shown pretty clearly in the movie. But it's also somewhat unsatisfactory. With just this, some key questions remain unanswered, like "how did Elsa thaw after being frozen in Ahtohallan?" and "what was that voice calling Elsa?" All this and more can be cleanly resolved with a single, simple hypothesis, which actually has a great deal of support in the movie itself. The hypothesis is just this:
There is a being of great power "behind" or "within" Ahtohallan - someone who possesses an incredible degree of consciousness, intellect, and agency, has clear moral priorities and goals, and is responsible for most of the key plot events in the movie. In other words, "Ahtohallan" is not just a place. It - or the being behind it - is something more like "God".
Now, the movie doesn't explicitly tell us exactly what this being is: there are many hints that it's a singular entity, but theoretically, it could also be a council of more powerful elemental spirits, like the elder siblings of the four elemental spirits we see. It could even be a whole cosmological hierarchy of celestial beings, like what they have in the Marvel Universe. The details here are not important: what matters is this being's personhood, power, and morality. So mostly for the sake of parsimony, I will assume that this being in question is singular, and simply call it "Ahtohallan".
But how can we know that this is all true? Let's dive in.
What is Ahtohallan?
We start with the very first mention of Ahtohallan in the movie: when Queen Iduna says "only Ahtohallan knows", right before she sings "All is Found". This is an important line, as it's repeated later by Honeymaren during another key expositional scene about the Fifth Spirit. Notice that this line immediately ascribes consciousness to Ahtohallan: it knows things. Note also the parallel with the common saying "only God knows" or "God only knows", associating this "Ahtohallan" with divinity. These are the first things we learn about Ahtohallan, before we even learn that it's a river or a glacier.
Soon after, Iduna sings "All is Found" - and this song is full of crucial information about Ahtohallan. "In this river all is found". She contains "the answers and a path for you". "She will sing to those who'll hear, and in her song all magic flows". She is called "mother" - like how God is called "Father". It is very clear that Ahtohallan, as described in this song, is far more than just a river. The claims about her are plenary in scope, and she is again ascribed personhood - a mother who knows things and sings to you.
Digging a little deeper, into the real-life lore behind the movie itself, reveals far more. "Ahtohallan" is a strangely specific name - contrast it with the other generic place names in the movie, like "the Enchanted Forest" or "the Dark Sea". This specificity, in addition to further implying personhood, comes to us because it has a basis in real life: Ahto is an actual god in Finnish mythology. A god of the sea, who dwells in his sea-castle called Ahtola. "Halla" is Finnish for frost. This cannot be a coincidence: the creators of the movie must have intended it. Now, I don't speak Finnish, but it's pretty clear that "Ahtohallan" can mean something like "frozen sea god", or "the god who dwells in the frozen waters". This gives us a direct link between "Ahtohallan" and divinity, along with the power, consciousness, and agency that it implies. With all this, I think it's best to think of Ahtohallan the glacier as a numinous place - something like a natural temple to the god "Ahtohallan".
Next, let us consider the Voice: the "ah-ah ah-ah" that calls out to Elsa, whom she initially calls "secret siren" during "Into the Unknown". Who, or what, is calling to Elsa? What is the nature of the Voice? One obvious answer is Ahtohallan itself: after all, we just got through the line in "All is found" where it says that Ahtohallan will sing to those who'll hear. But could it possibly be Iduna, whose image appears in Ahtohallan when Elsa finally gets there? Could it be Elsa herself, according to some interpretations of "Show Yourself"?
Well, one of the highest authorities you can go to for an answer to these questions is Aurora, the Norwegian singer who sang the Voice. According to her, "my character, in the movie, it's not human at all. It's kind of both more ancient than humankind, and bigger than what people can ever become - except for Elsa".
That is an amazing statement. What do you call something like that, except a god of some kind? This immediately eliminates both Iduna and Elsa herself as the source of the voice - for they're both human, and neither are more ancient than humankind. Or, if you insist that the Voice was from Iduna, you can only do so by placing something divine within or behind her: either she was something far beyond what she appeared to be in the story, or there was some kind of god who was using her, to sing the Voice through her to Elsa. Indeed that seems to be the likeliest explanation: the actual sound of the voice belonged to Iduna, when she called out to Gale the wind spirit to help her save Agnarr. Then Ahtohallan used this sound to call out to Elsa more than 30 years later, as the Voice. Any way you slice it, the implication that the Voice is divine is completely unavoidable, based on Aurora's statement. And Ahtohallan stands as the only possible candidate for its origin.
Now, in the interview mentioned above, Aurora mentioned Elsa as an obvious exception to "what people can ever become". Of course, Elsa is special. She's the Fifth Spirit - someone with a cosmic role in the Frozen universe. But what does it mean to be this Fifth Spirit?
In real life, the idea behind the four elemental spirits - those of earth, air, water, and fire - comes from ancient (primarily Greek) thought. Many people think of "Avatar: the Last Airbender" or the "Final Fantasy" series when they hear of these elements, but all such pop culture references trace back their origins to the ancient Greeks, who believed that all natural phenomena were explainable with some combination of these four elements.
They also believed in a fifth element, called aether, or quintessence (literally, "fifth essence"). This element was held to be categorically different from the other four. The first four were natural; the fifth was super-natural. It was held to make up the celestial spheres, which were not subject to corruption and decay like the world of the four mundane elements. It was held to be the air of the gods - the pure substance which filled the space where they dwelt. It was held to be a god in and of itself. Needless to say, this element was strongly associated with divinity.
Now, consider: if Elsa is the Fifth Spirit in a manner analogous to the other elemental spirits, then what is her corresponding element? It must be this divine fifth element. She is the representative, or incarnation, of this element, like Gale is an incarnation of the wind, and Bruni the salamander is a representative of fire. This implies that this "fifth element" exists in the "Frozen" universe - an element with strong associations with divinity, the substance of the gods themselves. Again, Ahtohallan - or the being behind it - is the most natural thing that comes to mind.
There is one more strong hint about this godlike being in the "Frozen" universe. Remember the scroll that Anna discovers in her parent's shipwreck, the one contained in the waterproof cylinder?
This is one of the most mysterious and significant things in Frozen 2, and yet it's only on screen for a moment. The decipherable, English words in the upper left corner - confirmed by the characters to be in Iduna's handwriting - clearly indicate that this scroll is somehow related to Elsa and Ahtohallan.
Now consider the pictographic symbols which make up the rest of the scroll. For whatever reason, Iduna and Agnarr believed that these symbols had tremendous meaning. That they held the key to the nature of Elsa's powers. The royal couple risked, and lost, their lives based on this information, believing that it would help Elsa.
But can we decipher these symbols? Of course, with something like this it's impossible to be certain, and my conclusions here are bound to be tentative. But if you spend just a little bit of time looking at the scroll, it's hard to shake the compulsion that it tells a fairly simple story. The first symbol, in the upper left corner, is that of a human-like figure. This figure appears multiple times throughout in various poses, indicating its importance, and implying some kind of activity. The elemental symbols for earth, air, water, and fire appear very early, and they're later combined or arranged in different ways in the second row. Then the third row shows plants, fish, animals, and humans. I mean, it certainly looks to me like the story of "God" creating the world, using the elements to create ever more complicated things, culminating in the creation of people.
The forth row and further are harder to see and decipher, but I think that the first symbol in that forth row - the hexagon with the squiggly line going through it - might be the "river" Ahtohallan, providing us with the direct association. Combined with the last few symbols of the third row, the story here might go something like "... and after God created humans, he came to rest in Ahtohallan".
In addition, there is one more place in the movie where these symbols appear: in the credits, as decorative flairs around the names, roles, and titles of the people who created the movie itself. This again reinforces the idea of this scroll being associated with the 'creation of the world', in the meta, fourth-wall breaking sense.
Now as I said, there are a lot of uncertainties around this, but if the story in that scroll is anything like what I have described above, it says some very important things. It tells us that the creator-God of the "Frozen" universe, who created the elements and all things through them, is now directly associated with Ahtohallan and Elsa. If so, then we will have found a key aspect of this mysterious being behind Ahtohallan.
So then, let us summarize what we have so far. Scattered throughout the movie and its associated real-life materials, "Ahtohallan" is hinted or described as:
Is that enough to call it a "god"? I should think so - that's a lot of characteristics, which imply a lot of power (source of all magic), consciousness (all-knowing mother), and agency (creator, singer). It may even merit being called "God", although that's still tentative.
But even so, you may be saying, "okay, that's a lot of hints and descriptions, but why doesn't this 'Ahtohallan-as-god' actually appear in the movie? Why don't we see it act directly in the story? In fact, if it's really that powerful and important, its actions should be really big and obvious! They should be unmistakable! There should be, like, a giant, glowing sign that lights up the sky when it..."
Exactly three times in the movie, Ahtohallan does act directly in the story, without using intermediaries. Each time, this action is punctuated by the giant, glowing symbol of elemental unity that lights up the sky. Every one of these three actions are immensely significant, occurring at key moments in the story. They involve incredible foresight and planning, the effects of great power, and a clear set of moral goals and values, as Ahtohallan achieves for itself things that no other agent in the story - not even the elemental spirits or Elsa - could have accomplished. They are a signal to the audience to pay attention: they would be 'deus ex machina' moments, if the "deus" - Ahtohallan - wasn't well-established in the story.
First, consider the sign itself: the symbol of elemental unity is the most important symbol in the story. It serves as a logo for the movie. In the credits, it's the first thing that shows up, adorning the names of the two directors, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. As such it is the "highest" symbol that exists in the movie. It has been mistakenly called a snowflake, but it's not hard to figure out what it actually means.
The symbol consists of the four elemental crystals, oriented to be in alignment with a fifth shape in the center - the fifth element, which is what Elsa steps into during "Show Yourself". The symbol basically expresses the ideal that the four elements should be in alignment with the fifth. Or, remembering that the four elements represent the world, and the fifth element represents heaven or divinity, it's basically like a prayer - saying "[God's] will be done on earth, as it is in heaven". The job of the Fifth Spirit is to bring about that alignment. And when the symbol simply appears in the sky apropos of nothing, it is Ahtohallan itself bringing about that alignment, directly and forcefully.
Let's now look at these "acts of Ahtohallan" in sequence, where this symbol appears in the sky. The first of these is the sealing of the Enchanted Forest, as a consequence of King Runeard's treachery, the following battle, and the resulting rage of the elemental spirits. There are several things that happen here. First, the raging elemental spirits are recalled, vanishing from the world for many years. Second, young Iduna is chosen as the eventual mother of the Fifth Spirit, in recognition of her heroism in saving Agnarr. Third, the task of the Fifth Spirit - of righting this wrong - was likely fixed at this time, along with the specific requirement of destroying the dam. And lastly, the forest is sealed with the mist, preventing anyone from going in or out, until the coming of the Fifth Spirit in the fullness of time.
Now, consider the plan behind these actions. Consider its complexity and foresight, in looking 35 years ahead: this plan calls for Elsa and Anna to be born, grow up, survive the events of Frozen 1, and become the kind of women who can accept their roles and successfully bring down the dam. The relationship between Iduna and Agnarr was probably planned and arranged for as well, to ensure that the Fifth Spirit was descended from both the Northuldra and Arendelle. All this requires an extraordinary, farsighted intellect.
Consider also that this plan needs an intricate, precise power backing it up, to observe and subtly control all the relevant events over those 35 years. And in terms of raw magnitude, more impressive still is the power to recall the raging elemental spirits, which necessarily requires a strength that lies amply beyond theirs. The mist, too, requires an incomparably strong power that exceeds Elsa's ice magic: for if you recall, Elsa fired off one of her ice blasts into it, only for it to just bounce off.
Lastly, consider the moral values expressed in this 'first act of Ahtohallan': it shows a dedicated concern to the harmony among nature and peoples. It shows a respect for the free will of the human agents in the story. It shows an appreciation for love - especially the love for an enemy - and a hatred for treachery.
Now, who could have carried out this 'first act'? Who in the story has the requisite foresight, power, and morality at this point? Elsa wasn't even born yet, so she's out. Iduna was one of the objects in the plan - something that is acted on (observed and rewarded), rather than the active agent. The same is true for the four elemental spirits: they are enraged by the humans fighting, and this is one of the things that needs to be set right. They themselves cannot be responsible for the plan to fix everything, as they're one of the things that needs fixing. Furthermore, we see quite a bit of these spirits over the course of the movie, and nowhere do they display the required degree of awareness, planning, or power. They seem to have, at best, a human-level intelligence, and they're mostly reactive, rather than proactive, in nature. They are powerful in that they're the embodiments of the natural elements, but their power only extends to their own elements in their immediate vicinity. So who else is left as the active agent except Ahtohallan?
In short, this first act of Ahtohallan requires nothing less than planning and enacting the whole story of the movie. Only Ahtohallan - who, as "God", has authorial, story-shaping powers - could have carried it out.
The second act of Ahtohallan happens right after Elsa accepts her calling in "Into the Unknown". It is no less impressive in the depth of the thoughts behind the action. Elsa accepting her call triggers the awakening of the elements, and they seem, at the moment, to be angry, requiring evacuation of Arendelle. However, we later learn that this was all for the sake of the Arendellians. That the elements actually intentionally evacuated Arendelle without harming anyone, so that the dam could later be destroyed without the loss of Arendellian lives.
We can go through the usual list of candidates to see that Ahtohallan alone could have been responsible here: Iduna is dead: she's out. Elsa may have triggered the awakening, but she certainly isn't planning on destroying a dam that can wipe out Arendelle at this point. The four elemental spirits are nowhere to be found in this scene. They presumably awakened in the Enchanted Forest. Furthermore, they're still actually enraged at this time: when they encounter Elsa later, they each begin by starting a fight with her. Nokk the water horse outright tries to drown her at first. The earth spirits very nearly kill Anna several times over, simply for her disturbing their sleep. Clearly these four elemental spirits have no special concern for the well-being of Arendellians, until they're later tamed. So when the symbol of elemental unity appears at the end of "Into the Unknown", the only being who could have foreseen the destruction of the dam, and also cared about Arendellians, is Ahtohallan.
Of course, there is a great deal of raw power displayed here in orchestrating the elements in this way. But more impressive still is the moral component of this plan, which is very carefully calculated. This is what really sets this action well beyond the reach of the four elemental spirits, who never exhibit such careful moral concerns, or the depth of thought that it requires. Consider: Ahtohallan must have known, even at this early point, that Anna would sacrifice the physical city of Arendelle, but not the lives of her citizens, to fulfill her task. In fact, in guiding her decision by evacuating the city, it reveals it's own moral preferences to her. It, too, values human life, and will not demand their sacrifice. But it does consider the willingness to sacrifice material things to be a key part of doing "the next right thing". Again, only Ahtohallan, as "God", could have such intimate knowledge of Anna's internal moral thought processes, and interact with her in such a subtle and sublime way.
The last act of Ahtohallan is in the climax, right after Anna manipulates the earth spirits to destroy the dam. Elsa unfreezes, and the Enchanted Forest is freed from the mist. Again, it's easy to see that Ahtohallan alone could have been responsible. It can't be Elsa: she's dead at this point, frozen by Ahtohallan's magic for going too deep. And since Ahtohallan is the source of all magic, who else can thaw what it has frozen? The four elemental spirits have no such ability, and they (except Nokk) are quite clearly shown to be in the "audience" when that third symbol flashes up in the sky. They're looking on that symbol of elemental unity as spectators, rather than as the active party that brought it about. The earth spirits, in particular, were stupidly trying to kill Anna right before this, and seem to be genuinely surprised when they realized that their actions had other consequences. This does not at all accord with the profound thoughts involved in the other instances where the symbol of elemental unity appeared in the sky. So the four elemental spirits cannot have been the ones responsible. Indeed the only sensible interpretation of these events is that it was Ahtohallan acting directly in the world - rewarding the Fifth Spirit for completing its task, and freeing the forest from the mist seal.
So, that is the overall case for "Ahtohallan" being "God" in this universe. We've gone over a ton of reason for thinking so: it has the necessary characteristics to be "God", and it acts in a manner befitting "God". But we're not quite done yet.
There are some important, persistent questions that come up about the "Frozen" storyline and its universe, which I present below. Some of these questions have already been answered above, in the natural course of explaining things. Some of it can be answered by just carefully thinking about the story. Other answers are of dubious certainty. But, as the last point of evidence that 'Ahtohallan is God', some of these key questions can only be answered convincingly by this interpretation.
Who or what was the Voice that called to Elsa?
It was Ahtohallan, using the call that Iduna used at the moment of her heroism.
It couldn't have been Iduna herself, based on Aurora's explicit statement that the Voice is not human. Nor could it be Elsa's memory of her, since the Voice has new lines when she sings in "Show Yourself", which were never spoken before.
But why does Ahtohallan use Iduna's voice to call to Elsa?
Because when Iduna called for the wind spirit to help her save her enemy, she demonstrated the harmony among nature and peoples that Ahtohallan so greatly desires. That's why she's chosen as the mother of the Fifth Spirit, and why Ahtohallan eventually calls to Elsa using her voice - because Elsa is being tasked with replicating what her mother did, but on a much larger scale.
But what does Elsa think she's hearing? When she sings "Show Yourself", who is it that she expects to find? Who does she actually find?
Elsa is searching for something that she doesn't quite understand. So she calls it by many different names: "the Voice", "secret siren", "someone out there who's a little bit like me", "Fifth Spirit", "a friend I've always known", "a dream I can reach but not quite hold", "the answer I've waited for all of my life", and "mother". Some of these names are more right than others, and they're all right in some ways.
Whatever this entity is, Elsa is hoping that it can answer her lifelong questions about her powers and her role in the universe - and how that ties in with Arendelle, Northuldra, the elemental spirits, and the past.
In "Show Yourself", Elsa goes to the glacier Ahtohallan, and asks to meet this entity that's been calling to her - and finds (or is found by) the God Ahtohallan. This God is like all these things that Elsa thought she was looking for, in some important ways. Ahtohallan is like the Fifth Spirit, in that the Fifth Spirit is Ahtohallan's incarnation into Frozen's world. Ahtohallan is like Elsa herself, because Elsa discovers that she is herself the Fifth Spirit. Ahtohallan is like a mother in at least three different ways: one, because as God, she's mother to all of existence. Two, because she's the "mother" of the Fifth Spirit, in that the Fifth Spirit is her incarnation. And three, because Elsa's mother Iduna was chosen by Ahtohallan to give birth to the Fifth Spirit.
And by finding Ahtohallan, Elsa finds all the answers to the questions she's been asking, and the path forward in her life's purpose. She is the Fifth Spirit, with the power and duty to restore the harmony that was broken by her grandfather, by uniting the peoples and the elemental spirits to herself and thereby to Ahtohallan.
Why did Elsa freeze in Ahtohallan?
It's a well-known trope that it's unsafe to get too close to something truly holy. Now, I don't think this was a direct, specific action by Ahtohallan, like the times we see the symbol of elemental unity in the sky. I think that, as a general rule, there is a limit to how far anyone can go in Ahtohallan, before they're overwhelmed by its power or holiness. That's the reason for the general warning in "All is Found". But Elsa had to travel to that point to find the truth.
How did Elsa un-freeze?
Through a direct action by Ahtohallan, and signified as such by the symbol of elemental unity appearing in the sky. Ahtohallan was rewarding the Fifth Spirit for completing its destined task.
Why was the mist placed, then removed, over the Enchanted Forest?
It was a direct action by Ahtohallan, and signified as such by the symbol of elemental unity appearing in the sky. Now, we have to speculate a bit about why it acted the way it did, but I don't think it's hard to figure out: Ahtohallan values harmony among the people and nature, so it doesn't want their conflict spreading out from the Enchanted Forest - especially when the four elemental spirits themselves are enraged. There was probably a protective intent for the Northuldra as well, as they were severely weakened by the death of their leader, the dam crippling their lands, and the vanishing of the elemental spirits.
So it seals off the forest - for containment, quarantine, and protection - until everything could be set right through the actions of the Fifth Spirit.
Why does Elsa have ice powers, when she's the Fifth Spirit?
Because Ahtohallan is a frozen glacier. Note that this is quite accidental: if Ahtohallan had settled in a volcano, Elsa might have had fire powers instead. Intrinsically, Ahtohallan is unlikely to have any particular preference for any one element. In any case, Elsa's powers come directly from Ahtohallan, rather than from any of the elements.
What is the relationship between Ahtohallan and the four elemental spirits?
Ahtohallan is their creator, and the source of their magic. They are meant to be in harmony with humans, one another, and Ahtohallan itself, but when that harmony is broken, Ahtohallan has to take more direct action in incarnating the Fifth Spirit, to bring them back into harmony.
How could Elsa leave her kingdom and her sister behind at the end of the movie?
Because a divine calling is one of the very few things that can override a sister's duty to her family, and a monarch's duty to her kingdom.
Why is Elsa travelling to Ahtohallan at the end of the movie? And why does she look so happy?
Because she is the Fifth Spirit, the incarnation of Ahtohallan itself. Ahtohallan is where she feels the most at home, as it's her "mother", her "God", her natural "element", and her very identity.
Thank you for reading through all this. I hope that this interpretation clears up any confusion you've felt about the mythology of Frozen II. Thinking through all this and writing it all down has certainly cleared things up for me. I think that, with all this, we can confidently say that the mythology of Frozen II is not incoherent or messy. We see that it is actually deep and rich. It may be initially hard to understand, but all of it can be explained in a clean, simple way: Ahtohallan is effectively "God". It acts directly in the story at crucial, clearly marked points. Elsa is its "representative" or "incarnation" as the Fifth Spirit. The four elemental spirits are to be in harmony with her, and also with humanity through her. This interpretation explains most of the confusing things about the movie, leaving everything clear and coherent.
By now - in fact, for some time now - you may have noticed the Christological and messianic themes that have been building up. They've quite frankly become too much to ignore. So I've written a follow-up to this post, exploring how Elsa is Jesus.
You may next want to read:
The Gospel according to Frozen II (or, why Elsa is Jesus)
An analysis of "Let It Go" in Disney's "Frozen"
The Gospel according to Disney's "Frozen"
Another post, from the table of contents