Coronavirus endgame: how we get back to normal

(Same disclaimer as before: I'm not a medical or public health professional, listen to them over me if they contradict me in any point in their expertise. I do have this to say for myself, though: my last two articles have played themselves out quite well in the progression of this coronavirus pandemic.)

The current state of things

Mere hours after I published my last article, the San Francisco Bay Area got a "shelter in place" order. Since then many other cities and states have followed up with similar orders. I haven't tracked all such measures, but much of the United States is now in some form of lockdown. I feel like the societal mood has very much changed, to where people are now, finally, taking this seriously.

We are approaching the endgame now. Where do we go from here? And how do we get things back to normal, as quickly as possible? Some people are fantasizing an apocalyptic future, where we stay locked in for months and venture into the virus-infected outside world only to fight over food and toilet paper. Is that what lies ahead? It's clear that our current level of suppression cannot persist indefinitely, but how will it end, and what will life look like when it does?

First, let's go over some good news. Lockdowns are easy to implement, and they work. Once every infected person infects fewer than one additional person on average (R0 < 1), the mathematics of the exponential function now work against the virus, and its numbers collapse with the same rapidity it had during its growth. South Korea and China had already broken the exponential growth long ago, and now, with the latest numbers, it looks like Italy has turned the corner as well, as I said it would.

The major population centers for the U.S (in particular the SF Bay area, where I live) should also reach this point in another week or so. There are other parts of the country where the virus started later, so they will be on a time-delay from the major cities. Again I can't keep track of the different levels of infection all across our vast and diverse country, but in any given area, once your city is in lockdown, the virus will die down in a matter of a few weeks.

What then? If we simply go back to normal, the virus will just flair up again, and we'd be right back to where we started. So does that mean we have to stay locked in indefinitely? That's clearly unsustainable. Fortunately, there's an easy way forward - one that is easy to implement, keeps the number of infections and deaths low, and restores us to mostly "normal life" in just a few weeks.

The way forward - phase 1: lockdown

First, we stay locked down until the worst passes. The healthcare systems are bracing for impact right now, and more infections now will worsen their caseloads and the outcomes for their patients. Stay in your homes, and help out your neighbors and local businesses while maintaining social distancing.

In the meantime, our testing capacity needs to increase massively. Things have certainly improved in testing since the botched initial rollout, but I believe we have much more to do. The rest of this plan hinges on accurately measuring the level of infection in the population, at each local level - every state and every city. We will need enough tests to detect infection levels like 0.01%, everywhere in the country.

In any case, with the lockdown, the numbers will decline. The medical professionals will get slammed for a short time and heroically fight their battles. They will come out victorious on the other side, because the virus will have been starved of new victims. At this point, we can start the next phase of the plan.

Understanding R0

R0 = 2.
Every sick person infects two others,
and the infection continues to grow.
To understand the next phase, we need to understand something very simple about how a virus spreads. An infected person will eventually recover or die. In that time, if they've caused more than one additional infection (on average), then the disease will continue to grow and spread. But if they've caused less than one additional infection, then the disease will shrivel away. This number - the number of additional persons that an infected person infects - is called R0, and for the coronavirus, if we do nothing, it's about 2-3. The goal of all our personal hygiene and social distancing efforts is to reduce this number, so that the infection dies down.

The other important thing to know about this number is that it succinctly expresses the entire power of the virus. If this value cannot be brought down below 1, then the virus will continue on its rampage until it inevitably infects a huge portion (~60% or so) of the population. This is the catastrophe we are trying to prevent. It is this scenario that holds all our fears. In contrast, the current numbers, as large as they seem, are trivial for a population our size. They're still "no worse than the flu", in the commonly misused phrase of a few weeks ago. What we're really worried about is how these these numbers will grow, under the assumption of exponential growth.

R0 = 1/2. Each person only has a
50% chance of passing on the 
virus, and the infection shrinks.
That is why we must break that assumption. We do that by reducing R0 < 1. In fact, I think "flatten the curve" is the wrong motto. It should have been "break the (exponential) curve". We must take those exponential hockey-stick growth curves of infection and death, and break them right in two - into the growth curve, and then the decay curve. Again, we do that by keeping R0 < 1. As long as it's kept below 1, then it doesn't matter what else we do: the infection will inevitably wither away.

Now, while the coronavirus can be suppressed in this way, the consensus expert opinion seems to be that complete eradication is basically impossible, especially without a vaccine. So even when we get over our current hump, we will continue to live with the reality that there will be new cases popping up, everywhere on the planet. The second part of the plan is to keep such cases suppressed, so that they don't simply reset us back to the beginning.

Phase 2: permanent R0 < 1

We continue the suppression by keeping a permanent environment of R0 < 1. But what does that mean, in practical terms? Does that mean a permanent state of lockdown? Not at all. The current lockdowns are necessary because we were basically caught flat-footed. They are drastic measures that reduce R0 down to values like 0.3 - far less than 1. We're implementing them because the possible impact to our health care systems needs to be reduced NOW, and we don't know what else to do. But with the time we have in this lull, we can think of new, efficient ways to reduce R0 - ones we can carry out easily and indefinitely.

Think of it this way: to reduce R0 from 2 or 3 to down below 1, we just need to reduce the chance of infection by 50-70%. Every little thing we're doing - hand washing, staying more than 6 feet apart, etc., helps reduce this value. We just need to find enough of such measures to reduce R0 by about 70%.

There's bound to be a relatively easy way to do this, without requiring full lockdowns. It may be as simple as "everyone wears a face mask". Consider: if the sick person's face mask reduces transmission rates by 50%, and the possible recipient also gets a 50% reduction from their face mask, that's a total of 75% reduction. R0 < 1. Done.

The numbers in the above example are made up, of course. But we will learn such numbers soon. If a face mask alone is not enough, maybe we'll need face mask plus face shield, or maybe face mask and gloves. But think of it: it may be that we can all go back to "normal", with a simple additional measure like "everyone wears face masks". Some combination of such cheap, easy measures should reduce R0 to below 1.

How do I know this is possible? Because South Korea is already doing it. They have the coronavirus well under control, and they've never had to do shut down whole cities to do so. And how will we know that this is working, once we get there? That's where the massive testing comes in. We will know whether we need to increase or decrease our suppression efforts, because we will actually have the testing data showing us the accurate infection level. Basically, the testing and the suppression efforts will form a negative feedback loop, where we take more stringent actions if the infection rate in the population is higher - all the way up to another lockdown if necessary - and we relax these measures when the infection rate is lower.

Phase 2 example

This gets us back to "normal" - admittedly with some light additional measures - in a matter of just several weeks. But another beauty of this plan is that it can be implemented anywhere, any time. You don't need to wait for the federal government to swoop in with some trillion-dollar plan to start.

Say, for instance, that you're a small city in a state with a low infection rate. Nobody in the city is known to be sick with the coronavirus. But everyone is panicking! It's all that the rest of the country can talk about! Should you lock down the whole city right now? That does seem to be overblown, no? With zero known cases in the city? But then, what should you do?

According to the plan, you're effectively already past phase 1 - the "lockdown" phase - so you should implement phase 2: permanent R0 < 1. If I were this city, I would take all the cheap precautions I can without interrupting daily life. These may include:

The usual measures:
Hand washing, don't touch your face, keep 6 feet apart from other people, cover your coughs, stay home if you're sick.

Some enhanced measures:
Everyone wears a face covering of some kind (face masks are currently in short supply and should be reserved for health care workers), with more extensive protection for those that meet many people. Frequent cleaning of all public surfaces (door knobs, elevator buttons, etc), hand sanitizers and paper towels near all such surfaces, daily cleaning of all crowded areas.

Some easy social distancing:
Staggered work hours to keep public transportation less crowded, restrictions on large gatherings, restrictions on building occupancy, encourage working from home, clear plastic partitions between parties in crowded spaces (school desks, restaurant tables).

Frequent health checkups:
Full testing is ideal - but falling short of that, frequent temperature checks. Frequent reports from hospitals on people coming in with potential coronavirus symptoms.

Again, I am not in public health, and the above list is mostly just off the top of my head. This is just an example. It isn't meant to be a strictly prescriptive list. But the point is that this hypothetical city will still be fully functional, while significantly reducing R0. And it can stay with these measures indefinitely, because they are not overly burdensome.

And when this city gets its first confirmed case of the coronavirus, it will be dealing with only a handful of other possible infections, instead of the dozens or hundreds that a single case may imply without any measures. They should then immediately put in heavier measures for a short time afterwards, and when things are back down to zero active cases, lift these measures again. In such a way, our society can persist indefinitely, with a mostly "normal" life, while keeping the virus suppressed.

Summary and Victory

So that's the plan: for areas that are heavily infected now, lock down until the infection rate gets low enough. That's phase 1. Then, implement enough measures to keep R0 < 1, while maintaining a functioning society. Test extensively to provide feedback, so that we know whether we're doing enough. Respond to the test results by adding or removing the measures, so that we can keep R0 < 1, while maximizing society's activities. That's phase 2.

The final victory will come with the development of a vaccine, or an effective treatment. But that is a long ways off. Meanwhile, we'll be just fine, carrying on with daily life with some additional measures - light measures that can be borne indefinitely.

A much more thorough explanation

Many of you will have already read or heard of Tomas Pueyo's excellent article, Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance. I highly recommend it. It covers essentially all the same things that this post does, plus some miscellaneous topics, and goes over all of them in more detail. In fact, when I first read it a few days ago, I said "that is EXACTLY the post I was going to write next for my blog" - and now here you are, reading that blog post. I decided to write this anyway, because I want to give these ideas the maximum possible exposure. It's the obviously correct path forward.

You may next want to read:
On the coronavirus 
 The coronavirus pandemic: status report on the United States 
Another post, from the table of contents

The coronavirus pandemic: status report on the United States

Introduction, disclaimer, and a call to action

Similar disclaimer as the last time: I'm not a medical or a public health professional, but I am a data scientists. I deal with probabilities, statistics, and analyzing risks all the time. I've been looking at the coronavirus pandemic for some time now, looking at multiple sources of data. I consider myself to be well-informed, and my analysis to be sound. This is what I see, as of now (early morning hours of March 16th).

If we do nothing, this coronavirus will infect a large portion of the population (say, 50%), overwhelm our health care systems, and kill a significant portion of those it infects (say, 3%).

IF we do nothing, the numbers cited above results in 5 million deaths in the United States, and more than 100 million deaths worldwide. These numbers are so absurd that it doesn't even matter much if you somewhat disagree with my assumptions. You think the mortality rate will only be 1%, and only 25% will get it? It's still a complete catastrophe.

IF we do NOTHING, this will be the worst catastrophe in American history, and one of the worst in all of world history.

IF we do nothing.


The most important word in the above paragraphs is not "million", "death", or "catastrophe". It's "if". "IF we do nothing".

And that's why I DON'T think the above scenario will play out. But ONLY because we'll do something about it. We WILL ACT. We will not simply sit by and let one of the worst catastrophes in human history play itself out.

We will act to break the exponential propagation of the virus, limit its spread, and flatten its growth.

We will act to achieve what we already know is possible: China and South Korea have already broken the exponential growth of the virus, and they have successfully limited its spread to a tiny portion of their population. With any luck, Italy will soon see similar results, on the time scale of a couple of weeks (the incubation period of the virus).

We will act to save people, and bring our daily life back to normal as soon as possible. If we act strongly enough, it's still possible to keep the deaths below the numbers from last year's flu. Even if we have three major American cities blow up like Wuhan, that's still only about 10,000 deaths. And we will all be able to look back on this as merely a short, interesting time in our history.

But only because WE WILL ACT.

Looking into the future

To be sure, we have already taken some actions. But we're all wondering whether we've done enough, and how things will turn out in the future. After all, it's the future that's scary: people often report and comment on the current numbers, but I think this is a mistake. The current numbers, of themselves, are insignificant. It's what they portend for the future, under the assumptions of exponential growth, that's the cause for alarm. That's why it's so important to break the exponential, through our efforts of social distancing and better personal hygiene.

But will we succeed? Well, we are fortunate in this regard, because we can, in effect, look into the future. There are a number of countries that contracted this infection before the United States, and they're correspondingly ahead of us in the virus's growth curve. By examining these countries, we can effectively look at the multiple-choice future presented before us.

Taiwan is an ideal case: They've effectively succeeded in keeping the virus out of their country, and it's never reached significant numbers there. Of course, this scenario is closed off for the United States now. It's too late.

South Korea is also a really good case. They had a significant outbreak, but they've successfully broken the exponential, and their number of cases are flattening out. And they did it without having to lock down an entire city - instead using measures like contact tracing, aggressive testing, and tracking personal data.

China has also successfully broken the exponential growth, and they have very few new daily cases now. They did have to lock down Wuhan and several other cities to achieve this. This draconian measure is widely considered to have been a right, necessary move, although it might not have been necessary at all if the CCP didn't cover up the initial reports of the infection.

Italy locked down their whole country just a few days ago. Like in Wuhan, their health care system was overwhelmed, and their mortality rate is exceptionally high. Hopefully, they'll begin to see the results from the lockdown soon.

Meanwhile, Iran is digging mass graves. Reliable numbers from there are hard to come by.

So, those are the range of possible futures for the United States. Which one will we take? That depends on what we've done so far, and how we'll act going forward. Have we done enough? Should we do more?

United States status report

Here, I'm going to give a VERY ROUGH estimation of where I think we are, and whether we're doing enough. In the absence of other, more specific information, this could help you to inform your actions.

But again, I am not a medical or public health professional. I'm basing this only on broad, mostly publicly available data. If any local government or health authority gives out any specific information, advice, or order that contradicts anything I have to say below, please listen to them instead of me.

One thing that needs to be addressed right away is the appalling failure of testing in the US. This makes everything more confusing, and it means that we're significantly under-reporting the true number of cases, even compared to other countries. This makes everything harder, everything worse.

However, some people have used this as an excuse to postulate that there are a truly vast number of undetected cases out there. I am not much moved much by such a postulate, for two reasons: 1) I find it unlikely, and 2) if true, it would actually be good news in an unexpected way.

First, I find it unlikely because the number of deaths here in the United States have are still fairly limited - and deaths are much less likely to go undetected. Again looking at the data across countries, we see that the US has about the same number of deaths as South Korea. And we know that South Korea has 1) had extensive testing, and 2) has the infection mostly under control. So their number of reported cases must be somewhat close to the number of true cases. This implies that if the US also had extensive testing, we'd also have roughly 8000 reported cases, and that the total cases would not be too much larger than that, order-of-magnitude wise. You can do a more sophisticated calculation taking into account things like doubling time and time-to-death, but I don't think the numbers will change very much for this order-of-magnitude calculation. The United States probably has something like 20,000 - 90,000 actual cases, but probably not 500,000 or a million. Other estimates, for example from this excellent article, also puts the estimates at 5 to 30 times the number of reported cases, in its estimates from San Fracisco Bay Area, Washington state, and Wuhan.

Secondly, if we really did have a million undetected cases, then that would actually be good news, because that would imply a very low mortality rate for the virus. Apparently most of these million people were largely asymptomatic and never in any real danger of dying. This remains true even if you back out the typical time-to-death after contracting the virus. A million undetected cases, after backing out the time to mortality, would imply a mortality rate of about 100 deaths / 100,000 cases = 0.1%. That would mean we can go back to treating this like a bad flu.

So, the most cautious and reasonable approach would be to assume roughly 10 times the reported number of cases. This is good enough for my rough, order of magnitude calculations below, and I'll proceed with that number going forward.

Other numbers I'll use here are:

2% mortality rate, multiplied by 3.5 to account for the mortality of the 2.5 other people you're likely to infect. So if you get infected, the chance of you dying, or directly getting someone killed, is roughly 7%.

15% of active cases generate new cases every day, if we do nothing. This is in accord with a doubling time of 5 days, and a R0 of about 2.5.

Then your personal risk of causing death  - your own or the ones you directly infect - on a given day can be estimated by:
fraction of population that's reported to be infected
* 10 (to account for true vs. reported cases)
* 0.15 (15% growth rate per day)
* 0.07 (chance of causing death, given infection)
All this again assumes we do nothing to avoid infection. These number and calculations are, again, rough, but they're serviceable for an order-of-magnitude estimation. Note that there's a single parameter that largely determines how bad things are - the fraction of population that's reported to be infected.

Let's work through how things change as we increase this number. This will tell you how much danger you're in, and whether you're doing enough. Again I remind you that this is only a ROUGH ESTIMATE, under the assumption that we do nothing, and that you should defer to any information from local governmental and health authorities.

But with all that said, if the fraction that's reported to be infected in your city is:

At this level, your daily risk of causing death is about 1 in 10 million. This is less than your chance of dying in a car accident in a given day (1 in 3 million)

So there isn't a whole lot of risk to your personal safety at this level. The risk is less than driving. But you should still pay attention, stay vigilant, and prepare. Governments, being larger than individuals, needs to start acting at this level or sooner, because If we do nothing, in just a few weeks, the fraction will become...

Daily risk of causing death: 1 / 1 million.
Other fatality rates for reference:
car accident: 1 / 3 million days
sky diving: 1 / 160,000 jumps.
sky diving has about the same life-expectancy loss as smoking a pack of cigarettes.

You should definitely take personal precautions at this stage, beyond just "wash your hands" and "don't cough on people". After all, when you drive, you put on a seat belt and make sure you're not drunk or tired. You put your kids in a car seat. You get insurance, and pay thousands of dollars for extra safety features on your car. But at 0.001%, if we do nothing, the level of danger due to the coronavirus is distinctly higher than just driving.

America, as a whole, is at this level (4000 cases / 330 million population = 0.001%). But your numbers for your city are more important. They'll affect you more directly.

Los Angeles county is slightly below this level (70 cases / 10 million = 0.0007%. All local case numbers come from here).

The state of New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area, are both ABOVE this level (700 cases / 20 million population = 200 cases / 7 million population = 0.003%). Santa Clara - the hardest hit county in the Bay Area - is higher still, at 0.005%. In these areas, going about your day normally, without any precautions, is about as dangerous as skydiving. Would you go out to eat if you had to skydive to get there? And smoke a pack of cigarettes on your way back? Then don't go out. I personally have started working from home. If you must leave your house, take a LOT of precautions.

If we do nothing, in a just few weeks, the fraction will become...

Daily risk of causing death: 1 / 100,000
about the same life-expectancy loss as smoking 2 packs of cigarettes.

Wuhan went into lockdown at around this level (1000 cases / 10 million population = 0.01%). This makes perfect sense: As a city leader, if every citizen in your city started smoking 2 packs a day, would you not do something? Especially when faced with the prospect that this number will double every 5 days or so?

Another way to think about it is that this is the last level where some kind of "normal" life is possible. The levels above this one - 0.1% and above - rapidly approach the worst case scenario I described at the very beginning, where a good chunk of your population dies. 0.1% reported infection rate would mean about a 1% actual infection rate, and it's hard to see how you can stop that from growing to a significant portion of the population. So there isn't a whole lot of time left at this 0.01% level. Drastic actions are required.

Seattle (King and Snohomish counties) is ABOVE the 0.01% level (460 cases / 3 million population = 0.015%). Meaning, the ONLY thing that'll keep Seattle from going Wuhan is its social distancing/personal hygiene efforts up till now.

Has that been enough? Well, in order to break the exponential, the R0 (reprorductive number for coronavirus) needs to drop from 2 - 2.5 down to below 1: that is, a reduction to 50%-40% of its normal value. Everyone needs to reduce their chance of infection to those values, through social distancing or better personal hygiene. Now I've looked at some data on this, and it seems like Seattle is just at the cusp of that 50%-40% value: that is to say, SEATTLE MAY NOT BE DOING ENOUGH. No American city is doing enough yet, but at least the other cities have a little more time. For Seattle, the time for drastic action is NOW.

I'll not say whether Seattle needs to go into total lockdown, like Wuhan or Italy. I remind everyone that this is only a rough estimation, made under the assumption that we do nothing. And Seattle has certainly been doing things. They're engaged in extensive social distancing measures, and many of their citizens are aware of what's at stake. But even that may not have been enough. Right now, every option - including total lockdown - should very much be on the table for Seattle.

For the rest of America - watch Seattle. Pay very close attention. Remember, this is effectively looking a couple weeks into our future. If it turns out that Seattle hasn't done enough, then we'll all know that we need to redouble our efforts.

Italy, as a whole, is distinctly above this level (25,000 cases / 60 million population = 0.04%). It's not at all surprising that they shut the whole country down.

If we do nothing, in just a few weeks the fraction will become...

Daily risk of causing death: 1 / 10,000
Taking on this level of risk every day is very likely to cause a premature death (on the order of 50%). This is therefore a completely unacceptable level of risk, and any city or country that finds itself in this situation needs to do everything they can to get themselves out.

If we do nothing, in just a few weeks the fraction will become...

Daily risk of causing death: 1 / 1000
This is effectively the worst case scenario detailed at the beginning of this post. A big chunk of your population will die. Everyone keeps saying "don't panic", but if ever there is a time to panic, this would be it.

Status summary

An important takeaway here is how quickly we progress up these levels IF WE DO NOTHING. From 0.001% (where we are as a country) to 0.01% (where cities and countries start shutting down) is only a matter of weeks. Seattle is there already. And if we go much above that, we quickly approach the completely unacceptable, worst-case scenario.

Another important takeaway is that no American city may be doing enough. We need to break the exponential growth. We need to reduce R0 - from 2 or 2.5, down to below 1. That's a reduction to 50%-40% of its normal value. My best guess right now is that we're hovering around 50% in our major cities - not enough to be certain of breaking the exponential. Seattle is taking this the most seriously, but they also have the least time.

It may be that Seattle turns out to be an example and a warning to the rest of the American cities. It may need to completely lock down, and that may cascade into other cities to taking equally drastic measures.

But now is still not the time to panic. Keep calm. Stay safe and healthy. And take the necessary actions to safeguard yourself and your community.

You may next want to read:
On the coronavirus
The intellect trap
Another post, from the table of contents

On the coronavirus

I'm not in healthcare or public health, but I do analyze data for a living. Things like probabilities, managing risks, and statistics are my bread and butter. I've been tracking the data on this coronavirus thing for some time now, using multiple sources of data, and calculating the risk to my personal life and health.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. This week (starting 3/9) is the first week when my personal risk will become unacceptably high for me. Furthermore, this risk will continue to increase at an incredibly rapid rate, (very) roughly doubling every 4 days or so.

"Unacceptably high" doesn't mean that I expect to drop dead this week. It just means that it's distinctly higher than the other risks that I would take without thinking, like driving.

But even while driving, you take basic precautions, like wearing a seat belt, and making sure that you're not sleepy or drunk. Right now, for me, going out in public without precautions is about as dangerous as driving. It's probably distinctly worse. And getting riskier very rapidly.

This risk is calculated for me personally - taking into account things like my age and health, who I interact with, where I live and work, etc. It may not directly apply to you. But soon enough, it likely won't matter. If you live in an area with a known infection, the exponential growth of the virus means that it will quickly catch up with your personal threshold as well, in a matter of days or weeks.

This doesn't mean that anyone should panic, of course. You wouldn't panic over someone not wearing their seat belt, or lighting up a cigarette. But you'd clearly agree that these are bad ideas. And, again, the risks here increase exponentially with time. Soon enough it will be like getting in a car with a drunk driver. Without a seat belt. On a stormy night. For a drag race.

For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, this means that now is the time to act. And I don't mean that as a platitude, in the "no time like the present" or "seize the day" sense. I actually mean that now - the week of 3/9 - is the time when you should start to significantly change your personal behavior, beyond just washing your hands and not coughing on people. Before this week, it wasn't irrational for a private citizen, concerned only with his own health, to go about his day normally. As of this week, this is no longer the case. This is the week that the risk becomes actionably meaningful.

Again, for now, this doesn't mean that everyone needs to be locked into their houses right away. But week by week, the magnitude of the required precautions will increase significantly. If we were to implement zero precautions, we'd be looking at the "complete shutdown" scenario in a matter of a few weeks.

Regardless of where you are, your risk will increase until the outbreak is contained in your area. For now, the only way to do that is for enough people to take enough precautions. As a population, the longer we wait the more dramatic and painful these "precautions" will need to be, up to and including a complete shutdown of your city or region, like they did in Wuhan.

I'm continuing to go to work, and continuing with most of my daily routines for now - but with lots of extra precautions. My current rule of thumb is that I'll take any precaution that's easier than putting on a seat belt. I'll probably start working from home fairly soon - I'm running the numbers daily to see when that is. If you want to see the math, I'd be glad to go over it with you.

But in any case, take this thing seriously, and stay calm, safe, and healthy.

You may next want to read:
Basic Bayesian reasoning: a better way to think (Part 1)
The intellect trap
Another post, from the table of contents

The Gospel according to "Frozen II" (or, why Elsa is Jesus) (edit 5)

I'm still in the middle of writing The Gospel according to "Frozen II" (or, why Elsa is Jesus). I'm done with the rough draft, and now begins the iterative process of revising and editing. I think I may finish by next week if I'm lucky.

You may next want to read:
A systematic mythology of the "Frozen" universe
The Gospel according to Disney's "Frozen"
Another post, from the table of contents

A systematic mythology of the Frozen universe (Edit 2)

So it turns out that I was mistaken when I thought I was done with A systematic mythology of the Frozen universe. I spent quite some time refining it. I hope to get to The Gospel according to "Frozen II" (or, why Elsa is Jesus) sometime later this week - well, at least next week is a long weekend.

You may next want to read:
A systematic mythology of the "Frozen" universe
The Gospel according to Disney's "Frozen"
Another post, from the table of contents

The Gospel according to "Frozen II" (or, why Elsa is Jesus)

(This post is still under construction. I will work on it more in the coming weeks.)

(This post contains spoilers. Go watch "Frozen II" before you read it)

(pic: Elsa's birth)

Introduction: thesis and disclaimers

First, I'm going to give the same disclaimer that I gave in "The Gospel according to Disney's "Frozen"". Like the first movie, Frozen II is not explicitly "Christian" in the way that a movie like "The Passion of the Christ" is. Frozen II makes no explicit, definitive statements about real-world Christianity. Like other great works of art, it can be - and has been - interpreted in may different ways, ranging from insightful to ridiculous, and it has different meaning for different people. You don't have to see it with a Christian interpretation. But if you want to look into the deeper layers of its meaning, it's there, infused throughout the whole story. 

In fact, Frozen II is quite remarkably Christian in one very important sense: its whole universe is built from the ground up with a singular purpose, to place the Christ-figure of the story at its very center. Such stories are quite rare. Sure, there're many stories that'll dabble with a Christ-figure: they'll perhaps have a character walk on water, or perform a heroic sacrifice (tvtrope links). Such references often do not reach any serious level of depth. But in Frozen II, every major piece of its lore is there to connect its Christ-figure character to the Son of God and Man.

Who is this character? Who could it be but Elsa? Frozen II is fundamentally about her: her calling, her journey, her transformation and acceptance into her true role in the universe. And Elsa is Jesus: or more precisely, her role as the Fifth Spirit is analogous to Jesus's role in the real world. This analogy is, of course, bound to be slightly imperfect, but the points of similarity are numerous and profound, and occupy crucial points in the story.

What I'm saying is that Elsa is one of the clearest case of a Christ-figure that I have ever seen in any work of fiction. This level of similarity to Jesus himself - close but not exactly the same - actually creates a problem of its own, and necessitates another disclaimer. Here it is:

I most seriously urge you not to get your Christology from a Disney movie. If you want to know about the real Jesus, go read the Bible. Yes, Elsa has some major points of similarities with Jesus, and we should employ such points to illuminate our understanding for them both. But keep in mind that there are some dissimilarities as well.

So, is Elsa really that much of a Christ-figure? To the point that the film's entire world is built around this analogy? To the point that it merits a warning not to carry it too far? You'll see. A strong music beats at the heart of this claim. Let us follow its call.

Superficial observations:

We'll start by clearing some superficial observations out of the way. (pics) Yes, like Jesus, Elsa can walk on water. That was a cool scene at the Dark Sea. We can check off that box. She also raises Olaf back up from from his death, like how Jesus raised Lazarus and some others. Another box checked off there.

And one of the most striking images of Elsa is her as a white rider, saving Arendelle from its destruction at the end. This depiction fits well with Christ on a white horse, as he'll appear when he returns at the end of this world (Rev. 19:11-13).

At a deeper level of similarity is Elsa coming back from the dead, after being frozen. In any given work of fiction (including, incidentally, in Frozen I (link)), it's a fair guess that the character that comes back from the dead is the Christ-figure in that story. After all, Jesus's resurrection is THE single event that validates Christianity's claims. So this is definitely worth noting. But the movie itself doesn't dwell on this too much, probably because it wanted to keep the fact that Ahtohallan is God (link) in the background, in keeping with its puzzle plot. So, while I will mention that this is important, it actually doesn't provide a whole lot of evidence for my claim that Elsa is Jesus. It's important from the side of Christianity, but not as much from the side of the movie, so that leaves it as a middling piece of evidence in matching the two.

But at this point, we already have enough evidence to say that Elsa is a Christ-figure. In any other work of fiction, such a concentration of evidence would be enough to say that this interpretation is a legitimate contender. But for Frozen II, we haven't even really gotten started yet.

The issue with the kinds of observations presented above is that they're not at the heart of the movie. They're fundamentally not what the movie is about. As mentioned before: Christ's resurrection is absolutely critical for Christianity, but the movie doesn't spend too much time exploring the implication of Elsa's resurrection. Nor is the movie fundamentally about how Elsa can run on water, or whether Olaf will come back from the dead. So what we need to do is to get to the deep questions, the questions that he movie really cares about - starting with "why was Elsa born with her powers?"

What caused Elsa's birth?

The key scene for this question occurs right after Anna and Elsa discovers that their parents died en route to Ahtohallan, while looking for answers about Elsa. She's upset, feeling responsible for their deaths. Anna and Elsa then have this conversation, which is incredibly dense in its references to Jesus:

Anna: Yelena asked, why would the spirits reward Arendelle with a magical queen? Because our mother saved our father. She saved her enemy. Her good deed was rewarded with you. You are a gift!
Elsa: For what?
Anna: If anyone can resolve the past, if anyone can save Arendelle and free this forest, it's you! I believe in you, Elsa. More than anyone or anything.

So, Elsa is born as a gift, out of love for an enemy - and Anna responds to her by believing in her. The parallels with Jesus is clear. He, too, was born as a gift (John 3:16, Rom. 6:23), out of love for his enemies (Rom. 5:6-11) - and we respond by believing in him (Acts 16:31, Rom. 10:9).

Elsa was born to Iduna as a reward for saving Agnarr, her enemy: the son and heir to the throne of King Runeard, who attacked her people. Even just saving a friend is a rare noble deed, although close friends do occasionally save one another. But Iduna demonstrated a remarkable righteousness, in that she loved her enemy enough to save him in battle. And Elsa is born as an eventual result of that love, even as Christ was born to us while we were still sinners, and naturally God's enemies (Rom 5: 6-11).

Furthermore, Elsa is born to right an ancestral wrong: the original sin by King Runeard. From the perspective of all the non-Arendellians - the Northuldra, the elemental spirits, and Ahtohallan - there were two Arendellian monarchs who established a new kind of relationship with them. The first was King Runeard. The second, and last, is Queen Elsa. The first monarch murdered the Northuldra leader, bringing hostility and war. Through that one man, sin entered and killed their whole relationship, ruining everything. But the last monarch became a life-giving spirit, and restored that relationship. In Runeard, all is lost, and in Elsa, all is found.

Likewise, Jesus was born to right an ancestral wrong: Adam's original sin. From God's perspective, there are two humans who established a new kind of relationship with him. The first is Adam. The second, and last, is Jesus Christ. The first man violated God's direct command, and brought sin into the world. Through that one man, sin - and its consequence, death - spread to everyone, and ruined everything (Rom 5:12). But the last man became a life-giving spirit, and restored our relationship with God (1 Cor 15:45). For in Adam, all die, even as in Christ all shall be made alive (1 Cor 15:22).

"you're a gift", "I believe in you, Elsa" - right before connection with the fifth spirit

As the Bible passages linked above should convince you, these are not trivial connections. "Love your enemies" is one of the most important and distinctive of Jesus's teachings, and Christ as the "Second" or "Last Adam" is a major theme in Christianity. These are both paralleled very closely in Frozen II, where a major plot plot is the circumstances and reason for Elsa's birth.

What is Elsa's role?

But we are still only just getting started. Yes, the reason for Elsa and Jesus being born line up quite nicely. But what is that reason? What is Elsa's role in the "Frozen" universe, and her life's purpose? That's the heart of the movie. That's what we need to dive into.

Elsa is the Fifth Spirit - a bridge between humans and the magic of nature. Her role can be analyzed piece by piece, by looking at the nouns in that description: "human", "nature", "bridge", and "magic".

First, "human". As the Fifth Spirit, one of Elsa's roles is to bring reconciliation to the humans - to right the wrong that severed the relationship between Arendelle and the Northuldra. We briefly touched on this above, when we spoke of her role as the "Last Adam". The eventual goal here is succinctly stated by Queen Anna at the end of the movie, in her role as the "human" half of the Fifth Spirit: "our lands and people, now connected by love". In Elsa and Anna, there is no distinction between Arendelle and Northuldra (Rom 10:12): they are one in the Fifth Spirit. They are descendants and heirs to both peoples, and to them belong the heritage and cultures of both of their parents (Gal 3:29).

In fact, if there is any further group out there who presents a dividing wall of hostility between them and the Fifth Spirit, you can bet that Elsa and Anna will break down that wall and reconcile with them too (Eph 2:13-14). For in Christ, there is neither Arendelle or Northuldra, nor Jew or Gentile, nor Greek or barbarian or Scythian. Neither is there slave or free, nor male or female. For everyone who's connected by love to the Divine Bridge are one (Gal 3:26-29, Col 3:11, Act 10:34-48).

Again, as the preponderance of Bible verses referenced above should convince you, this is a major part of why Jesus came into the world. And it correspondingly serves as one of the major pillars among Frozen 2's themes.

Second, "nature". In the beginning, the elemental spirits of nature lived in harmony with the Northuldra. It was charming, magical. But King Runeard's original sin caused the elemental spirits to become enraged, and they turned themselves against all humans. When they awaken later, they're still hostile - some murderously so. But Elsa is the Fifth Spirit. She is their rightful ruler, as the center of the symbol of elemental unity, and the one to whom they need to be aligned. As such, the enraged elemental spirits are naturally and quickly tamed by her.

Likewise, in the beginning, Adam and Eve lived in harmony with nature in the Garden of Eden -and  it was "very good" (Gen 1). But Adam's original sin caused nature itself to be cursed and corrupted, and since then, humanity and nature have been at odds against each other (Gen 3:16-19, Rom 8:20-21). But Christ is the Creator. He is the rightful ruler of nature, as the firstborn over creation, and the one by and for whom all things were created (Col 1:15-17). As such, nature itself longs to be set right through his redemptive work (Rom 8:20-23).

Again we see that Elsa's role in the story correspond directly to Jesus's role in real life. They are the unifier of people and the ruler and tamer of nature.

Next, "bridge". As the Fifth Spirit, Elsa and Anna together form the two sides of the connection between humans and nature. They are, together, builders of that great bridge. The title of "The Great Bridge-Builder" is a very old one. You may better recognize it in its Latin form: Pontifex Maximus.

Let's go over a little bit of historical background. In the days of ancient Rome, "Pontifex Maximus" was the title of their "greatest priest". That is what the words literally mean. A moment's reflection here will tell you that "pontifex" then must mean both "priest" and "bridge-builder". And of course, that makes sense. Priests are those who bridge the divide between gods and men, and act as the mediator between them. This title was later appropriated by the Catholic Church for the Pope - you may recognize "Supreme Pontiff" as being essentially the same in meaning.

But, of course, by now you should not be surprised to learn that this was a title for Jesus before it was ever a title for the Pope. Christ is our Great High Priest (Heb. 4:14) - the one who bridges the gap between us and God (Rom 5:1), and allows us to approach him with confidence (Heb. 4:16).

So like Jesus, Elsa is the bridge - the bridge between humans and the magic of nature. But if Jesus is the bridge between us and God, then where does God fit into the description of the Fifth Spirit? This requires us to ask the most important question about Elsa: who, and what, is she? Answering this question will bring us to the last remaining noun in the description of the Fifth Spirit: "magic".

Who, and what, is Elsa?

In "Frozen"'s universe, all magic flows from Ahtohallan. As hinted by young Anna's question ("Ahto-who-what?") that's echoed later by Olaf, Ahtohallan is a "who" before it is a "what". In fact, "Ahtohallan" - or the entity behind it - is nothing less than the God of the "Frozen" universe. I've written a whole separate post (a systematic mythology of the "Frozen" universe) where I explain all this, which I highly recommend you read - but the key points are as follows:

Elsa is the Fifth Spirit in a manner analogous to the other elemental spirits: meaning, she is the representative, or incarnation, of the "fifth element" - the element associated with the God "Ahtohallan". That is, just as Gale IS air, and Nokk IS water, Elsa IS Ahtohallan. They are of the same substance: Air from air. Water from water. And so, magic from magic, and God from God.

Likewise, Jesus is of the same substance (Homoousion) as his Father: God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God (Nicene creed).

Furthermore, Ahtohallan is Elsa's "mother" in several 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. This makes Elsa the "daughter" of Ahtohallan.

Jesus is also the "Son of God" in similar ways. He is eternally begotten of the Father and therefore of one Being with him (nicene creed), and was made incarnate by being conceived in the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit (apostle's creed).

This means that the Fifth Spirit is a being with two natures - and this is represented in multiple ways. First, Elsa and Anna are the two sides of one bridge: Elsa is magical, and Anna is ordinary. Second, they are descended from two separate lineages: the more magical Northuldra, and the more ordinary Arendelle. And lastly, Elsa herself is one of the five elemental spirits, but also fully human. So, the Fifth Spirit is the daughter of Ahtohallan, but also of two ordinary human beings: Iduna of Northuldra, and Agnarr of Arendelle.

Similarly, Jesus also has two natures. He is the Son of God from his Father, fully divine and perfectly God. He is also the Son of Man from his human mother, fully human and perfectly man (Athanasian creed). So Jesus is both the Son of God and Son of Man.

Let's put it all together: Elsa is the incarnation of Ahtohallan itself. She, together with Anna, is the Fifth Spirit - fully human, but also a divine elemental spirit. Her unique identity enables her to fulfill her role: to unify all things to herself and thereby to Ahtohallan, by taming the elemental spirits of nature, and bringing harmony to the people groups.

In the same way, Jesus is God incarnate. He is the Son of God and Son of Man. His unique identity enables him to fulfill his role: to reconcile all things to God, by redeeming all of creation through his work (Col. 1:19-20), and uniting all the people groups of the world to himself (Eph. 2:11-22).

All this gives Elsa the right to bear some new titles. Some fans have taken to calling Elsa a "goddess", but I often reply that she is at LEAST that: "goddess" is in fact too low of a title for her. According to all that I've said above, Elsa is in fact the Christ-figure of the "Frozen" universe, and there is NO title which is too lofty for her. To her belongs the name above all names, and all the most beautiful, most excellent titles. As Quintessence Incarnate, she is the Queen of the Elements. She is the former Queen of Arendelle, and the Protector of the Enchanted Forest. She is Pontifex Maximus, by virtue of being the Daughter of Arendelle and Northuldra, but also the Daughter and Avatar of Ahtohallan.

And that, fundamentally, what Frozen II is all about. The person and nature of the Fifth Spirit is very heart of this movie, that explains everything else about it. Likewise, the Incarnate Jesus Christ - God himself becoming flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:14) - is the very heart of Christianity. The Incarnation is the miracle that explains all other miracles, and everything else about our universe. So at last, in these deepest questions we can ask about the person of primary importance, Frozen II and Christianity are in full agreement.

The Key

What more can I do to show that Elsa is a clear Christ-figure? Of course, we cannot expect the creators to come right out and say it: that would ruin the work, as providing the one true interpretation for the film would turn it into propaganda instead of art. But what else could they have done, to leave absolutely no ambiguity that they intended this interpretation?

Well, if there were an Christian element in the story that clearly laid out all the key components of the story, that might do it. And ideally, this couldn't be just any element: it would have to be unambiguously, explicitly Christian. It would have to be crucially important to the whole story. And it would have to directly correspond to all of the major components that we laid out above, in answering all of the film's major questions. If such a thing could be found in the story, I would say that's pretty convincing. And, of course, such a thing in fact exists.

Vuelie is effectively the theme song not just for Frozen II, but for the whole franchise. It is played three times in the movie itself - including at the very beginning and the very end, bracketing the whole movie. It is played twice in Frozen I, again at the very beginning and end. It also played in the first trailer for Frozen II. No other song is played so completely so many times in Frozen II or in the whole franchise.

Now, dedicated fans will already know that Vuelie is based on the Christian hymn "Fairest Lord Jesus". You can kind of hear the similarities it in some parts of the melody, especially when the Northuldra sing it, and it is absolutely unmistakable in the full version of the song (link). Okay, so that's a crucially important, explicitly Christian element - but have you looked at the lyrics to "Fairest Lord Jesus"? Many versions of the song have extended lyrics that iterate on its themes, but the core message of the song can be found in the simple original lyrics, (as found on Wikipedia):

Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature,
O Thou of God and man the Son,
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,
Thou, my soul’s glory, joy and crown

Beautiful Savior! Lord of all the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, praise, adoration,
Now and forever more be Thine.

What does this song say about Jesus? What roles and identities does it ascribe to him? When you strip it of its artistic flourishes, it says that Jesus is:

1. Son of God
2. Son of Man
3. Ruler of all nature
4. Lord of all the nations

And, by God, isn't that the exact the story of Frozen II? For how does the movie present Elsa? From the titles I ascribed to her above, she is:

1. Daughter and Avatar of Ahtohallan,
2. Daughter of Arendelle and Northuldra
3. Queen of the Elements
4. former Queen of Arendelle, and the Protector of the Enchanted Forest.

Or, in terms of the summary of Elsa's identity and role:

Elsa is the (1) incarnation of Ahtohallan itself. She, together with Anna, is the Fifth Spirit - (2) fully human, but also a divine elemental spirit. Her unique identity enables her to fulfill her role: to unify all things to herself and thereby to Ahtohallan, by (3) taming the elemental spirits of nature, and (4) bringing harmony to the people groups.

You can also think about this in terms of the world-building for the movie. Remember when I said that the whole universe of Frozen II is built with the singular purpose of placing the Christ-figure at its very center? Well, if your goal was to tell the story of "Fairest Lord Jesus", with Elsa at the center, then what would be the minimum set of components you would need to build for this world? You would need:

1. "God" (for "Son of God")
2. "Man" (for "Son of Man")
3. "nature" (for "Ruler of all nature")
4. "nations" (for "Lord of all the nations")

And what did we actually get in the movie?

1. Ahtohallan
2. the expanded backstory of Elsa's ancestors: Agnarr, Iduna, and Runeard
3. the four elemental spirits
4. the Northuldra

This all makes prefect sense if Frozen II drew its primary inspiration directly from "Fairest Lord Jesus", and was explicitly constructed to parallel its contents. And I believe that's exactly what happened, for it nearly ONLY makes sense that way. Because this theory not only explains the themes, plot, and the world-building of Frozen II, but also its flaws. Have you wondered why Frozen II doesn't develop any of its new characters very much? Or why it doesn't explore the meaty topics that it brings up, like ethnic bigotry? Because they were never the main focus - their actual purpose is to stand in for the "nations" component in "Fairest Lord Jesus". Have you wondered why Frozen II chose to introduce so many different components, leading to the common criticism that its mythology is too crowded and confusing? Because if you're going to tell the story of "Fairest Lord Jesus", you can't drop any of its components. Have you wondered why there are so many difficult and confusing questions around Ahtohallan and the Voice calling to Elsa? Because they are the "God" component of the story, and as such are the most mysterious and abstract.

Lastly, consider when Vuelie is played in the movie: The first time is at the very beginning. This establishes that the movie is going to be fundamentally about this song, about the "Son of God and Son of Man". This is Elsa's identity - and as such, the movie is about how she fulfills the two roles specified in the song: to become the "lord of all the nations" and "ruler of all nature".

The next time we here Vuelie is when the Northuldra sing it to Elsa and Anna, as they accept the two sisters into their tribe. This instance of the song is bracketed by two events: right before, Elsa announces that "our mother was Northuldra". And right after, she promises that "I will free this forest, and restore Arendelle". What is she doing? She is fulfilling one of the two Christological roles in the song. As Jesus is "Lord of all the nations", Elsa is becoming the leader, reconciler, and uniter of Arendelle and Northuldra, in announcing that she is descended from both peoples, and promising to solve both of their problems.

The third and last time that the song is played is at the end of the movie. Elsa is travelling to Ahtohallan, and the four elemental spirits are finally all in harmony with her, each paying tribute to her through their service and affection. Again, what's going on here? She is fulfilling the second Christological role in the song: as Jesus is the "ruler of all nature", Elsa is finally taking her place as the Queen of the Elements.

And - that's the whole movie. It's all laid out in this song. "Vuelie"/"Fairest Lord Jesus" serves as the blueprint for the entire film, in much the same way that "All is found" does - except on a deeper and broader level. They point to the idea that Ahtohallan is God, and Elsa is Jesus.

Show Yourself

Now, you may have read my previous post - The Gospel according to Disney's "Frozen" - in which I said that we (humanity) are Elsa. But how could that be, if Elsa is Jesus? Well, one possible answer is that interpretations can change between a movie and its sequel - but I think there's a better one available: both interpretations are true.

Obviously, Jesus is unique and no other human being should claim to be him. Fortunately, Christ's warnings on this are clear, and sane people generally don't need to worry much about making that mistake. However, we Christians are to imitate him - to follow his example and try to become more like him. And how far can we go in this endeavor? Every Biblical answer here seems to be "far more than what you thought possible". And so, both of the above interpretations are true: Elsa is Jesus, and also us Christian imitating him.

This means that every major beat in Elsa's story is ours as well, in our journey to become more like Jesus. We are called to a great adventure - to leave behind our old life, and follow the divine call into the unknown. We are to carry out the ministry of reconciliation - between people, nations, and all of nature. And we, vicariously through Christ, can even claim the superlative calling and powers of the Fifth Spirit, described in the very climax of the movie. For you who are found in Christ are to:

Show yourself: you are the light of the world, placed on a stand to shine on everyone.
Step into your power: the same power that raised Christ from the dead is at work within you, and you have all authority in heaven and earth behind you in carrying out your commission.
Grow yourself into something new: For anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. We are all growing into him who is our head.
You are the one you've been waiting for all of your life. you are God's workmanship, chosen in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world, prepared in him to do good works, which he prepared beforehand for you to do.
Oh show yourself: let your light shine before men, so that they see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.

You are the ones. You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people chosen to be God's own - that you many proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light. If you felt any love for Elsa, or any kinship or empathy with her as she accepted who she is as the Fifth Spirit, those feelings are not confined to just within the movie. Her identity and roles are real in our world, and it is yours as well in Jesus Christ.

And that's the story of "Frozen II". Elsa is Jesus: the child of both divinity and humanity, bringing reconciliation to all peoples and nature. For anyone in Christ, that work is our work as well, as we love and emulate the Son of God and Man. And so, in this way, "Frozen II" echos, quite directly, the one eternal story in all of existence.

You may next want to read:
A systematic mythology of the "Frozen" universe
The Gospel according to Disney's "Frozen"
Another post, from the table of contents

A systematic mythology of the "Frozen" universe

(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:
  • Knowing things. At least all past things, and possibly everything, period.
  • Singing to those who'll hear
  • The source of all magic, including Elsa's magic
  • Containing the "answers and a path for you"
  • Containing "all"
  • A mother
  • A 'god of the frozen sea'
  • Not human
  • More ancient than humankind
  • Bigger than what humans (except Elsa) can ever become
  • The incorruptible, supernatural substance of the heavenly spheres and the gods
  • Creator of the elements, and the world
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.

Atohallan's actions

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 depths 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 tamed later. 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.

Miscellaneous questions

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 in the future sometime, I will write a follow-up to this post, exploring how Elsa is Jesus.

You may next want to read:
An analysis of "Let It Go" in Disney's "Frozen"
The Gospel according to Disney's "Frozen"
Another post, from the table of contents