Written by Jonathan Wojcik
It's December 25th, and we're all thinking the same thing: "if only there were anything special of any sort that falls on December 25th. Anything at all." I know you're bored. I know there's nothing new or interesting to read, watch or talk about on such an unremarkable calendar date, but I know just the thing to brighten your drab, empty, meaningless Thursday: getting to know another ridiculous monster villain from a kid's franchise many of you have never heard of. A villain who's even seasonally appropriate. Snowmen, after all, are well known icons of Halloween 2, referred to by most experts as "Frozen Ghosts" or "Fro-ghosts," and tonight, we meet the king of all such icy phantasms, the most famous hate-filled, remorseless imperial dictator in Germany, Arktos.
To understand Arktos, we have to go back to 1983, the same year I was born half-way across the world, and the year when German rock musician Peter Maffay debuted a children's concept album chronicling the adventures of a pudgy, awkward baby dragon with a ridiculous name, Tabaluga. An instant hit, Tabaluga would go on to star in four additional albums from 1986 to 2011, a long running cartoon series, a hit stage show and much, much more, but of all the monsters, demons, spirits and even robots he would encounter across the albums, one in particular captured the hearts of children in his icy claws like none other...
You had better be watching this entire clip. I know you have nothing better to do than marvel at a bloated snowman's chilling, horrific devil voice, bondage skull-shadow minions and epic power ballad. This stage segment is lifted straight from the 1993 album, "Tabaluga and Lilli," in which Tabaluga falls in love with an ice sculpture and a malevolent, avaricious snow demon is quick to take advantage of the reptile's innocence. How pumped are you by this song? Roughly translated, the opening lyrics are "I am the lord of light and shadow. My white makes all eyes blind. I am a god and ye are little rats." How do you like the guy who inexplicably molts out of Arktos and tears up the dance floor while pretending to eat his own heart?
Arktos is a pile of snow with a carrot nose and a top hat, and he is also a magnificent, awe-inspiring force of villainy. I bet you never imagined a snowman could convey this much class, this much evil. This much raw sex appeal.
...Now, quickly forget all of that.
Instantly becoming Tabaluga's most popular and iconic foe, Arktos was chosen to be the main antagonist of the animated television series, which also aired in Australia and parts of the United Kingdom. The show carries a slightly different tone from the concept albums, and I'll let this clip demonstrate. After his erotic rock opera performance, you might have mixed feelings about Arktos as a sniveling bully with a fear of bugs and a penguin butler named James, but you shouldn't, because he's still magnificent, even if it's more magnificently pathetic than magnificently intimidating. Arktos is perfection in every continuity. He's as unique and precious a snowflake as the millions of snowflakes comprising his body.
As for the owl, that's Shouhu Bouhu von Galf, the greatest name that could ever possibly be given to a giant owl who is a wizard. Shouhu is Arktos's prisoner, but also his advisor, because Arktos isn't very smart. We'll talk a bit more about this relationship later.
Cartoon Arktos is basically a giant, spoiled baby with a delicate ego, but his freezing breath is just formidable enough to maintain power over the kingdom of Ice World. Residing in a fortress he calls Glasstown, he terrorizes an army of fluffy harp seals, polar bears and penguins into sometimes cheerfully carrying out his cold-blooded acts of war with the lush, tropical Greenland, not to be confused with the real-world Greenland. Somehow, this drastically different biome borders directly on Ice World, and that's a problem, because Arktos is repulsed by vegetation and everything that comes with it; especially flowers and insects. This is kind of understandable when these things also tend to signify the presence of enough warmth to melt your entire body, but Arktos isn't only interested in self defense; he'll stop at nothing to blanket the entire world in nothing but snow, the only thing he loves as much as either himself, his pet shark, or his diet of almost exclusively ice cream.
Yeah, he's got life pretty figured out. Ice World's ice cream factories are his greatest source of pride after simply being Arktos.
By now, it's probably crossed your mind that maybe the odds are actually stacked pretty high against Arktos, considering he is a snowman and his arch nemesis is a dragon, and you are absolutely right. With a single breath, Tabaluga can melt a boulder into a puddle of magma, or evaporate an entire lake into scalding steam. The only reason Arktos continues to exist is by the grace of Tabaluga's mercy, his unwillingness to end even the life of a genocidal frost golem, and it's incredible what the little green dweeb is willing to put up with. The very last of his species, Tabaluga lives in the shadow of his dead father, Tyrion, who kept Arktos at bay for several thousand years before croaking, and while the kid does his best to fill those scaly shoes, he more or less spends the course of the series growing increasingly weary and exasperated with both his elemental nemesis and even the very animals he's sworn to protect, whose catastrophic ignorance is its own source of heartache for the fire breathing monster.
This is actually where this incredibly corny series gets surprisingly engaging, because a great deal of the storytelling revolves around diplomacy. Ice World and Greenland are two different nations with two different rulers, and Tabaluga's duty is only to keep his own people as safe as possible. He's not a conqueror, and won't interfere directly in Ice World's politics until he truly has no other choice. Storylines even deal with such heavy topics as labor strikes, immigration, resource management, food shortages and other delicate political issues more complex than you probably expected from a show with a mean snowman in it.
But, back to that mean snowman. I'm sure you've noticed how interesting Arktos's reptilian eyes are, particularly how they stare out of his top hat a good few inches above where his frosty scalp should end. A few moments in the first season or two imply that the eyes are actually connected to his head, and even that he has a collection of identical hats with eye-holes cut out of them, but later seasons - and this clip from the TV movie, "Tabaluga and Leo," - confirm exactly what we were all hoping; the eyeballs are part of the hat, and the hat may in fact be the true seat of his soul. Check out how his body is even limp and lifeless without it! Wasn't there some other famous snowman animated by a hat? What's their relationship? Where do all these haunted ice hats keep coming from, or was there just the one, and it slowly lost its mind following the extinction of the human race as sapient animals and mythological monsters took over the globe?
These aren't the only questions raised by the frigid tyrant's baffling physiology. You already saw him eating ice cream through a mouth that seems to alternate between being a row of pebbles and just a series of black holes, but we've also seen an actual, organic tongue coming out of it. What is that connected to? How many biological tissues and organs are frozen deep within his body? Stranger still, his carrot nose actually gives him his sense of smell and taste, but only so long as it's fresh; he has to grow new ones in a secret hot house. What really takes the cake, though, is the ending of this clip. There's no explanation for the bug-eyed abomination he warps into, and nothing like it ever happens again. All because he ate some gross ice cream? Arktos, what are you?
Enjoy Attila the walrus chef, too. He's only in a couple of episodes, but he might be the second best character in the series. Did "twink" ever even mean anything kid-friendly? I honestly have no idea.
The origins of Arktos are similarly ambiguous. In Tabaluga and Leo, he reminisces about his mother, and his childhood as a featureless snowball. In the original rock opera, he's said to be a primeval force "from time immemorial" that chose snow as its vessel. In a season three time-travel episode, we see him as a child with no apparent relatives, battling a young Tyrion in a Greenland populated by dinosaurs. Also, he has a penguin puppet he calls Jameson, aeons before he'd have James. Did he prep a penguin its entire life to re-create his imaginary butler? Does he just start on another when they grow old and die?
The show's original 25-episode run ends on a pretty epic note. We find out that Shouhu the owl wizard willingly handed himself over to Arktos when his friend, Tyrion, knew he was going to die. Without the dragon around, it was up to Shouhu's treacherous advice to keep Arktos distracted and confused for hundreds of years. With Tabaluga around, this seems no longer necessary, but once Shouhu is finally freed, Arktos rediscovers his power to will snowstorms into existence, and finally threatens to plunge Greenland back into the ice age...
Then Tabaluga calls in a favor from a goddamned kraken his dad was friends with.
Apparently he could have done that all along, I guess.
That wasn't even the first time Tabaluga enlisted the help of a nightmarish monster, either; Arktos once tried to unleash a plague of locusts on Greenland, only for Tabaluga to call in a favor from a sexy, cackling spider queen we never see before or since. She's actually a cameo from the albums, but if you didn't know that, all you know here is that Tabaluga happens to be casual neighbors with Lolth.
As remorselessly cruel as Arktos may be, it's hard not to feel sorry for a villain so oblivious to his own powerlessness.
Following his humiliating defeat at the hands of Cthulhu, Arktos loses most of his empire, Glasstown is reduced to only a small mansion and he grudgingly agrees to a peace treaty; one that allows him to freeze Greenland for three months of the year and effectively invent the concept of seasons. This is also the point at which the series ups its animation budget and grows slightly more comedic, with Arktos becoming less of a world-conquering dictator and more of a pompous, bumbling asshole from next door. He even rides around in a little trailer and hands out frozen treats, devolving from fascist tyrant to a really scary ice cream man. Fortunately, this only makes the series twice as adorable, and Arktos still manages to squeeze in some nefariousness now and then.
This clip is not an example. This clip is from an episode in which Arktos pretends to be nice so he can eat the ice cream cake at a turtle's birthday party.
These later seasons also introduce a counterpart for Arktos, a sand elemental named Humsin. This guy is as obsessed with sand and potato chips as Arktos is with snow and ice cream, leading an army of rats, lizards, ostriches, hyenas and even some seldom-seen talking scorpions. Also of note is the chameleon spy, Kayo, who sticks around as a major character and gets his own story arc even after Humsin leaves the series for good. The political dynamics get even more interesting in these episodes, as Greenland gets caught in the crossfire between the sand and ice kingdoms, both of which want its land for themselves.
So, that's two elemental beings obsessed with blanketing the world in a single biome. How many others could be out there, and why are they such assholes? Do they realize that if they won, it would probably quickly render the planet entirely uninhabitable, even to themselves, considering the fact that they seem to require food? Is that what happened to the other planets in our solar system? Their elementals went too far?
I guess I'm getting off track here. Every moment Arktos spends on screen is an utter joy to watch, whether he's a menacing, formidable monster or a comical screw-up. I've spoiled more than enough of his life and times; you can already find most episodes of Tabaluga on youtube, in multiple languages, but be warned: it is just good enough and just completely dumb enough that you may have some difficulty tearing yourself away.
Arktos is most of the reason I can't help but categorize snowmen as "monsters" by default these days, and there was really never any reason not to, just because most snowmen pretend to be so innocent.
I think this is a pretty good stopping point.
Yeah, it's a good stopping point, because otherwise I'll have to explain this, and I'm just not prepared for that.
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