Well, it’s summer and the temperature out there seems to
keep climbing. So, maybe it’s a good
idea to find a tale to cool off. How
about Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”? Now, I’ll admit that I’ve never been a big
fan of Andersen. When it comes to the
great fairy tale writers, I gravitate more towards the earthy, rustic tales of
the Brothers Grimm or the courtly wit of Perrault. Something about Andersen’s tales always left
me cold (you might want to prepare yourself, because these puns are probably
going to keep coming). However, I figure
that no one can write a fairy tale blog without talking about Andersen
eventually. Also, I remember thinking
“The Snow Queen” wasn’t so bad the first time I read it. Actually, I’ve wanted to do something
regarding this tale ever since Disney’s Frozen came out, seeing how this story
and the movie it inspired are so completely different. If there are any huge Frozen fans out there
who would have a serious problem with how different the title character in this
story is from Princess Elsa, may I suggest before continuing that you just . .
. let it go (I swear, I am so awful
Anyway, let’s start with some information on the
Hans Christian Andersen was born
in Odense, Denmark
on April 2, 1805.
Andersen was a product on two towns and two
His youth was spent in the poor,
His adult life was spent in the up-scale
literary circles of Copenhagen
So, for most of his life, Andersen was kind
of a man of two worlds.
In some cases,
he was even at war with himself.
feeling of being “between two worlds” has become a feature of most of his
stories (one notable example being “The Little Mermaid”).
He even stood between the worlds of folklore
In his youth, he would
often hear tales from the elderly female inmates of the Odense Hospital
(it was really more of a workhouse).
This would provide the basis for his adaptations of popular folk stories
like “Little Claus and Big Claus” and “The Wild Swans”.
However, many of his most popular tales like
“The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Princess and the Pea”,
“The Little Mermaid” and this story were his own invention.
Another big influence on Andersen’s writing
was his religious faith, which was what has been described as a sort of
This is just
a brief overview.
If you want to read
more about Andersen’s life, you can click the link HERE
Now, “The Snow Queen” is a tale split into seven smaller
stories. So, I’ll try my best to give a
brief gist of the story without spoiling it and give my impressions.
First Story. Here, we find out about a very specific magic
mirror. This magic mirror was created by
a terrible troll. That troll was called
the devil (sometimes “troll” is translated as “sprite”). The mirror had the ability to cause anything
good or beautiful reflected in it look ridiculous or repulsive. Through a series of events, the devil’s
mirror gets shattered and little shards of it spread throughout the world. Some are no bigger than a grain of sand. The mirror will become important later. However, what I find interesting is the
combination of Christian mythology with Scandanavian folklore. I would have never thought to characterize
the devil as a troll before. I suppose
it should come as no surprise, though.
These things dovetail together all the time. In Arabic folklore, ghouls are both described
as evil djinn and as demons that are the children of the devil. Also, in Scottish lore, the fairies supposedly
owe a tithe to the devil.
Second Story. Here we are introduced to Kai and Gerda. They’re two innocent little children who are
close friends and share a garden. It’s
also here that we’re introduced to the idea of the Snow Queen. The Snow Queen in this story doesn’t seem to
be so much a character as a force of nature.
She’s described as someone who flies right in the center of fierce
snowstorms and returns to the clouds when it’s all over. The snow flakes are described as being “white
bees” and she is the queen. She’s
essentially the mother of the storm.
Now, all seems to go well until little Kai (which I believe is
pronounced “Kay” with a long “a” sound) gets a little piece of the devil’s
mirror caught in his eye and a little piece caught in his heart. As a result, Kai changes. He becomes mean and only sees the flaws and
everything. He teases the old
grandmother who tells him and Gerda stories.
He even stops playing with Gerda and would rather go play with the other
boys. Essentially, what we have here is a metaphor
for pre-adolescent cynicism. It’s age
10-13 for boys with a magical twist. If
you’ve ever had to deal with middle school kids, you know what I’m talking
about (I don’t blame them, it’s a hard time).
Anyway, Kai goes off to play with the boys but ends up getting led away
by the Snow Queen.
Third Story. With Kai missing, little Gerda decides to go
out in the spring and look for him. This
is actually kind of awesome for a little girl. One little girl against the world to find her
best friend! She ends up staying at the
house of an old woman who knows magic.
The old woman enchants her to forget she’s looking for Kai until she
sees a rosebush in the garden (Kai and Gerda used to play near a rosebush in
their own garden). She then goes and
talks to all the flowers in the garden and they all tell their own story. Honestly, I don’t really know what to make of
their stories. They’re all just little
vignettes that seem like they should be part of bigger stories.
Fourth Story. Having gained no help from the flowers, Gerda
goes on her way. She meets a crow who
tells her about a little prince who came to marry a nearby princess. Gerda is convinced it’s Kai and has the
crow’s tame fiancée sneak her into the palace.
One of the most interesting things in this one is that the shadows of
dreams appear on the walls of the palace.
It’s just such a wonderful, fantastical idea. It’s also kind of reflected in Andersen’s
other story “The Sandman” (yes, that Sandman).
Anyway, it turns out that the prince is not Kai, so Gerda goes on her
way with some new warm clothes and a carriage to ride in.
In this story, Gerda meets the Robber
There’s not much to explain
Gerda gets kidnapped by robbers
and meets a crazy little robber girl.
Robbers are something of a fairy tale staple, even if a less mainstream
They kind of play both hero and
There’s the dark and
vicious robber of Grimm’s “The Robber Bridegroom” but there’s also the helpful
band of robbers that take in the heroine in the Italian “Snow White” variant
Here, they’re a little
bit of both.
They are violent and
dangerous, but the robber girl does help Gerda in the end.
Anyway, Gerda gets a lead on Kai and sets off
on a reindeer for Lapland
Sixth Story. In this story, Gerda and the reindeer
meet two old women, one is a Lapp and one is Finnish. They give Gerda advice as old women in fairy
tales often do. The Finnish woman tells
Gerda that she has all the power she needs to free Kai. We also find out that the northern lights are
the Snow Queen’s fireworks, which is a fun little factoid. Gerda also heads for the Snow Queen’s palace
where she encounters some snow flake monsters.
However, here’s the strange part of this story. When Gerda says her prayers, her breath turns
into a legion of little angels with spears and helmets that fight the snow
flake monsters. Wiggy, huh?
Now, before we go any further, I have to give people a chance
to get off this ride.
You see, I have to
talk about the ending and there are SPOILERS
If you don’t want to hear
about the ending and the subtext of said ending, you should leave now.
I will, however, give you a link to the
original story right HERE
, so you can finish on your own time.
Seventh Story. Gerda finds Kai, who is turned blue with
cold. He’s playing a game called The
Game of Reason in which he puts together shards of ice to form the word
“eternity”. However, he can’t remember
what the word is. Gerda runs to Kai and
her tears melt the glass shard in his heart.
She sings part of a psalm and Kai cries and the tiny piece of glass is
cried out of his eyes. Gerda kisses him
and his warmth and color is restored.
So, everything is restored and they return to their happy lives . . . or
Here’s the thing, I’m not entirely sure Kai and Gerda
survive this encounter. They do seem to go back home to the
grandmother. However, Kai is frozen
close to death already. Also, Gerda had
lost her boots and mittens and was exposed to the elements as well. Also, right before they leave, the Game of
Reason rearranges itself to spell out “eternity”. Two children, cold and exposed to the
elements find eternity. Now there’s a
chilling thought (I knew I had another pun in me). It wouldn’t be the first time Andersen has
depicted Heaven as something earthly and comforting. In “The Little Match Girl”, the titular
character sees Heaven as a warm, cozy room.
The lines of the psalm at the end seem to hint at this too:
Our roses bloom and fade away
Our infant Lord abides always.
May we be blessed his face to see
And ever little children be.
This may be why I never cared much for Andersen’s
tales. I’ve never really been religious. I’m more of a secular humanist, really. However, in the world of many of Andersen’s
stories, reaching Heaven is the ultimate happy ending. For him the Ever After is actually The Ever After. I can’t blame a man for building his beliefs
into the stories he created. However, as
someone who sees death as more a sad ending than a happy new beginning, you
can’t be surprised that I find his endings leave me cold.
Update: Well, we've been having some lively discussion in the comments section. And the more I've been reading, the more I think I've been reading into things a little too much. Kai and Gerda probably just went home rather than . . . passing on. I'd say it was subtext but upon looking at some of Andersen's other works, I've noticed that he doesn't really do subtext (other than maybe how the themes in his writing reflect his own life. If they had gone on to meet their maker, he'd have just said so. I usually don't do much in the way of interpretation for these stories, but I chose to with this one and came up with something kind of surprising. But that's what's so great about interpreting literature, two people can see two completely different things in the same story.