July 27th, 2013
“But now the looking-glass caused more unhappiness than ever, for some of the fragments were not so large as a grain of sand, and they flew about the world into every country. When one of these tiny atoms flew into a person’s eye, it stuck there unknown to him, and from that moment he saw everything through a distorted medium, or could see only the worst side of what he looked at, for even the smallest fragment retained the same power which had belonged to the whole mirror. Some few persons even got a fragment of the looking-glass in their hearts, and this was very terrible, for their hearts became cold like a lump of ice.” (Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen)
The Snow Queen was written by HC Andersen in 1845. The story follows young Kay and Gerda in their childhood adventures, until Kay gets a splinter from “the devil’s mirror” in the eye and his personality changes. Where he used to be a sweet boy, he is now sullen and rude, and eventually he disappears with the Snow Queen into her land of eternal snow. Gerda sets out to get him back, and has many adventures on the way.
The story has been interpreted in many ways: the conflict between childhood and adulthood is usually at the core. The devil’s mirror will make you see less good in the world and more evil, and in the fairytale it’s apparent (through the loss of innocence and happiness that follows in the splinter’s wake) that “evil” is something that comes with maturity.
Read as a (rather interrupted) coming of age story, there’s been much emphasis on Gerda’s journey: In the beginning of the quest she sacrifices her red shoes to the river to get her friend back. The shoes have naturally been seen a symbol of blood and female sexuality. She is also held up in a garden with flowers who tell dreamlike stories of love – often a part of female adolescence. Gerda also meets her own opposite in the brutal and self-sufficient robber girl, a shocking experience for the innocent Gerda. It’s a long and hazardous journey, though, and by the time Gerda reaches the Snow Queen’s land, she has lost her ability to cry.
Enter the Snow Queen: she doesn’t really appear much in the story, but has still given name to it. She is not really the culprit either; the mirror was the devil’s, and Kay followed her by his own free will. What she is, in all her icy splendor, is a symbol of power without feelings. Her domain is everything white and clean, and her language is logic and reason. When Gerda enters the queen’s hall, she finds Kay on the floor:
“He dragged some sharp, flat pieces of ice to and fro, and placed them together in all kinds of positions, as if he wished to make something out of them; just as we try to form various figures with little tablets of wood which we call “a Chinese puzzle.” Kay’s fingers were very artistic; it was the icy game of reason at which he played, and in his eyes the figures were very remarkable, and of the highest importance; this opinion was owing to the piece of glass still sticking in his eye.” (H C Andersen, The Snow Queen)
The Snow Queen has developed a close and almost loving, relationship with Kay. When he has mastered the art of logic, she will give him great rewards. Her kisses takes away the shivers of cold, and gradually his heart turns to ice. Gerda is able to set this straight by finally being able to cry – then he cries too, and the Devil’s splinter is washed from his eye. The moral at the end is that the pair of them grew up to be fine adults, who always were children at heart.
It’s not just HC Andersen who has written about innocent children’s ability to imagine and believe, and the loss of these abilities that often comes with adulthood. Peter Pan springs to mind, and also – to a certain degree – Alice in Wonderland. Grown up authors write about these themes with deep nostalgia (even though the writer in question obviously has not lost said ability to imagine). In The Snow Queen, logic and reason are named the enemies of faith and imagination and maybe that is true? Fairytale language is the language of dreams and visions, there is not much room for reason and logic – and maybe the moment you stop reading fairytales, is the moment your really start to define your world in purely logical terms?
The Snow Queen is not just a story of childhood lost, though. We all know someone, or we have been there ourselves: something happens that breaks something inside, people change and become distant to the ones who love them. What used to be joyous isn’t anymore. Maybe this is the gist of the Snow Queen’s curse? A numbness to life, sometimes depression, more often a state of mind where everyday chores and schematic order is the vehicle chosen to navigate ones life.
I think one can become a Kay or a Gerda at any point in life – imagination itself has little to do with innocence, or childhood, it’s about how we choose to see the world. Reading a blog post about fairytales certainly makes you an excellent Gerda…
As for Frozen, the story is changed quite a bit from the original: there is no Kay, and Gerda has become Anna. Her mission is to find the Snow Queen in order to save the land from eternal winter. The queen is question is Anna’s own sister, Elsa. Initially I think I like the new twists: many clichés and stereotypes can be avoided by taking the boy out of the picture, and the sister aspect is intriguing. Let’s just hope though, that the original message hasn’t disappeared as well, it’s far too precious to be lost.
Camilla Bruce 2013