Friday, November 25, 2016

Adventure classics – Andersen’s icy epic of a fairy tale

“The Snow Queen”

by Hans Christian Andersen

The life of Hans Christian Andersen foreshadowed his own fairy tales: the early death of a beloved father that plunged Hans and his mother into poverty, an abusive childhood at the hands of schoolmasters and foster families, and adult infatuations with unattainable lovers of both sexes. Luckily for the rest of us, he was able to transmute personal disasters into fantastic stories as meaningful to adults as to children. And although an artist in miniatures, he stretched himself in 1844 with the publication of a story collection of tales that included “The Snow Queen,” his longest tale.

artist: Anne Anderson
Written in seven separate but interrelated stories, “The Snow Queen” is an epic in miniature of humanity’s fall and redemption. But readers didn’t let that stop them from enjoying its glittering, fantastic beauty.

The tale begins with a prologue in which as supernatural being, usually translated as “imp”, but in the 1958 Reginald Spink’s version on my desk as “the very Devil himself.” In a parody of creation, the devil makes a looking-glass – a mirror – “which had the magic power of making anything good and beautiful that looked into it shrink to next to nothing, while what was no good or was ugly stood out well and grew even worse. . . If a nice, kindly thought passed through anybody’s head, the looking-glass would show such a grin that the demon couldn’t help but laugh at his curious trick.”

However, when the demon attempts to take his distorting mirror up to heaven, it shatters, presumably unable to withstand the power of infinite goodness. Unfortunately, the shattered fragments, some as fine as dust, scatter all over the world, infecting anyone who comes in contact with them. (Andersen’s own aversion to mirrors may have some roots in his own less than beautiful physical appearance, which he may have blamed for his romantic failures.)

And there things stand until the second story, of two children, Kay (Kai) and Gerda. Living in the garrets of houses close together, the children’s families have built a box garden of roses across their overlapping gutters. This garden is the children’s favorite playground, and they are inseparable – until winter, when their only contact with each other is through the peepholes they melt in the frost of their windowpanes. But it is on a lovely summer day when the children are in the garden that Kay is sudden stricken by fragments of the evil mirror from the first story of the tale.

“Ooh, something pricked me in the hear!” he says to Gerda. And then, “now I’ve got something in my eye!”

Hans Christian Anderson
And although the pain of the encounter soon passes, Kay is changed, his eye now poisoned, and his heart turning into a lump of ice. Now displeased with the beauty of the roses and the love of his little friend, he finds nothing to his liking until winter, when he becomes obsessed with snowflakes. While out sledding one winter day, he hitches a ride on the sleigh of the Snow Queen. Her first kiss completes the transformation of his heart into ice. Her second makes him completely forget Gerda and his previous life.

Gerda’s search for his missing friend is the subject of the third story. Kay has wandered inadvertently into the icy prison of the Snow Queen’s palace. But Gerda becomes equally lost in the a magical ever-summer flower garden she enters while looking for Kay. The old woman who tends the garden banishes all her roses underground to prevent Gerda from being reminded of her love for Kay. But the remaining flowers each tell the little girl their own stories, and one is so sad that Gerda weeps. Her tears falling to the ground wake the roses. Seeing them reminds her of her mission, and she sets out again to search for Kay.

The fourth story of “The Snow Queen” is a tale of mistaken identity that allows Andersen to indulge his penchant for political satire. The prince who Gerda at first mistakes for Kay, however, sends her back on her search, straight into a forest full of robbers, which leads to the fifth story, entitled:

“The Little Robber Girl,” in which a strange child saves and befriends Gerda. Despite her terrifying nature, the robber girl’s animal familiars are able to direct Gerda toward the Snow Queen’s palace. The robber girl lends Gerda her tame reindeer to carry her into the land of perpetual cold where the Snow Queen reigns. (The robber girl will late reappear, this time riding a white horse, in token of the change in her nature brought about by Gerda’s beneficent influence.)

As Gerda makes her way north in the sixth story, she stops twice at the houses of women who mirror the strange fairy of the perpetual summer garden. On these new encounters, however, the women speed Gerda onward instead of impeding her search, until in the seventh story she at last reaches the Snow Queen’s palace. And finds Kay, who has completely forgotten her.

Can he break the double spell of the evil mirror and the Snow Queen’s icy kisses? Check the story out for yourselves, dear readers. Your local library probably has copies, or read it online at The Literature Network.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a December of adventures of the spirit and self-discovery with W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence.)

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