Illustration by Elena Ringo
Illustration by Elena Ringo

I haven’t seen Frozen yet – one of these days. It’s based in part on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” which I hadn’t read until today. I’m not sure how I passed over one of Andersen’s most famous fairy tales, but it’s a long story with a bunch going on. “The Snow Queen” was first published in 1845.

A demon makes a magic mirror that distorts the appearance of everything it reflects. It fails to reflect the good and beautiful aspects of people and things, while magnifying their bad and ugly aspects. The demon teaches a school. He and his pupils take the mirror throughout the world and delight in distorting everyone and everything; the mirror makes the loveliest landscapes look like “boiled spinach.” They try to carry the mirror into Heaven with the idea of making fools of the angels, but the higher they lift it, the more slippery the mirror becomes and it slips from their grasp and falls back to earth, shattering into millions of pieces. These splinters — some no larger than a grain of sand — are blown around and get into people’s hearts and eyes, freezing their hearts like blocks of ice and making their eyes like the troll-mirror itself, seeing only the bad and ugly in people and things.

Years later, a little girl, Gerda, and a little boy, Kay, live next door to each other in the garrets of buildings with adjoining roofs in a large city. One could get from Gerda’s to Kay’s home just by stepping over the gutters of each building. The two families grow vegetables and roses in window boxes placed on the gutters. Gerda and Kay have a window-box garden to play in, and they become devoted to each other as playmates.

Kay’s grandmother tells the children about the Snow Queen, who is ruler over the “snow bees” — snowflakes that look like bees. As bees have a queen, so do the snow bees, and she is seen where the snowflakes cluster the most. Looking out of his frosted window one winter, Kay sees the Snow Queen, who beckons him to come with her. Kay draws back in fear from the window.

By the following spring, Gerda has learned a song that she sings to Kay: “Roses bloom and cease to be, But we shall the Christ-child see.” Because roses adorn the window box garden, the sight of roses always reminds Gerda of her love for Kay. They love each other as brother and sister.

Obox garden, he makes fun of his grandmother, and he no longer cares about Gerda, since all of them now appear bad and ugly to him. The only beautiful and perfect things to him now are the tiny snowflakes that he sees through a magnifying glass.

The following winter, Kay goes out with his sled to play in the snowy market square and — as was the custom — hitches it to a curious white sleigh carriage, that we find out is driven by the Snow Queen, who appears as a woman in a white fur-coat. She reminds of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Outside the city she reveals herself to Kay and kisses him twice: once to numb him from the cold, and a second time to make him forget about Gerda and his family; a third kiss would kill him. She takes Kay in her sleigh to her palace, while  the people of the city decide that Kay must have died in the nearby river.

Gerda, heartbroken, goes out to look for him and questions everyone and everything about Kay’s whereabouts. She offers her new red shoes to the river in exchange for Kay; by not taking the gift at first, the river lets her know that Kay did not drown. Gerda climbs in a boat and Is taken downstream to the home of an old sorceress with a beautiful garden of eternal summer. The sorceress wants Gerda to stay with her forever, so she causes Gerda to forget all about Kay, and causes all the roses in her garden to sink beneath the earth, since she knows that the sight of them will remind Gerda of her friend. Gerda’s warm tears raise one bush above the ground, and it tells her that it could see all the dead while it was under the earth, and Kay is not among them. Gerda flees and meets a crow, who tells her that Kay is in the princess’s palace. Gerda goes to the palace and meets the princess and the prince, who is not Kay, but looks like him. Gerda tells them her story, and they provide her with warm clothes and a beautiful coach. While traveling in the coach Gerda is captured by robbers and brought to their castle, where she befriends a little robber girl, whose pet doves tell her that they saw Kay when he was carried away by the Snow Queen in the direction of Lapland. The captive reindeer tells her that he knows how to get to Lapland since it is his home.

The robber girl frees Gerda and the reindeer to travel north to the Snow Queen’s palace. They make two stops: first at the Lapp woman’s home and then at the Finn woman’s home. The Finn woman tells the reindeer that the secret of Gerda’s unique power to save Kai is in her sweet and innocent child’s heart.

The Snow Queen’s castle is vast, empty and cold. In the middle of her empty hall lies a frozen lake upon which the Snow Queen sits. She calls this lake the “mirror of reason.” Though Kay’s heart is a lump of ice, he is working on a game of reason.  In order to be his own master and out from under her rule, he must spell out the word ‘eternity’ from ice shards, but is never able to do so. The Snow Queen leaves to ice over other countries, and Gerda comes into the palace. She is so happy to have found Kay, she hugs him, yet he sits as still as ice. Gerda begins to weep warm tears which melt Kay’s heart and sings the Christ-child song the two used to sing together. Kay begins to weep and the mirror piece is flushed from his eye. Gerda kisses him and he becomes alive again, and so the two spell out the word eternity.  The two leave and travel the path Gerda has traveled to find Kay, only backwards. They meet the people and animals she befriended. As they finally reach their home, Spring arrives and the roses are in bloom. They pass through their doorway and are suddenly grown.
They sit upon their chairs of childhood, memories of the Snow Queen vanishing while Kay’s Grandmother, sitting in God’s sunshine, reads from the Bible. The two finally understand the words of their song and summer arrives.

As usual, Andersen has a distinctly Christian outlook, from the song they sing to the roses throughout the story. Roses often symbolize passion, but here they follow the typical Christin imagery, representing the Virgin Mary and sacrificial love. After all, it is only because Gerda is pure and innocent and has sacrificed so much on her quest that she can save Kay. I guess throwing her red shoes into the lake symbolizing Gerda’s choice to remain pure as a child, not to become a woman. It’s a story of redemption. I do find the Christian emphasis a little heavy-handed, but Andersen’s teaching as he’s telling his stories.

Andersen here shows that feelings and love are more important than reason and intellect. When Kay first turns nasty, all the people believe him to be clever. The Snow Queen values logic and reason, which are cold and heartless.

I think though, my favorite part of the story is the stories the flowers in the sorceress’ garden tell. They are random and sad, but lovely too, and Andersen has a beautiful way of describing things. I didn’t include them in this summary because it’s long enough as is. Just one example – the tiger-lily’s story. “Hark, do you hear the drum?— ‘turn, turn,’—there are only two notes, always, ‘turn, turn.’ Listen to the women’s song of mourning! Hear the cry of the priest! In her long red robe stands the Hindoo widow by the funeral pile. The flames rise around her as she places herself on the dead body of her husband; but the Hindoo woman is thinking of the living one in that circle; of him, her son, who lighted those flames. Those shining eyes trouble her heart more painfully than the flames which will soon consume her body to ashes. Can the fire of the heart be extinguished in the flames of the funeral pile?”

The story’s definitely worth reading if you have a few minutes. You can find it several places, including here.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.


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